Real Audiences Elixir: Effective or Just Addictive?

One of the remedies for writing ailments that circulates regularly through the online education community is having students write for real audiences instead of the teacher.

Like nostrums sold by itinerant pedlars on the American frontier, the Real Audiences Elixir may be more addictive than effective.

Take a look at the examples promoted by Edutopia with hashtags tying them to English and English Language Arts.

The task author Rebecca Albers provide  for ninth/tenth graders is to require them to select and research a local or state official, examine the official’s record in light of his/her campaign promises, and write the official “a letter of congratulations.. or a letter calling him to action.”

I wonder how meaningful that assignment is to ninth and tenth graders. I don’t know many 14-year-olds whose idea of fun is researching their state comptroller’s record, do you?

I also wonder real the real audience for that writing prompt is. In my experience, mail to an official is most likely to get a templated response based on keywords in the letter. Perhaps the templates are more real than the students’ teacher, but I doubt it.

A more significant problem, however,  is whether the prompt accomplishes anything other than simply giving students writing experience. To what Common Core standards for ELA grades 9-10 does the writing prompt clearly link?  Research, possibly.

Because Common Core wants students to develop deep understanding of essentials within and across disciplines, teachers cannot afford to spend time on activities that address only one of the standards. That means, among other things, teachers need to direct writing assignments to support learning of other essential class content in addition to developing students’ writing skills.

(The writing prompt I criticized for English classes might turn out to be a perfect fit for a government objective in social studies.   Those standards are not yet published, so we can’t be sure.)

I’m not knocking the value of writing for readers other than just the teacher; I am urging teachers not to think that having students write to someone other than themselves is going to achieve the standards set out in the Common Core.

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