Why do we write? For my dissertation, I spent a year observing high school English language classes and talking with the students and teachers about writing. One thing that struck me in these interviews was how rarely the students saw a purpose for writing beyond just getting a grade. When I asked them who read their work, they almost always said, “the teacher.” When I asked them how they chose their topics for writing, they said the teacher told them what to write.
I observed how the teachers struggled to help students put words on paper, and I felt how much writing in these classrooms was equated with testing and state-imposed requirements. Teachers often graded finished texts and then placed them in a filing cabinet until it was time to toss them in the recycling bin. No one in those rooms—students or teachers—saw writing as something that could be meaningful. (In an interesting contrast, many students said they wrote song lyrics, love letters, and text messages, but they didn’t consider these “writing” because they weren’t done for school purposes!)
My own understanding of writing is the exact opposite of what I saw happening in these high school classrooms. Writing is for communication and documentation of meaning. Whether we write just for ourselves or for others to read, we should have a purpose for that writing. With a purpose and audience in mind, we can determine what type of text we are writing, what kind of words to use, and how to structure our text.
This view on writing aligns with how Tardy (2019) defines genre: “Genres are used by social groups, or discourse communities, to carry out repeated activities…genres do things, typically responding to common situations” (chapter 1, “Genre in Academic Writing” section, para. 4). As Tardy explains, genres vary, but always within boundaries that are established by the discourse communities that use and write them. These boundaries are conventions, which include length, format, register and word choice, and mode of delivery. The social aspect of genres, however, means that each genre has an intended audience—real people who read those texts for particular purposes.
In this blog post, I want to share some ideas for ways we as writing teachers can give our students opportunities to write for real readers rather than just for their teachers.
Writing for Classmates and Others at School
- Wall newspapers: When I was teaching English in Uzbekistan in the 1990s, I noticed that many schools and universities had student-written “wall newspapers” in the hallways to share articles and perspectives about current events and culture. Because printing multiple copies of a newspaper was not possible, this low-tech format allowed students to share their edited writing in a formal way with their teachers and other students at the school.
- Class blog or website: With the explosion of free blog and website hosting options in the last decade, it is now easy to create an online presence for your class. Most sites allow the owner to establish privacy restrictions, so you can choose to share the site as broadly or narrowly as you wish—for younger learners or lower proficiency students, it may be better to restrict access to the class members and their immediate family and friends, for example, to avoid the risk of trolls and other unsupportive comments.
- Self-published e-books: One great resource that students can use is Storybird, a site that allows writers to select illustrations from a broad library of images and then format their work in e-book style. Other e-book creation sites similarly offer templates for other genres of text, allowing writers to create how-to books, travel guides, cookbooks, and many other possibilities. These e-books could then be used as reading texts in other classes or shared with family.
Writing for Other English Learners
- Easy English Times publishes writing submitted by student readers. This monthly print and online newspaper welcomes submissions and promises to print as many contributions as they have space for. In addition to writing topics related to the month’s stories, they also suggest the following genres:
- Letters to the editor
- Guest editorial
- Interviews with someone interesting
- Reviews of films or videos
- Reviews of visits to interesting places
- JALT’s Nagoya chapter is starting a new journal that will have a section where students can share their learning histories or beliefs in language learning. This journal has not yet been published, so if you live in Japan, keep your eyes out for announcements.
Writing for the General Public
- Reviews: Many online resources are built out of user-contributed reviews of relevant products. These reviews follow specific genre conventions, which means that learners can analyze already published reviews to determine the conventions as they prepare to write their own. Some popular review sites include the following:
- Wikipedia allows users to contribute new entries and to edit and add to existing entries. Learners might want to write about their home countries and cultures, for example, or on other topics for which they have specialized knowledge. Even if a topic has been well developed in the main Wikipedia site, there may be room for additional information in Simple English Wikipedia, which is specifically intended for learners.
- Social media groups: Learners may want to join groups on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or other social media where they can connect with a community of other users who share their focused interests. These groups are ideal places for learners to practice writing shorter texts as part of a written discussion.
- Some English-language publications for youth accept submissions from young writers:
- Stone Soup invites stories and poems from writers under age 13, for example.
- New Moon Girls accepts all kinds of writing from girls ages 8 and up. Both magazines provide lots of suggestions and advice for writers.
- Another publication for teens, Teen Ink, has numerous writing contests and accepts other submissions from writers ages 13–19, although its website does not provide much guidance. The magazine is available free online, however, so prospective writers might be encouraged to study the genres that are published as they think about what they want to write.
These are just a few ideas for sharing students’ writing with audiences beyond the classroom. Jeanne Wolz’s blog post “50+ Ideas for Publishing Student Writing” offers more suggestions, although I found quite a few dead links, so be aware that some of the sites she lists are no longer functional.
What have you done to share your students’ writing with the world? Share your ideas in the comments below.
Tardy, C. M. (2019). Genre-based writing: What every ESL teacher needs to know. University of Michigan Press.