Helping your teenage students reach a real audience for their stories

My Portuguese grandfather was a globetrotter and, when he died, we inherited dozens of postcards from every city he had visited. I was the only one in the family who took some interest in the postcards and the beautiful places that I never thought I would have a chance to go to. However, I decided to turn those travels into my own experiences and I started writing on them to my imaginary English speaking readers. I reminisce about these things every time I come across old pictures and letters inside my photo albums and they make me wonder what sort of teenage learner I would be these days…


A beautiful place yet to be discoveredA postcard from my other self to an imaginary friend

A postcard from my other self to an imaginary friendA few weeks ago I came back home one night to find my 16-year-old daughter frantically typing on her computer. She showed me what she had just written: “I’m submitting this story for a writing contest. It has to be a love story about a love letter,” she said.  I started reading it and  not only was I impressed by the content of her story, but I was also impressed by the level of her vocabulary compared to mine when I was about her age. I sought opportunities to speak, write, and read in English, and yet, I was pretty much left to my own devices. However,  in her case, it is clear that interacting with others has pushed her beyond her current level, as in Vygotsky’s concept of zone of proximal development.

A sample of my daughter's writing.

A sample of my daughter’s writing.

This makes me wonder what kind of teenage learner I would be today.  Well, we are two different people — my daughter and I, but the opportunities she has to express herself in English are much vaster than the ones we used to have when I was a teenager. I can conclude I would be sharing my stories online and learning from my community of readers, of course! Nowadays, sharing stories is just a click away. The website she uses to create and share her stories is called Wattpad, a very simple idea and this is how it works: You create your profile and then choose what genres you like reading. You can simply read what other members write or you can choose to write your own stories and even create your own book covers. They organize contests that follow specific criteria, for example, an 800-word short story with a specific theme. You can vote, you can follow your favorite authors, you can give them feedback, and they write back to you. You rule this world. And this is what much of our writing is all about today. It is all about self-expression and creativity. It is about emails, blogs, websites, scripts for youtube videos, social media posts and comments. It is much more about the here-and-now than anything else. Never has the pronoun ‘I’ been so frequent in writing. Never have so many young people from all walks of life published so much!

Having said all that, I can conclude that as a learner I used to view English as something I had to learn to express myself whereas my daughter sees it as something she uses to express herself and interact with others.  My daughter attended a bilingual school until the age of six followed by formal EFL instruction through elementary and middle school, but now as a  high school freshman, she knows that if she writes poorly, she will not get any followers, so she needs to do her best to write good stories if she wants to have them published — yes, the best stories get to be published! It is not only about teachers grading students’ writing; it is mostly about the real word.

However, does that invalidate teaching? Obviously not! She should thank every single teacher she has had in her life for this, but we can encourage our students to reach beyond the classroom and become real readers and writers far more easily than in the past. I still miss my huge stationery collection, but my daughter has no idea of what it is like to live without something she has never actually had.

Here are three websites and apps you can share with your students so that they find their innate talents, reach others, and learn from them.

This is a website as well as an app. It is user-friendly and you can build your own library right away. They have several categories of awards: The best of people’s choices, the best of HQ stories, among many others.

This is probably one of the best known websites and apps for bookworms. You can find your favorite books and authors, share your book reviews and read what others have written about that novel you have been wanting to read. You can set up your reading list and rate the books you have read. It s a real community and you can see what your friends are reading and recommend books as well.

It works like a time capsule and this is not for the faint-hearted. You write a letter to your future self and choose a date to receive it. It could be a year from now or maybe five years from now. You write about your expectations and dreams for the future, which will have come true by the time you receive your letter or not, so be prepared! Perhaps your students could choose to receive their letters within three weeks instead. They could see if their guesses about a specific event,  such as their soccer team’s victory over their most feared opponent,  or how the country will react to a future event.

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Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a Master's Degree in Language Studies from PUC-Rio, a B.A. in Linguistics from USP, and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 30 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in Systemic-Functional Linguistics, identity studies, visual literacy, and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language.

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