Fluency Writing

At this time of year, as new teachers start on their TPRS journey, a question that often comes up is “how do I grade Fluency Writing?”  My reply follows. I’m reposting it, in the hopes that those who did not see it before will find it interesting.

Fluency Writing aims at developing writing skills, yet I find that some teachers do not understand why it is so effective and some tend to misuse it. Actually I was using fluency writing long before I ever heard of TPRS. It was a well proven technique before Blaine Ray started to do stories with TPR, but he and his followers quickly adopted it. The principle is quite simple. You ask students to write short texts during a limited time. Many people say five minutes, but my students needed almost that much time to get their pens and paper out, so I asked them to write for ten minutes. The twist is that students are told they will be marked on quantity rather than quality.

The usual objections are that they will write any old thing, that it will be gibberish, just lists of meaningless words. We should give our students a little more credit. Very few of them are interested in writing gibberish, and it’s actually easier to write a story than to make up nonsense. I never encountered such  problems. My students played the game quite honestly, and once they realized that I was more interested in reading what they had to say than in counting spelling mistakes, many of them trusted me by writing very personal and interesting texts.

Some teachers feel compelled to correct mistakes and grade for accuracy. If you grade free writes for quality you are missing the whole point of fluency writing. Fluency writing gives students confidence in their ability to write because they are able to stop using their monitors. If they know that they are being graded on grammatical correctness, they are going to be monitoring every word. The purpose of fluency writing is to encourage students to get words down on the paper, as many words as possible, so that the limited time will keep them from using their monitors. When you do this regularly you will see the number of words students are able to produce increase, double and even triple, simply because they are no longer using their time-consuming monitors. Their writing becomes spontaneous and more natural as they focus more on content than on form. This is where Krashen’s little miracle comes in. When students are using spontaneous language that springs from what they have acquired subconsciously, it becomes MORE grammatical, not less. That would be illogical if we were talking about Learning, but we are not. We are talking about Acquisition and it’s a completely different ball game. Most grammatical mistakes come from the monitor not knowing the rule or not applying it correctly. Get rid of the monitor and you get rid of a lot of mistakes. The subconscious will reproduce the structures that it has heard in class without wondering whether or not they are correct. If they were getting high quality input from the teacher (rather than the low quality input produced by communicative activities), their structures will be surprisingly correct. That is the beauty of fluency writing.

There are other reasons not to correct or grade grammatical errors. First, it is time consuming. Secondly, underlining a mistake in red guarantees that the brain will remember it. It will remember the mistake, but it will not remember that it was a mistake. Underline it often enough and the mistake will become acquired language, or what we call fossilized errors, the kind that are so hard to eradicate. Teachers will notice that many students of the class have similar problems with certain structures. This simply means that the structure is not yet acquired, a precious indicator that students need more input of that particular structure. Fluency writing allowed me to pin point which structures were hampering my students’ expression and to design my curriculum accordingly.

I always had my students do their fluency writing in a small notebook that was used only for that. At the end of the year anyone could see the progress each student had made, in the number of words they were able to write in ten minutes, but also in grammatical correctness. My system was to give points for each text, based on how long it was. I made positive comments in the margin about content, sometimes just a smiley face, and occasionally I added bonus points for an exceptionally interesting text. I put question marks beside anything that was not comprehensible. Through my comments I wanted my students to know that I was reading what they wrote, reading it for content, not for grammatical correctness, that I was truly interested in what they had to say.

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