Steve Vosloo
Steve Vosloo

Fan fiction: Improving youth literacy

For many fans of Harry Potter, the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, does not signify the end of the story. There are thousands of young people who write their own additions to, subplots within, and alternative endings or continuations to the world of sorcery and Hogwarts. At the time of writing, there are 339 374 such works of fiction on Fanfiction.net, ranging in length from a few paragraphs to hundreds of pages.

One such story, Resolving a Misunderstanding, is a whopping 755 298 words long! Francisca Solar, a 23-year-old Chilean journalism student, was so disappointed with the fifth Harry Potter book that she wrote her own online version in Spanish, Decline of the High Elves, which drew rave reviews and generated 80 000 views (an English translation of the piece has started). She now has a five-book writing contract with publisher Random House. Solar told BBC: “All the things I know about literature, about writing, I learned in the fan-fiction world.”

So, what exactly is fan fiction — or “fanfic” to insiders? Wikipedia defines it as “fiction about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creators.” Fan fiction can be based on television shows, movies, books, music and video games. While fan fiction has been around for years (see Henry Jenkins’s 1992 seminal work Textual Poachers for a history of this phenomenon), the internet has provided a platform for fanfic communities to publish, read and critique each other’s work easily and quickly. Fanfiction.net is the most popular fanfic site, but many others exist around the world catering to popular and as well as niche works.

Rebecca W Black, assistant professor at the University of California’s Irvine School of Education, is a researcher of second-language acquisition and literacy who has taught English as a second language for years. She is also a long-time fanfic writer. She conducted research to explore why in her English class many of her students were reluctant to write even a one-page essay, and yet on fanfic sites there were adolescents voluntarily writing piece upon piece, while also reading and reviewing the fiction of others in the community. What made this space so compelling?

In her study, Black spent a year observing the behaviour of fans of the Japanese animation, or anime, series Card Captor Sakura on Fanfiction.net. She asked: In what ways does this site provide English-language learners with access to literacy learning in areas where many school-based programmes have not succeeded? The findings are fascinating.

Integral to the success of the site — 20 947 works on Card Captor Sakura have been authored — is the way it allows for social connections to develop between users. Fans create bio pages (with the usual likes and dislikes for music, video games, movies and so forth) where they list their favourite authors and stories on the Fanfiction.net site. This means fans who do not yet feel confident enough in their English or writing abilities to contribute fiction to the site can still meaningfully participate in the community by “favouriting” the work of others. Fans can establish themselves as legitimate members of the community before they actually author any works by reviewing the work of others.

An unofficial rule of the site is: I review your work, you review mine. (The long Harry Potter work linked above has had 1 831 reviews.) Black found the peer-review style to be one of constructive criticism, often involving assistance with culturally specific symbols, folklore and themes that appear in the anime, for example typical home and school practices in Japan. Sometimes “beta readers” proofread draft versions of the works. Beta readers are integral to the online fanfic community and comment on story elements such as plot, characterisation, grammar, spelling and adherence to genre.

Fanfic communities represent youths who self-organise and voluntarily engage in narrative writing, reviewing and metatalk about writing. Fanfic sites scaffold the development of these literacy skills.

So, what does this mean for the shockingly low literacy levels in South Africa? In a time where the youth apparently don’t read, fan fiction holds potential promise. All young people are ardent fans of something, whether it be of Harry Potter or Kaizer Chiefs. And that is the key attractor to fanfic communities, which straddle age groups, gender and socio-economic backgrounds.

Black quotes a number of sources that show how technologically mediated literate activities (such as emailing, chatting, gaming and publishing to the web) provide English-language learners with the “freedom to use and practise English with native speakers, develop an ‘authorial voice’ and take on an identity as an English-language user”. The technologically mediated space not only enables young people who speak English well to co-habit comfortably with those who are still learning the language, but sees these groups actively engaging and supporting each other. Given the multilingual nature of South Africa’s population, where many people are not particularly strong in another language, Black’s research is relevant.

Fanfic supports informal learning. But what is the potential for formal educational settings? In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins describes the many challenges to harnessing the power of fanfic in the classroom. In his description of the Potter Wars, he also highlights the ongoing issue bedeviling fanfic creators everywhere: the accusation of copyright infringement by media owners.

While these challenges are being explored, educators should at least recognise the catalytic aspects of the informal, voluntary world of fan fiction and apply those to school-based literacy instruction. Firstly, the content is relevant. This is not to suggest that Shakespeare or Steinbeck should be done away with, but that other forms of literature should be included.

Secondly, Black explains that reading and writing are not discrete skills that can be learned independently of social interaction, or within a vertical subject area such as the English language. Instead, the learning of these skills is heavily embedded in specific social contexts. Fanfic sites support the intrinsic socialness of young people (think about the popularity of MySpace and Facebook) in the context of reading, writing and reviewing original fiction.

The networked fanfic community means that fans write for an audience — which generally improves writing quality — that is immediately responsive and sympathetic. This is a dramatic break from the classroom practice of writing for one person (a much older teacher) who takes a few days to review or mark the work.

As we look at ways to improve literacy skills in South Africa, I think we should definitely consider fanfic. Perhaps the first major foray into this phenomenon could be a Supa Strikas fandom?

  • John bond

    WOW!!! Amazing idea, well articulated Steve…

    This would make a huge difference to the learning challenged as well. How would I know?

    I failed three years at school and never got a matric. I was dyslexic, I was dyspraxic (very uncoordinated), I was stupid, and I was probably also an undiagnosed ADHD. I’d always been fascinated (mesmerised may be a better word) by mechanical things and I wanted to know more about 2 stroke engines (the 1st book I read), epicyclic gearboxes, Lanchester torque converters, helicopters, etc so about 6 years after I left school, I found a remedial teacher who was prepared to have a second go at teaching me to read. What material do you think he used?

    It was initially embarrassing for me, a 24 year old to sit at the little desks among kids aged between seven and twelve. On one occasion, a nine year old watched me read, then read the same page I had and asked me why I read so slow.

    In time, my reading and comprehension skill improved from 140 WPM at Grade 4 level to 480 words at grade 12 level. More important though is that this teacher taught me to scan so I can get the gist of a 10 000 word document in less than 10 minutes (and I now have the VERY bad habit of scanning rather than reading!)

    I still couldn’t really write and my spelling was shall we say “very creative”. I went off to night school though and the people marking the scripts were warned that I was dyslexic so, provided the technical details were OK, they shouldn’t penalize me too much for my presentation. I started collecting qualifications. Boy, did I collect pieces of paper.

    In 1984, I met the IBM 8084 PC with word processor, spreadsheet and most important, spell check. I played with computers before this because I knew that eventually they’d be my savoir but I didn’t anticipate the impact the IBM PC would have on me.

    Amusingly, In the late 1970s, I did an extensive battery of psychological and aptitude tests and one of the recommendations was that I SHOULD NOT WORK WITH COMPUTERS. That same negative recommendation has come up in two subsequent sets of tests.

    I can’t live without my computers

    I eventually went to university (at night). At 47 I became the SRC Rep and had the childhood I’d never had at school. The poor young profesors and lecturers often had to reprimand “the old guy” in the back row. I was granted the “Golden keys” award and a bursary as a promising YOUNG student. This was a mistake but once awarded in front of a thousand students, the university couldn’t exactly take it back. I ended up with a Masters Degree.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t learn to read fiction. My next goal is to read two novels a month. I’m finding it tedious because of the different structure and lack of a stream of facts.

    The moral in both your article and my odd story is that if you can show the student something he wants, but the only way he can get it is through learning. Guess what? He LEARNS (in capital letters).

  • owen

    Very interesting. I have found that my spelling and grammar have improved by just posting my ideas on TL. So there is a lot of merit in what you say.

  • http://southafricanchoirgirl.blogspot.com SAChoirgirl

    This is so cool! When I was working as a tutor at the Wits School of Arts 3 years ago, I got a group of struggling students writing using JAG fanfic. It was an amazingly rewarding experience, to see these shy young girls come out of their shells, and get really excited about something. And the difference it made to their work was incredible. I put forward a proposal for a writing course, with this strategy as a major component, the following year, but the department was kind of chaotic at the time, and the suggestion was never implemented. Based on this study, though, I’m going to put the proposal in here at NYU, where I now teach. This could be fun!

  • http://www.maggie.co.za Maggie

    Please, when are we going to convince teachers that they ahve to engage new technologies in order to get onto their learner’s wavelenght?

    We talk about catering for different learning styles and inclusive education, but we carry on teaching in the same old way…John’s story is very inspirational and hopefully as teachers we will start sit up and take notice. There are many of us with the same problem.

    Thanks for showing us this new tool for learning Steve!

  • katie

    The problem with this idea is that a lot of fanfic writers can’t write either. The usage of English on the internet, even by native speakers, can be so bad it amounts to nothing but gibberish. Some of the writers are quite young, and many of them care far more about the social side of fanfic (meeting people, getting approving comments) than improving their writing.

    Secondly, fanfic is self-selecting. People are in online fanfic communities because they already like to read and write. Someone who does not like reading and writing would probably not like fanfiction either.

    Because anyone can post just about anything on the internet, a substantial proportion of fanfic is very overtly sexual and/or violent (often to the point where it is pornographic). Do you really want to bring this into the classroom?

    Don’t get me wrong, I think fanfiction could be a very good learning tool, but many articles on fanfic either only represent the bad side for sensational value or gloss over fanfic’s problematic parts entirely. I can see why you haven’t mentioned the bad quality/completely unrestricted content part up front as that would drive people away before they had even considered the idea, but it does need to be taken into consideration.

    To better facilitate learning, you could set up a school intranet, maybe with participation from another school from an english-speaking country, and host the fanfic on school servers, rather than letting your students out into the wilds of the internet. The core of this idea, which is to get students to write about something they are interested in and make it socially rewarding for them, is a good one.

  • John Bond

    Hi Katie

    I’d read about the first three words in your post and I immediately thought “Oh God! Another teacher, another soul crushing ‘I KNOW better than you’ and my hear sank, sank sang…

    You know that my story isn’t so unique. I meet “damaged property” almost every day. We were all beaten, scolded and belittled by the all knowing super class.

    Guys – Its time to admit that, for a significant part of our kids, the education just isn’t working adequately. We need to do something different and I know this system has merit because I’ve done something similar. Yes there are sexual overtones but believe it or not, learning about the other sex is part of growing up. It also makes the interaction exciting and the participants try harder so they can impress.

    Oh, but what the heck do I know about education? I was just that absolutely dumb, stupid, shambling kid who deliberately walked into the desks and knocked things over. It’s a strange revelation to sit here knowing that today I am much more capable and qualified than those cruel bastards (well maybe bastards isn’t a strong enough word but I don’t want Thought Leader to delete my post). I got my education outside the traditional system after it (and the teachers) had failed me and it’s a pretty good education too mind you, so when I say it’s time to try something different for those that education is failing, I can speak with authority.

    LONG LIVE THE INTERNET (and facebook and Mixit and all those other terrible new pastimes)

  • John Bond

    After sending my second reply, I felt I’d been much too harsh on poor Katie (See above). Schools must be about academic excellence, but that means somewhere between 5 and 30% of the students get left behind (Much more in black schools).

    Katie, I apologize…

  • http://www.fanfiction.net/~mishfics Mishka

    Great Article.

    I’m a big Harry Potter fan and have been reading fanfics for a while now. I’m also a member of Fanfiction.net – its a great site if you’re looking for ANY fanfic.

  • http://blog.adw.org/2010/08/satan-has-many-disguises/ adhd symptoms in adults

    Hi,I will be enrolling for my classes geared towards the Special Education Degree on Tuesday Nov. 1st. There are a couple different career paths that the college offers within Special Education:

  • Athena Chmelicek

    Nice post. I was watching continuously this site and I’m impressed! Extremely useful info especially the last part I care for such info much. I was looking for this specific information for a long time. Thank you and best of luck.