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Common Core in Action: Writing for an Audience

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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What is new and different in the Common Core? When it comes to the writing standards, a heavy emphasis on audience for one thing, and this is very good news. The "audience" for student writing was once the lone teacher sitting after school with her cup of coffee, a red pen, and a stack of essays or other writing projects. And sadly, she might have been the only one, besides the student writers, that ever read them!

Let's take a look at the Common Core Anchor Standard in Writing that highlights audience.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.4: Produces clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

When asked, many kids, and even adults, might tell you the main difference between "school" writing and real-life writing is that the latter has an audience and the other does not. And why has it taken so long for education to catch up? That's another topic. I will stick to the topic at hand since you are the audience of this piece of writing and I want to serve your needs. (I'm guessing you are a teacher, or school leader, and like many of us in this field, working hard to get yourself acquainted with the new standards.)

Keeping It Real

Back to anchor writing standard 4. Even though writing for an audience is less expected in lower grades than it is in secondary, it's important elementary teachers set their emerging writers to task with real writing scenarios.

So let's consider then some ways to engage students in real-life writing, starting in second grade:

  • Second grade: Ask the children to write about one of their favorites (person, pet, place). When they are finished, they can pair up and read it out loud to another student
  • Third/fourth grade: A student crafts a letter to a family member giving reasons for and describing why this person is important to her/him
  • Fifth/ sixth grade: The teacher finds a sister school in another state, assigning each student a penpal and the child writes about five things that make her/his community special (e.g. local food, customs, festivals, sights to see or monuments, etc.)
  • Seventh/eighth grade: Brainstorm a list of things the students would like to change or do to improve their school. Then each student self selects a topic from the list and writes a letter of persuasion to either the principal, assistant principal, school counselor, or perhaps district superintendent
  • Ninth/tenth grade: Have students select and research a local or state official. They then examine the official's campaign promises and accomplishments (or lack of) since taking office. Students can then pen a letter of congratulations to the official, or a letter calling him to action
  • Eleventh/twelfth grade: Have students read aloud their college entrance essays in small groups, and then after peer editing, create an event where they read their essays to a larger audience and invite family members, school faculty, and administrators

For secondary grades, a really excellent writing task comes from NPR's essay contest, This I Believe. Watch a video a high school senior made for her "This I Believe" essay:

Ready, Aim, Focus!

The beauty of having students write for an actual audience is that it puts them in a situation of having to really think about purpose, organization, and word choice. They aren't just doing it for the sake of a grade or because "we have to." Once teachers transform traditional writing tasks into real-life ones that include audience, they will see the "have-tos" turn into a desire to get it done, make it good, and the excitement of getting a response from their reader or readers.

I used the following pre-writing tool, RAFT, with my high school students each time we began a new writing mission (and I say "we" because I wrote with them). It helped them develop a strong purpose and vision before writing:

Role: What is your primary role in this writing task? Friend? Daughter? Concerned citizen?

Audience: Who is your reader? What do you know about your reader(s) that is helpful?

Format: Which will be most effective? A letter? Essay? Speech? Poem?

Tone: How will you convey your feelings and your position? What words and phrases will you use to do this?

Remember, for struggling writers, and for English learners as well as students with special needs: graphic organizers, shortening a writing assignment, modifying it in some way, or giving a child additional writing time increases the opportunities for all learners in your class to write with success.

What are the writing for an audience tasks you assign your students? Please share with us in the comment section below.

Common Core in Action Series

Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Savio Rebelo's picture

Great article!

Rebecca, this article clearly sums up what Common Core intends to impact w.r.t. English writing in K-12 schools. For the longest time, the writing ability of K-12 students has steadily deteriorated due to the absence of understanding of contextual writing and the intended audience. You have rightly put it that "the audience" for student writing was once the lone teacher sitting after school with her cup of coffee, a red pen, and a stack of essays or other writing projects."

The absence of strong "academic writing" skills most of the time leaves many brilliant students ill-equipped in ability to present their thoughts to an audience beyond the four walls of the classroom. As a result their freshman years at college becomes a challenge.

I truly feel that Common Core school standards should be given a chance. I believe there is much to gain and nothing to lose by implementing the standards and all the noise is "much ado about nothing.

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


This week's writing assignment was to write up a story, pretending you're a cashier at a grocery store, where you interact with three customers of the personality of your choice--nuts, smelly, cranky, annoying, whacked out, whatever. I wasn't shocked at what got turned in. The cashiers at my grocery store seem dangerous, too.

Clutch, who has selective mutism and Asperger's disorder as well as that mustache that's still growing on school time, turned in the most remarkable story of my students. Notice I said Clutch has selective mutism and not suffers from selective mutism because I'll tell you he's not suffering from it one bit. I think he's fine not saying a dang thing in class unless he has to.

Anyhow, Clutch wrote a story called "Storm Over Nevada," where he was a cashier at a grocery store in a town in Nevada that was about to get hit with a huge storm that was predicted to wipe the town off of the globe. People were really buying a lot of beer tonight, Clutch noted in his story.

The Clutch-like cashier in the story was named Durk Sanders. Let that sink in ... Clutch is calling himself Durk Sanders. This is a name a script writer would give a guy who dispatches the North Korean army with just a Bowie knife.

When I read the story out loud to the rest of the class and got to the character name of Durk Sanders, given to himself by the mild-mannered Clutch, the fellows thought very highly of Clutch's literary coolness. Come to find out, in the story, Durk was a high school student, just like Clutch.

Durk's first customer was an old lady who rolled up with a cart full of cat food. Durk's second customer was a body builder who rolled up a cart full of protein powder and a pack of Marlboro Lites. Durk's third customer was a girl who went to his high school who Durk really didn't know. Durk, however, had always thought she was plain smoking hot, but was too timid to ever say anything to her.

Being a cashier at the grocery store, Durk mused, forced him to talk to people. Durk started talking to the girl. Her name was Linda Clark. Durk never said what she was buying, just that she asked him what he was doing after work ... and since an apocalyptic storm was coming this way why not they get to know each other better in the waning hours of human existence.

As I read Clutch's story and got to this electrifying point in the tale, Kells, Peetie, and Red were hooting and hollering in honor of Clutch.

Clutch was smiling, but not with his teeth. He smiles a lot, but never enough to show his teeth, which are covered with braces. His glasses are as thick at bricks. His face is covered with red, angry pimples. Clutch has a speech impediment, too. Here's the last sentence of Clutch's story ... "When my shift was over I walked to the parking lot to find Linda waiting for me. It was storming finally, but the real storm was about to begin."

Kells, Peetie, Red, and their teacher, hooted and hollered some more. Wide-eyed, we all looked at Clutch ... Durk ... and asked our secretly cool friend the obvious question: What's gotten into you?

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