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8 Meaningful Essay Prewriting Activities

Teaching writing? Sometimes students shut down before they write a single word. Teachers can address this dilemma by making the brainstorming process meaningful. How? Engage students through differentiation and scaffolding. When students are provided with choices, they feel less helpless, become more confident, and produce better compositions. Try using one or more of these essay prewriting activities to generate solid ideas and set your students up for success.


When authors experience writer’s block, one of the strategies they use to overcome the hurdle is to change their location. Allowing students to write in the library, outside, or at a coffee shop (field trip!) can reap results worthy of reading. Alternate settings are the perfect and simplest option for differentiating prewriting. Plus, almost all prewriting strategies can adapt to an outdoor location.


Regardless of whether I’m working with advanced students or struggling writers, all students benefit from class brainstorming sessions where the teacher models expectations and scaffolds students from teacher-led instruction to guided practice and, finally, to independence.

What might this look like? After assigning an essay, the first order of business is to show students how to begin.  In doing so, collectively brainstorm topics, research to find support, and fill out graphic organizers. Doing this as a class the first time through is less overwhelming for many students, and it helps students follow along if they have step-by-step directions that they can refer back to later.


Some students have difficulty transcribing their ideas onto paper and organizing their thoughts logically. In these instances, it’s necessary to talk students through their prewriting. As you discuss ideas one-on-one, have students take notes on their prewriting materials.

For something new and unique, give students Play-Doh or another manipulative and ask them to create their response to a topic. As an accommodation, teachers or peer partners can jot down the information as students think aloud about what they would like to write.


You might be surprised to find that simply offering students several different options for how they would like to complete their prewriting increases motivation. Possibilities might include, but are not limited to, color-coded graphic organizers, flow charts, webs, trees, outlines, journaling, sketch notes, mind mapping, acronyms, and free writing.

When modeling prewriting, try demonstrating with different strategies. As students begin to brainstorm for their own topic, allow them freedom to choose which prewriting approach they’d like to use.

Teaching writing? Try these 8 prewriting strategies to help students approach their essays with confidence. #HighSchoolELA #prewriting


As Kelly Gallagher writes, “If we want kids to write, we have to take them swimming in the genre first.  Start by wading before taking them to the deep end.” An integral facet of the brainstorming process should be allowing students to get knee deep in examples of the genre we expect them to write. Teachers can use examples they have written, essays written by previous students, or even published pieces and novels, depending on the genre of study.

Not sure where to start? Illinois Literacy in Action has some great lists for argumentative, informative, and narrative mentor texts. Here are some of the models I use with students.


Students can learn quite a bit from one other. As a meaningful prewriting activity, give them time to discuss their ideas with a peer or a small group, and listen to the feedback they offer. Not only does this strategy allow students valuable time to mull over their ideas, but also it provides an avenue for teachers to teach students how to have meaningful and productive discussions about writing.


One of the best ways I’ve found to differentiate prewriting for ability levels and interests is to have lengthy class discussions about possible topics. Generally, I lead these conversations, but I have also found success in having students participate in carousel activities.

To start, hang large sheets of butcher paper around the room. Then, brainstorm several possible topics for the essay. Write those topics at the top of the papers. Following, students divide into small groups and work together to devise possible angles they might use to approach each topic. In doing so, they are writing questions as well as possible thesis statements and supporting ideas. Sometimes they come up with related topics as well.

Students move from station to station and add their thoughts. To wrap up, each small group is assigned to present ideas for a given topic to the whole group.


Writing a research paper? A successful means of engaging students is by providing an appropriate anticipatory set. Capture students’ interest in topics by incorporating source material and discussing it as a group. Showing them related video clips, reading high-interest articles as a class, and bringing in guest speakers for the subject are all ideal approaches. Interest is a game-changer when it comes to writing.

If students are still struggling with the research element of brainstorming, scaffold their experience by providing a couple articles to get them started. Here are 14 additional scaffolding strategies for building confidence and increasing students’ success with writing.

Writing can be challenging and frustrating, or it can be freeing and therapeutic. By scaffolding and differentiating the prewriting process, we reduce the likelihood that students will struggle. Prewriting activities needn’t be fancy or complex to be effective and meaningful. Click here to access a free argumentative prewriting resource to scaffold your students’ prewriting experience.

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