Prewriting Activities for Young Learners and Lower Level Students

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, who often have lower proficiency in English as well as lower attention spans and writing skills, need to be designed carefully. Young learners often don’t have a lot of vocabulary around a topic. Using a complex outline or graphic organizer can be intimidating and confusing. And it always helps with kids if your classroom activities are engaging and quick.

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 (These fabulous illustrations are by the very talented Tyler Hoang):

Turn a Simple Prompt into a Prewriting Activity for Young Learners

Imagine that we’re using the prompt above: good things I’ve done, big or small!

First, make sure that students understand the prompt. They should 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.

You can set your own standards, but I’d tell my students to think of things they are proud, no matter what the size. It could be drawing a cool picture, reading a book, running really fast, or helping out at home. You can also let students use L1 to brainstorm and then translate with a dictionary or the help of their classmates.

Once students understand, set a timer so that students don’t overthink it, get distracted. 10-15 minutes should be enough. 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.

Put students in pairs to discuss their responses. Again set a clear time limit 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, e.g.
    “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. We write for an audience. So the best way to help students chose a good topic is to open up their ideas to an audience such as their classmates. This also provides a great chance for natural interaction. After all, 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?”

Now your students have their topic for their writing. They can begin to think about how to organize a longer writing about it.

I like to introduce the 5-Ws (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) to flesh out the story and include details!

  • 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?
  • When, Where, and Why speak for themselves, I hope!

They can sketch or make notes at this stage. Alternatively, I’m fond of Draw-Label-Caption. It’s a great prewriting activity for young learners on it’s own and it fits well with many of the prompts in 60 Positive Activities for Kids.

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 their spelling or discuss words and grammar. 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. You can also check out some suggestions for using drawings in language teaching or check out Emily Bryson’s course on graphic facilitation.

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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