George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Value of an Imagined Audience

Guiding student writers to think about a likely audience for their work helps them strengthen a variety of skills.

July 24, 2018

Much has been written lately about the value of students writing to an authentic audience. But for all writers, a known, flesh-and-blood audience is less common than one that is imagined. Published writers never meet most of their readers.

And when someone does write to a specific known audience—sending an email to a colleague, turning in a paper to a teacher—they still must venture guesses about that audience: how they will react to an exclamation point at the end of a sentence, whether a clever or straightforward introduction would be more appropriate, which example would be more persuasive. Douglas Park made a similar point in an important 1982 essay called “The Meanings of ‘Audience.’

This predictive skill is hard to learn and harder to teach because working an audience is contextual and holistic, and requires a student to step outside her own feelings and beliefs in assessing an argument. We need practical tools for teaching audience. This is a need I’m just beginning to explore in my teaching journey, but I do have three strategies that I use toward this end.

Teaching Student Writers to Address an Audience

1. Generate an understanding of the feelings, beliefs, and intended actions of the audience. High school students can show a poor understanding of how adults read arguments, but we can guide them to the most vital factors for argument strategy: an audience’s emotional, intellectual, and actionable attitudes.

Provide structured brainstorming that revolves around the following questions:

  • What emotional attitudes does your likely audience have toward the subject? How are they likely to be reading the piece, and how are they likely to be feeling in consequence? Are they favorable, neutral, or opposed to your point of view?
  • What is the range of likely intellectual viewpoints or reactions to the subject? What does your audience likely know or not know about this subject?
  • What actions has the audience taken in the past that are relevant to this subject, and what actions do they intend to take—or not take—in the future?

If students have difficulty developing clear answers to these questions, it may be useful to ask them to research attitudes by either interviewing adults or reading articles or op-eds relevant to the argument.

2. If students don’t develop reasonable assumptions on their own, explicitly teach those assumptions along with the values attached to academic inquiry. In my class, I sometimes use a fictional reader named Mr. McCrew (an acronym for Main claim, Claim, reason, evidence, warrant—the elements of a Toulmin-style argument as described in The Craft of Research). I explain that Mr. McCrew is friendly but slightly cantankerous and differs in several respects from a friend: He will never take your word for any debatable statement without supporting evidence and will only show an interest in what you are saying if you make clear the significance of your argument.

Some might expect high school students to feel too cool for this conceit, but I find that my students think it’s funny and helps them distinguish between the relevant and irrelevant attributes of an imagined reader.

3. Rather than treat writing for an audience as a skill separate from other concepts, embed audience into all writing instruction. Doing so transforms audience into a concrete tool for making choices. In my ninth grade course, I borrowed another teacher’s idea of engaging students in a comparison between a text message to a friend and an email to a teacher in order to stress differences in formality according to audience. Students who struggled to elaborate in the abstract on the differences between adult and peer audiences easily did so when presented with a specific situation.

Similarly, teach evidence from the perspective of audience. In high school writing classes, evidence is often anything that supports a thesis. But in my experience, students find it far more useful to think of evidence from the audience’s perspective: What statements will a particular audience be likely to agree with or to view as highly probable or unquestionable? (The Craft of Research is often considered a graduate or professional text, but I have found its distinction between reasons and evidence especially useful for high school students.)

Organization and structure, too, are usefully taught from an audience’s perspective. I engage students with the comparison of organizing an essay to organizing a supermarket or a furniture store, asking them why the aisles are organized by product type, why there are signs that label the types of products, why the dry goods tend to be in the middle, and why the produce section so often lies at the entrance to the store.

Considering the ways that stores are organized from a consumer’s perspective—and contrasting the ways that arguments are often organized—can stimulate students’ thinking about how every choice in an essay should be arranged from the audience’s perspective.

And organizing for an audience can guide more creative decisions about organization: What information might an audience require at this moment to understand this statement? Would an audience expect to find these two similar arguments in the same paragraph, or would one be better expected in another paragraph? Would this sentence make more sense as the first thing the reader sees in the paragraph or the last? Would a counterargument make more sense in this case at the end or the beginning?

Because keeping an audience in mind can help students develop stronger writing skills by guiding their choices about language, tone, organization, and so on, it is critically important that we continue developing tools for teaching middle and high school students how to address an audience.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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