I’ve been spending time over this past year reflecting and evaluating on how I can be more effective in teaching writing — both to English Language Learners and my mainstream ninth-grade students. In fact, all the English teachers at our school have been doing the same thing. Our school got a grant that enabled us to contract with the California Writing Project to do ongoing teacher development.
In addition to that work, those of us who teach English Language Development (which is what most others call ESL) classes have been refining our work with the extraordinary The Write Institute curriculum.
I’ve also been thinking more about the idea of students writing for an “authentic audience” — in other words, someone other than me.
In practice, so far that’s meant my ELL’s writing penpal letters (with pen and on paper) to students (who would respond) in another mainstream English class, and that has worked very well for both classes.
In addition, students have enjoyed participating in our International Sister Classes project, but, because of other commitments, I haven’t made that much of a priority this year (I hope to do better next year!). Developing online presentations is great, though time consuming, and then there’s the responsibility of communicating and commenting back-and-forth. Of course, there are a lot of benefits to that kind of relationship, too, which is why I want to re-engage in the fall. You can find more information on how to connect up with “sister classes” at The Best Ways To Find Other Classes For Joint Online Projects.
I’ve also been trying to pull together a list of easy online sites where students write more for an “authentic audience” and meet the following criteria:
* The writing required would be short, not lengthy pieces, that could be done in a reasonable amount of time — a few days at a maximum and preferably less.
* The creating and posting process is simple — accessible both to my English Language Learner students and to me.
* Posting the piece does not necessarily require any kind of ongoing commitment for communication — once it’s up, it might be interesting to check-back after awhile to see if there have been any reactions (if the site is set-up for that kind of involvement), but it’s really just a matter of sticking it up there in a place that gets a fair amount of “traffic” and knowing that it’s likely others will read it.
* There seems to be some kind of enforced standards for all the content that’s posted on the site. In other words, when students explore it to see models of what others have written, it’s unlikely they will encounter something that is inappropriate for classroom use.
With that criteria in mind, here are my picks for The Best Places Where Students Can Write For An “Authentic Audience” (not in order of preference):
Recipe Key lets you drag-and-drop items into a virtual pantry, and then provides recipes of dishes you might be able to prepare with them. More importantly, students can also write for an authentic audience by contributing their own recipes.
Yelp is the enormously popular site where people write reviews about everything. Sometimes you’ll see other reviews that might have inappropriate language and haven’t been removed yet, but that problem seems pretty rare.
Book reviews are great writing opportunities. ELL teacher Jennifer Duarte had some challenges having her students write ones for Amazon (not least of which being you have to buy something before they let you publish a review). Shelfari, though, seems like a very reasonable alternative. Students can create their own virtual bookshelf and write reviews of them.
Zunal is a free and easy way for students (and teachers) to create webquests (though they might be more appropriately called Internet Scavenger Hunts). Zunal also acts as the host for the webquest or scavenger hunt after its been created. All “webquests” that are created using their fairly scaffolded system are listed on the site, so there are plenty of examples.
Writing reviews about places where students traveled or lived is another good writing opportunity. They can leave comments on places at Trip Wolf, Gogobot, or on Go Planit, three large travel guides on the web. Here are some recent additions to this list that also related to travel:
Discover America, which is a similar travel site that lets you write reviews (obviously, just places in the U.S.).
I’ve posted about Culture Crossing before. It’s a wonderful social studies resource, but I neglected to include that it would be a great opportunity for authentic writing, too. It’s a unique resource for information about different countries. It provides some basic demographics, but it also shares details about communication style, dress, gestures, etc. It’s unlike any other source of information about countries that’s on the web, and accepts user contributions. Certainly, English Language Learners are well-positioned to write about their native countries.
Students can pick a painting, or create their own artwork, and then write a story about it at The Art of Storytelling. It’s a site from the Delaware Art Museum that allows you to not only do either one of those activities, but you can also record your story with your computer microphone. Plus, you can read and listen to stories written and spoken by others. It’s extraordinarily simple, and extraordinarily accessible to any level of English Language Learner. No registration is required.
Myths and Legends is a United Kingdom site where students can create slideshows about……myths and legends. It’s pretty neat and easy, and has the added great benefit of letting students record the narration for their story. Teachers have to register, and they’re very open to schools participating from around the world. All the stories that have been created are available for viewing. This application seems to require more writing, and the posted content seems to be more controlled, then a number of other multimedia sites I considered for inclusion in this list.
Scribd also seems to me to be a good place to upload a variety of student writing, especially now since they’ve supposedly removed all pornography from the site. They used to have a great text-to-speech feature, but they’ve eliminated it.
Students can leave a comment on a positive news story at Optimist World. The stories are engaging and relatively accessible to Intermediate English Language Learners. Because of the nature of the site, students are less likely to encounter some of the rude, inappropriate, and incoherent comments that are often left at more traditional news sites. You’re supposed to also be able to contribute stories to the site, but it’s not clear to me how that’s done.
Students both asking and answering questions at the various online Wiki-like sites like Yahoo Answers, WikiAnswers, and Wikianswers (yes, the last two are indeed different sites) are definitely examples of writing for an “authentic audience.” I had considered including students writing in Simple English Wikipedia, but decided that it was just too complicated for English Language Learners (and even me!). These question/answer sites, though, are pretty simple.
Dogo News is a site designed for young people “of fun and inspiring news from all around the world.” It’s written in relatively simple English with short articles, and is accessible to Intermediate English Language Learners. Readers vote on which articles they like, and can leave comments. Because it’s easy to leave comments, and they appear to be moderated, I’m adding the site to this list.
My Hero is a site where students can write about people they view as…heroes. You can register and create a multimedia webpage about your choices, but, even better (at least, in my view), you can go to the Guestbook area and write a short piece that appears immediately (there are automatic filters to screen content, plus it’s manually screened later).
Tikatok a site that is a real find for English Language Learners (and lots of other students). Users can create online books that they write and illustrate (they can also use lots of images available on the site). It has a number of features that really make it stand-out. You can make a book from scratch, or you can use one of their many story frames that contain “prompts” to help the story-writer along. In addition, you can invite others to collaborate online with you to develop the book.
Once the book is done you can email the link to a friend, teacher, or yourself for posting on a blog, website, or online journal and the site is available on Titatok for others to read. You can create the online version for free, but have to pay if you want them to print a hard-copy version.
Tar Heel Reader has two great features: 1) It has 1,000 simple books with audio support for the text immediately accessible to Beginning English Language Learners and 2) It makes it as simple as you can get for students to create their own “talking” books using images from Flickr.
Anybody can read the books on the site. However, in order to have your students create talking books using their “easy as pie” (and free) process, you need to register and have to have a code. They’re rightfully concerned about publishing the code because of spammers. Gary Bishop from the site, though, is happy to provide it to teachers. Just write him at firstname.lastname@example.org and he’ll send it to you.
At the Destinations website, users first write the location of a place they would like to visit, and then a very brief explanation of why they want to go there. Their response is then shown on a map of the area they chose, along with the url address of their place and what they wrote. The website creators send out a “tweet” on Twitter after each time someone responds, and they review each response and consider placing it on their regular front page “rotation.” All this can be done without registering.
Students can make a “top ten” list of anything they want — cars, books, video games — and describe the reasons for their rankings. One popular site that encourage user contributions (and make it easy to do so) is and The Top Tens.
Opposing Views highlights key questions (political, scientific, etc). It then, in a fairly succinct “bullet” format, has an “expert” share pro and con arguments. Users of the site can also leave their own comments. The language and lay-out of the site is fairly accessible to Intermediate English Language Learners. After reading the arguments, users can easily leave their own comments on the issue.
Newsy is a site that — in short videos — compares how major news events are covered by media throughout the world. You can leave comments if you’re registered. For that reason, I’m also adding it to this list. The speaking is pretty fast and relatively high-level, so it’s probably only accessible to advanced English Language Learners. It does provide a transcript to the audio, but it’s not actually closed-captioned. That doesn’t make it particularly useful to ELL’s. It’s a well done site. I’m probably going to be using it more with my International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge class than with my English Language Learners.
The New York Times recently launched Student Opinion “to create a “safe space” on NYTimes.com – and on the Internet overall – for students 13 and older to voice their views on the news.” You can read a much fuller explanation about the feature here.
At Site Jabber, users can write reviews of websites. It appears to be primarily aimed at online businesses, but there are lots of other websites reviewed, too. Students can write reviews of their favorite online sites, including (but not limited to) the ones we use for English learning.
Explorra is a new travel site that appears to be designed to compete with the many others that allow you to create your own travel itinerary. I’ve posted many of those similar sites at The Best Sites Where Students Can Plan Virtual Trips. I wouldn’t add Explorra to that list, though — the others seem to do a better job at that.
However, Explorra does have one feature I really, really like — the ability for users to create an online guide to anyplace in the world. After sign-up, which only takes a minute, you identify a city, country or state, and then start listing what you think are the most interesting places there. Explorra will search the Web for images of each location, and you can write descriptions.
Music Explained is a new site where you can pick a song and write about what you think it means and how you feel about it. It could be a nice place for students to write about their favorite music and see what others have written, too. The link to student writing could be posted on a student or teacher blog/website. They indicate that there is some monitoring of what people write, but it’s unclear to what extent it is reviewed.
At Web of Fate, users can write predictions of events and explain their reasons why.
“My Immigration Story” is designed for immigrants to share their story in 200 words or less. It’s specifically designed to:
Let other Americans know how the current generation of immigrants is helping enrich this land of opportunity.
Baby Name Voyager is a fascinating data visualization tool that shows you the popularity of specific names during the last thirteen decades. You just type in a name, and an interactive chart appears seconds later. It’s really pretty interesting. But that’s not really why I’m writing about it. Even better, you click on a name and you’re given information about it, and offered the opportunity to write about it. Now, for students, this is pretty high-interest stuff — learn how popular your name has been over the past 130 years, learn about its historical roots, and write about your personal experience with it as your name. There are some caveats, though. It only shows the most popular 1000 names in a decade, and it appears (though I can’t be sure) to show only names in the United States. It seems to have a fairly large number of Latino names, but there are very few Asian ones. So it’s problematic for teachers in a school like mine (one-third Southeast Asian) to use the site.
Virtual Tourist is a new site that makes it easy for students (and anybody else) to write about places where they have lived or where they have traveled.
Tripline just opened for business, and it’s a great map-making application. You just list the various places you want to go in a journey, or a famous trip that has happened in history or literature, or a class field trip itinerary, and a embeddable map is created showing the trip where you can add written descriptions and photos. You can use your own photos or just search through Flickr. Plus, you can pick a soundtrack to go with it as it automatically plays through the travels.
It’s super-easy to use, and the only tricky part is that you can’t add photos until after you create your trip and save it. That’s not a big deal, unless you couldn’t figure it out like me and had to contact the site.
Students can write short (500 characters or less) reviews of books, movies, TV shows, or music at Hello Hype.
Faces of Learning is a new website where, among other things, anybody (including students) can share a short response to the question “What was your most powerful personal experience in a learning community – regardless of whether that experience took place inside or outside of school?” After registering, students can both write their response and make an audio recording of it.
The Good Guide is sort of a user-created geographical, social, cultural guide to the world. You can ask and answer questions about places and, more importantly, can create your own “infoguides” to places of your choice.
Gangaroo lets your search for pretty much any product on Amazon and other sites, click on it, write a review of it, and then the image, your description and your review will show up on a public list. You can make separate lists of books, DVD’s, music CD’s, etc. You can post the url address to your list and its publicly viewable, but only registered users can leave comments.
Step Station is a new site that lets users create simple step-by-step directions to do…anything.
Wikipedia announced a new “visual editor” that will make it much more accessible to contribute to its pages. They’re introducing it slowly, and it doesn’t appear that it will work for most entries for awhile.
I think it will be a great opportunity for students. Wikipedia’s complicated interface has made it problematic for use by “mainstream” users. The Visual Editor will make it extremely easy (you can try it out at the above link) to use, and it’s a great opportunity to write for an authentic audience.
Voices Of Youth is a site set-up by UNICEF where young people from around the world can write and interact about issues like “Environment, Education, Human Rights, etc.”
Here’s an excerpt from the sites “FAQ’s”:
Educators can work with their students using VOY in several ways: read and comment on posts, write original posts as individuals or as a group, create short films to post or take photographs to share with the VOY community.
BlockAvenue gives every neighborhood in the United States a “grade” and lets users review businesses in each area, too. It could be an excellent place for students to do some authentic writing. It could also be an excellent addition to my favorite lesson of each school year where students compare their neighborhood with the most exclusive neighborhood in town and choose which one they think is best (students invariably pick their own). BlockAvenue could be a great place for them to post their final essays.
In Looking For Assets, Not Deficits I talk about a new site and strategy called TimeSlips.
I’d love to hear other suggestions.
There are a lot of other kinds of “products” students (videos, timelines, online tests, comic strips, etc.) can create for an “authentic audience”, and I’ll be creating another “The Best…” list sharing them (I’ve done this — The Best Places Where Students Can Create Online Learning/Teaching Objects For An “Authentic Audience”). In addition, I’ll be writing another list describing different ways teachers can connect with others who might be interested in developing “sister class” relationships to create and provide more authentic audiences (in addition to the other learning benefits gained).
As always, feedback is welcome.