Liz Chamberlain, consultant for the National Literacy Trust, has just published her latest book, Inspiring Writing in the Primary Classroom. Here she talks about the importance of authentic audiences for writing.
With your pen or pencil or even with a keyboard, you can make things happen; you find your voice and communicate. The aim of writing is to connect; your words may reach out to an audience, known or otherwise, through diary entries or creative words strategically placed on a page. Writing can transform how you think, and you may have experienced the rereading of something you’ve previously written and been surprised at its fluency or clarity.
We also know, through what published authors tell us (Cremin and Myhill, 2015), that writing pushes at boundaries. For some children, the idea that their writing, which somehow represents them as a person and is laid bare on the paper or screen for others to see, to comment on and possibly judge, places them in a very vulnerable position.
Knowing who writing is for inevitably leads to a different type of relationship with the writing task. If the only audience is the teacher, then the writing is likely to be compliant with the lesson’s objectives and mirror the teacher’s exemplar; but if it’s private writing, in notebooks or on scrap paper, then the writing will look very different. Different audiences, different writing, and a different engagement with the writing process.
Back in the 1970s, the toy everyone wanted was Rebound, a fairly aggressive game involving ball bearings and elastic bands. Christmas morning arrived and, instead of the much-coveted game, I received a pink plastic sewing machine – neither wanted nor particularly practical. Fast-forward a few weeks and Mr Edwards, our Year 6 teacher, asks us to write about our biggest disappointment. This was something I knew about. The plastic sewing machine was long abandoned, having proved rather useless at sewing anything beyond two layers of felt.
I wrote with gusto; I led the reader through my initial excitement as I was handed a Rebound-sized parcel, before sharing with them my stomach dropping, scared to be ungrateful reaction in front of my waiting family. So good was the writing that Mr Edwards displayed my work on the wall – this was a teacher who knew that good writing deserved a readership. The work stayed up too long and by half term it was wallpaper, and on the night of parents’ evening I had forgotten all about it. That was until I remembered… just before my parents arrived home. Not a word was said, but I knew they had read it and I knew that my words must have stung. What I had learned was that audience is everything in writing.
It goes beyond knowing what genre to write in and the appropriate language and layout features - of most importance is knowing who your audience is, i.e. who is going to read the writing.
Year 5 pupils are often asked to compose a piece of persuasive text, convincing the headteacher that school uniform should be banned or to stop the school hall being knocked down to make way for a housing development. These might be real situations but if the task simply pretends to be for a real audience then there is no emotional investment for children to want to write. Instead, ask them to write about something that is important to them, something that they feel strongly about and crucially provide a real audience for the final piece of writing.
This what writers do: they immerse themselves in words and stories they feel passionately about, they engage creatively with the writing process, and imagine their audience – and all because they have something to say that they want someone to read.
The next time you plan a writing activity for the children and young people in your classes, set yourself the challenge of providing an authentic audience for the final piece, and ask yourself, who are they writing for?
Liz Chamberlain's book, Inspiring Writing in the Primary Classroom, is out now.