The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.
When students write for classroom assignments, they rarely consider their audience. Oftentimes, they don’t think about who they are writing for because the only person who ever reads their work is their teacher. With this lack of variety, it’s no wonder that they often cringe when asked to write. One cure for this ailment is take traditional writing assignments, whether they be short responses or extended essays, and add a little flavor. Student interest can be tapped when they begin to view their writing assignments from a variety of different perspectives for a multitude of audiences.
A well-known answer to writing doldrums is to tweak the role, audience, format, and/or topic (RAFT) of the task. The students can take on the perspective, or role, of different people to change the trajectory of their writing, such as a soldier, an acrobat, or the president. They can also vary the audience that their writing is aimed at. Instead of just writing to influence their teacher, students can write to a friend, their principal, or even people opposed to their viewpoint. In addition to writing traditional essays and short responses, students can also vary the format of their writing. They could deliver their writing in the form of a letter, a poem, or even a speech. Finally, the topic or theme can be altered so that students’ writing is unique. They can write to emphasize a certain idea, such as we belong together or honesty is the best policy, or simply alter the subject of their writing.
Why It Works
The fact that it’s simple doesn’t make it untrue – the more students write, the better they become. Without practice, skill grows slowly. The beauty of RAFT is that it can take the most mundane assignments and turn them upside-down. Students are stretched beyond their comfort zones as they tackle issues, content, and topics from a variety of angles. This easily repeatable strategy will have students writing again and again without fatiguing their desire to create.
One of the many benefits of RAFT is that it helps students work on their author’s craft. Rather than simply writing generic reports, students first tackle the role they embody. They embrace various viewpoints, biases, and even contrary perspectives as they think about the message they want to convey. Multiple students within the same classroom can write completely conflicting papers on the same topic just by adjusting their role. Additionally, to whom the students write, their audience, will shape how they design their message. If their intended recipient is sympathetic, they might be more positive because of shared beliefs. If, however, they are writing to an antagonistic audience, their tone could be completely different.
More than just role and audience, however, RAFT is an excellent vehicle for teaching students the many formats of writing. While most secondary students are overly familiar with the standard essay, they might not be as comfortable writing a letter. The format, in addition to the role and audience, can greatly shape the message that is being delivered. Finally, the topic can change based on the purpose of the task. If RAFT is being used as a general writing task, then the topics can range far and wide. If a specific content is being studied, such as the Civil War, then the topics could be narrower in scope to match the wider context. Instead of different subjects, the topics could be different messages or themes that the author is trying to convey.
Using RAFT to extend the response of your students is a fairly quick procedure. There are, however, a few things to reflect upon.
1. If anything will take time when putting this task together, it will be the creation of the choices within the four categories (i.e., Role, Audience, Format, and Topic). Other than your own imagination, there are some resources available to generate ideas for each of the sections. Free websites can be found using a search phrase such as raft writing strategy.
2. Once the category choices have been made, the biggest decision will be how each choice is assigned to the students. They can be given by the teacher, chosen purposefully by the students, or assigned using dice or some other randomization tool.
3. Be prepared to give brief explanations if students are unfamiliar with some of the choices, especially within the format section. It’s hard for students to write a letter if they’ve never written one before and are unsure of its structural components.
4. Decide on the grouping of the assignment. Though traditionally done alone, students might also enjoy working on this task with a partner.
5. If the task will be taken for a grade, let students know what the grading expectations are. Provide them with some type of rubric so they know how much weight will be given to the various components, such as audience and format.
6. If time allows, plan to give feedback for students’ first attempts. Ideally this task would be assigned within a traditional writing instruction block, including conferences, drafts, and revision and editing before turning in a final draft.
Ms. Peters’ fourth grade students were very adept writers. Since day one of the school year, they had worked relentlessly on brainstorming, planning, drafting, and revising and editing. Her class was proficient and stood a good chance of performing well on the state achievement test. Unfortunately, she feared she had sucked the joy of writing out of her students.
They had two weeks before the test and she wanted them to practice writing without going through the entire writing process. More importantly, she wanted to review some of the genres and techniques they had studied that year without driving her students over the edge. To do all this and have some fun as well, she decided to introduce them to RAFT.
“Class, you know that we have our state writing test in two weeks. We’ve worked hard all year and I know that you are well prepared. To keep your pencils fresh without burning you out, we are going to do something new called RAFT. The four letters in RAFT stand for role, audience, format, and topic. We’ve studied all four aspects in writing this year but we’ve never looked at them quite like this.
“You see on the board that there are four rows of choices for your classroom RAFT compositions. I’ll let you choose which one works best for you. If you can’t decide, I have the numbers 1 through 4 on index cards up at my desk. You can pick one of those randomly to help you choose what you’ll be writing about.
“If you choose the first row, you’ll take on the role of our classroom clock,” Ms. Peters said, pointing to the clock above the door. “From the clock’s point of view, write a letter to the class about things you see when you watch the class. Make sure to include all the structures of a letter, including the greeting, salutation, and closing. And yes, before you ask, you can include a postscript, but no more than two,” she chided to her giggling students.
“If you are interested, you can take on the role of a teacher and write a script about an interaction between a new student and that teacher. Don’t forget what we learned about dialogue, stage directions, and narration,” Ms. Peters said. When she noticed about eight hands immediately raise, she paused and looked a bit confused. “Yes, Andrea?” she asked.
“Can we name the teacher Ms. Peters?” Andrea asked innocently to a chorus of laughter.
“I don’t see why not. Remember that even though the audience is for a new student, I will be reading the script. Be wise in your choice of words,” she mockingly threatened. “Moving on, the third row is a real challenge because you’ll be taking on the role of our library center.” As she said this, Ms. Peters pointed across the room to a small carpeted area with books in disarray and bean bags strewn all over the carpet. “I believe that our library center might have a few things to say to a center group about how to properly use it during centers. This format uses a cartoon strip, however, rather than being written. Feel free to add speech bubbles and personify anything you want within the center.
“Another artistic option would be the fourth RAFT row. Taking the role of our poor, dirty, and abused floor, make a poster to the school custodian. The topic will be working together on keeping the floor clean. You can choose any of the four rows to write about and it won’t be taken for a grade. Instead, I’ll put some of the best examples of each row out on our bulletin board so all the other fourth graders can see them. If you have any questions, please let me know.” The moment Ms. Peters stopped talking, her classroom erupted in excited conversation. She couldn’t wait to see what her students would come up with.
Modifying this strategy to meet the needs of a diverse classroom is rather intuitive. Simplifying or adding layers of difficulty can be done within each of the four sections of RAFT. For example, format options can include something as basic as a text message or to-do list. The roles can include yourself for those that might have difficulty taking another viewpoint or something as difficult as an inanimate object for those up to a challenge. Most students, if asked to name the audience of traditional writing tasks, will name their teacher or their class, two choices that can be included in the options. For a challenge, the audience can be something very specific, such as a certain political faction or a historian from a bygone era. Likewise, the topic choices can be generic, such as friends are important, or specific, such as state sales tax should not apply to internet sales.
Another method of altering this is mandating one of the categories, such as the topic or format, and allowing students the opportunity to select the rest of the options. If the class is studying a certain subject, like the water cycle, that could serve as the topic for all students. The projects would be differentiated, however, by allowing them to choose from various roles, audiences, and/or formats. Likewise, if argumentative writing is the focus of the unit, then a persuasive essay could serve as the mandated format while students varied their choices of role, audience, and/or topic.
Teachers can also design their RAFTs to serve a specific instructional purpose. If, for instance, their students were studying fractured fairy tales and examining how authors made specific choices to parody well-known stories, they could extend the unit with a RAFT. By carefully designing all of the options within the role, audience, format, and topic sections, they could provide a framework for students to write their own versions of a popular story such as Little Red Riding Hood. The choices could either be freely chosen within each section or various roles, audiences, formats, and topics could already be tied together for students to choose from.
Modifying This For Virtual Learning
For many students, the joy of picking the RAFT options will be the best part of the task. To add a little spice to it, you can make it completely random. One of many ways to do this would be to create a Google Doc (see sample) that has the options linked in the table. Each link would go to a random generator, like WheelofNames.com, that students can use to randomly select the parts of RAFT.
With digital learning comes many new format options. In addition to the traditional formats that are mainly writing based, you can now add multimedia format options. You can have students create a blog post for your classroom webpage, make a meme or animated gif, or even record a podcast and upload to your digital classroom.