Classroom Perspectives, Language Arts, Reading and Literacy, Writing

Teaching the Real Purpose of Writing

Teaching the Real Purpose of Writing

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2019 Issue

By Ashley Yarbrough

As teachers, we know that students need to be motivated in order to learn. Especially in English, which requires students to sit and read or write for extended periods of time, I find it to be frequently challenging to get my students to want to do their work. “Challenging” is really an understatement if we are being honest; it’s more like “nearly impossible” at times.

I have taught kids from low-income homes, kids from multi-million dollar homes, 6th graders, 10th graders, 12th graders—you name it. They’re all the same in this way. They need purpose, and due to their maturity level and today’s age of instant gratification, that purpose needs to apply to them right now.

Every year that I’ve taught, my students read for 30–45 minutes at least three times a week. We read short stories, novels, and other pieces of literature, and then the students write about those texts. For most students, getting a good grade is the motivating factor for doing their work. For others, it is avoiding the wrath of their parents. Almost none of them read for joy or curiosity. It’s a shame and a very serious problem, because reading, as we know, increases intelligence, ups social understanding (like empathy, appreciation for diversity, etc.), heightens knowledge—the list goes on.

Even if I motivate most of my students to read and, better yet, get excited enough about our current book to want to write about it, there are always a few students who just won’t do the work. They’re apparently satisfied with failing the quizzes and assignments and tests. Their parents’ wrath or disappointment in them is not motivation enough. They’d rather sit and stare at the book than read a single word.

One year, I had such a student. I’ll call him “Dylan.” He would literally spend 45 minutes every day staring at his desk. He was failing my class badly—like 21% failing. I tried getting him to read smaller chunks. I tried calling home. I tried having him read aloud to me. Nothing was working. I had to ask myself, “What can I do to motivate this kid?”

I had noticed that Dylan really liked cartoon, comic-type shows, such as Dragon Ball Z and Batman. So I had this random idea to ask him write to a review of one of the shows, instead of the book he was supposed to be reading. My expectations were low, but at the least, I hoped he’d produce something minimally acceptable that I could enter into the gradebook. My goal was to show him how much his grade would change if he simply turned something in, because at that point, anything above a C would drastically boost it.

The next day, as he was studying his desk’s wood grain pattern, I asked if he had decided what show to review. He said, “Why should I bother? No one will ever see anything I write.”

I replied, “You’ll use writing everyday as you get older—emails, job applications, social media statuses. Anything, really.”

He replied, “Yeah, but I don’t want a job where I have to read or write, and I don’t use social media.”

Suddenly, I had another idea. I asked, “Do you want someone to see what you write?”


He said, “I guess.”

I told him, “We can make that happen. I’ll show you something tomorrow in class. We’ll have the whole class do it.”

During the planning period, I looked up some websites that offer submissions. There are tons! Popular magazines and digital media sites like BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, and Story magazine accept submissions. I narrowed my search and found a listicle of (appropriate) fanfiction sites, especially those geared toward anime/cartoon stories and I printed it out. I found another listicle of places that publish book reviews and printed that out as well. I called Dylan’s parents and asked if they’d allow him to submit his writing to a website, sharing with them my list of publications.

The next class, I handed Dylan the list of fanfiction sites, and told him to write a story using his show’s characters. I told him that if it was good, we could submit it. One of the sites would even pay if it was accepted. I reminded him that anyone could see his story. His eyes widened and he asked, “You can get paid for writing?”

“Definitely!” I told him, excited that he was showing some interest. “You just need to be accepted. Sometimes that takes a ton of tries, but the more you write, the better you get. If it doesn’t get accepted, we can ask why and try again, using their advice.”

I presented the other listicle for book review sites to the class and sent permission slips home to the parents.

Dylan—and the rest of the class—really knocked it out of the park. Dylan came back the next day with a 10-page story while the others handed in their stories over the next two weeks. We held workshops to improve the writing and allowed parents time to return the permission slip. Only one parent did not want her child’s work submitted publicly, but she was fine with it being submitted to the school’s newsletter.

After two weeks, the students worked together in the computer lab to submit their revised work to various websites. I required them to choose three sites to better their chances of acceptance, but really, I just wanted to them to see for themselves what’s out there. It took the entire class period, mostly, because I required students to read and follow the instructions for submission—that usually requires email addresses and often a blurb for the submitter’s profile.

It was so awesome to see their excitement. I had to keep reminding the kids that they may not hear back for months, and they would likely need to try again several times as they learned how to meet the editors’ expectations. The students were highly motivated by having a purpose for their writing outside of the classroom or outside of their own homes. They realized that writing has a real purpose. They also learned how to revise drafts, how to write for an audience, about author’s purpose, etc. It was a fantastic learning experience for them.

Over the years, I’ve found as many ways as possible to have my students write for someone besides myself and their parents. We’ve submitted pieces online—with parent and administration approval, of course. Local papers tend to have online versions and will often not have age limits. I used this for nonfiction writing, as well as persuasive writing. We’ve also written guides for incoming students, informing them of “need-to-knows” from current students’ point of views. The important thing is, kids come to understand that what they are writing has a purpose and what they are reading applies—not in the future, but right now.

Ashley Yarbrough is a secondary English teacher, mother, writer, and gardener. She has taught students from diverse backgrounds in both public and private schools. She keeps a blog at Feel free to visit and reach out to her!