Boosting writing speed through timed continuous writing

Mark Koprowski, Meiji University


Quick guide

  • Keywords: Writing, fluency, speed, practice, activity, develop
  • Learner English level: Beginner to advanced
  • Learner maturity: Elementary school to adult
  • Preparation time: None
  • Activity time: 15 minutes
  • Materials: Paper, pens

The aim of building fluency has long been viewed as an uncontroversial and vital component of the language learning program. In fact, Nation (1997) has urged teachers to apportion as much as 25% of class time for the sole purpose of developing fluency so that “learners can make the best use of what they already know” (p. 35). To this end, ample opportunities for fluency-based practice are necessary to enable learners to make their language knowledge available for immediate use.
Yet, more recently, language experts have extended the traditional concept of fluency beyond speech to include all basic skill areas: speaking, reading, listening, and writing. However, in many writing courses, it is formal accuracy (organization, grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics) that tends to prevail while the prospect of enhancing writing speed, a useful skill in its own right, is neglected.
One simple but effective activity to offset this disproportionate focus is what Nation has termed continuous writing (1991). What follows is a practical step-by-step elaboration of this idea.

Step 1: Ask students to clear their desks, apart from a pen, so that there are no distractions. Distribute lined paper to them.
Step 2: Explain to the class that you will give them a simple topic and they will write non-stop on this topic for ten minutes. They should write as much as they can within those ten minutes. Students should not worry about correct grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Rather, the priority is to express their meaning on paper as quickly as possible. The use of dictionaries or erasers is not permitted. Explain that their papers will not be read by their classmates or formally corrected.
Step 3: Write the topic on the board (e.g., my hobbies, my daily routine, my family, travel, music, shopping, last weekend, my summer break). For a fluency-building activity, it is important that the topic be somewhat simple and familiar. The aim is for students to become faster and more agile with the language they already know. It’s best to avoid any heavy or complex topics that might place a greater linguistic or conceptual burden on them.
Step 4: Give the class one minute of thinking time (or longer) to consider the English vocabulary and grammar they may need to express themselves. Allocating even one minute to brainstorm the topic should be enough to result in longer, more fluent and organized responses.
Step 5: Say “Go!” A stopwatch will be useful to keep track of the time limit.
Step 6: After ten minutes, call time.
Step 7: Ask students to count the total number of words they have written and to write the number at the top of the page. Have them make a record of the result in the back of their course books: today’s date, topic, total number of words. It will look something like this: March 3, 2012, My hobbies, 148 words. If this activity is regularly carried out as a warm-up at the start each class, a written record will allow students to look back upon the completion of the course and notice the steady and tangible progress they have made. They will see and feel a real sense of achievement.
Step 8: Collect the papers. To add a fun element of competition, you may also award a prize (e.g., chocolate) at the end of the lesson to the student who has written the greatest number of words. Alternatively, a prize can be awarded to the student who  has made the greatest leap in progress compared to their last score. This option has the strategic benefit of avoiding the same winners every time. Optionally, you can return the papers later with a brief positive comment on the content.

Continuous writing offers an easy, practical, and convenient way for learners of all ages and levels to gradually boost their writing speeds. If we sincerely want our learners to develop greater fluency, including writing fluency, this activity is an effective addition to any writing program.

Nation, I. S. P. (1991). Fluency and learning. The English Teacher, 20, 1–8.
Nation, I. S. P. (1997).Developing fluency in language use. KIFL Academic Journal, 6, 30–35.