The University of Iowa

Student Journalism Provides Literacy Learning and Motivation to Write

Students interview source at journalism conference

Through student journalism, some teens find an ideal outlet to learn and practice writing skills, and they may deepen their involvement by attending conferences like this Iowa High School Press Association Fall Conference in 2017 (photo courtesy IHSPA).


Sean Thompson

Communications Specialist, Iowa Reading Research Center

Posted on: March 20, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on student journalism and literacy learning.

High school students have many extracurricular activities from which to choose. These opportunities allow students to explore and discover their interests, make friends, and work on improving their skills, whether they are becoming a better hitter on the volleyball court or expanding their vocal range in chorus. Elective classes can also provide similar opportunities. Of all these available avenues, participation in student journalism offers unique and beneficial ways for students to improve and enhance their literacy skills.

Student News Gatherers and Literacy Learners

High school journalists are reporters, writers, and editors for school newspapers, websites, yearbooks, and audio and video broadcast mediums. They generate story ideas, conduct research on the topic about which they will be writing, and think of probing questions to ask sources during interviews. After the reporting process is complete, they write various types of articles, including: general interest news, breaking news, feature and human interest stories, sports stories, editorials, columns, and reviews. They proofread, edit, and revise their own work, and if they are editors, they lead this process for other reporters, too. Finally, they publish their finished articles to be read, seen, or heard by an authentic audience. These processes are filled with literacy learning opportunities, and student journalists are receiving explicit instruction from a teacher and peer mentoring throughout.

High school journalism is commonly taught using a hybrid approach, combining both elective and extracurricular opportunities. Introductory journalism, newspaper, and yearbook classes are often available as electives. And, when you register for newspaper or yearbook, you are also in effect signing up for an extracurricular activity because reporting, writing, editing, and staff meetings often take place outside of class. In this way, participation in high school journalism functions as a strong addition to standard literacy instruction provided in language arts classes. The National Council of Teachers of English (2004) recognizes journalism as “a vital part of the discipline of English” (Related Information section, para. 1). Journalism and English Teacher at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids and current Iowa High School Press Association President Kyle Phillips agrees.

“The skills [learned through journalism], both in language arts and communication, are some of the most valuable students can gain during their time in high school,” Phillips said (personal communication, November 12, 2017).

Writing Motivation Inherent in Journalism – Creatively Writing About What Interests Them

Writing is the most obvious core literacy skill that student journalists use and improve upon. Students themselves see writing as a valuable skill to have. According to a study of writing, technology, and teens from Pew Research Center, 86% of teens surveyed believed good writing was important to success in life (Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith, & MacGill, 2008). Provided this acknowledgment of the importance of writing, students can be encouraged to write by certain motivating factors identified in the Pew study. Journalistic writing contains many of these motivational entry points for young writers.

Teens in a focus group from the Pew study said they were motivated to write when they could select topics that were relevant to their lives and interests (Lenhart et al., 2008). Many of the topics student journalists write about are directly and uniquely relevant to their lives. Whether it is a change in school policy or an aspect of youth culture, student journalists get to write about things that matter to them and their peers. They also have many opportunities to generate story ideas on topics they like.

Teens in the same Pew study said they enjoyed writing more when they could do so creatively (Lenhart et al., 2008). But other research shows only 17.6% of high school writing assignments called for writing a paragraph or more (Applebee & Langer, 2011), and most assignments did not involve personalization or composition (Gillespie, Graham, Kiuhara, & Herbert, 2013). With journalistic writing, students have the opportunity that is missing elsewhere to expand, stretch, and write creatively. Although news articles typically follow a consistent inverted pyramid structure (i.e., start with the most important and pertinent information at the top of the article), the best news and feature articles often include vivid descriptions, captivating narrative writing, and even use of first-person writing. These approaches not only serve to stir creative thinking but are also more challenging for young writers. This addresses another motivational factor cited in the Pew study: Teens surveyed said they thrived on writing challenges (Lenhart et al., 2008).

A coupling of in-school and out-of-school factors may account for another aspect of student journalistic writing that could be described as inherently motivating. Almost half of the students surveyed preferred to write outside of class, according to Pew, compared to just 17% of teens who said they enjoyed writing for school (Lenhart et al., 2008). One interpretation of these survey results is that students have a sense of apathy for traditionally-assigned writing that is most often short (only 7.7% of classroom time is spent writing a paragraph or more in high school [Applebee & Langer, 2011]), and extracurricular writing (like journalistic writing) tends to be more creative and interest-driven.

Writing for an Authentic Audience

When a student journalist writes an article that will be published and distributed, they are doing so with the knowledge that it will be read by a number of potential authentic audiences. This includes fellow students (peers), parents, and other adults in the community. If the piece also is published online, those same audiences will have access to it, as will a potentially endless universe of people on the web. Phillips says writing about topics in which they are interested for audiences beyond the teacher gives students more ownership of their writing, and this often results in their best effort (personal communication, November 12, 2017). The National Council of Teachers of English (2004) praises journalistic publications for providing students an authentic manner by which to publish their writing, which the council says is “an essential part of the writing process” (Background section, para. 6). The Iowa Core similarly requires students to write for a range of audiences (Iowa State Board of Education, 2017).

Writing for an authentic audience helps writers put together their thoughts and frame their writing, according to a study by Alecia Magnifico (2010). With journalistic writing specifically, thinking of the reader compels the writer to consider what facts, quotes, and perspectives should be included in order for the reader to fully understand and make sense of the topic at hand.

Magnifico refers to publishing student work on the web as a motivational pedagogical opening, in part because of the potential for direct interaction with the reader. The possibility that commenters and emailers may respond directly to what a student writes and provide an opportunity for interaction may motivate student journalists to write and may let them “see themselves as writers in ways that would be near impossible in a traditional classroom with traditional assignments” (Magnifico, 2010, p. 69). Furthermore, Magnifico describes students who write for the web in online message boards, fanfiction websites, and blogs acting as fuller participants in their writing. They are choosing to write about topics that interest them, interacting with audiences, and taking risks. Student journalists get all of these benefits from writing articles for the web, but they also get the benefit of instruction from their journalism advisor while doing so!

The authenticity of student journalism does not end with the authentic audience. The entire process is authentic. Student newsrooms act in large part the same way as professional newsrooms. Editors and the instructor are providing detailed and constructive feedback about their reporters’ writing. Reporters are using the same tools and processes as professional reporters to write their articles. Stories are accompanied by photographs and graphics, newspaper or yearbook pages are paginated by student graphic designers, and the whole process results in a tangible product. Everyone involved is engaged in writing and trying to put out a quality product for an audience, which Magnifico suggests tends to motivate students to achieve that goal. Student newsrooms are perfect examples of “active writing communities beyond their classrooms” (Magnifico, 2010, p. 178).

“Journalism provides students a chance to create something that they have ownership of and build on that,” Phillips said (personal communication, November 12, 2017). “If students feel that they have created the assignment from top to bottom, they will be more invested in seeing it succeed, which will drive a thirst for learning and improvement.”

These largely motivational factors are fantastic reasons why involvement in high school journalism may be beneficial for certain students. Student scribes who are looking for more opportunities to practice their craft might jump at the chance to get involved. Alternatively, students who lack motivation for other writing assignments may enjoy expressing their love for basketball or hip-hop through music reviews. These students may thrive as sports writers or music reviewers. Fortunately, high school journalism offers more than writing motivation. Check back for the final post of this two-part series and read about the instruction, increased college readiness, and engagement in citizenship that student journalism can offer.


Applebee, N., & Langer, J. A. (2011). EJ Extra: A snapshot of writing instruction in middle schools and high schools. The English Journal, 100(6), 14-27. Retrieved from

Gillespie, A., Graham, S., Kiuhara, S., & Hebert, M. (2014). High school teachers use of writing to support students’ learning: A national survey. Reading and Writing, 27, 1043-1072. doi:10.1007/s11145-013-9494-8

Iowa State Board of Education. (2017). Iowa Core. Retrieved from

Lenhart, A., Arafeh, S., Smith, A., & MacGill, A. (2008, April 24). Writing, technology and teens. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from

Magnifico, A. M. (2010). Writing for whom? Cognition, motivation, and a writer's audience. Educational Psychologist, 45, 167-184. doi:10.1080/00461520.2010.493470

National Council of Teachers of English. (2004, November 20). Resolution on the importance of journalism courses and programs in English curricula. Indianapolis, IN: National Council of Teachers of English, 21st Century Literacies, Curriculum, Writing. Retrieved from

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