Three Day Discussion on Teaching Writing: Day 1 Pre-Writing

Welcome Dr. Mary Ann Corley! 

It is my very great pleasure to welcome Dr. Mary Ann Corley to a three-day discussion on teaching writing!  I have known Mary Ann for many years, and I have learned a tremendous about evidence-based writing instruction from her.  Indeed, every writing workshop I have conducted in the past eight years has been informed and transformed by what I learned from her.  

By way of introduction, Mary Ann Corley, Ph.D., is an adult literacy consultant/professional learning specialist. Her more than 35 years’ experience in adult education includes the role of teacher, local program administrator, Maryland State GED Administrator, and Director of the National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center.

Recently retired as Principal Researcher for the American Institutes for Research in Washington, DC, Mary Ann directed the Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL) project (2009-2015) with a focus on evidence-based writing instruction. In addition, she directed the California Adult Literacy Professional Development (CALPRO) Project (2001-2008), tasked with developing and delivering a comprehensive approach to high-quality professional development for California’s adult education and literacy providers, and she served as lead professional development specialist on the National Reporting System (NRS) annual trainings (2002-2011).

For this week’s discussion, we are thrilled to partner with members of the Teaching and Learning and Professional Development communities who I know are excited to interact with Dr. Corley. 

The discussion will cover the early stages of writing, and it is based on the LINCS resource Writing Next that can be found HERE.  Each day’s focus will be:

  • Tuesday July 14 Pre-Writing
  • Wednesday July 15 Collaborative Writing
  • Thursday July 16 Contextualized Grammar

I will lead off today’s discussion on pre-writing with a few questions:

1.  What is pre-writing, and why is it important for student success in writing?

2.  Over the years, I noticed that many students pursuing their high school equivalency saved the writing test to work on last or next to last just before math.  While math anxiety is a well-known phenomenon, it seems writing anxiety exists but is less well documented.  Why are many students intimidated by the idea of putting their thoughts on paper?

Mary Ann, thanks so much for giving your time and talent sharing with the Reading and Writing Community of Practice!  We are very much looking forward to learning from you this week!


Thanks, Steve, for inviting me to be part of this discussion on writing!

There are five stages to the writing process: pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Pre-writing is the all-important first stage—the process of generating ideas and thoughts about a topic and organizing these thoughts before writing a first draft. Pre-writing allows the writer to generate ideas both on the topic and on ways to effectively reach the intended audience. If a student begins writing without the benefit of pre-writing—that is, without planning and organizing, the result often is poorly constructed writing that lacks the logic of a well-thought-out product. There are several pre-writing techniques that help the writer to focus on his/her topic. These include, among others, brainstorming, freewriting, list making, outlining, journaling, asking the 5 W questions, and diagramming.

Many ABE/HSE students may not appreciate the value of pre-writing. When assigned a writing task, they may just jump right in and begin writing a draft without planning and organizing their thoughts. This can result in stream-of-consciousness text that lacks clarity and organization. One way to encourage students to value and engage in pre-writing is to compare two versions of a piece of their own writing on a given topic—one version that entailed pre-writing and one that did not. This can help make apparent the value of pre-writing—that it contributes to a stronger, clearer, more effective piece of writing. 

 So--a question for discussion group members: What are some of the strategies that you have found successful in encouraging students to engage in pre-writing? 

Hi, Kathy:

Yes--this is so common! Many students do not want to take the time to plan their writing--they just want to plunge right in. Teachers have complained about this to me many times! The best advice I can give is for teachers to have students compare the results of two of their essays on the same topic--one that entailed pre-writing and one that did not (These should be assigned with some time between the efforts rather than back-to-back). A caution: Remove the student's names from the essays and ask all students to compare the two essays. Do  this with many different students' pairs of essays so that it does not single out any one student. It soon becomes apparent that the writing that entailed planning is a stronger essay.

It would be great to hear other people's ideas for getting students to value pre-writing.    


If students just want to write, I have them write their first version by hand on paper. When they are done with that, they usually do not want to read it over or make changes, so I have them rewrite their essay on the computer ( so that I can read it), and most of the time they make changes and revisions there without me asking for it.


I agree, this is a challenge. One semester, I used student examples (without any names) to show how previous students started out writing on a topic, and then I showed two other samples of the same assignment from the same students to show how those students had progressed. It seemed to have meaning for the new students to see how other students had resolved the same assignment and to see a beginning, middle and ending sample.


Writing is a highly complex process that involves multiple brain functions and abilities. It requires the writer to formulate ideas, organize and sequence points in logical order, select vocabulary, check for grammatical correctness, spell words correctly, punctuate, and write (or type) legibly. Writing requires the simultaneous and sequential integration of attention, language, long-term memory and working memory, motor skills, higher-order thinking, and metacognition. Writing has been described as “thinking made visible”—in other words, the student must have some thoughts about the topic to be able to express them in writing. And it can be downright scary to realize that readers will judge not only one's writing skills but also his/her thinking! A good way to help students formulate thoughts and ideas before pre-writing is to lead class discussions about the topic. When students listen to others' opinions and thoughts about a given topic, they often find it helpful in stimulating their own thoughts about the topic.


Hello MaryAnn, Thank you for joining us to share your expertise on teaching writing.  Steve notes that some students have anxiety about engaging in writing. In fact, there are many English learners who take the Reading Language Arts portion of the GED last because it requires writing an extended response. I'm actually working with two students in that situation now. Of course, one of the biggest challenges for English learners on this test is the amount of time that is allowed for the writing.

What strategies can you share with us to support students to build their confidence as writers?

Take care, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

This is a good question, Susan. There are several techniques that an instructor can use to help students become more comfortable with writing. Journaling is a good way to begin. The instructor asks students to write in their notebooks (yes, it is important that they each have a bound notebook for their writing) one or two sentences about their families or their jobs or their hobbies. The teacher then writes positive comments about the content of the student’s writing and does not make corrections to grammar or spelling or punctuation. The idea is to get students to communicate without the fear of having errors corrected. (This is similar to an ESL teacher's allowing students to speak without correcting their grammar or pronunciation because the goal here is communication, and the way to build fluency is to allow the student to speak.) After some days of having students write about personal topics, the teacher can then ask students to write a sentence or two about the topic of the last lesson—what they learned or what they want to know more about. This can be used across all content areas--for example, asking students to journal about what they learned from a history or science lesson.

Freewriting is similar to journaling, but it generally involves more than a sentence or two, as in journaling. It’s fun to use a poem or a photo as a stimulus for students’ freewriting. I have collected a host of unusual photos to use for just this purpose—photos that perhaps evoke some feeling or emotion, such as a person bungee jumping with a look of fright or excitement on her face. Then the instructor can ask if anyone wants to share his/her freewrite with the class. There usually will be a few volunteers who want to share their thoughts about the photo, and this can lead to a fun discussion. With quick-writes, a form of freewriting, the teacher gives students a time limit—say three minutes—to write whatever comes to mind about the topic. Everyone must write something—even the teacher! Again, the teacher asks if anyone wishes to share his/her writing, and, because there is no evaluation or correction of the writing, students become more confident about sharing with the class. In the TEAL project, we had teachers in 10 states try out these teaching techniques, and we were gratified when teachers reported that, after using journaling or freewriting for some weeks, if they neglected to assign a writing topic in one class, the students would prod the teacher with questions such as “Aren’t we going to do some writing today?” I loved hearing that!!     

There are other techniques that can be used to build students’ confidence about writing, including bio-poems, sentence starters, using model paragraphs, etc. It would be great to hear from our discussion group members about techniques they have used to get students to overcome their fear of writing.          

Thank you, MaryAnn for these wonderful suggestions. I love the idea to have students reflect in writing on what they learned at the end of class.

You mentioned having students write in a journal every day. I've often incorporated a dialogue journal in my classes where students respond to a prompt provided by the teacher, and the teacher then reads and responds to the student's writing. This becomes like a conversation in writing between the teacher and the student.

Some members might be interested in checking out this article in the LINCS collection by Joy Peyton, "Dialogue Journals: Interactive Writing to Develop Language and Literacy," that offers many useful ideas related to dialogue journaling.

I'm wondering how dialogue journaling might be adapated for a virtual classroom. 

Cheers, Susan


Thanks, Susan, for the reference to the Joy Peyton article on dialogue writing—lots of good ideas here! You ask about using dialogue journaling in the virtual classroom. I would imagine that e-mails between the teacher and individual students would work pretty much the same as with bound journals in the classroom. To foster the classroom dynamic created by students’ sharing their writing with the group, Zoom would work for this. I have not tried using technology for journaling activities, so I wonder what other ideas people have about this?    

Thanks Susan and Mary Ann!

I love journaling and freewriting, and they are both great ways to sneak up on more challenging writing tasks.  For the instructor with their red pen always poised, it can be a challenge to back away from making grammar corrections, but it is worth the effort!  

Mary Ann, I have a few more questions please:

How can we help students generate ideas before they begin drafting their papers?

How can we assist students in organizing their ideas prior to writing?

We so appreciate your help! 

Steve Schmidt

Moderator, Reading and Writing Community of Practice

How can we assist students in generating ideas prior to writing?

Students will need help getting ideas for writing. Brainstorming with the whole class is one way that the teacher can help students get ideas. Another way is to lead a classroom discussion on a topic before asking students to plan and organize their writing. For example, the teacher can pose a question such as “Should states allow mail-in ballots for the 2020 presidential election?” The teacher posts this question on the board and asks students first to suggest “yes” responses and reasons. After exhausting all possible “yes” answers, the teacher moves on to eliciting “no” responses. The teacher does not comment on or judge any of the responses. When students run out of responses, the teacher asks them to review the yes and no columns and to form their own opinions, using some of the reasons already given and writing a brief response to the question. This is one great way to get students interacting and thinking about the topic.   

Another way to generate ideas for this same question is for the teacher to post “stations” on the walls around the room: one station is labeled “Agree,” a second is labelled “Disagree,” and a third is “Neutral.”  The students decide if they agree with, disagree with, or are neutral about the question, and then they self-select one of the stations and physically stand under that label (a great way to get students up and about and to energize the group!). Each label will have a small group of students under it. The groups have 5 minutes to come up with reasons for their response. After 5 minutes, the teacher asks for a spokesperson from each group to provide a rationale for the group’s response. At any time during this discussion, if the rationale given by another group resonates with a student, he/she is free to change his/her mind and physically move to a different label. Those students who initially stood under the “Neutral” label should now select and move to either the Agree or Disagree group. [This activity is especially helpful when students are writing argument essays and need not only a rationale for their own perspective but also an acknowledgment that there is another valid perspective. For this other perspective, students will need to write a rebuttal for why it is not as strong as their selected perspective.]

Other ideas from our group members?   

One way to help students organize their thoughts prior to writing is to use a graphic organizer called clustering to build a visual representation. Many students respond well to visual stimuli, such as the following. Creating an outline also works well for organizing thoughts for writing.

The example here is a cluster diagram of features to consider when buying a car. When asked to write a descriptive essay of this process (e.g., deciding which car to buy), the student places the question at the top and then identifies or associates three characteristics that are important to this decision: cost, safety, and warranty. Each of these becomes a subheading under the question. Now the student associates questions or important considerations with each of these subheadings (cost, safety, warranty), as seen in the following, which lays out for the student the structure of the descriptive essay—one paragraph for each subheading. Clustering is used for writing a descriptive essay (e.g., describing the causes of World War II, describing the process of condensation).

                                                       Which car should I buy?


            Cost                                                Safety                                           Warranty

How much does it cost?         What is the safety record?            How long is the warranty for?

Can it be financed?              What are the safety features?       What does the warranty cover?



Other structures (besides description) that help students organize their writing include sequence or chronological order (discussing events or change over time), compare and contrast, general to specific, problem and solution, and cause and effect. There are sentence starters that the teacher can provide for each of these structures so that the students can concentrate on what they want to say and not get lost in the form. Examples of sentence starters are the following:

Definition/Description:             A ______ is a kind of _______ that _______.

Sequence:                              First, ______, then ______, continues on by ______,          and finally ________.

Cause/Effect:                         ________ happens because ________.

Problem/Solution:                  _______needs _______, but _______ so _______.

Compare /Contrast:             (a) _______ and (b) ________ are alike in that they both______; however,

                                             (a) ______, while (b) ______. 


Mary Ann has provided us with some exceptional ideas for pre-writing during today’s discussion.  With the pandemic forcing a dramatic switch to remote learning these past few months, I want to highlight some ideas and resources that can be used for teaching writing at a distance. 

During a discussion we had with Ashly Winkle in May 2020, she mentioned how she uses pen and paper with a tech twist.  “For independent [writing] practice, I would have [students] write on a piece of paper or type something (if comfortable, which is rare).  Then take a pic of the paper, and send it to me. We can still use traditional methods and integrate it with some basic tech tools until they are ready for the more advanced tools.”  This would be one way to handle journaling and freewriting at a distance.  

Another technique for teaching writing at a distance is free web resource Padlet.  Padlet is an interactive bulletin board that allows students to display their writing so its visible their instructor and each other.  Mary Ann mentioned several brainstorming techniques which could easily be done in Padlet.  The yes and no columns could both be placed on a Padlet wall as well as the agree/disagree/neutral columns.  Padlet also lends itself well to the clustering technique she mentioned. 

Padlet is very user friendly.  A basic Padlet tutorial video may be found HERE.  It also describes how Padlet can be integrated with Google Classroom.  A more advanced Padlet tutorial video may be found HERE.  The video’s creator has some interesting ideas about using screen cast features at 7:07 and using a shelf for a KWL chart at 9:53. 

Please add your own ideas about how you are teaching writing remotely with your students!

Hi, Mary et al. The Day 1 dialogue on this important topic is a treasure chest of ideas that I am grateful to integrate from all who have contributed. Thanks!

I notice that the direction we are taking here is academic writing, which provides great challenges in itself, many of which are being addressed.

Behind all academic writing, there is also a foundation piece that says, "As in all skill acquisition, we learn to write by writing." So many of our students don't grow up writing anything, so academic writing is totally foreign to them. Concepts like organization, logical development, brainstorming, and journaling, for example, are alien to them. Connection = -0-. They have not been writing anything!

There are also those who say that our students fail to write not because the don't know how to write but because they are not familiar with the topics they are asked to discuss. We could ask Knowles about that!

I wonder how our adult students might get hooked on writing without having any rules at all to follow or to be graded by. What if the rules were "Just write. Period. Here's a topic that looks interesting. What do you know about it? What do you want to know about it? And if you don't, why not?" I read some suggestions of that, maybe, in the dialogue-writing conversation here. 

Another way of proposing that concept would be to ask, What ideas might take the "school" out of the writing process? Just pondering. 

Thanks, all! Leecy

Thanks for hour insights, Leecy! It's always a pleasure to learn your thoughts on effective instruction!

I think that what you are suggesting--having students just write--is a form of freewriting or quick-writes, and it can even be part of journaling. The quick-write topic does not need to be academic--it can be "tell me about your family," or "what do you like to do during your free time?" And with journaling, the topic is really up to the student--he/she can write about anything he/she wants. Students' journal entries enable the teacher to learn a good deal about the students. What's neat about journaling is that, because the teacher always writes encouraging comments and does not make judgments on the quality of the student's writing, students soon want to do more writing because they have begun to discover their voices, and this is indeed empowering (We found this to be the case with the TEAL project). Students seem to  enjoy reading the teacher's comments in their journals--they have the teacher's full attention, and it is not for the purpose of pointing out writing errors! I think the key is for the teacher to work on creating a comfortable climate in the classroom where students can express themselves without being corrected. And, after a few brave students are willing to share their writing with the class, soon others will want to do this. For those who do not want to share, that's OK, too. Please feel free to add to this, Leecy.   

Right on, Mary Ann. And right back at you on "It's always a pleasure to learn your thoughts on effective instruction!" :)

Free writing is, indeed, a non-academic activity, especially if no grading is involved.

I remember walking into my pre-freshman college writing classes (pre-computer invasion) on occasion and stating, "In one minute, you will start writing. I don't care what you write, but I want to see you writing." At first I heard groans and "Whhhhhaaatttt?" Once they got used to it, I was amazed at what they wrote as I walked by and peeked at their "work."

Occasionally, they would read an assigned passage, like a newspaper news report, which they would then have to "just write, write, write" about for 5-8 minutes. Turned out to be fun for them when they began to really trust that I wasn't going to grade them!  Leecy