ESL Timed Writing Activities

ESL Writing Lessons

Why should timed writing activities be a regular part of your ESL composition class? There are two reasons.

The first is improve writing fluency. Fluency means the ability to produce more output in a given period of time. Timed writing activities, like the ones described below, can improve writing fluency by using time pressure to force production.

The second reason is variety. Writing classes, like any subject, can get a little dull if the whole time is spent with heads down and pencils up. Mixing up the writing activities can enliven a staid classroom environment.

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1. Timed Repeated Writing

This weekly activity helps students learn to perform core tasks (e.g. spelling, punctuation, subject-verb agreement) automatically. When the basics become automatic, they can focus on complex tasks, like organisation and word choices.

Each session takes about 10 minutes, though the first time may require a few extra minutes to explain the tasks, rationale and outcomes.

  1. Write a word on the board related to material recently covered in class (fluency activities rarely incorporate new material).
  2. Instruct students to write as much as possible in 60 seconds related to the given word/phrase.
  3. Point out quantity is important, not quality.
  4. Call time after one minute. Students stop writing, count the number of words and write the number on a recording sheet.
  5. Students read their passage and circle any mistakes.
  6. Repeat the 60-second exercise two more times.

Over a period of weeks, scan student recording sheets. The number of words per minute in the first and third iterations should be increasing.

What is considered a good writing speed?

I have no data about average writing speeds for ESL students. In my own classroom experience, the range is large, something like 10 to 70 words per minute. One educational consultant in the US said grade 9 elementary students should be able to write 40 to 45 words per minute.

2. Timed Sentence Writing

This is a timed writing exercise with a difference.

Students look at picture prompts and write three sentences using target language. The objective is to isolate and practice key sentence patterns so that students can learn them by heart through timed, repeated practice.

Unlike conventional free writing exercises, the thrust of this activity is accuracy. Unlike boring drills, this guided writing exercise incorporates an element of creativity and variability.

In my university writing classes, I target prepositional phrases, appositives and complex sentences.

Here is a simple example using the first image.

  1. Quickly review vocabulary by naming the objects in the picture.
  2. Ask students to write three sentences with three different prepositions of location in 1 to 2 minutes per image (time depends on class skill level). They might write something like this for one image:
  • There is a cup in front of the bottle.
  • There is a spoon on the table.
  • There is a bottle between the napkins and the butter.


ESL writing activities



ESL writing lessons



ESL writing picture prompt



ESL writing lesson ideas

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