Prewriting is really just a fancy way of saying planning to write. For many writers, it includes brainstorming and outlining. But prewriting activities for young learners, or students with lower proficiency in English, need to be designed carefully. Even something as simple as brainstorming may be hard because they don’t have a lot of vocabulary around a topic. And outlining can be equally intimidating. Now graphic organizers can be helpful, but how do you explain a graphic organizer to a student with low levels of English?

That’s one reason I really like Teresa X. Nguyen‘s books of illustrated creative prompts. While the activities are highly adaptable to fit almost any classroom or educational setting, they also make really good prewriting activities for young learners and lower-level students. Because the activities take the form of drawings and the style is cartoony and friendly, they’re not intimidating at all. Students won’t even realize they are doing something academic. You can even scaffold by having students color the page or add their own drawings, then add words.

For example, here’s a great sample prompt that builds student positivity (illustrated by Tyler Hoang):


This sample page comes from 60 Positive Activities for Kids, but there’s a similar one in 60 Activities for Every Classroom, designed for older learners.

How to Turn a Simple Prompt into a Prewriting Activity for Young Learners

  1. Make sure students understand the prompt. They are to think about achievements or good deeds in the past that they have personally done. And it doesn’t have to be something big like winning a contest. Set your own standards, but I’d tell my students to think of things they are proud, no matter what the size. Note that I am a fan of using L1 in class to save time and ensure students generate good ideas.
  2. Once students understand, set a timer so that students don’t overthink it, get distracted. 10-15 minutes should be enough.
  3. Have them try to fill out all four boxes with something. If their level is very low, it might be a word or two, or even a drawing, or some combination of words and pictures. Don’t let them worry about spelling at this point. As long as they know what they wrote, it’s fine.
  4. Put students in pairs to discuss their responses. Again set a clear time so they don’t go off subject. They should be doing two things:
    • Helping each other with vocabulary and spelling. I like letting students correct each other before they consult a dictionary because it shows the power of social learning, and it also creates natural feedback: “Wait, every week you visit your grandmother and help her do what? The crucigram?The puzzle, you mean? I think it’s called a word cross, no, no, crossword in English”
    • Choosing the most interesting topic. You write for an audience. So the best way to help students chose a good topic is to open up their ideas to someone else like a peer. Again, the reaction will often be very natural. If a topic is interesting, the other student will ask questions and express admiration: “Wait, you have a black belt in aikido? Cool. How long have you been doing it?” If this doesn’t happen, they can just ask which response was interesting.
  5. Now your students have their topic. They can begin to think about how to organize a longer writing about it. At this point, I introduce the 5-Ws (Who? What? When? Where? Why?). Who in this case is probably the student. What might seem equally obvious, but encourage students to break down their activity or achievement. If it’s a good deed, what exactly happened, what was the aftermath? If it’s an activity they excel at like aikido, have them think about what they do at practice, what it means to have done well at it? They can sketch or make notes at this stage.

    Alternatively, I’m fond of Draw-Label-Caption as a way to extend this prewriting activity for young learners. This is a technique can also be adapted to many of the prompts in 60 Positive Activities for Kids.

  6. Now they have a lot of details that they can use to start writing their story. Again, I’m a big fan of letting them work with a partner, at least to have someone to check in on spelling or vocabulary with. However, at this point I would also let them use resources like their dictionaries or their phones or books.

I hope this has been helpful in showing how to move from a simple prompt or even a drawing to a longer piece of writing, scaffolded for younger learners.

But Wait, There’s More….

While they make nice first steps toward a longer writing, you can also use the activities in Teresa’s book as:

  • Discussion starters
  • Brain-breaks or stress-busters in a long or difficult class
  • Warmers
  • Fillers
  • Fast-finisher activities
  • A “diary” where students periodically do one activity in class and get their creative juices flowing

Feel free to leave comments and let us know how you use 60 Positive Activities for Kids in your classroom.

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