Free writing is a pre-writing technique used in ESL and Native English Speaking classrooms. In free writing students are assigned the task of writing for a short period of time on any topic either chosen by the student or the teacher. It is essential to keep writing without worrying about grammar, spelling, or punctuation.
Free writing necessarily is unprepared, open-ended, and flowing student work. According to Peter Elbow “the goal of free writing is in the process, not the product” (Writing with Power, 1998, p.13). This means that free writing does not necessarily produce perfect or suitable material for use in class tests or essays. However free writing pieces are syntactically coherent and express the verbal energy of a student. The technique encourages students to “see writing as a problem-solving activity involving self-regulation, evaluation, diagnosis, and reflection” (Grabe & Kaplan,1996, p.244). Therefore it is very helpful in a Second Language classroom.
Free writing tasks are not supposed to be evaluated or criticized by the teacher and are mostly not even handed in by the students. Nevertheless it may be helpful for some students to read through their writing again in order to increase successful self-evaluation and reflection.
Benefits for the ESL classroom
Free writing is a useful way to get students to find topics, to recognize ideas of which they were not aware, and to nominate possible topics for future writing activities. Research on writing tasks in classroom environment has shown that certain pre-writing activities are particularly useful for students. Free writing can enhance students' writing expertise, make their English more proficient and help them to reflect upon their own writing style (cf. Grabe & Kanplan,1996, p.246). Since free writing is not evaluated by the teacher, students can feel free to say whatever they have on their minds about a topic or idea. Free writing also helps students to overcome writer's block because they learn to simply “get on with it and not to be held back by worries about whether these words are good words or the right words” (Elbow, Writing with Power,1998, p.14). According to Elbow, free writing by these means helps to separate the process of producing a piece of writing from the process of revising it (cf. Writing with Power, p.14). In addition, frequent free writing exercises increase students' fluency in the foreign language and helps build up new vocabulary. Pieces of free writing can be very useful for teachers as well as students to find ideas for future writing activities. It is an easy way to explore unknown topics and questions without the strict regulations of form, grammar or citation. At the same time students can not only explore topics they never thought they would find interesting, but also become aware of their individual voice in writing (cf. Grabe & Kaplan,1996, p.311). Apart from any external constraints students are able to find out how they write or how their stream of consciousness flows. Thus, free writing is self-reflective task for ESL writers which gives them the chance to take a step away from the stress of a classroom full of many other learners with individual needs.
The learner's role in free writing is a simple and at the same time sometimes frustrating and difficult role. The learner's only job is to write for a set time, for example ten minutes. Difficulties may occur because the learners are supposed to keep writing. They are not supposed to stop for anything. They are just supposed to write quickly but without rushing. Whenever the learners do not know what to write it is fine to write “I can't think of anything to say”. As long as they never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what they are doing, they complete the tasks successfully. The only requirement for the students is that they never stop writing until the time is up (cf. Elbow, Writing without teachers, 1998, p.3). Students may encounter several kinds of difficulties during free writing tasks related to their individual sentiments. Some students may be reluctant to go on writing and concentrating on their stream of consciousness incessantly. They will find it very difficult to keep writing without ever looking up or stopping to gather new thoughts. Other students may keep using an eraser or scoring out pieces of their writing because they want their work to be perfect. Spelling and grammar mistakes are not acceptable for them, regardless of how much the interruption disables them to follow through with their task. Another indicator for perfectionism encountered in ESL classrooms during free writing tasks may be the constant use of a dictionary to find the most accurate word. Some students may even find that their own words are not convenient for the task and will therefore start to copy from their textbooks or other material previously used in the classroom.
While students are completely free, the teacher in free writing is observer, facilitator, and encourager at the same time. A good teacher needs to be aware of issues that occur in writing and has to convey these insights to students before even assigning a task. Research shows that writing takes time to develop and instruction should be planned accordingly. Students need to be made aware of the role of language form as the medium of meaningful communication, as well as the types of language constraints which are reflected in different genres and purposes for writing. Teachers need to keep in mind that writing development requires extensive practice and cannot expect free writing to be successful the very first time. In addition students will occasionally vary in their performance and should be aware that this variation will occur. In free writing students should be encouraged, at times, to take risks and to innovate (cf. Grabe & Kaplan,1996, p.254–255). This concludes in the teacher's facilitating role: “ensuring that students aren't correcting, changing what they wrote, consulting their dictionary, or one of the hundred and one other activities that distract or interrupt students writing” (Dickson,2001,p.1). Moreover, the teacher acts as an encourager to provide students with the necessary reminder to remain focused on the task at hand. Especially when it comes to perfectionist students, teachers have to make sure they understand their task correctly and keep to it. Then they remind them that perfect work is not expected and that the process of writing freely is much more important than the product.
Several variations are possible and post-writing ideas are diverse. A more directed form of free writing occurs when a teacher suggests a general idea and students write on anything relevant to that general idea (cf. Grabe & Kaplan,1996, p.310). In free writing, some students do report negative experiences, mostly complaining that they do not know what to write. In these situations, a stimulus or prompt can be very helpful to start writing. However, these prompts are not topics; they do not set limits to what can be written about. They are merely places to start writing. Possible prompts could be citations, music, pictures, proverbs or video sequences. All of these are just means to inspire the students, which make it easier for them to find a threat of thought (cf. Dickson, 2001,p.2). The most controlled type of free writing occurs in response to a specific question raised by the teacher. Since ESL classrooms often don't assign as much time as needed for regular free writing, students should be encouraged to write at home. A possible variation of free writing for students outside the classroom may be to keep a dialogue journal or a learning log.
Colorado State University. (2012). Teaching Writing. Retrieved March 5, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/teaching/esl/writing.cfm
Dickson, K.J. (2001, August). Freewriting, Prompts, and Feedback. The Internet TESL Journal, Volume 2, No.8.
Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with Power. Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Elbow, P. (1998). Writing without Teachers (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Grabe, W. & Kaplan, R.B. (1996). Theory and Practice of Writing. An Applied Linguistic Perspective. London: Longman.
Jacobs, G. (1986, October). Quickwriting. A Technique for Invention in Writing. ELT Journal, Volume 40/4, 282-290.