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Prewriting Activities for EFL Academic-Writing Classes

Prewriting Activities for EFL Academic Writing Classes

Academic writing is not an easy skill to master, and yet it is the most important skill needed in an academic context (Alexander et al, 2008). Academic writing is very formal in style, and usually set by and written for an academic tutor (or assessor). This style of writing can be very challenging for EFL students because it requires them to generate and organise ideas in a language that is not their L1 (Hashempour et al. 2015).

Spending time thinking and planning an academic essay, i.e. a written response to a focussed question, is crucial if students are to produce good pieces of academic writing, whether they are at foundation (pre-bachelor), undergraduate or postgraduate level. Opting to dive right into an essay, having not spent time thinking about what is being asked, is arguably going to result in a lower mark from the tutor/assessor. It is paramount, therefore, that academic writing tutors stress the importance of prewriting strategies when teaching their students how to produce an academic essay.


The Importance of Prewriting in EFL Academic Writing Classes

Prewriting is a term that describes any kind of preliminary activities, such as exploring the essay topic, developing ideas, and then discovering relationships between those various ideas, etc. (Zamel, 1982). Prewriting is the first stage of the process approach to writing (See Oshima and Hogue, 1999; Mora-Flores, 2009) and is arguably the most important. This is because students need to learn how to approach an essay topic, and how to produce a flow of ideas.

Prewriting should certainly not be seen as burdensome and time-consuming by either students or tutors. Recording ideas in permanent form prior to the next step in the writing process (i.e. drafting) can help to inform and guide students’ thinking, resulting in a coherent, well-organised essay.

In the beginning of an academic writing course, the tutor might want to model expectations through tutor led instruction during a prewriting session, especially if students lack awareness of the systematic prewriting strategies (often referred to as invention techniques) necessary to begin answering an essay question. Once students have a grasp of prewriting strategies, teacher led instruction can gradually be replaced by guided practice which should provide motivation and confidence to enable full student independence (Hashempour et al, 2015).

Tutors should take into consideration that it may take a fair amount of practice for students to master prewriting techniques, and to consider that not all techniques will suit all students (Lund University, n.d.). Indeed, it may be the case that students, having had practice using a number of prewriting strategies, develop a preference for one particular strategy, which is perfectly acceptable.

The four prewriting strategies that I shall be discussing in this article are:

  • Brainstorming
  • Freewriting
  • Clustering
  • Questioning


Brainstorming (sometimes referred to as ‘listing’) is a prewriting technique that enables students to free their thoughts and ideas, and open-up their minds to various ways of tackling an essay question (Baroudy, 2008).  The goal of a brainstorming session is to come up with as many ideas as possible.

How Brainstorming Works

When given an essay question, students begin by jotting down on paper all their previous acquired knowledge about what the essay question is asking. It is very important that the tutor points out that during a brainstorming session, all ideas that come to mind are written down with no attention given to structure or relevance (Swarthmore College. n.d.) In other words, students explore ideas without placing any restrictions on thoughts or stopping to analyse or censor what they have jotted down. It is only after brainstorming that useful ideas can be identified, grouped and structured (Lund University, n.d.).

Imagine students have been assigned an essay on ‘Air Pollution’. A five-minute brainstorming session may produce the following list:

Causes of Pollution = Fossil fuels – coal, oil

Cars – public transport – smog – Solution: electric cars, pollution free transport

Effects of pollution: Industrialisation – factories – smog, acid rain – government intervention – Greenpeace

Asthma, lung disease, cancer. Irritation

Face masks – oxygen

Volcanic activities

Greenhouse gases/gas emissions – ozone layer

Solution = Solar power, wind power – clean energy

Carbon footprint

Smoking – passive smoking

Affects both humans and wildlife

Although brainstorming can be done as a whole class or individually, the technique does particularly lend itself to small group work. This is because, according to Manouchehry et al (2014), students should be able to develop ideas effectively due to having the experience of a group to help them. All group members can generate ideas, with perhaps one member acting as the scribe.

There are however a number of rules that students should abide by during a brainstorming session:

  • No criticism of ideas
  • Build on what others in the group have suggested
  • Strange and wild ideas are accepted
  • Welcome large quantities of ideas

(Osborn, 1953)

For group brainstorming to be effective, it is important to acknowledge everyone in the group as a valuable contributor. A group brainstorming session should encourage students to form ideas in a non-threatening atmosphere; only then can students develop their academic writing skills (Scane et al, 1991). If students feel that their contributions are silly or unimportant, they will be reluctant to participate in future brainstorming sessions.


Freewriting is a prewriting technique in which students write everything they know about a topic, even things that might at the time seem unimportant. In other words, even if certain ideas seem unrelated to the essay question, students should write them down because the purpose of this technique is to prevent over-thinking. Freewriting could be seen as a kind of stream-of-consciousness writing in which students write down whatever happens to be in their thoughts at that moment.

Freewriting resembles brainstorming, in the sense that no attention is given to structure, spelling or grammar, as it is ideas that students are trying to grasp. However, according to Lahl (2008), unlike brainstorming which tends to produce lists of information, freewriting may look more like a paragraph.

How Freewriting Works

Once a student has read and absorbed the assigned topic, he/she can begin to freewrite. This is a technique that can only realistically be done individually as the key to freewriting is to write without stopping for 5-15 minutes. Students write in complete sentences as quickly as possible. They must not pause for corrections or wait for a deep thought (Wheaton College Writing Center, n.d.). Students force themselves to continue writing even if nothing specific comes to mind. The purpose is to focus and generate material while postponing criticism and editing for later.

Once again, imagine students have been assigned an essay question on ‘Air Pollution’. Students try to come up with as many ideas related to the essay question as possible within the time constraints.

A five-minute freewriting session may produce something like this:

Air pollution, oh dear this is hard, don’t know, timer, air pollution – smoking kills, passive smoking is dangerous for pregnant women and children.

Factories, smoke toxic, erm acid rain is very dangerous. Electric cars should be used by everybody by now, petrol powered cars should be banned, diesel cars are even worse. Ozone layer: fridges, air conditioners, CFCs and Freon are all very dangerous. people should stop buying plastic stuff, polystyrene is a danger to wildlife = toxic, rubbish tips destroying water table – land-fills.

Clock ticking, eer erm, keep writing, think think CFCs, fridges, fossil fuels coal should be banned, Solar panels should be cheaper. Governments should invest in wind power = renewable energy. Solar energy should be on every house. Industrialised countries, Stop oil.

Smog – respiratory diseases, asthma in children on the rise – face masks worn by people going to work on foot and on bicycles – by children playing outside, can’t walk outside – lung cancer, damages lungs, people and wildlife dying.

Clock is ticking think think, can’t think – public transport – buses and taxes should be electric, ban old public transport. Solar power, no fossil fuel wind power, don’t cut down trees. Timer think. Times up.

The next step is to get students to reflect on what they have written and cross out anything they feel is unrelated to the essay prompt. What is left could perhaps be enough to form body paragraphs, topic sentences or even a thesis statement. If not, then the process could be repeated several times (with a tighter focus) until enough content is developed. The tutor might ask students to form small groups to compare relevant content, and thus prompt meaningful discussion.


Clustering (often referred to as mind-mapping or word-webs) can be described as a visual form of prewriting. It is an excellent technique for students who think spatially, i.e. students who find they relate thoughts and ideas better if they see connections between them. This is because clustering attempts, both visually and graphically, to portray a relationship of ideas or concepts related to the essay question (Buzan & Buzan, 1993). Rico (1983) defines clustering as an open-minded, non-linear, visual structuring of ideas, in which a student free-associates strings of ideas around a central word or idea. Students can therefore more readily understand possible directions their essay may take.

How Clustering Works

Students begin by writing a word or short phrase that is related to the essay question in the inner circle in the middle of a piece of paper. Then students try to think of words, images, events, etc. that relate to the topic they are focussing on (superordinate concepts). If related points inspire additional ideas (subordinate concepts), students can add new circles/bubbles and continue to explore the idea further by working outwards, allowing their ideas to take them off in any direction (see Buzan & Buzan, 1993). As subdivisions occur, students draw lines linking them together. Once students feel that they have exhausted their topic, they should look for differences or similarities in the ideas that they wrote down.


Questioning is a prewriting technique in which students ask six journalistic type questions (who, what, when, where, why, how). These questions enable students to focus on and explore the essay question they have been set. Like brainstorming, this technique can be done individually or in small groups. However, unlike brainstorming, freewriting and clustering, it is a more structured technique.

How Questioning Works

Students think of questions as a reporter writing an article providing details, information and ideas, etc. Students ensure that they provide the most important and relevant information about the problem or issue etc., making it flexible enough to account for the specific details of their topic (KU Writing Centre, n.d.). For example:

Who:   am I writing this essay for? 

What: is the topic about? do I know about the topic? is the significance of the topic? are the issues?

Where: At what place is the cause or effect of the problem most visible?

When: did the issue or problem take place?  is the issue most apparent (past, present, future)? What can one do to solve the problem?

Why: is it (the topic) an issue at all? did the problem arise?

How:  do I feel about the topic? is the issue or problem significant? can the issue or problem be solved?

As illustrated above, questioning is a very good method to expand a great deal of information about the essay question very quickly. Responding to these six questions will hopefully form the foundation of a student’s composition (Hashempour, et al, 2015).


Not all prewriting techniques work for everyone. Students may find that some techniques work better than others. However, students should not be afraid to try different prewriting techniques before deciding on one that works best for them. It may be the case that a technique that works for one essay question might not work for another.

No matter which prewriting technique students choose, the aim is to work as quickly and freely as is possible and avoid being a critic or editor. This is because being judgemental will hinder the flow of ideas. Later, students can look at what they have written and begin to re-organise it. What is important is that if students find they are really struggling  and find prewriting techniques challenging, they should not be afraid to seek guidance and recommendations from their academic writing tutor.


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