Most KS3 English curriculums in the UK (world?) ask students to produce masses of pieces of writing that are essentially, pointless. Write a letter to your headteacher persuading her to remove the school uniform code. Why? Write an article arguing that the voting age should be reduced to 16. Why? Even (especially!) the new GCSE encourages this false world: ‘Write a story to be entered into a creative writing competition.’ Oh great, will it? No? Oh. Right.
The entire premise of writing (other than a personal diary, reflection or some creative doodlings) is that it has an audience other than the self. It is a means of communication, of sharing, it is a conversation, and to remove its audience is in effect to remove its entire purpose. And yet in schools we seem to ignore this central provider of purpose: audience.
This is particularly pertinent in the teaching of non-fiction writing. If you’re going to ask them to write a letter to the local council persuading them to improve road safety in the area, then actually write a letter to the local council. And post it. If you’re going to ask them to write an article for a teen magazine giving their opinion on exam stress, then actually write an article for a teen magazine. And submit it for publication. If you’re going to ask them to write a press release for the BBC reporting on a campaign to reduce air pollution in your local area, then actually write a press release to the BBC. And make sure it’s damned good, since it’s going to the actual BBC, to actually persuade them to cover the story, and inform the wider world of the air pollution threat in your area.
This genuine engagement doesn’t only obviously provide purpose and motivation to hone technical skills through vital repetition and mastery, but it also requires honing of authentic voice, that somewhat elusive element that tends to separate good non-fiction writing from really great non-fiction writing. To ask students to ‘sound more authentic’, as I find myself saying to my current year 11s in their English language exams, is amusingly ironic, and something we can develop much more effectively with actual authentic exposure to written purpose.
So how does this actually change day-to-day practice? Interestingly, the day when I began teaching non-fiction writing via authentic projects was the same day I stopped needing to teach the features and conventions of non-fiction writing styles. Instead of being pre-instructed in type, audience and purpose, through redrafting, critique and reflection, students began naturally questioning the phrasing and purpose of elements of writing and having coherent conversations about why a particular tone of features felt out of place or didn’t do the intended. I still remember the first time this happened, with a low literacy year 7 group writing some instructions for building a hedgehog habitat in local garden. I was initially taken aback by the natural drafting of clear ordered instructions using imperatives and time connectives. When one student suggested using modal verbs to offer options to the readers (OK, so he didn’t use the word ‘modal verbs’ – he didn’t know it – but he authentically worked out their purpose and value live whilst drafting) I was stunned; I haven’t taught a lesson on ‘how to write to instruct/advise/inform/explain/persuade (delete as appropriate) since.
And the only difference in set up? They had an audience; the ‘conversation’ of writing became 2 sided.