Multiplier effect – using word limits to improve students’ writing.

In my new school, I have found three things are hindering my students ability to write. The first is that a lot of them have quite a limited vocabulary. The second is that they never know how to get started. The third is that they are terrified by the prospect of a blank page to fill.  The following method has been very effective at dealing with all of these issues by asking students to begin with one word and use this word to gradually build a piece of extended writing.

1. Start with asking students to use one word to answer a question,

E.g. ‘What impression are you given of the forest in the picture/ extract?’

2. Students all hold up answers.

3. Write down a selection of the students’ words on the board (tell students to keep the whiteboard for later).

4. Students look up three of the words in a thesaurus and write all the words in a word bank.

5. Students then write a sentence about the ‘forest’, using one of their new words. The sentence must be three words long.

6. Students then trade words with a partner. They write a second sentence, which is 9 words long. It must contain two of the words they received in their ‘trade’.

7. The third sentence should be 27 words long and should include three of the words from the word bank.

8. Students finish their paragraph. The paragraph must be 81 words long and each sentence should begin in a different way. Students must edit their writing until it is exactly 81 words long.

9. After writing, students swap books. Ask the students to look back at the original word they wrote down at the beginning of the lesson. The ‘marker’ should tick or highlight every word which helps to create this effect, e.g. Every word which creates the impression that the forest is dark.

Finally, students reflect on how successful their writing has been and how they managed to create a particular impression of the forest in their writing.

I have been astounded by the results. It takes the fear out of the blank page for even the most nervous of writers, builds their vocabulary and helps them to learn how to use language to create specific effects. And there is even some numeracy in there for good measure!


Naomi Hursthouse has been teaching in West Sussex for ten years. She has worked as an Advanced Skills Teacher, a Gifted and Talented Coordinator, AQA examiner and is currently the Head of English at Ormiston Six Villages Academy.

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