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Guiding Youth to Write for and With Online Audiences

By Jayne C. Lammers
 | Sep 18, 2015

I have had an ongoing interest in understanding young people's fanfiction writing and their participation in online affinity spaces, with a goal of informing the important work teachers do in literacy classrooms. As part of this research, I (with my research assistant, Valerie Marsh) have been conducting a longitudinal case study of Laura, following her as a writer from the end of middle school through high school.

Over the years, we have conducted periodic interviews with Laura, her family, and one of her English teachers, and we have collected samples of her writing across spaces and time. We have a window into the writing Laura does to express her Broadway musical fandom on the website FanFiction to meet expectations in honors and Advanced Placement English classes, to draft a novel for eventual publication, and to deepen her connection with characters she plays as an actress in school and community theater productions. We can see how Laura makes sense of writing for a variety of audiences and purposes, considerations important to writing instruction.

In our article in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, published in March, we focused on her online fanfiction writing, exploring how the access, anonymity, and genre conventions provided by the website facilitated Laura’s writing for and with audience in ways unavailable to her in other contexts. As Laura explained in one interview, “In fact, fanfiction might have been my first introduction to the concept of audience.” Other researchers have noted that sharing writing online accomplishes the following:

Drawing on this work and danah boyd’s concept of networked publics, we came to understand Laura’s fanfiction writing as networked writing, revealing how the writing process and sharing with the audience are inextricably linked. Laura composed her fanfiction texts with abstract audience expectations in mind, expectations she understood by participating in this networked public. She also crafted her fanfiction texts in direct response to the audience feedback she received when she posted her writing on FanFiction.

What does this mean for writing instruction?

As the Common Core writing standards require students to “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others,” teachers can play an important role in students’ learning about what it means to connect with audiences in a digital age. We concluded writing instruction should include two important components:

Scaffolded opportunities to share writing with offline and online audiences. Such instruction might involve providing students anonymity as they share their writing first with the classroom audience, and then for authentic online audiences that reach beyond the school. Through these writing tasks, students’ writing would be evaluated by the audiences that give them feedback, rather than by the teacher. Students could then begin to consider wider audience expectations as they craft their writing.

Explicit instruction guiding students to critically analyze audiences in networked publics. Laura indicated to us that she became familiar with the audience’s expectations by reading others’ posts and “by accident.” We see a role for writing instruction to guide students through a process of researching an online space, and studying the texts that get shared as well as the feedback mechanisms available and how they’re used. Such analysis can help young writers develop a profile of the networked public before writing a piece to be shared with that audience.

Teaching networked writing in these ways can further connect writing instruction to students’ interests in online spaces. More importantly, scaffolding students’ critical analysis of how to write for and with the audiences in networked publics can empower youth as they seek to solve real-world problems.

Jayne C. Lammers is an assistant professor and director of the secondary English teacher preparation program at the University of Rochester. She can be reached on Twitter at @URocProf.

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