Free Writes

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32 thoughts on “Free Writes”

  1. I have total freedom. I teach grades 4-8 this year. No more writing. None.
    This is not to say that writing wouldn’t positively impact some kids.
    But I have to include at least 2 different formatted state mandated pre and post tests. 1 of those I chose was a “written narrative task.” I read a story once. 400 words. A story kids have never heard. They can jot notes as they listen. Kids then immediately do a 5 minute speed rewrite/summary of the story they heard. I did this with 2 different stories – different leveled stories, different speech rate. That way, my upper-end kids would be challenged and also be able to show growth.
    Note: This makes the writing predicated on input. And an unrehearsed, unfamiliar story. This is a harder task than a speed rewrite of a familiar story, but more indicative of proficiency.
    Guess what? My kids can still write!!! A glance at my 7th graders’ writing shows an average length of about 75 words. I’m tempted to think including regular speed writes would not improve the writing on this task. Maybe there would be a “practice effect” – familiarity and confidence with the task and some go-to story writing phrases. So more regular speed writes would give the appearance of more proficiency.

    1. Eric what do you think is the best way to assess what they understand? Not output based assessment but an assessment of how much of the input they understand?

      1. Do you mean assessing comprehension skills in general? Or comprehension of something specific (specific vocabulary or grammar?)
        Do you want to measure comprehension proficiency (unfamiliar) or performance (familiar)?
        Do you want to measure speed (an aspect of fluency) of comprehension?
        What content (real-life?) and style (narrative?) do you want to check that they understand?
        I think writing summaries in English or filling out some type of summary graphic organizer in English or answering global (main ideas) comprehension questions would work fine.

  2. Based on my experiments with high schoolers and now middle schoolers , I have found that timed writings earlier have been more beneficial for teaching for proficiency or performance or whatever you want to call it.
    Students have the opportunity to see what they can do with the language and this allows for more purposeful interaction with class input. I have delayed writing in the past for several months and I was more impressed with results when I got them writing earlier rather than later.
    In a way, we actually lead students to think that the word count is what we are after but the reality is that each time we utilize timed writings, we are wanting for the quality of language to improve. I really could care less about the number, however, I am sometimes impressed with them.
    To me, using a free write coincides with what many SLA experts describe: they respects the internal syllabus or language acquisition mechanism of the learner. Writing allows for the learner to judge their own ability and think about the input needed to improve. Every student will see that they get stuck somewhere in their communication. How they interact with input after this realization is unique to every learner. For this reason I will always be an advocate for some writing (specifically timed writing) in language learning classes in schools.
    Free writes for me, for many years now, have also been a form of artifacts that DEFEND or JUSTIFY my classes that do not look like traditional school.

    1. I really could care less about the number, however, I am sometimes impressed with them….
      I was impressed today with a kid in French 2 who wrote 237 words in ten minutes. You are so right, Michael, they think it’s a competition. We trick them at every turn, really, while the CI combine keeps working at that deep level, out of their conscious awareness, where it belongs. Free writes are just a dredging up process.
      Here’s an idea for struggling teachers. (Who is not struggling right now? It’s been a long semester!)
      Start class with 10′ SSR.
      Process that with some translation and discussion and maybe some of the other killer steps of ROA if it is a block class. ROA makes a block class feel like it goes by in five minutes….
      Dictee the SSR – one paragraph, no more than 10′
      Finish out with a 10′ freewrite.
      Here’s a gem from what you said above, Michael:
      …free writes for me, for many years now, have also been a form of artifacts that DEFEND or JUSTIFY my classes that do not look like traditional school….
      Ah how wonderful – teachers who actually defend and illustrate what they do in the concrete world of outcomes. How refreshing!

      1. Wow…Ben, 237 in 10 minutes! This the kind of thing we need to be sharing with each other online. This helps us to see that it CAN be done.
        Traditional classes CANNOT do this. Students freak out when they have to write 50-75 words for a test. I have seen this firsthand with hundreds of students in non-TPRS classes.
        I love the term , “a dredging up process.”

      1. Angie,
        With struggling students do not reach the word count “standard,” I have them come outside of class to do another re-write. Before allowing this to happen I may give them another piece of reading or I send them a private link of me speaking in Spanish about the story retell.
        I think this is fair and in line with standards based grading.

        1. Maybe. It all depends on the “Standard.” The worst, but easiest thing to do is create 10 to 15 standards for language students to meet that requires any kind of practice. Boom, you’ve just turned your class into that skill-based language program Krashen just talked about at ACTFL.
          “Standards” are utterly misunderstood in education. When done wrong you end up with the same problems packaged differently, and have lost hours of time creating them.
          IMHO, use as few “Standards” as your school will allow.

  3. Here is some interesting field research (the kind that doesn’t really count, right?) –
    One of my classes needed a little time with some worksheets. (One kid, whom I have mentioned here before, had got them thinking that and it spread, a kind of “movement”. Instead of fighting it, I gave them the worksheets.) After three classes they of course had had enough of filling in blanks (lost time about 200 instructional minutes but in the scheme of 10,000 hours needed no big loss) and were ready to get back to some real learning of French. So I had them do a free write. Every single kid’s bar graph went down from the previous write. I asked them why they think that may have happened. They had to admit that the worksheets provided them with no new words to use in their writes. They were pissed. I smiled. The bell rang. Point scored for CI.

  4. I have always been impressed by the way insisting that we are only interested in content and word count, that mistakes don’t count, frees students to focus on content and, as if by magic, the quality of their writing improves. When they stop worrying about grammar, the grammar takes care of itself.

    1. Score Ben!
      Judy, wasn’t it you whom Krashen quoted in his TPRS paper last summer, regarding timed writes and their function as a celebratory and demonstrative experience for new acquirers? I think that’s the coolest part about timed writes. But I don’t like doing them in the first 40 hours nor too often.
      Timed writes, which I have kids do on special lined paper every month or two, I keep and file away. I then photocopy all their timed writes and give them to them when they graduate. I think this is important for the kids who will go off to study language in college with a traditional approach. One of these days I’ll go back and review them and see how my teaching has changed over the last five years since I started doing this. (sorry I’ve never sent any in to #showumine Mike and Chris, too lazy to scan and send… maybe soon!)

  5. Blaine told me once of his interest in a study comparing TPRS with Speed Writes vs. TPRS without Speed Writes. . . that could be insightful. In that case, the measurement tool could NOT be “rewrite any story you want” but would have to be based on comprehension of a never-before-seen story. And in addition to length, it’d be nice to include measures of accuracy and complexity.

  6. This year I decided against establishing a “standard” for number of words. Instead, I established a baseline for each student after a few timed writes early in the year. So, a student who wrote 20 words, would have to write 25 words after a week or two. If a student wrote 50 words the next week, they would still only have to write 30 words the next week. I also award tickets for the students with the top 3 word counts per class. On Fridays I draw tickets. The students who have their ticket drawn get to choose a piece of candy.
    I look forward to reading what my students write. I also look for common errors (i.e. “Me llamo es…” or “Yo le gusta” which I can try to correct the following week.
    By the way, this blog has kept me sane and given me great ideas over the past 2 and a half years. I thank everyone in this community for helping me become a better teacher.

    1. What I do with free writes is admire what they write. If a first year kid writes ten words one day and 11 the next, I admire that. I don’t try to find error patterns. I don’t rightly think that the student cares that much. I don’t either. I’m just trying to get through my day. When spring parent conferences roll around, I’ll have an artifact to look at. Since CI works so well, every kid will have bar graphs that go up. I will admire the bar graph and tell the parents how smart their child is. But I won’t care much about it. In my experience, school buildings are littered with the ghosts of teachers who cared too much and tried too hard.

  7. BVP has been saying this (taken from Chomsky) and it is also the way I function: have a theory about the nature of language, have a theory about how language is acquired, and have a theory about how language is used.
    E.g. language: Universal Grammar, acquisition & use: comprehended input*
    *Fluency (speed and accuracy) of language use MAY be aided by practice – practice at accessing and using what has already been acquired.
    That is the lens through which I evaluate any classroom practice. Therefore, if my perspective is that of the example above, then writing isn’t doing anything to directly further acquisition.
    What “result” does speed writing represent? . . . the pitfall of the acquisition/learning distinction is measuring it – output does not tell us whether it comes from an acquired or a learned system. Monitor-free conditions (time pressure and more open communication) may encourage more reliance on the acquired system, but that’s still up to interpretation. At least speed writes are a better way to tap into what has been acquired compared to traditional assessments.
    I’m not ready to claim that a speed write encourages students to attend more to input in class. As Krashen told me before – he doesn’t want to have students focusing more on the language. Remember, he’s all about focusing on the message. But yes, knowing that you will have to DO something with the input MAY increase attention to the message for students that care.

    1. With our recent access to hearing “our” SLA experts speak, we are getting little nuggets of valuable information. Krashen did say that TPRS is better than the Natural Approach. I think it is important when discussing SLA to keep in mind practicalities for classroom teaching.
      One of the standard practices of TPRS has been the use of timed writings. It is ONE of the ways to tap into what students have internalized an in turn can use. Let’s not forget that we are not just teaching language in schools we are teaching skills like listening, reading, writing, and speaking.
      I encourage anyone to experiment with the frequency of using timed writing activities. I have done my own experiments, and with the students I teach, using writing has been more beneficial overall than not using writing. Like Eric mentioned, they attend better to the input because they know eventually that they will have to do something with it. Without this variable (of doing something with the input) classroom behavior and management can get out of hand (in my experience).
      Because they have writing to do one day… they ask questions, participate, interact, try, and show up to class. Would most teenagers our adults do something with little or no objective/incentive?
      In the world of JUST acquiring a language…timed writings are ridiculous. I doubt that immigrants that go to a new country would advocate for such a thing. Immigrants in a new country are not my clientele…students in a classroom with about 150 hours of comprehensible immersion are.
      It is also important to quantify timed writings. IF we are teaching in 180 day school schedule we have about 10,000 minutes of class. How many 5-minute writings do we do in a year maybe 10….that is a total of 50 minutes devoted to what we are doing. This is not super significant amount of time on one activity…

      1. Classroom (FL) acquisition won’t happen any different from in-country (SL) acquisition. Context won’t change HOW acquisition happens. Same internal process and mechanisms.
        So we do some things that the classroom may demand. Not that acquisition demands. I’m not against speed writes for the many positive reasons people have listed.
        When Krashen says that TPRS is better than Natural Approach (NA) he means that TPRS is more compelling. Try to define NA. Not even sure Krashen can, since he has used the terms “approach” and “method” interchangeably. An “approach” is a list of principles to teach by, in this case aligned with Krashen theory (called “Monitor Theory btw). It is NOT a method. That definition/interpretation of NA is synonymous with TCI. TPRS is 1 method within that approach. I would not compare NA with TPRS. Apples and oranges – approaches and methods.
        Ideally, the communicative event, the story being created, should be motivation enough. The kids for whom that is not true are most likely the same ones that aren’t going to be motivated by an accountability measure.
        Good point about it not being much time anyway. A drop of a drop in the scheme of things.

        1. “TPRS is one method within “the Natural Approach”
          Astute observation, Eric.
          This from “The Natural Approach” (SK and Tracy Terrell): “The core of the NA classroom is a series of acquisition activities. By activity we mean a broad range of events which have a purpose other than conscious grammar practice.” The word “activity” is chosen to contrast with “audiolingual drills” and “cognitive learning exercises.” They continue, “For acquisition to take place the topics used in each activity must be intrinsically interesting or meaningful so that the students’ attention is focused on the content of the utterances instead of the form.”
          The NA did not suggest a method, but rather evaluated activities on the basis of needing to be both 1) interesting/relevant and 2) meaningful/comprehensible.
          Blaine provides form and direction for the language teacher to learn the skills/attitudes necessary to employ the NA. His true genius is in bringing this all together through story-building and personalization.
          As an interesting aside, the following is from the Preface: “It [the NA] is for beginners and is designed to help them become intermediates.” That is, by supplying CI, “to bring the student to the point where he or she can understand language outside the classroom.”

  8. Two reasons I value free writes:
    – The students feel a sense of accomplishment. They realize that they know more language than they did last time. (I have them write once a month.)
    – I can edit and use their writing as something for us to read. They really enjoy having their writing chosen, and their classmates like reading it. I had a junior ask me when we’d do that after their last writing time. Sounds like it’s more compelling than what I write for them, at least most of the time.

  9. I agree with the notion that, in schools, we have to have frequent paper accountability for students. This gives them something tangible to work toward and to demonstrate and receive credit for. That’s how the system works, and kids won’t take our practices seriously without these. Timed writes, true/false quizzes, dictee, in-class written translations, drawings, etc. All of these encourage students, in various ways, to stay tuned in and open to the CI we are delivering. And then we have that paper trail which empowers us by giving us evidence of student progress or lack thereof, to show to admins and parents.

  10. I’ve got a free write question…what do folks do when students stick English words in where they are missing the TL word? Sometimes they put it in parentheses, sometimes not. It’s not happening in every free write by any means, but some students use this technique. Also in their speaking output I have noticed this as they build proficiency. Should I discourage it? The example in front of me right now looks like this: “Jane es hambre por donas de chocolate. Jane (buys) dos de las donas y camina a su casa. En su casa, Jane come un dona y es emocionada porque el dona es muy deliciosa. Perro antes de Jane (is able to) come el dona dos, su amiga (calls) ella en la telephono”…..etc….

  11. I have tons of those Angie. I don’t do anything. I just read what they write and try to make little encouraging comments / questions specific to what they wrote. Or at least smiley faces, etc. I may or may not recast what they wrote…depends on context and kid. Things they put in English like that give me hints on what structures I might include next week, esp if high frequency and high interest to the kids. Mostly I am not paying attention to structures, targeting, ete.
    Personally I would not advocate for “discouraging” anything when it comes to writing. Most kids fear writing, think they are bad at it, etc. I want them to feel free to share something on the page. I want it to be fun and I want them to want to write.

    1. “Things they put in English like that give me hints on what structures I might include next week”
      Great idea for figuring out what words could be high-interest to learn. Thanks!

  12. Don’t let them write English words. Use these rules. Put them up in your classrooms:
    Free Write Rules
    o Write without stopping for 10 minutes.
    o No English words in the story except for names.
    o Keep the sentences and story line simple.
    o Get your story idea ahead of time.
    o Use lists if you have them.
    o Use words that you already know.
    o If you don’t know a word, don’t use it.
    o Use as many adjectives as possible.
    o Spell as accurately as you can and then move on.
    o Add another character when you get stuck.
    o Use posters from the room as help.
    o Illogical stories are o.k.

    1. Don’t know how this will strike you, Ben, but in addition to the rules you laid out there that I have been using for years, I tell my kids I want them to “bail out” on a sentence they started if they can’t continue it with anything they know in L2. I told them just put a big black slash there and start a new sentence and “hear” it in their heads before they write it, to make sure it is stuff they know how to say.
      Also, I tell them that another “bail out move” (a term I stole form you here on the blog) is to put in a proper name (so “Twinkies” instead of “snack” or “WSMS” instead of “the school”).
      I feel that it is important to not let them put any English in there because some kids will just stretch it to the point where they write 75% in English. For example:
      Hay una chica. Se llama Maire. Maire quiere (to buy) (a present) para (her) amigo. Her amigo’s nombre es Mark. Mark es un chico (really hungry) (all the time). (So) Maier quiere (to buy) (him) chocolate.
      I know they will write like that ’cause I have kids that write like that EVEN WITH these rules. I have to help them figure out how to write with very limited vocab. This is first year.
      Another thing I do with them is I will let them list over on the margins of the paper two or three words they didn’t know, did not use in the story, but WANTED to know. So that I can have a mine of high-interest things they want to learn, to try to use in class in the future.

    2. I always remind my students to add extra characters (like you said) and dialogue. With every character there is an opportunity for more description, details, and dialogue. I also remind them (like I learned for my own story creating at NTPRS) to include a problem and more than one location. This also allows for more details as they will want to describe what happens at the new location.

  13. Jen said:
    …I want it to be fun and I want them to want to write….
    The way this happens is when they make that little bar graph on the inside of their composition books where they do all their free writes. When those graphs keep going up as a result of the SSR reading and the constant reading of the stories they create, it becomes fun for them. They want to write more and more. The LOVE telling me how many words they wrote that day and I LOVE telling them how unique and special they are, always adding in for kids who write less words that it’s never about comparing themselves to others.
    I will post those rules in case anyone missed them and doesn’t use them yet. It’s an important poster and one of the few that I allow on my walls these days.

  14. I came up with a line that I like to use during free writes now. I tell them that this does not have to be perfect Spanish, this has to be YOUR Spanish. Show me and show yourself what YOUR Spanish looks like at this point. It felt good saying that to the students.

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