Helping Students Be Successful at Free Writing

Jennifer Rose Smith, Osaka Shoin Women’s University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Free writing, writing fluency
  • Learner English level: Low-intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: High school and above
  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Activity time: 15-20 minutes
  • Materials: List of teacher-created questions and a selected picture on slides, paper, writing instruments.

“But I don’t know what to write about!” Even as teachers encourage students to write about topics that interest them, students still struggle to put ideas down on paper. Free writing activities in which students choose their own writing topics can assist in building writing fluency, but students will often need help before starting such a task. This activity is a simple way to scaffold free writing for students while encouraging a diversity in writing topics.



Step 1: Choose an emotion as a theme for this activity (e.g., fear, surprise, or happiness).

Step 2: Using the emotion theme, write 3-4 questions about students’ personal experiences and that emotion (e.g., emotion theme: fear, “What are you afraid of?” “When you are afraid, what do you do?” “Do you like watching scary movies?”).

Step 3: Next, find a picture of two or more people experiencing that emotion.

Step 4: Write 3-4 questions about the situation in the picture. The questions should require the students to use their imagination to answer (e.g., “What is the relationship of the people in the picture?” “Why are they in this situation?” “What will happen next?”).

Step 5: Put the emotion theme, all questions and the picture on slides that can be shown to students.



Step 1: Divide the class into pairs or small groups.

Step 2: Have the students ask and answer all the questions on the slides with each other.

Step 3: After a suitable amount of time, ask a few of the students to share their answers with the class.

Step 4: Next, remove the questions to leave only the emotion theme and the picture of the people experiencing the emotion showing.

Step 5: Explain that students will now begin “free writing.” Tell students that free writing is writing as much as possible during the allotted time (5-10 minutes) about a topic of their choice. Students cannot use dictionaries, and they should not worry about grammar or spelling. Emphasize that this activity focuses on fluency, not accuracy.

Step 6: Instruct students to begin free writing individually. Students can write about the emotion that was the theme, or the picture of the people experiencing the emotion, or any other topic they wish.

Step 7: After completing the activity, students can keep their work as a record of their developing writing skills, or it can be used as a prewriting activity for a more controlled writing assignment. As it can take time for students to become used to free writing, it is best to do these activities more than once to familiarize students with the process.



Free writing can be challenging, but with assistance students can start producing longer and more diverse writing products. In this activity, students first answer two types of questions (factual questions about themselves and creative questions about the picture), so they have a range of potential writing topics. Moreover, by relating the questions to an emotion, students are encouraged to write about both concrete and abstract topics that are relevant to their lives. Of course, some students will be able to generate their own topics, but for others, the questions and picture at the beginning of the activity give them ideas about which to write.