I was recently doing some work with English teachers in Luxembourg, looking at written assessments and making them more fit for purpose. We were particularly focusing on ways of making written tasks and assessments more relevant and authentic, trying to think about how students might use their English in everyday life, for work or further study. I thought it would be useful to pick up this theme here and discuss what we mean by authenticity in writing and how we might achieve it.
‘Genuine’ versus ‘Authentic’
In exceptional cases, it is possible to incorporate genuine written communication into classroom tasks.
For example, you could ask students to:
- Write emails to English students in a twinned school.
- Write letters to an international organisation, to lobby for an environmental cause.
- Write posters in English to go up in the school entrance hall, welcoming English-speaking visitors.
- Write to an English author about a book they have enjoyed.
I am sure you can come up with other examples. However, opportunities for these genuine communications in written English are usually limited.
Artifice and artificiality
A lot of the time, classroom tasks will have a level of artificiality (or even artifice) built into them. To be honest, that’s fine. There isn’t any reason why all classroom tasks need to be ‘authentic’. There is even an argument that doing something like a grammar exercise in class, is completely authentic: the task is for English students, after all – so you could argue that these kinds of exercises are authentic for them – and less contrived than some other activities that may be labelled ‘authentic’.
In relation to the above, students need to be able to manipulate the language and certain kinds of rote learning are helpful - mechanical operations that, with practice, they won’t need to think about. Learning to decline a verb in English or doing creative drills could be seen as the language-learning equivalent of learning tables or formulae in maths – quick shortcuts that enable students to communicate quickly and naturally, rather than getting slowed down by having to consciously manipulate the language.
Having said this, it is also important that students can apply what they have learnt to real-life situations; something they will need to do once they leave school or go on to further study. In order to give them practice of this, setting up tasks that mirror the way we actually use writing in the real world, is essential. Such tasks foreground the fact that language is ultimately about communication and there is a purpose to their study beyond just passing exams. Many students are also more likely to enjoy the learning experience if there is a functional or situational context and they can feel the ‘buzz’ of using language to make an impact on the world.
‘Authentic’ tasks mirror the kinds of things for which we all use writing in our daily life. For example: writing texts and emails, making shopping lists, or leaving hand-written notes or messages for people.
It is helpful for students to learn and practise the different stylistic conventions and layouts for a range of these functional tasks. It also familiarises them with common language patterns. By learning a variety of ‘schemata’ or ‘scripts’, learners are able to choose and order appropriate content with less cognitive effort. With these types of tasks, it is useful to provide content-based scaffolding, to guide their response (particularly for lower levels).*
*With this in mind, we have recently put together a new pack of cards - 100 Writing Prompts, which provides a variety of ready-made functional and creative prompts for students that are intermediate level or higher (B1+). Each task incorporates a list of bullet points to provide a strong content-based framework. We have also produced some authentic writing templates that you can download for free, to give an authentic feel to a variety of common task types.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of different task types for you to use as a point of reference for devising your own ‘authentic’ writing tasks. We hope you find It useful.
Authentic Task Types
Here is our list of some generic task types we consider to be, in a broad sense, ‘authentic’. The list is not intended to be exhaustive and there is some cross-over between sections. However, you should be able to come up with plenty of ideas for tasks to suit your classes.
Writing lists (good for lower levels)
- Shopping lists
- ‘To do’ lists
- ‘Top Tens’
- Contents lists
- Packing lists
- Ingredients lists
- Pros and cons lists
- Lists of facts about a historical event
You can introduce these listing tasks with a quick fun activity such as a list race:
“List ten things you can… fit in a matchbox…use to put out a fire…do to stop a baby crying.” And why not follow up with a creative activity such as a list poem?
Writing questions and answers
- Prepare a series of questions and answers for an interview
- Prepare a survey to find out information
- Write an FAQ section for a website
- Devise a questionnaire to understand customer habits and get feedback
- Write some questions for a classroom quiz
Much daily communication focuses on exchanging information, which is why question and answer activities are so useful. Written question formation is a key skill that students need to learn. Also, these kinds of tasks have obvious follow-on/extension activities and are great for generating personalised resources for communicative pair-work, group work or whole class Q and A.
- Describe yourself to someone you have not met before, so they can recognise you when you first meet
- Write a description of something when you don’t know what it is called
- Describe what food and drink tastes like
- Describe the facilities at a resort or hotel
- Describe your symptoms to a doctor
- Describe a lost pet
- Describe the plot and characters in a book or film
As you can see from the list above, we use descriptions in many real-life situations – including as a strategy for when we don’t have the necessary vocabulary. With these kinds of activities, you may also use written material your students produce for listening quizzes (‘Who or what am I describing?), true/false activities, listening for specific information, or as a jumping off point for an extended project.
Schedules, plans, itineraries and timelines
- Write an ‘about us’ section for a company website, with a timeline of important dates and achievements
- Write a holiday itinerary
- Write a chronology of the events in a book you are reading
- Write a plan for a party
- Write an Itinerary for a trip or visit
- Devise a weekly exercise schedule
- Makes some notes, with approximate timings, as a reference point for a talk you are giving
Much of our time is spent on planning and organising our lives, so opportunities to practise this are pretty useful. Planning things often involves interaction and discussion with others, so there are plenty of opportunities for integrating spoken language practice into these kinds of activities, especially if you want to make the task a pair-work or group work activity.
Contents pages and glossaries
- Create a contents page for a book or magazine
- Write a glossary of specialist terms and their definitions for a hobby or pastime
- Write a glossary of literary terms
These are useful activities to help students think about ordering contents and writing definitions. They are ways of navigating information and clarifying meaning. The glossaries can also be used for creating sets of revision cards for the study and memorisation of key vocabulary.
- Summarise the rules for a game or sport
- Write a list of classroom/school rules
- Devise house-share rules for a flat-share
- Write a list of rules for a club or society
- Write a list of rules for visitors to a gallery/zoo/museum
- Write a list of health and safety rules for a specific place or job
- Interpret icons and signs and write the rules they represent
In most situations, our behaviour is constrained by common rules and expectations. Both being able to understand these rules and to write our own, helps to keep us safe, means standards are applied consistently to everyone and, if agreed in advance, helps us to avoid difficulties and arguments about what is acceptable behaviour. Rule writing is a straightforward activity for students but can also generate interesting discussions about what are reasonable and unreasonable expectations in a variety of contexts.
Instructions and directions
- Write a recipe for your favourite dish, with ingredients and instructions
- Write a ‘how to’ guide on the topic of your choice
- Write a set of assembly instructions for a piece of flat-pack furniture
- Write out instructions detailing what to do if someone has an accident or a medical emergency
- Describe how to get between two locations, one on either side of town
We are likely to encounter a variety of instructional texts as we go about our daily lives and sometimes need to provide instructions for others. These activities all provide useful practice of the imperative. They can also be easily adapted into speaking and presentational activities, such as producing instructional videos or giving informal talks. In these cases, the written element could be given as a planning pre-task.
Drawing and labelling
- Draw and label a map of the area where you live
- Draw and label a floor plan of your house or bedroom, including any doors, windows, or major items of furniture
- Draw and label a diagram of the water cycle
- Choose some photos for a topical article and write a caption for each
- Create a flowchart for an everyday activity such as deciding what to wear
- Create a graph or bar chart from a survey and write a short analysis of your findings
Activities that involve both visuals and written content sometimes feel more creative, and images provide a clear context for writing tasks. Sometimes, for lower levels, incorporating visual information provides a focus on the task, rather than on the language, and this makes it feel less like a daunting writing task, even if it includes written elements. Labelling activities can also be done as a whole class activity on an IWB.
Hand-written notes and short messages using texts and messaging apps.
- Write a short hand-written note explaining that you have gone out. The note should say where you have gone and when you will be back.
- Write a text to someone asking them to do you a favour.
- Text a friend who has been messaging you and explain why you haven’t been able to respond until now. Apologise and check how they are doing.
- Think of the different occasions on which we might want to send someone a greeting card. Choose one occasion and write a suitable message to a close friend or family member.
Notes are still one thing many of us tend to write a lot of. Whether it’s a post-it left on a colleague’s desk or a short, hand-written note for someone we live with. As well as using written notes, these days we often just send phone messages, to remind people of something, to update them on a situation, or to re-arrange a meeting time. They are also just a quick way of keeping in touch with someone, or checking on how they are.
Placards, slogans, straplines and manifestos
- Imagine you are going to attend a protest or march for a cause you believe in. Prepare some placards for attendees to hold up.
- Come up with ideas for slogans or texts to be printed on promotional T-shirts for an environmental charity.
- Create a lifestyle manifesto based on your core beliefs.
- Choose a company and come up with some possible straplines that encapsulate its products or services.
- Choose some movies that you know and create some taglines for trailers and posters.
We sometimes need to capture our ideas and beliefs or provide a clever way of distilling a message or idea into something simple. Use some of the above ideas to spark interesting discussions and to give students practice in conveying a message simply and clearly.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways in which we can ground our writing activities in more functional (and personal) tasks. Not every writing task has to have this focus, and it is good to include a few more creative writing tasks. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Create and describe a fantastical animal
- Describe and illustrate a crazy invention
- Describe your dream home
- Create a travel brochure for an imaginary world
- Choose two characters from different books or movies and create a whole new character by combining their looks, styles and personalities
Written by Mike Turner