‘We don’t just ‘read’ and ‘write’: we always read and write something for a particular purpose, in a particular way, in a particular time and place.’
Outside the classroom, any writing our learners do will have a specific purpose and context. Inside the classroom, by definition, any writing is likely to be more simply for the sake of developing skills and language, and displaying those skills.
However, the difference between ‘real’ writing and display writing isn’t a binary distinction; it’s more of a continuum. Our job, as teachers, is to bring the two ends of the spectrum closer together, and help students to see the links.
How much do you know about the purposes for which your learners need to (or aspire to) write in English?
Obviously, if your learners are in an ESE (English-speaking environment), they are likely to have many pressing needs, such as form filling, work-related paper-work, emails, notes to school and so on. There are literally endless ways in which these learners can carry out real-world writing tasks, including writing to local papers, to their MPs and so on. Even in NESE contexts, learners may well need to use written English for work, especially with the growth of the internet and the increased tendency to communicate in writing.
For younger learners and most General English learners in NESE contexts, however, they may not have a current need to write in English at all, but it is still important for writing to be clearly contextualised, and have an audience. We don’t speak without any sense of who we are speaking to, and neither should we write in that way.
That said, I don’t believe that all classroom writing activities have to connect directly to the real world. The important thing is that the activity has a significance or personal value for the learners and that they know why they’re doing it. In the next few blog posts, I’d like to look more closely at some different ways to support learners in developing their writing skills, looking at genre-based and process-based approaches. All of these will, of course, have a purpose and an audience, but not necessarily an actual, immediate real-world one.
Writing for the public can, however, be extremely motivating. Below are some ideas to try, which would work with learners not in an ESE. Feel free to add anything else you’ve tried in the comments, it would be great to build up as long a list as possible:
- Writing to a favourite author. Many authors now have blog pages or other ways in which they can be contacted. Learners could choose their own author (which might be someone they have only read in translation), or this could be part of a class extended reading project.
- Writing a review of a product, film or book on a website. From being a rather unnatural task, writing a review is now something that many people do regularly on sites such as Amazon.
- Writing on behalf on victims of human rights abuse. Assuming this is appropriate in your context, this is a very real-world writing activity and could really make a difference in the world. See the Amnesty website where you will find sample letters and advice.
- Writing fiction for the internet. How about writing an 140 character story for Twitter [#140novel]? Or use one of the many websites where you can publish short stories, such as www.booksie.com? For younger learners, try Littlebirdtales, where learners can create a picture story which is then emailed to specific friends and family, rather than being open to the whole internet. Or, a personal favourite, www.futureme.org. On this site, people write letters to themselves to be delivered on a specific date in the future. Still a real audience….
- Comments on news articles and opinion pieces. Most newspapers now have online version where readers can comment. A particularly good source is the BBC, which asks specifically for comments in the Have your Say section. For example, this article and comments on ‘Invisibility cloaks: will we ever really have them?’