Timed Writing, also known as, free writing, speedwriting or fluency writing, is designed to assess what students can produce when they have no time for editing or second-guessing. Students must write continuously in the target language for 5 or 10 minutes and increase the amount of words that they are able to write each week. Timed writings are a great way to show student growth throughout the year. Many teachers aim for the end-of-the-year goal of 100 words in 5 minutes because that is approximately the amount of words that a native speaker can produce in 5 minutes; however, your goal should ultimately be growth, not meeting a target which may or may not be appropriate for your students 1. Timed writing, like other output activities, should not be required of students until they are clearly capable of producing with the language.
Timed Writing Procedure 2
- Paper: Students are told to take out a sheet of paper and a pencil. They can use a regular, lined sheet of paper, or they can use a special timed writing form (see further below) that makes it easier to count the words.
- Date: The teacher asks the students to write the date and their name. The date is important for including the writing in a portfolio (see further below).
- Optional prompt: If you simply tell students to write a story, there will always be a few students who can’t think of something to write. Therefore, it is a good idea to prepare something to deal with these situations such as an interesting picture projected on the board, a written prompt (i.e. Tell me about your family) or a basic story skeleton. Martina Bex has 2 basic story frames that you could give struggling students.
- Emphasize expectations: Students are not accustomed to simply writing without worrying about their correctness. Emphasize to them that you aren’t worried about their spelling or grammar. You simply want to see how much they can write.
- Set timer: Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes. The choice of timing is really up to you and how your students’ react. 5 minutes is the typical, but some teachers do 10 minutes so that their students can develop more complete thoughts. Your word count goals will vary accordingly.
- Writing: When the teacher says begin, students write as much as they can. The students might have a prompt to follow (see further below for prompt ideas), or they might have complete freedom to write about whatever they want. Timed writing can also be used to re-tell a TPRS story, a MovieTalk, a novel chapter, etc. Students must write continuously
- Finishing: When the timer goes off, the teacher says: “If you are in the middle of a sentence, you may finish the sentence. Then, count all of your words. Write the number largely at the bottom of the page, and circle it.”
- Analyze: Collect the timed writings and read them. You can grade them how you’d like (see below) or not assign a grade at all. Mostly you should be reading the timed writings to see what students are still struggling on. For example, if the students aren’t conjugating their verbs, you then know that they need more comprehensible input using various grammatical subjects and possibly some pop-up grammar to point out the patterns. What you should not do is mark the students’ papers with all their mistakes. Their mistakes mean that they haven’t acquired properly yet, and conscious error correction won’t help that.
Timed Writing Rules
The rules below came from Ben Slavic. I would suggest projecting these rules during a free-write, or at least discussing them with your students before they start to write. Lauren Tauchman made a poster with these rules for your classroom.
- Write without stopping for 10 (or 5) minutes.
- No English words in the story except for names.
- Keep the sentences and story line simple.
- Get your story idea ahead of time (note: it’s a smart idea for the teacher to give the students several minutes to decide what they’re going to write about).
- Use lists if you have them.
- Use words that you already know.
- If you don’t know a word, don’t use it.
- Use as many adjectives as possible.
- Spell as accurately as you can and then move on.
- Add another character when you get stuck.
- Use posters from the room as help.
- Illogical stories are OK.
Free Writing Forms
Having a specific form isn’t necessary, students could just use lined-paper, but many teachers have shared free write forms that make the words easier to count and the writings easier to grade. Choose the one that you like the most, or create your own and share it with the community!
- Forms by Martina Bex (paid): Martina Bex offers two styles of form with two different rubrics: one basked on the Six traits of writing and the other based on ACTFL proficiency guidelines for levels 1-5 (Novice Mid through Advanced Low).
- Forms by Lance Piantaggini (free): Lance made free write forms in Google Docs, which is useful because you can edit them for your own purposes. His tiny free write form is designed for beginners so that they won’t feel crummy about leaving so much blank space.
- Form by Crystal Barragan (free): This 3-page bundle includes free write forms and instructions for the first day/first week back to class in addition to a “general” free write form to use throughout the year.
- Form by Scott Benedict (free): Scott Benedict’s form includes enough room for students to write 190 words. It also comes with a rubric attached.
Grading Timed Writing
Probably the most common question that teachers have about free writing is how to assign a grade to it. There is no simple answer to this question. Every teacher has a different system! However, what is universally agreed upon is that grammar or spelling, if graded at all, should only play a limited role in the grading. The main question is usually the word count because we are trying to measure the students’ fluency. Overall there are three basic grading schemes:
- No grades: Some teachers do not assign grades to timed writings. Instead they read them to see students’ progress and possibly leave a comment on the content of the writing. Some teachers like Chris Stolz have found that the best way to improve students’ writing is not explicit feedback but rather to ask for more details. If you have grammar-oriented students in your classroom who complained that they “aren’t learning anything” through TPRS, Terry Waltz had the great idea of pointing out specific examples of grammatical accuracy in these students’ timed writings in order to show them that they are in fact learning from comprehensible input. Since timed writings’ main goal is to show the teacher what students have acquired or not, many teachers don’t find them necessary to grade.
- Word count: Other teachers base grades solely on the amount of words that students write. There are several different “schemes” that teachers use for grading word counts. The problem with grading word count only is that you can have a writing that makes little sense but that gets a good grade because they wrote a lot of words. You will also have to determine how things like English words will be counted. Do they factor in the word count at all? Should an English phrase like New York City count as 1 word or 3?
- Karen Rowan: “Have them count their words and use that as a letter grade. i.e. Lowest word count in the room is 30. Highest is 150. I wanted 100 in 5 minutes. 30-70 is a B. 71-150 is an A. If they don’t write at all, I go find out why. The following week the lowest count is 40 and the highest count is 120. 40-70 is a B. 71+ is an A… I always throw the first free write out” (Karen Rowan).
- Chris Stolz: “I start grading these with a ‘handicap’ system. The freewrite is out of 100 and the kids’ scores are the # of words they write, plus the handicap. First time out, the kids will typically write 20-60 words. Add 40 to that, and you get a score of 60-100. Next time, two weeks later, do the same thing… but add only 30. By the 4th month (semester block system of 6.25 hrs/week) kids should be easily hammering out 100 words in 5 min” (Chris Stolz).
- Quantity + quality: Finally, some teachers use rubrics to assign a grade that accounts for both the quantity and quality of the students’ language use. For example Chris Stolz says, “Their course goal was 100 good words in 5 min. Their mark was ½ grammar (on a rubric out of 3) and ½ wordcount (out of 100). For the first 6 speedwrites, they got a bonus (40, then 35, then 30 etc), and after that no bonus. The grammar rubric is out of 3 but is weighted the same as wordcount. A kid that gets 100 words and a 2/3 for grammar gets 83% (100% + 66% / 2).” If you go this route, make sure you have a clear understanding of what “quality” is in your mind. For Chris Stolz, the grammar mark is simply how comprehensible the writing is. Students get a 1, 2, or 3, which represents mostly incomprehensible with lots of mistakes, mostly comprehensible with some confusing parts, and fully comprehensible (but not necessarily perfect grammar). There are also several other rubrics that you could use such as Grant Boulanger’s Rubric or Scott Benedict’s Rubric. The reason for not marking the quality of writing is that error correction is typically ineffective, despite the amount of work on the teacher’s end.
Timed writings are best done as an ongoing portfolio collection of students’ work. Each student should have a folder with their name on it for their timed writings that can be left in class. The teacher might also keep a spreadsheet documenting students’ growth just in case something happens to the portfolios. At the end of the semester, students might be invited to do some meta-analysis of their portfolio. Click here for a form that Lance Piantaggini created for meta-analysis, which he adapted from Bob Patrick. One thing that you’ll want to track is students’ growth in the number of words that they write. They could keep a line graph demonstrating their progress. Here is what Lauren Tauchman does for a writing portfolio.
Variations & Writing Prompts
Given that many teachers call this activity free writing, the use of writing prompts is unusual. However, some teachers like to give their students options of what to write about just in case they have trouble deciding what to say. In this section you will also find several variations on timed writing that alter it in some significant way.
You could use the prompts below as a requirement, or you could offer them as an option to students who have difficulty thinking of an idea. Some students are creative and can easily think of great story ideas, and some students prefer to factually talk about something. We should respect both kinds of students and offer options accordingly.
- Pictures: The easiest way to inspire struggling writers is simply to project some interesting images that they could use for inspiration.
- Here is a good list of 78 simple writing prompts. Many of them could be translated and simplified for the second language classroom.
- Make the students quote a line from one of the class songs (Michele Whaley).
- Alphabiography: Over a period of time, students write paragraphs about personal topics starting with different letters of the alphabet (Martina Bex).
- Forced Structures: Some teachers force students to include certain structures in their timed writing to prove that they’ve acquired them. I don’t know if forcing in this way actually proves acquisition, but it is a way to satisfy administrators looking for proof that students met your learning goals. For example if you’ve been working on the structure needs to and want to see if students can use it, simply ask them to try and include it in their writing.
- Story Starter: Give students an interesting beginning to a story that they will have to complete. Here are some ideas that you could translate and use.
- 1-3-10 Free Write: First, students write for 1 minute and count their words. Then, students write for three minutes, first copying what they previously wrote. Finally, students write for a full 10 minutes, copying everything that they already wrote. This scaffolding helps students to organize their thoughts and write more than they typically would be able to. While doing it this way will take longer, it is highly recommended for students who are new to timed writing. Martina Bex has a form you can download for this activity. Martina Bex and Keith Toda have both written lengthier descriptions of this activity.
- Roll a Write: Essentially, students use dice to find out something special that they have to incorporate in their free write. This idea comes originally from Miriam Patrick, and she spent the entire class period on it, so that it was no longer a true quick writing exercise. Here are her directions for that. You could adapt the idea and use it for a normal, 5-10 minute timed writing exercise, however.
Here are some activities that you can do with your students’ free writes:
- Read Aloud: Read a couple of the stories back to the class, fixing errors as you read aloud (note: don’t mention that you’re fixing errors). You and the class can also develop the story further by adding details. If you go slowly and it’s a decent story, this can be good comprehensible input. Plus, if you read the stories of a reluctant or weaker student, they will get a big confidence boost out of other people enjoying his/her story. Click here to read Chris Stolz’s testimony of doing this.