Friday, November 20, 2020

Timed Free writes: one practice that serves many purposes

Timed Freewrites

 I have been thinking a lot about timed free writes lately.  Like, a lot!  I have been thinking about how they are a fairly simple, easy to implement practice that solves a rather large number of challenges in a comprehension-based classroom.  While timed free writes (aka fluency writing) do not help students acquire language (only input that students can understand does that!), they are an amazingly useful tool.  In this post, I will share some of my big reasons for loving them, ideas about logistics for implementation, some frequently asked questions, and finally, some resources to help you. 

Here are a few common challenges that I feel like timed free writes have the potential to resolve:

  • Students, families, and/or administrators feel like they are not "learning" without having long lists of vocabulary and conjugation practice.  
  • Teachers need to write measurable goals for student learning (because they can't be trusted to just teach and assess, they have to do more than that...but that's another issue.)
  • Teachers need students to produce written work in order to comply with department, school, or district assessment requirements.
  • Departments want valid assessment that focus on student performance while allowing teachers the professional autonomy to teach in the way that they feel best serves their students. 
  • There is an increased pressure on teachers to create portfolios and evidence of student learning; in particular, for student reflection and evidence of growth.  

Timed free writes have other benefits too, based on my observations and experience:

  • They help students feel a sense of ownership of language; they can look at a page, or a chart tracking word counts, and see their growth.  This builds confidence, which builds motivation, which is, of course, a great thing.  
  • The freedom to just write about anything can be pretty joyful for many students.
  • Sometimes, students are willing to share what they really think and feel, and their writings provide a window into their lives and wellbeing.
  • The teacher ends up with a whole lot of very personalized writings that are student-centered and usually very comprehensible.  These are a goldmine if you choose to use them. You can just type up a few and add them to your class library, or perhaps share them in class the following day.

Timed Freewrites: A glimpse into the language in students' heads

So, aside from all these amazing benefits of Timed Free Writes, why do I love them?  Giving students the pressure of a time limit is the best way that I can think of to see what is really in their head. This leads to...
  • Evidence, evidence, evidence. Evidence of what they really have in their head! On paper! 
  • The joy of giving students their first writing from the beginning of the year on the last day of school: let them compare it to their most recent writing; there is truly nothing more incredible than listening to them share about their own growth.  
  • The joy of having a predictable routine: this is how we spend 15 minutes a week. No planning necessary.
  • When students write, so do I.  In the target language! If I knew the plot of the novel I am working on, it would probably be complete by now!  

Here's the nuts and bolts of timed free writes, as I use them in my classroom.  I learned most of what I do from Scott Benedict (Immediate Immersion), who deserves ALL the credit for helping me think this through and implement in my classroom.


1) Teach the kids the expectations.

Mine are: write the whole time, it's ok to use the word supports on the walls but I want you to write as many words as possible and that will slow you down, the prompt I give is optional, write one word per line, and your story does not have to make sense. If you don't know how to say it in Spanish, say something else. Absolutely no talking.

2) Give an optional prompt.  

Sometimes, I used a silly picture from the internet. (Here are some great ones!) At other times, I created a little scene from props and stuffed animals.  Students who needed ideas could use the prompt as a starting place, OR they could write whatever they chose.

3) Use special paper. 

This paper that has a space for each word so it is easy and fast to graph word counts. I downloaded mine from Scott Benedict.  I copied mine on the back side of copies from the recycle bin in our school's copy room to save paper. 

4) Don't grade them at first.  

When and if you decide to grade them, read this first:  Grading Writings.  If you prefer to watch a video, here you go: Assessment Hacks and Hope.

5) Start when students have a lot of language in their head.  

My advice: start with novices about 9 weeks into the year, after a very rich diet of tons of listening and reading to language they understand.  I usually start 2nd year students writing in about the 3rd or 4th week of school.

6) Be consistent. 

Do this once a week.  If students complain, remind them that the expectation is to smile and be positive. In fact, I tell them that they are expected to cheer.  I have also been known to tell them that if they groan when I announce a free write, they have to do another one tomorrow. That usually ends the groans very quickly.  

7) Write for a predictable, short amount of time.

10 minutes is a good amount of time for students to write.  From start to finish, the whole activity, once we got into the swing of things, takes about 15 minutes.  

8) Set a goal- but remember it is just a goal, not a requirement. 

A common goal is for all students to be able to write 100 words in the target language in 10 minutes, and then reduce the minutes while keeping the goal. So, after everyone can do 100 in 10, try 100 in 9.  The purpose of this may be because a reasonable goal for fluent speakers is to write 100 words in five minutes in their first language.  

9) Students track word counts.

Ask students to keep track of their word counts in a graph and save their writings!  These portfolios are immensely powerful.  (Scroll down to download a data tracking sheet.) 

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some questions that I see all the time about implementing timed freewrites. Hopefully my answers will help you feel like you can do this in your own classroom!

What if a kid just writes one or two words over and over? Honestly, I have never had this happen.  My students with IEPs and 504s, students who struggled with writing, students who hated writing...they all were generally able to produce a few sentences.  But, if this happened,  I would consider the following: the student does not yet have much of a mental representation of language, so the task is not appropriate for them, yet.  Maybe while everyone else is writing, you sit with them and read texts that are comprehensible to them. 

There could also be other reasons for this- did they just have a terrible day? Is this more evidence that they need support and relationships rather than an assignment? Did their dog just die?  I would look at the whole picture of the student and decide how to respond based on a lot of different kinds of information.   

Do you let students look at the word walls in your room? Yes! But..I tell them that if they are relying on the words in the room to impress me, they are going to write less, and I want them to just spill out all the words.  But it's fine if they do!

Do you read all of them?  Nope. Not at all. *If your district requires you to read everything that students write, I would consider doing something different than what I suggest.* I did choose to read one group's worth of writing a week. And I tell them that! They didn't know which class's writings I was going to read!  However, after a few weeks, students started asking if I would read their writing, even if it wasn't for a grade, because they were proud of what they had written.  So, I invited them to put a star on the top, and when I collected them, I made sure to read those and either comment or talk to the writer.  

How do you grade them?  Read this: Grading writing for details about rubrics, error correction, and keeping the workload manageable. 

Do you let kids type? Actually, no.  Even when teaching virtually, I asked students to hand write their free writes and submit pictures of their writing immediately afterwards to our Learning Management System.  I know that for some teachers, this might be madness, but I don't want to open the box of translation/accents/etc.  Handwriting is just fine.  

Finally, I will leave you with this joyful piece of writing from a very special young lady.  Because it makes my day! 

Here is a collection of my favorite resources about timed writing.  Please leave questions below if you wish! 






  1. Thank you very much - worthwhile read.

    I appreciate your suggestions about giving some sort of visual prompt of what students could write about. I've never been comfortable with just handing students a blank piece of paper and saying "write".

  2. Excellent advice on freewrites! Merci

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