Writing Instruction

Struggling Writers? Let Them Speak!

Which do you find easier, speaking or writing?
I think most people would unequivocally answer speaking.
Writing is not easy. In fact, it can often be painful. I was having lunch with a friend the other day who lamented on the difficulty he had writing a paper for a course he is taking. Even for me, someone who writes fairly regularly, writing can be quite the task, especially a first draft.
But what if I told you writing a first draft could be as easy as speaking?
Great news! It can!

The “Barf Draft”

While this may come as a surprise to some, many writers (myself included) sometimes don’t write our first draft, we speak it. Bradley Cambell, a reporter from PRI, calls this a “Barf Draft.” Here is how it works:

STEP 1: Record yourself saying what you want to write

STEP 2: Transcribe your recording

Boom! First draft done!
Now to be fair, it’s a very dirty first draft. A lot of work still needs to be done, but I find editing a dirty first draft much easier than staring at a blank page.
Pat Flynn, blogger and author, agrees. He talks about how he uses this technique in this video. While Flynn uses a company to transcribe, Cambell chooses to transcribe his recording himself. I personally have used the dictation feature on my iPhone to create first drafts in Notes, but I am gravitating away from that because I ended up speaking in a choppy way rather than letting all my ideas pour out.

Using Speaking For First Drafts in an EFL Classroom

This technique is often a go-to for people who write often like Campell, Flynn, and myself, so why not let ELL students do it too?
Admittedly, I see two challenges for bringing this into an ESL/EFL classroom.

  1. Lack of technology to do recording
  2. Lack of speaking proficiency

Let’s address the issue of technology first. Many classrooms may not have access to smartphones or other recording devices to implement a “Barf Draft” in the manner shared above. In this case, a student partner could be used in lieu of a recording device. The partner would dictate what the student is saying. While not ideal, as it does not allow for the student to speak freely without
While using a partner is not ideal as it does not allow for the student to speak freely without pausing, it could potentially be a solution in a tech-barren classroom. On the plus side, it does give the partner an opportunity to develop listening skills through dictation.
This procedure of having someone dictate a student’s story is similar to the Language Experience Approach (LEA)  that has long been used to develop beginning literacy skills in classrooms. Typically, LEA involves the class talking about a shared experience while the teacher dictates. LEA has also been used one-on-one where the student shares a story and the teacher dictates. As LEA is a tried and true technique, I think it could work student to student in the absence of a recorder, though I should add a disclaimer that I have never done this myself with a class.
The next issue is the lack of speaking proficiency. This is a difficult one to address in that ELL student populations in different schools often develop language in different ways. For example, public school students in Taiwan tend to have stronger skills in reading and writing when compared to their skills in speaking because communication is often not emphasized. However, this was not necessarily the case in schools I’ve worked in, where students felt much more comfortable with speaking than with literacy skills.
That being said, a possible solution that the students might feel comfortable with is first using their L1 to make a pre-draft. Jim Cummins discussed something similar in his 2015 Keynote at the TESOL International Convention. Cummins described a writing project where the student first wrote his story in his L1, then had a teacher fluent in the L1 help to translate it into English.
Applying the above scenario to this technique, students could first record and dictate using their L1. Next, they could create a first draft by roughly translating it into English using vocabulary and sentence structures they are comfortable with.
When I had to write essays for Chinese class, I would often implement a similar strategy. I would first write a draft in English, and then use that draft to help me write in Chinese. Obviously, I had to be aware of the differences in grammar and make adjustments, but I found it very helpful to have a document to work from.
There are some limitations to the suggestion above, especially if you work in a school that forbids the use of L1 in the English classroom (despite mounds of research in support of its benefit). If you work in such a school, suggesting that students do this at home first may be a solution.


Writing is hard for everyone, especially in a second language. For many writers, talking about what they want to write comes more naturally and is a quick way to get a first draft done. And it works for the pros, I think it might work for our students, too.
What do you think? Could a “Barf Draft” work in an EFL classroom? Let me know your thoughts!

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