by Sara Hallermann
Project Based Learning offers one of the best ways to provide students in your classroom with authentic literacy experiences—which means having them read and write for a real purpose, as opposed to an “inauthentic” academic exercise. To incorporate authentic literacy, be sure to answer these questions when you design and implement a project:
If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you’ve got it: a fully authentic literary experience for your students.
For example, in the Small Acts of Courage project at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, students researched and wrote about local stories of the Civil Rights Movement. In response to the Driving Question, “What was Maine’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement?“, they created a book for a public audience which included people who participated locally in the struggle for civil rights. This is an authentic product which differs from a more traditional assignment for this topic, like an informational report, because it’s for a real purpose, not just for school. The students felt it was important to record these local connections to a major part of 20th century U.S. history before they were lost.
The project gave them a real “need to read” – to answer further questions for inquiry that students came up with on their own. They found answers by reading authentic sources, which can be defined as sources of information that are found outside of the learning to read or write context – they occur naturally in people’s lives outside of the classroom. In the Small Acts of Courage project this included a lot of primary source documents. They also found answers to their questions by interviewing local residents who participated in the events. These people offered critique as the students created their book and were part of the intended audience to whom the students presented their work.
When they use authentic sources, students are not merely repeating the words of already conducted research, but are instead using critical thinking skills as a part of the inquiry process. Rather than simply clicking on the first site that comes up in a Google Search, students are involved in a discovery process that uncovers the meaning behind the words. Again, this is authentic because it mirrors the work of many writers in the professional world.
When planning a project to incorporate authentic writing experiences, teachers should think about three things: what’s the genre of writing, who’s the audience, and what authentic product is most appropriate? For example, for the following commonly-found writing genres, think about authentic products that require that kind of writing:
Arguments to support claims:
editorial, proposal, commercial, public service announcement
field guide, press release, policy statement, research report
short story, book, biography, article
Here are some more examples of how teachers used writing genres to create authentic products for authentic audiences:
While reading and writing “just for school” certainly still has a purpose in our education system, authentic contexts are highly effective for improving student learning. Students who experience authentic literacy projects show high levels of growth in reading comprehension and writing ability. And unlike all-too-many traditional reading, writing, and research assignments, projects that incorporate authentic literacy will engage students more deeply and meaningfully.
Authentic Literacy and PBL
Project based learning is one of the best vehicles for providing powerful, authentic literacy experiences across the curriculum. Students who experience opportunities for authentic literacy show higher growth in both comprehension and writing. In this Webinar, Sara Hallermann leads you through an exploration of high-impact elementary and secondary sample projects in which students read truly authentic texts and produce writing for audiences who want and need the students' written work. You'll see the power in this practice and will learn tips for designing projects that incorporate authentic literacy experiences for your students.