About six years ago I was on a teacher training course and the instructor made a suggestion that seemed quite ridiculous. Nonetheless, it stuck in my head long enough for me to give it a shot some months later. I don’t know why I even bothered trying it as it seemed so totally unlikely to work… but it did.

I’m talking about something called “free writing,” which will be the subject of this article (obviously).

What is free writing?

esl student free writing
It doesn’t matter what they write… as long as they write.

Perhaps there are other definitions, but for me “free writing” is just what it sounds like: you get your students to write without any real goal. They should not think too much about it, but instead just write.

When I begin my free writing classes, I will tell my students something like this:

I want you to take your notebook and pen and start writing. It doesn’t matter what you write about because no one will ever read it except you. Just put the pen to paper and begin. I don’t want you to stop until I tell you. When I look around, I want to see those pens moving at all times.

Yes, that is basically it. It’s a simple concept, but I will explain why I do it in the next section. Anyway, the important part is that the students spend some time (3-10 minutes) writing non-stop, in English, before you begin the actual writing class. While they write, you should play some classical music. More on that later…

Why should we do free writing?

Ok, so this probably sounds pretty silly. You might be thinking that it’s a waste of time and that you should skip it. When I first heard about it, my teaching instructor was really enthusiastic about it, and that’s the only reason I even considered doing this crazy activity. She told me that her students were reluctant at first but that after a while they became really enthusiastic… and the same exact thing happened to me.

The idea is that you want to have your students warm up like they would before running a race or playing a game of football. Writing requires muscles in our handles as well as “mental muscles” in our brains. By doing some free writing, you are letting them warm up before the lesson. It helps them get into the mood.

I find that it’s the perfect way to start an ESL or IELTS writing class. It sets a peaceful tone and helps them to focus in on the idea of writing. Once the lesson actually begins, everyone is settled and ready. They are totally warmed up and raring to go. (This is especially true once you have done it 2 or 3 times. After a couple of weeks they will get into a fantastically productive routine.)

How to set up free writing

There are different ways, of course, and this will depend upon your students. I did it mostly with university-level IELTS students who were around band 5.5 -6.5. They were pretty motivated but found writing a bit boring and frustrating.

The first time I did it, it took a little explanation and convincing, but after that, they were ready to go. I did it about once a week – on Fridays. I would give them something like the above instructions, and then I would put on some classical music

Yes! Classical music!

This really surprised them in that first class. However, it helped a great deal. No one is talking and everyone is just writing. It may be a private journal entry, a short story, or some serious idea… but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they get into the process of thinking and writing. The classical music helps them get into that mood.

You need to set a time limit, of course, and this is going to depend totally on your students. If they have really poor writing skills, it will be difficult to write for a long time, so you might want to set it at 3-4 minutes. However, if they are capable of writing for longer, you should go for 6-10 minutes. I usually set a timer for about 8 minutes. If they seem really, really focused after 8 minutes, you might consider leaving it another few minutes.

What are the benefits?

This was the perfect way to introduce a writing class. After an awkward first lesson, my students grew to love it. Although I told them “No one will ever need to see your writing” so that they weren’t shy about making mistakes, many of them actually came up to me later to show me what they had written. They wanted feedback and suggestions on how to continue.

Whenever we started the class, my students would be in the absolute perfect frame of mind. They were settled, quiet, focused, and motivated. Writing lessons are often boring and difficult, but when you have a great start to a lesson, they can be absolutely worthwhile.

I hope that you are willing and able to implement this in your ESL or IELTS writing classes. I’d love your hear your feedback and suggestions.