Making writing relevant: Audience, purpose and interactivity

Hello again!

In the past few months I’ve talked about ways to make what we do in the classroom more relevant to our learners’ lives, particularly with regard to the inclusion of digital media.  This month I’d like to give an idea for how to change a typical English language writing task into a task that relates more to real life writing.

Let’s take this task as our starting point.

Write a paragraph describing your home. 

If we look at a model that we could ask students to read to begin, it might look like this:

  • I live in a big apartment building in the city.  There are three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room and a kitchen.  My neighborhood is very interesting because there are several stores nearby and there’s a movie theater and a gym across from my apartment building.

The way the task is designed here it has no sense of audience, that is, the learner writes without feeling that s/he is writing to someone (other than perhaps the teacher) or that someone is actually going to read this.

Second, there is no sense of purpose to this piece of writing – what’s the reason for doing it?  Well, basically to practice language (there is, there are, house and neighborhood amenities language). In an earlier post I looked at research that shows that when writing with a reason and a sense of audience students produce better writing.

Third, there is no interactivity – no one is going to read this and write back to the learner or respond in some way to the content (except perhaps the conscientious teacher, but s/he is probably more likely to respond to the use of language).  If we look at many types of digital writing we find that they incorporate interactivity, for example, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, emailing, blogging all involve writers interacting with their readers.  Considering that we’re teaching language and communication doesn’t the use of interactive writing in the classroom sound ideal?

So, with these ideas of audience, purpose and interactivity in mind, how can we re-design this task so that it more closely resembles the kind of writing learners do in their everyday lives?

Well, the first idea I had was based on looking at ads for places to rent on sites like Craigslist.  Gone are the days when ads needed to be as short as possible because customers paid by the word.  Ads now are detailed and elaborate and include photos and maps.

So, my new task looks like this:

You want to rent your home out.  Write an ad for your home to post online.


Real models from, for example, Craigslist can be used to get started (such as this one above) and a quick look at the task shows that we’ve incorporated the ideas of purpose (you want to rent your home out) and audience (people who are looking to rent a home).  Now, how can we include interactivity?

A few ideas:

a  After the students have written their descriptions including photos etc. the students can read each other’s descriptions and decide which place they would like to rent in pairs or groups. (Note:  students do not have to use their real home).

b  Students could email or text message the ‘owner’ with questions to get more information.

c  There could be interviews between ‘owners’ and potential tenants.

d  Students could discuss which descriptions were better and why.

There are lots of opportunities for interaction (both oral and written) based on the original piece of writing.

The concepts of purpose, audience and interactivity have been really useful to me in trying to design writing tasks that are more relevant to learners.

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Carol Lethaby

Carol Lethaby is a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer based in San Francisco, California, who has been in the field of language teaching since 1986. She is part-time Assistant Professor on the New School, New York online MA TESOL as well as being an honoured instructor at UC Berkeley Extension where she teaches on the TESL/TEFL Certificate program. She has also worked on several textbook series for learners of English, including Awesome, Next Step, The Big Picture and English ID, all published by Richmond ELT. Carol is a frequent presenter at international conferences.

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