Ideas by Association

To quick start your students’ next writing assignment, try this.

  • On the board or easel tablet draw three columns of at least 7 lines each.
  • Ask someone in the class to give you a word.  Any word will do. Write that word on the top line of the left column.
  • Ask your students to tell you what the word makes them think of. If the first word is car, other words by association might include fast, shiny, going to school, running out of gas, or noisy.
  • Moving quickly, select a word or phrase from the left column and place it on the top line of the center column.
  • Repeat the exercise of associating with that word until the center column is full.
    Select a word of phrase from the center column and place it on the top line of the column on the right.
  • Repeat the exercise of associating with the word until the column on the right is full.

You and your students now have at least 21 ideas to write about. It only took a few minutes to get everyone’s imagination warmed up and now it’s much easier for them to choose one of the subjects they want to write about.

How It’s Done
This exercise can work for poems but it also provides subject matter for all sorts of writing. There’s nothing magic about the number of columns or the number of lines. It’s just a way to draw students into the process of brainstorming for ideas.

Here’s a completed exercise done with fourth grade students. I started with car.

I chose fighting with my brother in column three as the subject for a quick poem.

I got in trouble with my brother
But I can’t think of any other
Way I’d rather spend the night
Than with my brother in a fight.

Everyone Is Unique
A different association might inspire another student. Getting packed for a vacation might remind him of the time when he was small and managed to stash his pet goldfish in a tiny jar of water to take along on the trip.Someone else may remember the longest day in the history of the world being dragged by his parents through two million miles of museum halls, glaring at stupid old pictures of hay stacks and guys with dogs.

Whatever you’re students choose to write about, a lot of variety will spring from a single word. Associations often take surprising twists and turns, from museums and goldfish to siblings scuffling in the back seat.  Who knows? Someone may even write about cars.

Your Turn!
Try this activity with your students and let us know what happens!  We’d love to you’re your lists.  And what sort of success do the students have?  Challenges?  Can the activity be improved to be even better?


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