Some students are apprehensive about writing in class due to the classroom environment, their past writing experiences, or their limited proficiency in English (Al-Shboul & Fathi Huwari, 2015). Although these students may enjoy telling stories aloud, they may freeze up when asked to put their thoughts down on paper. They may assume their writing is worse than that of their peers and, consequently, feel uncomfortable sharing their writing with others. The fear of making mistakes or being judged can prevent these students from writing altogether. When these students are required to write, they tend to write shorter responses than their classmates. Writers who demonstrate these characteristics have been referred to as apprehensive writers (Daly & Miller, 1975).
When writing apprehension exists, it needs to be addressed to help students achieve success. Writing is unavoidable, not just in the classroom, but also as students begin to apply for jobs, enter the workforce, and pursue further educational opportunities.
Fortunately, there is evidence that teaching prewriting strategies and providing opportunities for practice can help reduce students’ writing apprehension and improve their writing quality (Abedianpour & Omidvari, 2018; Schweiker-Marra & Marra, 2000). In this post, I will propose several prewriting strategies and activities to provide support for apprehensive writers and help them overcome the obstacle of getting started on a writing task.
Brainstorming is when students discuss their ideas surrounding a topic before writing about it. Some students who are uncomfortable articulating their thoughts through writing may be able to express those same ideas verbally with ease. Brainstorming has been found to increase both the quantity and quality of students’ writing (Abedianpour & Omidvari, 2018). This may be because brainstorming activates students’ background knowledge and stimulates the thinking process before writing begins. Additionally, when students discuss their ideas with classmates, they are exposed to their classmates’ perspectives, which may help them develop a broader understanding of the topic (Abedianpour & Omidvari, 2018).
To incorporate brainstorming into a writing lesson, divide students into small groups of two or three and give them 5–10 minutes to discuss a new writing task and topic. You may write some questions on the board to guide their conversations. The table below lists some examples of brainstorming questions grouped according to the genre of the writing task. You may choose to modify the questions or add others to suit the specific writing task.
Sample Brainstorming Questions
Who was involved?
Where did the events in the story take place?
What happened first, second, and third?
How did the character feel about the events in the story?
What was the character’s goal?
What challenges did the character face?
What did the character learn from the events in the story?
What do I know about “X?”
What are the characteristics of “X?”
For whom is “X” important?
What things are similar to “X?”
How is “X” different from “Y?”
What do other people say about “X?”
Why should people care about “X?”
Why should people care about “X?”
Why is “X” important?
What do other people say about “X?”
What is my opinion of “X?”
What are some other opinions of “X?”
What are the effects of “X?”
Concept maps are graphic organizers that create visual representations of topics and related subtopics. Having students create concept maps has been proposed as a tool to assist apprehensive writers (Gardner, 2011). Concept mapping can help writers generate ideas before writing about a topic. In this process, writers discover key themes and important vocabulary to include in their written responses. Because they visually represent the connections between ideas, concept maps can help writers organize related ideas into paragraphs. When used as a prewriting activity, concept maps have been found to help students produce writing that is more coherent and focused on the main idea and purpose of a task (Gardner, 2011).
To teach the use of this tool, give students a sheet of paper and have them write the topic of the writing task in the center of the page and draw a circle around it. Ask students to think of subtopics or ideas that are related to that topic. Each subtopic should be brief—a single word or short phrase is sufficient. The students will write these subtopics around the main topic circle, circling each subtopic and connecting it with a line to the main topic. The students will follow these same steps with each of the subtopics, branching off a second level of subtopics. When complete, the concept map shows how the main topic and subtopics are connected.
For example, if my topic was “healthy habits,” I would first write this topic in the center of the page and circle it. Some components of healthy habits are sleep, exercise, diet, stress, and relationships. I would write these subtopics branching off from the main topic, drawing lines to connect each subtopic to the main topic. To expand on the subtopic “diet,” I could write, “eating enough fruits and vegetables,” “limiting sugary foods,” and “drinking enough water.” An example of a completed concept map is shown below.
Figure 1. Concept Map Example
One of the most common reasons students give for their apprehension toward writing is fear of evaluation (Al-Shboul & Fathi Huwari, 2015). One way to address this fear is to incorporate more unstructured freewriting activities during class (Auten, 1983; Asraf, et al., 2018; Scullin & Baron, 2013). Freewriting involves rapidly writing whatever comes to mind without concern for grammar, mechanics, or spelling. Students select a topic of interest or respond to teacher-provided prompts, though the audience and form of writing is entirely up to the student. Freewriting is typically done in short, timed bursts of 5–10 minutes, and students are encouraged to keep writing continuously without pauses or hesitation. The purpose of freewriting is to generate ideas and focus on content rather than correctness. To implement freewriting sessions in your class, consider the following guidance.
Provide Structure as Needed
Freewriting can be focused or unfocused. When students respond to a teacher-provided topic or prompt, they are doing focused freewriting. Unfocused freewriting is when students select their own topic. Because some students may have difficulty identifying writing topics for freewriting sessions at first, it is helpful initially to provide more structured freewriting prompts (Scullin & Baron, 2013). As students become more comfortable with freewriting, they can begin selecting their own topics. It may be helpful for students to keep a list of topic ideas in a journal. One way that students can generate writing topics is by creating lists, like lists of things that they are proud of or lists of their favorite places. When students feel stuck or don’t know how to begin, they can return to their ideas list to select a topic for the day. Similarly, this video from the Teaching Channel demonstrates three questions teachers can use to help students think of writing topics.
Increase Freewriting Time Gradually
Writing for extended periods of time is a skill that requires practice. To help students gradually build their writing stamina, you may slowly increase the duration of freewriting sessions over time. At first, you may have students write continuously for 1 minute. When students are able to do this successfully, you can increase the duration of freewriting time to 2 minutes and so on. Eventually, students may be able to write for longer periods of time without hesitation.
Limit Corrective Feedback
One goal of freewriting activities is to help students gain confidence writing without judgements or corrections. While corrective feedback should be avoided during freewriting, some forms of teacher feedback can help motivate students and hold them accountable (Scullin & Baron, 2013). You may consider visually assessing freewriting journals daily or weekly for completion. Another option is to have students select a freewriting entry they are proud of and provide feedback only on that selection. Alternatively, you may choose to provide positive, non-corrective feedback on students’ responses by highlighting or underlining the strongest parts of their writing. Importantly, rather than providing correction, the purpose of feedback on freewriting is to encourage students to write more.
Through freewriting, students practice putting their thoughts on paper. With regular practice, freewriting is believed to reduce students’ apprehension and help them build confidence in writing (Asraf, et al., 2018; Scullin & Baron, 2013).
Prewriting activities help students activate background knowledge, generate ideas, identify key themes and vocabulary, discover the connections between related topics, and understand their classmates’ ideas and perspectives. Learning and practicing prewriting strategies like those described above can help apprehensive writers feel more prepared and confident when they approach new writing tasks.
Schweiker-Marra, K., & Marra, W. (2000). Investigating the Effects of Prewriting Activities on Writing Performance and Anxiety of At-Risk Students. Reading Psychology, 21, 99–114. https://doi.org/10.1080/02702710050084437
Scullin, B. L., & Baron, H. (2013). Using Freewriting Notebooks to Reduce Writing Anxiety for English Language Learners. The California Reader, 47, 19–27.