by Charlotte L. Land
Last year, a group of teachers (a first grade, fourth grade, seventh grade, and ninth grade teacher) got together with me (a university writing methods instructor working with future writing teachers) to explore a common question: how might we draw on understandings of design or design thinking to inform our teaching of writing? We looked at models of design from other fields (like architecture, engineering, business, and product/software design), read what others have said about writing and design, and started to see some interesting overlaps and disconnections. One of the big ideas that emerged from these conversations was how designers foregrounded their audience and purpose throughout the entire process—from finding a topic or a problem to presenting the final product to users.
Bringing Purpose and Audience Back to Writing Instruction
Audience and purpose are common elements that all writers and teachers of writing think about. Philosophies and theories of writing dating back to the time of Aristotle are built upon understandings of purpose and audience, and today’s standards for teaching writing—from the NCTE/IRA Standards for English Language Arts to the Common Core—still rest upon these ideas and notions of process like drafting and revising. Yet, even when we are doing our best to include authentic writing in the classroom, we often fall short in really digging into these ideas with students. Specifically, having a clear idea of purpose and audience and how those drive the writing process and product is essential if we want students to be able to take what they learn in our classroom and apply it in their lives whenever they’re writing—even when there isn’t a teacher standing over their shoulder telling them what to do.
Typically, the teachers in our group used genre studies, or focused periods of time when the whole class inquired into and wrote in a specific genre. While this kind of work provided opportunities for students to engage in deep study of how writers work in those kinds of genres, it often left out the why writers write. If we talked about purpose, it was mostly confined to somewhat simplified ideas in our reading instruction about whether the author’s main purpose was to inform, persuade, describe, or entertain. If teachers talked with students about choices they should make based on their audience, it was typically not until right before they published, maybe as students were editing or deciding what materials they wanted to use to move their draft to a published piece. In other words, teachers were often making the difficult decisions about why someone would write, who they would write to, and what kind of thing they should make to suit that purpose and audience – not students.
Purpose Studies in the Writing Classroom
As we continued our inquiry, several ideas for how we could change this in our classroom came up. One that a few of us tried out in our classrooms was a different structure for a unit of study—what we called a purpose study. Like in a genre study, these purpose studies began with a flood of texts that we selected as teachers (e.g. different kinds of texts or parts of texts that were for persuading or for sharing information or for social action or social justice).
Rather than starting with questions about what the students noticed about the mentor texts, we instead opened up by asking students to think about purpose and audience. For example, the fourth grade teacher began a study about writing to explain by giving students several different examples of informational texts. Together, they charted out answers to two guiding questions: “Why would someone write this?” and “Why would someone read this?”
These questions helped students to not only think critically about the texts they were reading, but about the purposes they might have for making a piece of writing like this and the purposes their readers might have for reading it.
The fourth graders started by collecting in their notebooks, thinking about the different topics that they knew a lot about or cared about. As they started narrowing towards choosing a topic, the teacher and students looked closely at paragraphs where the author was explaining. Together, they read to find what moves that writer was making that helped them share information with readers. After trying out the explaining moves they discovered with their own topics, the fourth graders then chose their own topics, an audience they wanted to share information with, and a genre they thought would work best for achieving their purpose.
The purposes and audiences that students started thinking about from the beginning of their process then drove their decisions about topics, genre, organization, tone, word choice, and so on. For example, at the end of their writing for social action purpose study—which the first graders, fourth graders, ninth graders, and my undergraduate preservice teachers all took on in the spring semester—students ended up creating pieces in multiple genres (e.g. letters, petitions, political cartoons, posters, opinion pieces, essays, children’s books, and poems), and they wrote to audiences that might directly be able to affect change from their building principals to the president to police chiefs and mayors to other groups of stakeholders who if united might hold more collective power, such as writing to parent groups or other organizations who could be influential partners..
Preparing Writers for Life In and Beyond Schools
Across all of our classrooms, purpose studies not only created space for authentic writing, an important goal for all of us on its own, but also helped our students start to understand and hopefully recognize reasons writers write. After all, if our greatest long-term goal for the writers in our classes is to actually be flexible, life-long writers, students need to know how to do much more than correct grammatical errors in isolated sentences, write a perfect thesis statement, or even study mentor texts to write in a particular genre; they need to know they have a voice and when, why, and how to use it. For us, teaching the writers in our classes, rather than helping students perfect specific school papers, is what’s most important and that means sometimes handing over some of the big decisions like purpose and audience—and thus empowering our students to take on more of the hard work that writers really do out in the wild.
Charlotte Land, a former high school English teacher, is currently a doctoral candidate at The University of Texas at Austin where she teaches courses in teacher education and freshman composition and studies writing instruction and teacher learning.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.