On a teacher email list, someone recently proposed this hypothetical question, in connection with free or timed writing,

..Since we use proper nouns a lot in class, why cant we count them?…

The example given was a kid who wrote a list of twelve or fourteen names in English as part of the free write, thus inflating the word count.

But you know? We have to ask “who’s the boss”. Why is it that we are afraid to impose any rules on kids for this kind of thing? The common stuff that kids (a few of them) try to get away with year after year does not vary much at all. I’d be surprised if somebody came up with a really good “new one” to trick me on word count or something else, at this point.

It is easy to avoid “proper noun inflation”. Just tell them they can only use one proper noun in a row. Same thing with word repetition like “it is very, very, very, very big.” Honestly, I just look at my kids with “that look” and tell them “This is not my first year teaching, okay? You and I both know already what is kinda cheating. This isn’t for a grade, so don’t cheat yourself.”

This approach should also appeal to the “we’re not just teaching language here, we’re molding lives” crowd as well. If we spend so much time worrying about developing kids’ skills in guessing unknown language, making eye contact, or doing a whole bunch of other non-language, non-acquisition stuff that’s been talked about lately, then why in the world wouldn’t it be okay to have them think about “what is cheating?” and act on that on their own, to control their own “evil” impulses? (I can see the Guiding Question of the Day on the wall now…)

Just because it’s a free or timed write doesn’t mean there can’t be rules. Usually it’s a good idea to decree that students skip lines, for legibility, too, or that they use pen instead of pencil. Whatever makes your life better. In Chinese I use writing paper with pre-numbered boxes. They just eliminate any mistakes they’ve crossed out from the word count. It’s not as smooth with other languages since the words aren’t all the same size.
And again, showing how totally divorced I am from current trends of always having to be gentle and kind, the first timed write the kids do (usually around day 6 of class, which means they have had 6 oral input sessions of 40 min each and 4 reading classes of 35 min, since reading is after oral class), I use the loudest, most obnoxious timer program I can find on my iPhone. I play the Jeopardy countdown song. I walk around the class going hurry, hurry! You have to hit 100 words! The point of that (and of course you can only do it once, since they know afterwards because you explain) is to force them away from the monitor and to have them just doing a brain dump of language onto the paper. I then collect the writing and hand it directly to the evaluators, who have yet to realize the amazing stuff they are seeing. Oh well. We do. 🙂 Most of the kids hit between 30 and 55 words in 5 minutes writing in Pinyin; some do make 100 or  close to it. But most importantly, there are rarely structural errors. Spelling, sure. Not yet enough visual reps on Pinyin spelling. But not structure. And that’s what I care about at that point.