On more than one occasion I have had to justify bringing Free Writing into an English classroom. I have so much belief in, experience and evidence of the innumerable benefits of Free Writing in the classroom, that I have bent rules, wangled lesson plans and out-rightly lied to managers in order to keep the practice in my classroom.

I value it that highly.

What is Free Writing?

Stream of consciousness. Freeflow writing. Down time. Creative time. Doodles. Students writing lots of words. Silence. Concentration. Boredom. Unconscious learning. Digestion time. Reflection. Unstructured time. Thinking at the edge. Vacuums.Writing without the constraints of grammar, accuracy and audience. Space. Yes, s p a c e.

The most successful approach I have found so far (there are others) is to ring mark 10mins at the start of a lesson once a week. In an ideal world I would do it every day, but that’s for my Future School.

  • Introduce the concept first, give examples. Some students will find it challenging, they need to know that all you are requesting from them is that they DON’T STOP WRITING.

  • I now always read the first couple of pages of Peter Elbow’s Writing without Teachers. Which explains the concept and gives an example. That’s usually enough.

  • Make it clear that this is not ‘work’, it will not be marked – however you will read them from time to time. Yes, it is their Free Writing book, but it is still an in school one.

  • As such, my rule on swearing is always use an *. Students usually find this amazing that they are allowed to write F*ck, B*ll*cks, Sh*t in a school book; spend the first 5 minutes doing that and only that, get bored and never do it again.

  • Put the timer on somewhere big and easily visible to all

  • Have specific Free Writing Books with NOT TO BE MARKED written on the front (students love this and these ‘scruffy’ books can be hidden for observations).

  • Insist on complete silence for the duration.

  • Take yourself away from the desk, sit in an absent students’ place, on the window sill, on the floor.

  • DO THE EXERCISE YOURSELF – Free Writing is NOT about conscious teaching from teacher to student, it is about constructing a safe space in which students can learn. You are nothing to do with their process in the moment of it – have your own, role model the practise – this is the most powerful teaching for the students.

  • If visitors come in, ignore them. They will be mightily impressed that your entire yr 9 class is sat in absolute silence writing in the first 2 mins of the lesson (a requirement for some schools).

  • Include any other staff members in the room – anyone in your room in Free Writing time should be Free Writing.

  • At the end of the exercise allow 1 min to share with someone sitting next to them anything they want to share. They don’t have to share, but often they have discovered lots that they will want to express. Occasionally I make space for longer sharings of work for those who wish.

The set up can take a little while to settle – for both pupils and staff. I usually find it takes around 3 sessions for students to get into the swing and stop questioning it. Let’s talk benefits:

Benefits that schools/mentors/observers/SLT like to hear:

  • Free Writing builds students’ stamina for writing. Some English GCSE examinations are 2 hrs and 45mins – of solid writing. Get them writing 10 minutes solidly in year 7 once a week, and that can easily become a built-in discipline.

  • The exercise repeated regularly promotes routines, self -discipline and focus right at the start of every lesson.

  • It becomes a positive, preventative behaviour management tool.

  • Lower Ability students who may struggle to write at length (extended writing being a point of focus across all subjects now), regularly write pages in this exercise. It builds their confidence in their ability to be able to write, from which you can progress for more formal writing.

  • Higher Ability students are often challenged by this task, as they are lost without direction or clear targets; they must construct their own – which is a higher end skill in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

  • The exercise is suitable for all abilities, SEND, EAL  – it differentiates itself. (see below in What if…?)

  • With a new class it is a simple way for you to form relationships quickly with the students – when you read the first batch you will find out a lot more about each student than you would have had time to find out in that first 50 min lesson.

  • Over time students gain confidence in their own abilities to just write. I have had many students at the end of sessions declare that they’ve written a story for the first time since they were at Primary school, or surprise themselves by writing a poem – when they don’t like poetry.

  • In time, students often disclose sensitive information – it becomes a supportive tool for you to spot any safeguarding issues.

  • It is a highly regarded method amongst published authors through the ages.

What if…?

  • Students talk/disrupt.

If it’s only one or two the most effective move I have found is simply sitting next to them to do my own Free Writing. I say nothing, and don’t even look at them, just model what’s needed. The strangeness of that usually gets them focused quickly. If it is several students then this is often a seating plan issue that you may need to re-think.

  • I have SEND students who can’t write?

Find the equivalent that is suitable for their needs – usually you will already know, or if not, your SENCO department will. I have had pupils writing on chromebooks and typing. Some students like to miss out every other line (which they were commonly allowed and encouraged to do in primary), others prefer non-lined paper – make it work for them.

  • I have EAL students?

I deeply encourage offering students to write in any language that feels comfortable (which, like the swearing does mean that for the first 5 mins your English speakers will try and regurgitate their 2 years of German lessons – great! Self-motivated German Revision! – Be sure to let the MFL department know).

Best practice pedagogy for EAL students is to be using the new language as much as possible, of course. However, in their Free Writing this gives them a chance to reflect on and work through learning in a language they feel expert. This is important too. I had a High Ability EAL student who had, had to move to England unexpectedly in yr 10. I could sense that over the weeks and months he was becoming increasingly discouraged from feeling like he had become worse at school – simply because of the language barrier, rather than his abilities. Once a week it was freeing for him to be able to communicate freely. In reality, EAL students I have worked with usually do a mixture of languages in Free Writing, most likely a much closer reflection of how they are learning in our schools.

  • Students refuse to participate.

Find out why firstly. I once had a student who lived in difficult circumstances and had various mental health needs, who just couldn’t work out/didn’t have the confidence to write. For a few weeks I sat next to him and wrote every other word in an association-word type game. Eg. Strawberry Football Cold Rain Shoes… after a few weeks I only needed to do this at the start, then eventually he was able to do the whole session on his own.

For others, outline to them that the task is to just write if they fail to do this then they are not completing work set, and the school’s usual behaviour procedures apply.

  • I don’t teach English.

Free Writing is free for all. Go for it.

Taking it further…

After a long period of doing Free Writing exercises it is possible to use the tool to introduce a topic. A very successful example is of when I asked a year 8 class what they knew about World War 1, to introduce them to their new poetry unit. We had a class discussion with some very basic answers: horses, first time people used gas as a weapon, 1914-1917.

I then invited this class to do a 10mins Free Writing around the topic. I encouraged them to have the topic in their minds, but still continue to just write on whatever came up. For example: WW1, what do I know? Didn’t we do that in yr 6 with Mrs Patel? Yeah, oh we went in that bunker didn’t we? Or was that WW2? What is the difference? Hang on, weren’t we with the Germans then and against them in WW2? Emma is writing loads – how does she know so much? Maybe she’s just writing about her hair anyway. Anyway, yes. What else? Oh we sang those songs – Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile…that was yr 4. Had no idea what it was about then, but I suppose that’s the kind of song that might cheer up the troops?

Along the same vein of theory behind Think, Pair, Share giving the students free time to muse around the topic brought so much more acknowledged knowledge to conversation. The students became engaged as they realised how much they already knew and some of the fond memories they had of learning before (especially the songs).

I then repeated the exercise at the end of the unit. They were able to compare the two Free Writings and easily observe their own progress.

My Free Writing Highlights:

  • At the end of the 10 mins regularly having more pupils than time who are enthusiastic to share their work.

  • In session 3 reading in a very shy pupil’s Free Writing, that she was doing a dance competition at the weekend. Remembering, and asking her about it on Monday. She was bowled over that I had read, cared and asked her – after that she started participating in class discussions.

  • A student surprising himself by writing a poem about his opinions on education – when he hates poetry.

  • A year 8 High Ability student, who up to this point had found every task I had given them easy, finding challenge for the first time and having to work through that.

  • A student disclosing to me their thoughts around their gender, and exploration into transitioning. In Free Writing at school, the students know there is a chance you will read it, so I was able to have a conversation with them beginning with ‘ I noticed in your Free Writing…would you like to have a conversation about it?’ This lead to me being the first adult they came out to, and being able to support them at school and with parents during their transition.

  • Many, many students coming to me the year after – when they are no longer in my class – asking for Free Writing with their current teacher. 

  • Students asking to take their Free Writing books home to do more.

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WomenEd is a global grassroots movement which connects aspiring and existing women leaders in education and gives women leaders a voice in education. I was interviewed by one of the brilliant co-founders, Jules Daulby.

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