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Dummy Runs and Schooled Writing

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In December I had the pleasure of joining a group of 5th graders in the high desert mountains of Utah. That week, my niece, Alaina, and her classmates had just asked their teacher if they could have time to write to children in Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. In a discussion with Alaina about how she decided what to write about, it was clear she (and her classmates) were very attentive to the audiences she hoped would eventually read her note. She was thinking about the children who survived, and how they may be frightened by the thought of going back to school. She also talked about how helpless she imagined the community members must feel. To address these weighty matters, she decided to share a fear of her own that could work as a metaphor for moving forward:

So let’s not look for the rain
Let’s look for the rainbow
Let’s look for new hope
There is always hope

photo 3 (2) Over the next week I had several conversations with Alaina about writing in school. For instance, she was working on an essay comparing and contrasting earthquakes with volcanoes. In class, they had been introduced to the Venn diagram as a way to jot notes. They had lists of transition words for comparison. She was set up for some great content area writing.

Then the time came when Alaina was trying to decide what information to include in her essay. To help her decide, I asked her for whom/to whom she was writing this assignment. I was surprised when she didn’t understand what I was asking–especially considering her attentiveness to audience in her note to the youth in Newtown. She didn’t consider her teacher the audience or her peers who would read it in small groups. There was effectively no audience.

James Britton and others have long ago argued for more attention to audience in school-based writing tasks. In our text Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, Richard Andrews and I reviewed Britton’s studies and contended:

The influence of audience is one of the most well-known findings from this section of the study. Fifty per cent of the 500 written pieces analyzed which were deemed as immature, i.e. with no distinguishable function or audience, were from work completed for English language arts courses. Many of these pieces were considered by the researchers to be ‘dummy runs’ or student products written merely to show a teacher capacity to complete a certain written task (Britton et al., 1976, p. 106). To this day, the importance of creating written assignments with ‘real’ audiences or audiences logically aligned with the purpose of the written task and beyond the teacher as audience is looked upon as instrumental in ensuring student engagement in writing a product, as well as higher quality end products.

Her school district had also begun to use a computerized writing assessment system that has become popular in recent years. In talking to her teacher, her teacher was concerned that Alaina’s scores were not reflecting Alaina’s writing abilities. Determinations about placement and advancement were based on these scores. When I asked Alaina what she took into consideration when writing to the computer program’s prompts and when being assessed by the computer program, she–again–wasn’t sure how writing changed when the rhetorical frame changed. Not only did she not know how to articulate (or have declarative knowledge) about rhetorical frameworks, she wasn’t demonstrating the kind of procedural knowledge she readily applied in writing for her own purposes.

In our digital age, we have more access to distribute written pieces to audiences who previously we could have imagined, but not practically reached. We can compose in varying genres and more easily design with multiple modes to really address topics previously out of reach. In other words, our rhetorical frameworks (form, message, audience) can be realized in the writing we do in schools (and out of school) in ways just a decade ago were far more difficult. However, we’re still seeing “dummy runs” dominate schooled writing, and we are using our digital technologies in ways which essentially distance our students from the “real” audiences they actually have access to. I see many critiques of computer-based writing assessment, but I have yet seen the argument taken up that these programs take writing out of its communicative framework. I think that is an argument we need to make moving forward.

I was pleased to be invited to join Alaina’s class to teach during their next hour dedicated to writing. In my next post, I will share the mini-lesson and guided practice we completed together on the topic of audience. We then extended that discussion into considering what writing for audience means in contemporary times. The young people in that class shared great advice for the demands on writing in a digital, networked age. I can’t wait to share those with you!

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16 thoughts on “Dummy Runs and Schooled Writing”

  1. Well done Anna. I am going to review this with my 5th grader. He is a bright kid but much to the surprise of his teachers he also scores lower than expected on state writing tests. Having him focus his writing on an audience rather than proving he knows how to form a paragraph may just help improve his scores.

    1. Yes, there is such a difference between filling up a paragraph with informational sentences and writing with a purpose shaped by an intended audience! I hope this helps him reframe his thinking in regards to writing in school. I’ll also let you know when my next post is up with the activities we did in this class to practice writing with an audience in mind. You guys could do them together.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post. (I’m smiling to myself right now…I’m a little “old school” and Blogging is still a little foreign to me.). I teach 2nd grade and love teaching writing. I feel I do a pretty good job when it comes to the writing process, strategies, types of writing, etc. However, I have never really addressed to my students that they should really think about their audience. These younger writers naturally assume they are writing to their peers and teacher. I am going to add this feature to my writing lessons from now on, and see if I notice a difference in their writing. I enjoyed your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Debra. You reminded me that I never got around to completing the second portion of this post. In the second portion, I have lists of what these young people (5th grade) were thinking about in terms of audience. Their awareness of audiences–particularly the unknown and potential publics of networked composition–far outmatched what they were and are typically being asked to do. I also suggest following Kevin Hodgson’s blog, for some great ideas in writing, audience, new tech and youth in elementary school: https://dogtrax.edublogs.org/

    2. Hi Debra,
      I wonder if our younger students just naturally think about audience. Perhaps they haven’t learned to over-think the process yet. That causes me to reflect on my teaching and if I am encouraging an environment that keeps writing fresh and fun in our classroom.

    3. I tried a blog once, then facebook came out and it was all over…but I do miss blogging because it was my journal and I love journaling. It was so much easier for me to blog with pictures and such then to physically hand write in a journal or scrapbook. Blogging to me was just faster and it saved me time. It was interesting reading the article and finding out that Alaina was confused when you asked her who her audience was. When I taught first grade, some of my students were just writing to write too…not thinking about their audience. I guess I need to address this to my students more often. I know when they are writing in their journals every morning they are writing to me because I’m the one responding to them. I usually comment or write down a question for them to answer. It becomes a fun game to them. I guess I sometimes assume that they know who their audience is, so I do need to focus more on that with my students.

  3. I thought your post was was interesting. I also enjoy teaching writing, and spend a lot of time going over the types of writing and strategies. While reading this post, I realized that in trying to teach my students the writing traits in order to strengthen their writing skills, I am guilty of having them produce writing just to show me their understanding of a particular task. Although we talk a lot about capturing their readers’ attention when they write, I am not sure if they really understand who that reader is – who their audience is. This is something I will be more mindful of when giving a writing assignment. I realize that having them do more authentic writing with an audience in mind would be a far more valuable use of their time. I would love to read the second portion of your post.

  4. Wow, my first thought after reading this post is wondering how often I have written ‘dummy runs’ without considering my audience. If I, as and adult fall into that trap, I can see how easy it would be for my students to.
    I teach writing in the early grades, but even at this point I can see how I can bring the topic of audience into our writing conversations.

    1. I have the same thought! How often have I written blindly to to no audience in particular? Now that I’m thinking about it, I can see why my students have such a hard time with argumentative essays. Who are they trying to convince? I’m not sure they know. It’s definitely time to be more specific with knowing who the audience is.

  5. This is very interesting! This makes me wonder if kids think about writing to an audience (without being told) or if they are just trying to get the task done for a grade. It seems that with the writing assessments that are given in elementary school students don’t think, or perhaps are not taught, who their audience is for that assessment, rather they are just coming up with something to get a grade. Perhaps teaching students to determine their audience before writing will help create more meaningful and authentic writing pieces.

  6. I seem to forget the importance of audience when assigning a writing topic. As I create my lesson plans for writing activities, I need to always address who the audience will be when my students write. I recently assigned my students a book review and told them their audience would be their peers. When they heard this, they perked up and seemed more motivated to write. Obviously time is an issue for teachers, however, having “author’s chair,” at the end of each day where one or two students are chosen (or volunteer) to share their writing from that week can be a great way for students to experience their audience!

  7. I teach Kindergarten and I think I am an abuser of “dummy runs” but I also feel that is all we can do. I have never thought about teaching them “who” they are writing for, we assumed they are writing for themselves, but I will now try to teach them to think about the audience for there writing.

  8. Today I taught a lesson to my 1st grade class which involved writing a paragraph that would convince their friend to read their favorite book. It was the first time I really gave them the assignment to write to someone in particular. Do you or anyone else have any ideas on how to help these very young writers think about who their reading audience will be as they write? It seems like a difficult concept to grasp at first.

  9. I agree with you! The writing programs take away the authenticity of writing. When kids write with the program it takes them where the program would go instead of giving them the oppportunity to create their own ideas.

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