Free Writes

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36 thoughts on “Free Writes”

    1. SraClimie, Robert Harrell shared with us some months ago the idea of doing this kind of time-structured Free Write. It’s worked well for me. I see good ideas get around!

  1. I tell students course goals at start of year: by end of year, write 100 logical words in 5 min and write a 500-word story in 30 min

    I started freewrites about 4 weeks in with beginners. Blaine’s system was pretty good– you add 40 marks to their first count. Most will write 20-50 words so their “mark” is 60-100. You don’t mark for accuracy bla bla, just word number. I tell them, no lists, and write about whatever. Some will write a few sentences from a story, or describe themselves, etc.

    As the year goes on, you lower the bonus–30,20,10– and eventually they will be able to write 100 no prob. My beginners topped out at 100-130. The writing quality goes up too with time.

    The aim: see what they can unsconsciously do. No rehearsals, editing, etc…just straight flat-out writing. I make them keep track of their word count and it’s cool for them to see their #s go up every 2 weeks. As Ben said alsongood for adminz headz parents etc.

    1. Chris,

      Do you have a word count for level 2? I like the 100 word goal for level 1, but don’t know by how much that should increase by level 2? Any idea? Thanks!

      1. I think it was Blaine who said that native speakers should be able to write 100 words in 5 min. No change for me for level 2 etc.

        For level 2s, I’ll expect 1000 words in 40 min at final, and I will obviously be looking for language that’s

        (a) better on the basics– stuff like verb tenses

        (b) more complex.

        1. I casually told students during their semester final free write that I was also looking at a “range of vocabulary”, which is a term I picked up from the International Baccalaureate assessment criteria. But I only said this to students who pestered me about how they were being graded. When you say “more complex”, Chris, I take it you mean the same thing.

          1. Ya pretty much. If I get a story that’s just “had…wanted…went to…got” (from level 2s) it’s worth less than if I get that from level 1s.

  2. When I do free writes, I post it as an assignment that does not count toward their average. That way, they see the total and they can see progress over time. After a few free writes, I will assign a real grade based on improvement.

  3. I use the 10 min period and I will help those who need a hand having them think about one of our stories and use it as a template. I give the kids a class work grade for free writes. I don’t want them to stress over the free writes. They should be fun. I have the kids trade papers for a “sit back and relax, enjoy the masterpiece that your classmate has writing especially for you” time. They end up reading about 3 or 4 students’ papers. They love to talk with each other about the free writes as class dismisses. I don’t do any correcting because I feel it’s a waste of time and it puts pressure on the students for something that should be fun, a pay off for living the CI dream. I just remembered the papers I used to correct in the old life. Every year I knew the mistakes before I read a paper. Same ones over and over. Frustrating! I wanted to try something different by not correcting papers and just look over the free writes as the year went on to see if the reading of stories and novels does the correcting for me. It does. I compared what my kids wrote to the tradish kids of the past and present. There is not a big difference. A funny thing is the traditional kids get the writing topic ahead of time, go home and prepare for it and still make errors. I’m not looking for perfection just honesty.

    1. I used to have kids write – like 6 sentences – and it took 2 days in class to do it. Now they write in 10 minutes (without any help but occasionally spelling – because input in Chinese requires accurate spelling) more than they could in 2 days of class (requiring way too much help).

    2. Hayne, I’m glad you mentioned that you allow time for students to read each other’s free writes. I remember a few months ago when I brought up this idea on the PLC and got some great feedback about being careful with this kind of activity because when students read their peers’ writing, they most definitely are reading through some funky grammar and might confuse them. I decided to let the idea go. But since you brought it up, I’m thinking of trying again. Why not? Some funky grammar every so often can’t hurt, right? Students do like reading each other’s work. No doubt about that.

  4. Free Writes are in line with Swain’s Output Hypothesis. It gives students an opportunity to use language, realize a gap in what they want to say and what they can say, hopefully increasing their motivation to pay attention to new structures and vocabulary, thus leading to more acquisition.

    Food for thought.


    1. I have asked students at the end of the year what helps them acquire words the most and many of them said the free writes . When they can use the words in context ,they have acquired it and it continues to stick.

  5. “What is crucial about free writes is that they not be graded or looked upon in any kind of assessment way.”

    I have to admit that I do give them a 1-4 assessment on the fws-and mostly just look at the # of words. Does anyone else give a grade for free writes? I’ve been thinking about doing them as a formative assessment and then once in awhile giving them a summative grade for a free write, but this might imply that they have to prepare, which I don’t want them to do.

    1. I feel that one of my groups needs to think that anything is for a grade to keep them going until the end of the time. But when I grade a free write, it’s for using the time until the end more than anything else.

    2. Mine are an end-of-the-semester grade. Each week they are recorded and put into the grade book, but it’s only the last one of the semester that counts.

      Spanish II/Spanish III
      150-160=3.0 (Meets Standards)

  6. This discussion about Free Writes gets me thinking about another “presentational mode of communication”: the one-on-one interview. This was a kind of summative assessment that the International Baccalaureate asks World Language teachers to do. Last year I tried doing two-on-one interviews (2 students and me) to save time. The problem is that we have so many students and so little time.

    Does anyone do these one-on-one interviews? (Forgive me if we’ve talked about this before) Thanks!

    1. In NY State we are still required, in Levels 1 and 3, to have 1 v 1 conversations for the final exam with every single students. In most areas, TWO conversations per student are required for Level 3. Because of the CC requirements, many are expected to also have these conversations as part of the pretest (yes, even for students in Level 1 who have never taken language:ridiculo!! sorry no accents) Because of THAT, many districts are required, in total, to give these interviews between 2 and 6 times throughout the year. It ain’t easy.

      They must be interviews, they must be 1 v 1. So there is really no ideal way to do them without losing time with other students unless they are all scheduled during free periods or after school. (a sure-fire way to high blood pressure, but many do it)

      There are actually other requirements that make it more ridiculous these days, but I’ll spare you those for the time being!!

      What I have found most helpful is, when possible, to engage the help of upper level students to work with the other students in small groups on reading or creating stories. The older students benefit, the younger students benefit, and I can focus a bit more on the students in the interviews.

      The second most effective situation is when the students are in the computer lab working on ANYTHING. (whatever your preference is) They are quite absorbed in whatever is going on on the screen, and I can keep a good eye on them and do the evaluations. This works particularly well if the computer-based activity involves sound and they can use their headphones/earbuds.

      with love,

      1. Thank you Laurie, for the insight on what is happening in NY state. I now understand that the one-on-one interview is required there, but I wonder, if you had the choice not to, would you still conduct them with your students?

        1. Hi Sean,

          The Level 1 students have to have 4 separate conversations. Each one requires four utterances by the student and 4 by the teacher. That means 16 student responses.

          The Level 3 students have to have 2 conversations. Each one requires 6 more complex utterances by the student and 6 by the teacher: 12 more complex responses.

          Technically, we are supposed to give students as long as they need to complete the assignment, but the majority of teachers do not do that. I find that it takes 15 minutes to 30 minutes with each student to do all of the conversation.

          Would I do it if I didn’t have to? Great question.

          In an absolutely ideal world: no.

          In the real world: only if the students really wanted to be able to have fake conversations about topics that they many never need to talk about in Spanish. :o)

          We work very hard in our program to talk to the kids as often as possible, about as many things as possible, in as many ways as possible in authentic (albeit not always “realistic”) situations anyway. These fake ones are pretty silly.

          Having said that, last year we were allowed to administer our own speaking tests, but not to grade them. (insert another long painful diatribe here…) As department chair, I either participated in, or observed and graded these conversations with every single student in the Spanish department. (Yep, over 400 students…..)

          It was one of the best professional experiences of my life. I got to see, firsthand, the relationships that my colleagues have built with their students and the language that has developed in those students as a result of those relationships. It was beautiful. There was a great deal of laughter and an amazing amount of language. Teachers were proud of their students and the students were very proud of themselves and wanted to show off their stuff. I didn’t want to do it, but boy was it worth it.

          It would have been even better if we had not had to use the regionally-provided topics, but I have to say that it was fun to watch the students use their creativity. My favorite was the student who had to return a meal because it was unsatisfactory. He returned the guinea pig because it wasn’t cooked enough. (It had jumped off of the plate and run away!!!)

          with love,

          1. Well, after reading your post, Laurie, I’m left wondering if a 5 min 1 v 1 interview would be enough time to get a sense of a student’s speaking (interacting and responding) skills. I really don’t see how I could do it if I give students more time than that.

            But, it kinda sounds like you personally don’t see the value in these interviews outside of the fact that students themselves value being able to show off what they know. Which kid wouldn’t like to get that one-on-one attention, right?!

          2. Exactly :o) Our contact time is so very limited. I truly believe that we can find these 1 v 1 moments before, during, just after class….or in the hallway, during study hall, after school etc. We do our students a disservice when we only interact with them in “story-asking” mode. Ideally, PQA has a series of 1 v 1 moments…but truly it is the talking to them 1 v 1 just before or after class that packs the biggest punch…

            with love,

          3. I get that feeling too, that “story asking mode” is just one context, but that we need to give students opportunities to apply the acquired structures in real-life contexts. . . a la “reports of the day” perhaps?? Maybe you spend 5 minutes with some realia or adapted realia (a menu, a hotel brochure, etc.) and do some CI . . . like the notional-functional approach.

          4. Sean, how about “SpeedTalks,” a Speed/QuickWrite, but in oral form. Students have 5 minutes to talk about a certain topic or tell the teacher a story. More presentational than interpersonal, but I imagine a good assessment of functional proficiency. Include in the grading rubric a measure of fluency (hesitation and pauses and duration). Something similar is done on the MA FL Teacher licensure test and AP Exam, i.e. I think the subject is given a topic and 1 minute to think, then 2 minutes to say as much as they can to talk about the topic. They are recorded. I think each teacher does 2 of these recorded topics. This could actually be done BY the students during class, without the teacher, if you show them how to record their voices on the computer. . .

  7. You mean Eric Herman or Eric Spindler? People can use my last name on this blog to distinguish between us.

    I have videos on my website. The first video is an interview of Honduran students. My Spanish classes fundraise to keep these kids in school. So this is different from what you’re talking about.

    But I’ve been contemplating your question for some time now: How to do the 1 v 1 speaking assessment. I would either limit the time to 5 minutes per student or even conduct the interview in front of the class and then the rest of the class gets some CI. It could be like putting a student in the “hot seat” during PQA or making them an “actor” in a story.

    1. Ah, yes. Eric Herman, I was referring to you. Thanks for picking up the line, sort of speak. I haven’t seen Eric Spindler comment on the blog for some time. Hopefully he’ll pop up again soon.

      Thanks for sharing about your fundraising too. It’s humbling to think about you doing such good work.

      I like your idea of doing the 1 v 1 as a “hot seat” activity. I wonder how to make that work while at the same time holding the rest of the students accountable for listening. While we sit and converse during the 1 v 1 we wouldn’t be able to check for comprehension with the whole class like we usually do. I think we’d have to ask students to write a response to the conversation, maybe asking them to write an interesting phrase or two that was used by the student in the “hot seat”. (Of course, we could always have students evaluate the “hot seat” student based on some 1 v 1 interview rubric, but my intuition keeps me from wanting students to evaluate each other.)

      I also think the 1 v 1 could be less than 3 minutes. I’m going to ask Laurie here how long she had to do these in NY.

      1. A Quizwriter can hold students accountable. Plus, you can always interrupt the interview to report to the class, like you do during PQA/Story, e.g. “Class, Jessica plays soccer!” and even circle with the class something the interviewee said. . . I wonder if it could be effective to spend 5 minutes interviewing 1 person every day. In this way, you are constantly recycling the same questions, while building to more complex interviews as the responses become more automatic. If the goal were CI, then the teacher should model an answer, then ask the interviewee, and differentiate the question as needed. In our work, the more the teacher speaks the better!

        I have the same question Sean, about interviewing. We are piloting the NYS SLP Exam for our 8th graders to serve as our District Determined Measure (to be used as pre- and post-test). I want to minimize time away from CI delivery so I would like to limit oral interviews to 5 minutes if they are to happen during class. Otherwise, I’ll have to spend some class periods with the kids doing SSR or watching some CI-friendly videos, while I interview in the back.

  8. You might be interested to know that France has made oral interviews mandatory for the baccalaureate. Days are set aside for language teachers to do the one on one interviews while their classes are cancelled and teachers are not allowed to interview their own students. Students are shown a picture or a short phrase at random and must talk about it for 5 minutes and then engage the interviewer in a conversation about it.

      1. These are Terminale students who are taking the baccalaureate exam. They have had from six to eight years of English, mostly traditional methods, so the majority find an oral interview quite daunting. Sad, isn’t it?

  9. This is some great information about free-writes. What should my goal be for Spanish IV students doing a free write? They are new to TPRS this year.


    1. I would not ask upper level kids who have not been trained using comprehensible input to do free writes. All the learning they have ever done of the language has been in a cage, so neurologically they don’t have the rich bed of fertile and moving language that characterizes the deeper minds of children trained with lots of comprehensible input. Give those kids some time. (Some would argue that they can write. I would say not. It’s not authentic. It’s fake writing, contrived. Writing based on misapplication, usually, of poorly learned rules. Screw that.) The only students who can honestly respond to a free write are students trained with lots of comprehensible input in the form of listening and reading. And even then I personally don’t ask for any free writes in level one classes until late in the fall at the earliest. Want some proof? Ask any teacher who has done 90%+ CI during the year to describe what they kids can do in writing in the spring. They will smile and show you some sample writing and you will then know something about the power of this way of teaching. Notice that “free writes” is a term that didn’t even exist prior to the arrival of TPRS on the scene. That is because there was nothing free about the old way of instruction. It was limiting, not free. It was a joke.

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