Intermittent writing

20160110_171521Some of you might have come across the term Intermittent Fasting. It’s a special pattern of eating that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. I should add that it’s somewhat controversial, mainly because it challenges the widespread assumption that people should eat little and often.

Whether it’s beneficial or harmful to health is up to you to consider, but what would you think of Intermittent Writing?

The idea occurred to me while I was listening to a presentation by Alice Keeler on YouTube. She asks:

Why is doing an essay in a Google Doc better than doing it on a piece of paper?

She argues that the main advantage is that the teacher can insert a comment while the student is working on the document. She adds that research shows that many students don’t take traditional feedback on a writing assignment as a learning opportunity. What is more, it damages their self-esteem in some ways. So giving students continuous feedback during the actual process of writing shows them that your aim is to help, not only to assess them.

Well, I still like my students to write their assignments on paper, but I thought it may be a good idea to try something like an ‘intermittent writing’ procedure.

20160110_171606This method works best with classes that you meet regularly and frequently. I, for example, see most of my classes four times a week for 45-min periods.

While the approach may not be perfectly suitable for creative writing classes, it’s definitely good for producing structured written assignments, such as an opinion essay. I’ll shortly explain why I think so.

The structure of an opinion is relative fixed and it usually consists of several parts:

  • an introductory paragraph in which you state the topic and your opinion
  • a main body which consists of several paragraphs, each presenting a separate viewpoint supported by reasons

Note: I usually ask my students to write two middle paragraphs, i.e. one paragraph where they come up with the pros/ advantages/ positives and one paragraph in which they contrast the previous one by stating the possible cons/ disadvantages/ flaws/ negatives, etc..

  • a conclusion in which you restate your opinion using different words

So, let’s say your students are required to write an opinion essay about the topic Environment (200-250 words). You give them the following prompt:

‘Scientific progress does more harm than good to the environment.’ Do you agree?

Spoiler: Your students are not going to write all the essay at one go.

In Lesson 1, you ask them to consider the topic, plan the outline of the essay and brainstorm the basic points and arguments. They will only be allowed to write the introductory paragraph (about 50-60 words) before they hand in the assignments.

20160110_171543In Lesson 2, they look at your feedback and tips you offered, and they rewrite the introductory paragraph. They can make any additional changes they wish. Then they produce the next paragraph. They should stick to the word limit 50-60 words. Again, they finally hand in the product. This time, you will only concentrate on the second paragraph, but you’ll certainly want to see what changes each student made in the first paragraph (so keep all the drafts!). Still, try to resist the temptation to comment on the first one again, with the exception of cohesion, for example, i.e. consider if the first and the second paragraphs are logically connected.

In Lesson 3, Ss rewrite the second paragraph and produce paragraph 3. And so on …

Finally, they rewrite the whole essay, including any changes they find appropriate, and hand in the final product, this time for summative assessment.

During the ‘fasting’ period, i.e. the period between the two lessons, students will get an opportunity to ‘digest’ what they previously produced. They will be able to think forward and plan their next steps. By taking into account the teacher’s feedback, they will be able to make changes they would otherwise never consider. In addition, they’ll get a chance to get a much better grade since the whole process was broken down into very small, manageable steps. Finally, you slow down those sloppy writers, whose only aim is to get the thing done as quickly as possible.

I’m not saying that the approach is suitable for all teaching contexts, but I believe that grading the writing task this way can be helpful when you are introducing a new stylistic form, for instance. Finally, and most importantly, it’s a process-oriented approach rather than a product-based one.


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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4 Responses to Intermittent writing

  1. I have used this basic approach with my students and been pleased with the results. I am not sure I always was able to resist the temptation to comment on earlier sections, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Nancy. Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad to hear it worked for you too. I’d definitely like to learn more about your experience with this type of writing/feedback procedure. Maybe in the next blog post? 🙂


  2. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Hana,
    I’d be interested to know how your students have responded to this approach. Is it something you’ve tried out, or still at the idea stage?


    • Hana Tichá says:

      Still at the idea stage, I’m afraid. I’ve been meaning to try it for a long time, but I’m not really sure how my students would react to it.


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