Karen Rowan on grading Free writes

Karen Rowan is a wonderful teacher, CI trainer/coach, writer, and overall delightful human being.  I first came across her work in 2004 when I began using Realidades textbook series for levels 1, 2, and 3.  Karen wrote the TPRS resources for Realidades and her materials were my first introduction to TPRS. The resources she wrote helped me see the possibilities (for better or worse) to mix CI-based methods with the traditional linear format of teaching with a textbook.  
Below are some very well articulated words that Karen shared about using Free writes, Speed writes, or Fluency writes…these are all names for the same thing.  She is responding to a question on the more TPRS list serve and with her permission, I am sharing her thoughts here.

The goal is 100 words in 5 minutes.


Grade it with smiley faces.  Grade them with stickers.  Grade it with letter grades.  Grade it with numbers.  Grade it with applause.  It does NOT matter.  AT ALL.  Reading makes us better writers. Writing makes us better thinkers.

Weighing the pig more often will not make it grow faster.

Take the measurement…. then keep providing comprehensible input until the piggies weigh more.

If you must provide a grade to satisfy someone else, have them count their words and use that as a letter grade. i.e.  Lowest word count in the room is 30.  Highest is 150.  I wanted 100 in 5 minutes.  30 -70 is a B.  71-150 is an A.  If they don’t write at all, I go find out why.  The following week the lowest count is 40 and the highest count is 120.  40-70 is a B.  71+ is an A.

Doing this, encourages more fluent writers to spend their time…. thinking.  Developing a good story and being creative.  Writing makes us better thinkers, not better writers.  I do it frequently ONLY because their level of anxiety goes down (Affective Filter) when they write about once a week or once every other week for 5 -7 minutes.  I ALWAYS throw the first freewrite out.  It’s a baseline and they can watch their numbers grow in their notebooks each week.  I start the time when the bell rings while I’m taking attendance.  Late students don’t get more time but they CAN write at the top that they were late, so less time = fewer words.  Read their freewrites for great story ideas that you can use in class and further personalize your stories with those details to make the input more compelling.

Even the time we spend thinking about how to grade freewrites… the time we spend pondering the inconsequential… robs us of energy to focus on comprehensible input, compelling input, personalization…. Feed your creative genius by spending less time worrying any details that distract you from input.  It’s tempting…. because we want evidence.  If they’re unhappy with their scores, tell them to read more and invest more in time for reading.

That is my very strong, opinionated, research-supported…. humble opinion. 😉

Karen Rowan



You may already be familiar with freewriting, but it’s important to be able to explain to students why freewriting is an important and useful writing exercise. It forces the writer to pay attention to ideas and to what’s in his mind, and takes attention away from concern with correctness. For many of our ESL students, it may even help them stop translating from L1 to English. Whether the freewriting is “controlled” (i.e., you have given them a topic or a starting phrase) or free is not important, What is important is that the students do this exercise frequently. Fluent L2 writers are usually able to write 100+words in five minutes, so you can occasionally ask the students to count the number of words they’ve written to see how well they’re doing. Staying on the topic is not the goal—continuing to write is (139).


The above information is provided by Karen Rowan and comes from Fluency First in ESL Instruction by Prof. E. Rorschach and Prof. A. MacGowan-Gilhooly (1992).


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  • Mike: I would never think of arguing with Karen Rowan. — Richard.

    Richard Baker 4 years ago Reply

    • Ha ha…me either Richard, I love that Karen is very to the point in her statements about free writing and I love that there has been some diligent work in the 100 words per 5 minutes thing with ESL/ELL teachers back in the 90s.

      I get that thinking about fluency development this way can be a lot to take in but what she writes makes a lot of sense.


      Michael Coxon 4 years ago Reply

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