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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘Invite Students to Write Real Arguments’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 13, 2019 19 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can students write for “authentic” audiences?

Part One‘s commentaries came from Katherine Schulten, Kelly Love, Tatiana Esteban, Kimiko Shibata, Alycia Owen, and Jennifer Orr. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Katherine, Kelly, and Tatiana on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s guests were Jayne Marlink, Cheryl Mizerny, Erin Starkey, Nicole Brown, Dawn Mitchell, and John Larmer.

Part Three‘s contributors were Martha Sevetson Rush, Donna L. Shrum, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Michael Fisher, Tamara Letter, and Keisha Rembert.

Today, Rita Platt, Alexis Wiggins, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Kristen Koppers, and Mara Lee Grayson share their ideas.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

Watching students learn to and love to write is one of the greatest joys of my work as an educator. Years ago, a mentor told me, “Writing is rigor.” I think that is true. Writing can be hard, it calls on us to analyze, synthesize, and otherwise think very deeply to explain ourselves. I know that because I am a writer. One way to motivate students to write is to help them find authentic audiences. At my elementary school, we do that in three easy-to-implement ways.

  1. We help students see the value in writing for the sake of writing.

Not only is writing rigor, but it can be a process of self-discovery. I try to instill in students that we are all writers and that our most important audience is ourselves. Writing is communicating, and communication is authentic. We don’t always have to write for publication or with the hope that someone else will read what we wrote. Writing for ourselves is authentic, too. To that end, we have quarterly “DEW” times at my school. These are days when the entire school “Drops Everything to Write.” We fill the hallways, lobby, and library and revel in the pleasure of writing for an hour or so. Students and teachers write anything they want, and there are smiles all around. Our ideas and structures for making DEW work are here.

  1. Student-authored books.

When students write as an assignment or completely of their own volition, they always have the option of “publishing” their work. If they choose to publish, they have it edited by an adult (usually their teacher), revise it after getting feedback, type it as a gdoc, and share with the school librarian and or me (their principal). The librarian or I check it over carefully and format it like a picture book (up to a paragraph on each page with lots of room for pictures.) We print it for the author to illustrate the pages. Once the book is illustrated, we use old overhead transparency sheets (unused) as a cover and back page. We staple, bind with colorful duct tape of the student’s choice, and voilà! A book! We take it a step further by barcoding the book, cataloging it in our library software, and making it available for others to check out. Because we use Accelerated Reader, authors also write their own quiz, and I enter it into the AR quiz catalog. Students love seeing their work published and on the library shelves, and they also love reading each other’s works. In fact, two years ago, the most checked-out book of the year was by a student author.

  1. Letters.

Involving students in writing letters is a great way to get them involved in authentic literacy. I recently read I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives, the true story of an American girl and a Zimbabwean boy who were pen pals and found it to be incredibly inspirational! If you haven’t read it, I recommend you do. Then, if you’re so moved, start a pen pal project of your own. While I haven’t worked with my students to develop long-distance pen pals, my school has done several unique cross-age writing projects. One 1st grade class works with a class of 4th graders as “Writing Buddies.” They have journals and write back and forth to each other. Another 1st grade group reached out to a high school art class. The 1st graders are writing “monster stories,” and the high schoolers are bringing the monsters they describe to life through sculpture. Another group reads the same book as elders in the local nursing home, and the kids and adults write to each other about the books, commenting on theme, characters, plot, and what they like or don’t like about each story. In all cases, the desire to write is sky-high because students know their work will be read and appreciated and will elicit responses.

The bottom line is that we strive to offer authentic but very simple writing experiences for our students. The students love it, and they write more than at any other school I have been a part of.

Response From Alexis Wiggins

Alexis Wiggins is the founder and director of the Cohort of Educators for Essential Learning (www.ceelcenter.org) and the author ofThe Best ClassYou Never Taught: HowSpider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders(ASCD). Alexis currently serves as the English Department chair at the John Cooper School in The Woodlands, Texas. She can be reached at the email awiggins@ceelcenter.org or via Twitter @alexiswiggins:

No More Audiences of One

Writing for an audience of one—your English teacher—is about the fastest way I can think of to kill creativity or engagement in young writers. Having been an educator for almost two decades now, I’m not sure why it took me more than half my career to realize that creating authentic audiences for students was one of the best ways to boost interest in the subject and spur improvement in diction, grammar, and voice.

I first started doing this eight years ago when I lived and taught overseas at an international school. I had a very diverse group of learners in the same sophomore classroom: students who spoke little English, students with severe learning disabilities, and students who were doing college-level work. It was challenging to make the writing assignments accessible and demanding for all of them so that they were engaged and growing. One way to do this was to design authentic audiences by partnering with the school’s magazine, sent to parents and alumni, to have them publish especially strong student work for a wider audience. Because my teaching team and I didn’t only focus on one kind of writing—the overvalued and pretty useless-in-the-real-world literary essay—we were able to publish a wide variety of student work, from narrative essays, to interviews, to film reviews, all of which were assignments for class. These assignments engaged students on a personal level and offered them a chance to share their work with a much wider audience than just me, their teacher. I was very proud that year to see some of my most struggling students wind up writing some of the most insightful work and getting selected for publication. Authentic writing assignments and wider audiences show all students their voices matter and that we want to know what they have to say, not just on The Great Gatsby but on all kinds of texts and issues.

Seven years later, I still carry with me the lessons learned from that diverse classroom. My students have opportunities to publish movie reviews they write for our film course, all our high school students have to regularly prepare and deliver speeches, poetry recitations, and research presentations on engaging, personally chosen topics to audiences that are bigger than just their immediate peers, and all sophomores are required to submit one piece of work of their choice every year to the school’s literary magazine, an online ‘zine for teen writing like Teen Ink, or a professional publication, such as The New York Times, which runs several student contests all year (more info on last year’s contest calendar here).

Part of making learning rigorous and relevant is offering students choice, offering them topics relevant to their lives, and offering them the chance to reach and delight wider audiences. If we aim to increase student choice and voice, we need to offer them ways to amplify their voice and get their work to more than just an audience of one.

Response From Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at University of Cambridge but lives most of the year in California writing books for educators like Sharing Your Education Expertise with the World: Make Research Resonate and Widen Your Impact. She has a Ph.D. in education and served as an award-winning teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and chief education & research officer. Dr. Rankin has been honored by the U.S. White House for her contributions to education:

We want students to make a difference in this world. Whether they want a new job, to change a policy, or some other dream, writing for authentic audiences is part of being a proactive adult. You can teach students the art of writing for authentic audiences as you simultaneously teach concepts (such as tackling standards related to audience).

We also want students to know the value of their ideas and to share their voices without reservation. While you can practice appealing to audience with a fictional scenario (e.g., “Imagine you are writing to President...”), the task will really come alive when each student writes a real piece to be delivered to a real person to have a real impact.


Students can submit an op-ed to a newspaper; blog; write to a local news station; reach out to journalists on social media; submit an article to a magazine; create a research poster to present at an educational conference; complete a customer feedback e-form; add a product or book review to sellers’ websites; post an online technical forum tutorial; write and deliver a TED Talk; share a research plan with scientists; send a letter to an editor, politician, or other leader; write to a professional (this prompted a retiring geologist to gift his entire gem and mineral collection to my 5th grade self); etc. Help students identify valuable things they have to say and determine which audiences most need to hear from them. Such outreach should be done with parent consent, as we must never violate FERPA (e.g., instead of mailing a student letter with return address, give parents the option to mail their child’s letter).

Yet introducing students to such opportunities is not enough. Every audience is different and should be tackled uniquely. Here are some tips from my latest book that can help writers consider their audience and craft a piece accordingly:

Consider Audience

  • Figure out as much as you can about the audience’s background and interests (experience with your topic, familiarity with jargon, areas of expertise, special concerns from prior experience with your topic, comfort level with technical descriptions, empathetic areas, etc.).

  • Figure out as much as you can about the audience’s role and environment (his or her powers and limitations, how he or she might apply what you share, likely resistance to your argument, etc.).

  • Use the aspects you determined above to estimate what your readers already know and what they need to know (which is more important than what they want, because sometimes readers don’t know they need something until you give it to them).

  • Determine your purpose (e.g., are you trying to persuade, educate, or inspire readers?). It’s OK if your original goal changes after considering your audience closely.

Put It All Together

  • Before you jump into writing those initial sentences, daydream or brainstorm about the best ways to achieve your purpose with this particular audience. Should you tap into your reader’s emotion to prompt action? Should you share a story that reflects your primary message? This step is important and deserves a lot of teaching time.

  • Craft your piece so that every aspect (vocabulary, explanations, style, etc.) caters to the person reading your work and supports your goal. If writing for a publication, read its current articles to note published pieces’ tone, topics, voice, style, format, and more to craft a piece more likely to be accepted for publication and more likely to fulfill what readers expect from the publication.

  • Edit your piece until you’re sure it has that “WOW!” factor that will resonate with your particular audience and achieve your particular goal.

Response From Kristen Koppers

Kristen Koppers is a national-board-certified teacher. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in English from Western Michigan University, a master of arts in English and a master of arts in educational administration from Governors State University. She is a high school public education English teacher. Her book Differentiated Instruction in the Teaching Profession was released in July 2019:

Authentic Writing in the ELA classroom

When we think of authentic, we tend to think of “real.” While that’s true, work done in the classroom is authentic but not as authentic as we think. Students write for a variety of purposes: They write an essay, a research paper, a speech, and they even write just to write. But when does this all become authentic?

Authentic writing is not the writing of the students. It is not the writing for the teacher or the student. Authentic writing goes beyond the classroom. To write authentically, students apply critical reasoning skills to an assignment to share publicly. In my ELA high school classroom, I focus on authentic writing and projects. I tell my students that they are not just writing for me but others as well. The best types of authentic writing comes from our own experiences.

So in order to make writing authentic, students learn to write for a variety of purposes: They write to express their thoughts, their feelings, and even their struggles. However, to write authentically, their writing needs to be shared.

Before we begin, I remind my students that what they write can be visible to unknown audiences. So, they need to be sure that what they write is real. (I need to mention here that we study the Rhetorical Situation earlier in the year. This way students have a better understanding of the different genres of writing and different types of audiences). In the last couple of years, students created websites based on our Problem-Based Learning (PBL) projects. Students chose groups of three to four members to research a problem that affected our school or community in some way. The best authentic project gives the students the ability to choose their own subject. Students were to create a public website focusing on their driving question, objectives, research, outcomes, and any possible solution to their “problem.”

Because they are publishing their work online, their information needs to be accurate. They will check and double check (sometimes triple check) their information by cross-checking sites. Because students learn that this project is not just a classroom assignment for a grade, their effort increases. They want to publish work that’s acceptable beyond the four walls of the classroom. In other words, they want to be proud of their work.

Throughout all this, I find students that are reluctant to write effectively participate in this type of writing. Students want their voice in their writing. A typical five-paragraph essay is only in an English class. Students do not write a standard five-paragraph essay as a doctor, a mechanic, or even a field technician. They learn to write for an authentic audience. A nurse will write notes based on a patient’s medical history, their diagnosis, or possible outpatient follow-up procedure. A mechanic will need to learn how to diagnose a problem effectively so the consumer will understand. A field technician also writes for a certain type of audience.

However, none of these jobs requires a standard five-paragraph essay. So why do we consistently require standard essays to be written throughout schooling? One easy answer is to learn the fundamentals of writing. The mechanics of grammar, punctuation, spelling, content, and the list goes on. But none of this is authentic. It’s time we take the standard five-paragraph essay and relate it to our students.

Once the fundamentals are learned, it’s time to make writing authentic. The PBL projects students were working on in class were not typical, standard five-paragraph essays. In fact, the fundamentals they learned prepares them for this project.

Authentic writing includes:

  • PBL
  • Genius Hour
  • Student Blogs
  • Social Media (Twitter Chats)
  • Padlet site
  • Website Creation
  • YouTube videos
  • Personal Reflections
  • Narratives
  • Letters to an official, company, or government body

Learning the fundamentals for writing is necessary. However, what is not necessary is writing a standard paper over and over and over again. Time we write for authenticity rather than for what’s “standard.”

Response From Mara Lee Grayson

Dr. Mara Lee Grayson is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills, whose work explores race rhetorics and equitable composition instruction. She is the author of the book Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, English Education, English Journal, The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, St. John’s University Humanities Review, and numerous edited collections:

Writing for Authentic Audiences Requires Authentic Rhetorical Situations

As a compositionist, I want my students to love the creativity and specificity of language, the art and strategy of rhetoric, and the complexities of discourse as much as I do. At the same time, I am aware that, every September, about half of my students approach me during the first week of the fall term to confess: “I’m just not a good writer.”

Sometimes there are variations, such as, “I’m not that into writing” or “I’ve been told I’m a bad writer” (the variation that frustrates me most) or “I’ve always wanted to be a better writer” (the easiest iteration to work with).

I don’t have the space here to address all of the problems intrinsic to writing instruction—there are countless books on the subject—but I will speak to one of those problems: Our students, by and large, are not writing for real audiences.

They write within the context of the classroom, and often, the only person who reads their work (aside from one or two classmates during peer review) is their teacher. Subsequently, even when we encourage students to participate legitimately in the writing process, our rhetorical situation is a construct, bound by the walls of the classroom and confined to the standards and outcomes placed on the assignment. In other words, while writers write because they have something important to say in a specific situation to a particular audience, our students write because their teachers told them to and because there’s a grade at stake.

If we want students to write for authentic audiences, we have to create assignments that require them and inspire them to actually do it and lesson plans that help them figure out how. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite students to write real arguments about real topics they care about.

    There is value in assigning students to argue important academic topics, sure, but there is also value in helping them refine arguments in which they are already invested. A 6th grader wants a bigger weekly allowance? She can write a persuasive essay explaining the reasons she deserves it. The audience? Her parents. When a student creates an argument related to something happening in her own life, she knows who needs to be convinced—and then she understands who her audience is. (You may want to give parents a heads-up so they don’t blame you when they receive letters demanding more money or extra television time.)

  • Involve students in real-world writing.

    Older students conducting research on social, political, or community topics can explore real audiences who might be interested in or benefit from their projects. They might write letters to local officials or to newspaper editors; they can compose speeches or presentations for a campus or community agency. Once they write, give them the option of actually sending their letters or pitching their ideas to local stakeholders. These assignments help students picture real audiences as they write, and students become a lot more invested if they know there is something at stake beyond the classroom.

  • Help students refine the writing skills they already have. Our students send text messages, write emails, and post on social media. Bring those into the classroom: Students can examine the genre conventions of a tweet, discuss how one’s followers dictate what one shares or admits online, and explore how the confines of the character limit influence their diction and style. When we bring students’ external writing practices into the classroom, we validate their existing uses of literacy and highlight the expertise they already possess. For students who don’t see themselves as writers, that validation is invaluable.

Thanks to Rita, Alexis, Jenny, Kristen, and Mara Lee for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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