Social media writing “unplugged”

[This article was first published in Voices Issue 240 (September -October 2014). Many thanks to the editor, Alison Schwetlick, for allowing me to republish it here.]

For a long time I avoided teaching social media writing. A range of nightmare scenarios would flash before my eyes at the prospect: the computers in my classroom look older than I do, and I had visions of learners taking half the lesson to log on. Not everyone owns swish mobile phones so asking learners to “Bring Your Own Device” would be less than inclusive. Apart from anything else, many learners enjoy social interaction in their English classes so it would have seemed counter – intuitive to have them sitting in booths and tapping away on keyboards.

At the same time I was becoming increasingly aware of the mismatch between the kind of writing I was teaching and the writing which my learners needed to do in reality. I am a social media sloth compared to many other teachers – I have only just joined Facebook – yet even so, my academic and professional life to date have been enhanced by my ability to write (and comment on) blog posts, contribute to discussion forums, tweet and publish my CV online. It seemed unfair to keep this knowledge to myself.

Last year, the community centre where I teach moved building. I found myself in a classroom with no computer suite and it seemed that I would need to shelf any notion of teaching social media writing. Then one day, an informal class discussion developed into an impromptu writing lesson and I realised the manifold possibilities of using good old- fashioned paper and pen to teach learners the linguistic skills they need to thrive in our digital age. Below are two outlines of “unplugged” social media writing lessons.

Contributing to an online discussion forum

This genre covers a range of every day writing contexts: asking for or giving advice on a discussion forum, expressing an opinion on a given topic, and participating in a study forum (in many academic courses contributions are now summatively assessed).

A good way of introducing this kind of writing is through an activity similar to the parlour game “consequences”. Ask learners to start a discussion “thread” by writing a question or problem at the top of a piece of paper. The paper should then be passed round the class: learners read their classmates’ posts and write their own comments underneath. At the end of the activity, learners receive their original piece of paper back and read the entire thread.

Collect in the learners’ work at the end of the lesson and try to identify commonly occurring issues your learners have with this type of writing. You can then devote a couple of sessions to addressing learners’ needs. With my own class we have looked at: hedging language, taking into account both sides of an argument, polite disagreement and register. A similar activity to the one described above can then be repeated subsequently: I found my learners’ writing improved significantly after two sessions of focused input on writing for this genre.

Tweeting

Writing a good tweet is not easy: it has, indeed, been described as a “new art form in the making” by David Crystal. Developing learners’ awareness of this art is time well spent: a good way of doing this is to check your Twitter feed for examples of engaging (and less engaging) tweets. Share examples with your learners and ask them to identify what works well and what doesn’t. From this, your learners should be able to decide on some “golden rules” for a successful tweet, e.g.:

  • Make Tweets concise and unambiguous like a good newspaper headline
  • Avoid using the passive voice in Tweets.
  • Offer suggestions and advice to your readers, e.g.: “How to…”
  • Ask your followers questions

Learners can practise what they have learned offline too. Allocate sections of your classroom wall or board for your learners’ Twitter timelines. Organise learners into groups and tell them to decide on a small business which they want to promote. Learners should then write a series of tweets and stick them onto their classmates’ timelines. They can choose to “retweet” particularly engaging tweets by copying the tweets they like and sticking them on the timelines of other learners. In class feedback, you can discuss what made some tweets more successful than others.

Conclusion

These are just two examples of social media writing genres which can be successfully taught with no access to technology. Learners benefit enormously from good old fashioned pen and paper exercises which build up their social media writing competence – so when they finally do log on there will be no stopping them.

Reference: Crystal, D. 2014. ‘Watch what you’re saying!: Linguist David Crystal on Twitter, texting and our native tongue’, The Independent 07. 07.2014 online at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/watch-what-youre-saying-linguist-david-crystal-on-twitter-texting-and-our-native-tongue-1919271.html

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