Tapping Into Discoveries From Neuroscience to Help ELLs in the Prewriting Process

Sep 12th, 2017 | By | Category: Featuring: In the Classroom
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Patrick T. Randolph



Getting English language learners (ELLs) to write, let alone write well, and feel comfortable and confident in the process is no easy task. Teaching writing and getting students to enjoy it is perhaps one of the most challenging and complex realities of the English language teacher’s world. And yet, there is a parallel charm and beauty about it. Teaching the art of writing can help transform students’ internal and external perceptions of their lives, and, if done effectively, can help make our world a better place. The question is: How can teachers make writing lessons effective and useful for their students?

This article offers ideas and discoveries from neuroscience to help address the above question and provide tips for both teachers and students that focus on aspects of prewriting. Before I begin, I’d like to draw the reader’s attention to my concept of prewriting. The conventional idea of prewriting includes such things as brainstorming, outlines, taking notes, mind mapping, and freewriting. I, however, consider these as parts of the actual writing process, for, as research in neuroscience shows (Eagleman, 2011; Medina, 2009), the prewriting concepts and structures become integral parts of the product and are not limited merely to the preparation.

My concept of prewriting highlights and focuses on the practice and teaching of particular tips and the awareness of certain factors that help create the optimal writing environment. So, in this article, we will look at teaching tips that focus on the use of emotions and energy, physical exercise, and mindfulness, and I will address the need to make both teachers and students aware of highly significant factors such as mirror neurons, stress, and sleep.

The Crucial Prewriting Elements

1. Emotions and Energy: Setting the Stage
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At first blush, one might argue that the need and use of emotions and energy are related to the actual writing process, which they are. However, I want to suggest that they are equally important, if not more so, in the prewriting phase, as the use of both emotions and positive energy set the tone of the stage for writing classes. I believe the most significant teaching philosophy for writing instructors is to nurture the idea that writing is fun. To do this, it is important to bring a sense of high energy to the class and incorporate emotions in the learning process.

Neuroscientists (Damasio, 1994; LeDoux, 1996) tell us that emotions are a key component for learning, primarily because they help link various associations to enhance our long-term memories and elicit vital neurotransmitters and proteins that are necessary for successful learning. John Medina’s (2009) research on attention and learning supports this. He has shown that “[t]he brain remembers the emotional components of an experience better than any other aspect” (p. 83). I think most, if not all, seasoned instructors would agree that all learning ultimately relies on our emotions and the energy level at which the material or skill is taught.

With this in mind, I start my writing classes at the beginning of each term by asking my students, if they haven’t already, to befriend writing. I explain that they do not necessarily have to fall in love with “writing,” but if they could learn to enjoy her presence, let her into their lives, and learn to walk hand in hand with her, then their positive emotions will increase and the whole process will be a lot less daunting and a whole lot more inviting. I follow this use of emotions and energy into each class thereafter and reinforce the positive atmosphere for learning. In short, the first tip is to create energy, enthusiasm, and develop an emotional connection to the writing process (Randolph, 2014). This, in and of itself, will ignite a passion for writing in the learners’ brains.

2. Physical Exercise: “The point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.”—John Ratey
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The countless mental and physical benefits of exercise have yet to be addressed in any of the mainstream ESL writing textbooks. As an advocate of exercise and having an understanding of how critical exercise is as a prewriting component, I think it should be used and discussed in all writing courses—whether they be for domestic students or for ELLs.

I begin each of my writing classes by having my students participate in physical exercises. This immediately creates an atmosphere of high energy (discussed above), and it gets the students to function and focus at an optimum level. For a relatively simple and fun prewriting exercise, please see my warm-up activity at www.youtube.com/watch?v=E65StVJTzVu.

My concept of prewriting exercises is very similar to the revolutionary program at Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Illinois. Education entrepreneurs created an exercise course for students to take before their academic classes begin. Participating students have improved their test scores, grades, and overall outlook about school (Ratey & Hagerman, 2010). The physical education class essentially prepares the students’ brains to learn at a very intense level because the activities help elicit crucial learning and memory-enhancing neurotransmitters and proteins such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—a protein that Ratey calls “Miracle-Gro for the brain” (p. 40) because of its ability to create new neurons and strengthen the existing ones.

I should point out that studies have found it is best to get students to move and exercise every 20 minutes (Jensen, 2008), so I also include during-class exercises. For a detailed description of both pre- and during-class exercises, see “Physical Exercises that Boost Brainpower in the ELL Classroom, Part II” (Randolph, 2016a).

The reason exercise is so beneficial is relatively easy to understand. The more we exercise, the more blood goes to the brain, and consequently more oxygen is carried in the blood along with vital neurotransmitters that help in memory and learning. According to Ratey and Hagerman (2010), exercise helps the brain in three significant ways:

  1. It increases focused attention and heightens motivation for learning;
  2. It helps neurons to connect and forge pathways for accelerated memory and learning; and
  3. It promotes neurogenesis; that is, it causes new neurons to form and develop.

In short, the best prewriting activity that gets the brain prepared to think, play with ideas, and compose is to simply get up and move.

3. Mindfulness: Calming the Waters of the Mind
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Mindfulness is generally understood as focusing on one’s emotions, thoughts, feelings, and physical condition as a helpful therapy to foster a sense of self-reflection and ultimately a better understanding of one’s growth as a person. The third prewriting tip I’d like to discuss is employing this concept of mindfulness. Like doing physical exercise, giving the students time to calm their minds and reflect on their conditions will help prepare them to write with energy, excitement, and a sense of focus and control.

I usually allow a few minutes for my students to reflect and nurture an awareness of their current state of mind, their emotions, their physical condition, and their overall sense of being. Giving the students time to reflect on their mindfulness allows them an opportunity to develop both their need for creativity and their need for focused analysis and logic. That is, if a particular class is a creative writing–based class, the moments of mindfulness will help inspire their imaginations, and if the class is an academic writing–based one, it will allow the students to reflect and focus, consequently preparing them for the logical steps and coherent thought needed to develop their written arguments. I believe allowing time for this is crucial in the prewriting process.

Typically, I have my students close their eyes for one to two minutes and reflect on their current state, or I have them imagine a scene that gives them a sense of positive energy or good feelings. If they want, they can let thoughts come and go and follow the thought that inspires them, or they can focus on an emotion and reflect on why it makes them feel a certain way. As mentioned above, students can use this time to imagine something creative, or they can try to relax the mind and prepare it for analysis. Once they are done, the students share their “mindfulness moments” with their neighbor and take notes on each other’s insights if they feel inclined.

I have found that this simple exercise yields three very productive results:

  1. It creates a strong sense of community within the classroom;
  2. It helps students reflect on themselves in a holistic sense; and
  3. It mentally prepares them to write.

Just as the physical exercises get the students’ bodies and brains prepared to learn, the mindfulness moments get their minds prepared to create, produce, and have fun with writing.

4. Mirror Neurons: Developing a Holistic Awareness of Who We Are
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Consider the neuroscience-based fact that the exact moment a teacher steps into the classroom, each student has a unique set of neurons that allows him or her to mentally simulate the teacher’s facial expressions, gestures, mood, physical movements, and spoken words. That is, the teacher’s presence and actions are mirrored in the students’ brains by a very complex and intriguing system of neurons (Randolph, 2013).

The neurons that I am referring to are known as mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is “a brain cell that fires when a person physically does an action or when one watches another perform an action” (Randolph, 2016b, para. 6). From what the neuroscience community currently understands, there appear to be five different types of mirror neurons (McPherron & Randolph, 2014). Some mirror neurons simulate actions, some react to sounds, and others fire when we hear, see, or use words (Iacoboni, 2009).

The more we attend to our own moods, thoughts, and actions, and the more we are aware of our students’ moods, thoughts, and actions, then the more rapport and empathy we can develop with our students through this communal or shared reality of mirror neurons. If we work together to understand each other, the better the student-teacher relationship becomes and the more learning will take place. So, to create an effective writing-classroom environment, I recommend that teachers be role models for their students—starting from the moment they enter the classroom (Randolph, 2016b). I suggest that teachers exercise with students, practice mindfulness moments with them, and show a genuine interest in the skill and art of writing. By working together and being aware of the consequences of our thoughts and actions, students will be more apt to consider walking hand in hand with writing and open to developing the craft.

5. Stress: Nurturing Good Stress, Limiting Bad Stress
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According to Ratey and Hagerman (2010), “stress is stress—the difference is in degree” (p.  59). Essentially, all activities that the brain and body carry out are one form or another of stress (e.g., a swim in the pool or a stroll in the park). Getting excited before an exam is considered acute stress. This form of stress actually helps and nurtures the encoding, learning, and retrieval processes. If we reflect for a moment, it becomes apparent that we need stress to survive, and the right kind of stress is a positive element in our lives.

Too much stress, however, has the opposite effect—and nothing good can ever come of it. Acute stress is a positive form of stress, but chronic stress is a very dangerous form. “Chronic stress can even tear at the architecture of the brain” (Ratey & Hagerman, 2010, p. 59). That is, chronic stress and the negative stress hormones that it releases can actually destroy neural connections, inhibit the hippocampus from both creating or retaining memories, and it can prevent the same region from creating new neurons that allow us to learn (Medina, 2009).

The obvious lesson here is that in order to help prepare our ELLs to relax, create, and write, we need to promote the positive forms of stress and diminish the chronic or negative ones. To reach this goal, instructors can offer good energy and positive emotions, implement exercise activities during class, nurture mindfulness activities, and be aware of the mirror neuron systems to elevate “our instructor-consciousness” (Randolph, 2013, p. 7). Each of these elements will foster a healthy student-teacher rapport and create a positive writing environment.

6. Sleep: “Sleep Well, Think Well, Write Well.”
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My personal mantra for my writing students is “Sleep well, think well, write well.” Whether our students are writing in or out of class, the skill demands a great deal of reasoning, energy, and attention from the mind. To write well, the mind must be clear, alert, and focused. So, we must emphasize the importance of sleep as it relates to our students’ well-being. For “[s]leep is rather intimately involved in learning” (Medina, 2009, p. 163).

Not getting a sufficient amount of sleep impairs a significant number of cerebral functions—from attention and memory to reasoning and motor skills. Sleep loss also hinders our system’s ability to obtain the necessary energy and power from glucose, which along with oxygen is an extremely important food source for the brain. “The bottom line is that sleep loss means mind loss” (Medina, 2009, p. 163).

The major problem with this prewriting prep tool is that few, if any, teachers have the authority to tell their students just how much sleep they should get. We can, however, stress in class the importance of sleep and create discussions that focus on the brain and body’s need for sleep (which varies from person to person). Examining and talking about the case studies and data in chapter 7 (see specifically pages 160-167) of John Medina’s book, Brain Rules, will most certainly inspire students to get the required amount of sleep to help maintain healthy minds.

Concluding Remarks

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To write well, the body needs to be healthy, the brain refreshed, and the mind focused and motivated. The tips offered in this prewriting toolbox are by no means exhaustive, and, for some, may even seem a bit unconventional. However, if we consider the benefits of each, we can clearly see the rewards for both teachers and students. Emotions, energy, exercise, mindfulness, and an awareness of the importance of mirror neurons, stress, and sleep will help the writing instructor and his or her students—at any level—find a boost in motivation, inspiration, and clarity in both thinking and writing. These prewriting tools are critical in holistically preparing teachers and students as they set out on their quest to think, create, and write.

Correspondence concerning this article can be addressed to patricktrandolph@yahoo.com.

Patrick T. Randolph was awarded the “Best of the TESOL Affiliates” for his presentation on vocabulary pedagogy in 2015. He teaches in PIESL at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and specializes in vocabulary acquisition, creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. He has created a number of brain-based learning activities for the language skills that he teaches, and he continues to research current topics in neuroscience, especially studies related to exercise and learning, memory, and mirror neurons. Randolph has also been involved as a volunteer with brain-imaging experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and Joseph Ruppert are now working on a creative writing book for TESOL Press’s New Ways Series. The tentative title is New Ways in Teaching Creative Writing for the ELL Community. He lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; and cat, Gable, in Lincoln, Nebraska.


Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York, NY: Putnam and Sons.

Eagleman, D. M. (2011). Incognito: The secret lives of the brain. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Iacoboni, M. (2009). Mirroring people: The science of empathy and how we connect with others. New York, NY: Picador.

Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-based learning: The new paradigm of teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

McPherron, P., & Randolph, P. T. (2014). Cat got your tongue?: Recent research and classroom practices for teaching idioms to English learners around the world. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

Medina, J. (2009). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Randolph, P. T. (2013). Mirror neurons in the ESL classroom: The power of imitation, attitude, and gestures in learning. The ITBE Link, 41(1), 4-9.

Randolph, P. T.  (2014). Employing the Five-E System of teaching and learning.  CATESOL News, 46(2). Retrieved from http://www.catesolnews.org/2014/09/five-e-system/

Randolph, P. T. (2016a). Physical exercises that boost brainpower in the ELL classroom, Part II. College ESL Quarterly. Retrieved from http://www.languageartspress.com/ceq/spring2016.html

Randolph, P. T. (2016b). Harnessing an awareness of mirror neurons for English language teachers. CATESOL News, 48(2). Retrieved from http://www.catesolnews.org/2016/09/harnessing-awareness-mirror-neurons-english-language-teachers/

Ratey, J. J., & Hagerman, E. (2010). Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London, England: Quercus.


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