Of all the school assignments whose usefulness you could complain about—”Do I really need to memorize all the battles of the Civil War?” “When am I ever going to need to know what an isosceles triangle is?!”—the book report seems the most disconnected from the real world. A dry recitation of plot points, seemingly written for the sole purpose of being graded.This is not communication at its finest. The only person you write a book report for is your teacher: the same teacher who’s read hundreds of other reports on To Kill a Mockingbird and is well aware that Atticus Finch is a brave lawyer and that Boo Radley is a scary old recluse, but who needs to be able to check off that you know it, too.
Writing, however, is meant to be read. That’s its reason for being. Even as we move from a world of
books and paper to a world of screens and social networks, text is the bedrock of human communication. Through writing, we articulate ideas, arguments, and ourselves—and we determine how to articulate these concepts by considering our audience and the impact we hope to have on them.
There are plenty of finance folk and engineering eggheads who use the skills they learned in school on a daily basis, employing complex algorithms and equations as a matter of course. And yet we still don’t teach writing as a usable skill, as a tool that has value above and beyond its ability to impress a teacher. But most of today’s work force—about two-thirds of salaried employees in the US, according to the National Commission on Writing—have some writing responsibility, producing technical reports, memos, and emails. The annual cost of re-training those workers to write well? $3.1 billion.
Good writing requires attention to form and conventions, but it also requires an awareness of the audience at the other end. Whether you want to inform, inspire, or amuse, writing is about communicating. Yet we fail to impart this essential concept in school. Too much of the written work in our English classrooms (and history, science, and even maths classrooms, for that matter) exists in a bubble that doesn’t extend past the school’s walls. And we’re not just talking about the dreaded book report: even complex, thoughtful assignments are divorced from any notion of audience. They’re written for the eyes of the teacher alone, making them feel inauthentic and irrelevant to students.
“We really do fail our students when we don’t help them find a way to write real stuff,” writes Louisville teacher Anne Rodier in an essay for the National Writing Project. “[I]f what you are writing has no possibility of reaching a real audience for real purposes, then there will be no investment in the work.” The effects of this disengagement are staggering. In 2007, 75% of high school seniors scored below proficient in writing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (considered the “nation’s report card”). According to a recent study by the Carnegie Corporation, nearly one-third of high school graduates are not ready for college-level English composition classes. Our literacy skills rank as poorly as our maths skills against other industrialized nations—meaning too many students leave school unconfident writers and uninterested readers.
Statistics like these are depressing. But they also represent an opportunity for real change, and we are at a point where technology, with its promise of myriad and instantaneous connections, can help us do a better job of making students passionate about words and communication. I run a website called Figment, an online community where teens and young adults create, discover, and share new reading and writing. In the little over a year since we started, about 100,000 users—nearly all of them students—have created a library of more than 225,000 pieces of original writing, from sonnets to essays to novels. The community not only writes copiously, but they’re also voracious readers of each other’s writing. They offer one another feedback, advice, and encouragement.
One of our earliest Figment users, who used to call himself a “closet writer,” notes how having an audience opened him up: “When I wake up in the morning and log on to Figment and see that someone has commented on one of my stories, my heart leaps a little bit.” Our members use technology to connect, to engage, and to contribute to an ever-expanding library of literary work—a digital collection four times as big as the average local library. And since there are always real readers on the other end—readers they want to delight, impress, and inspire—these students know that their words don’t exist in a bubble. And that’s what makes them writers.
The tide appears to be turning in literacy education. A large number of schools around the country have begun to adopt a new set of curriculum standards called the Common Core, to help prepare students to be college- and career-ready by emphasising, in part, the importance of audience and purpose in writing education. recognising the connection between reading and good writing, the standards stress the value of exposing students to a range of texts, including journalism—for just as classroom writing assignments benefit from being authentic and relevant, reading assignments must also engage students and feel connected to their lives outside the classroom.
One of the ways Figment does this is by connecting young people to a diverse group of professional writers—from their heroes in young-adult fiction to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists. Figment users read works by these writers, ask them questions through web chats and q-and-a’s, and apply the insights they glean to their own pieces. By engaging with professional writing that has a clear audience and purpose, students begin to develop those elements in their own writing.
Every day, we’re bringing what we’ve learned at Figment into the classroom. Educators all around the country are using the site as a platform and community for student writing, and they’re seeing the enormous potential it offers. The lesson of Figment is that authenticity—having a real audience for student writing, and presenting real writing that engages students—is the key ingredient in making passionate readers and dedicated writers. And that Figment’s success can inspire a new generation of readers and writers, prepared to write stories, school papers, and even a memo or two.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.