I suppose really this post should have been the first one on a blog about creative writing for English language learners but, three months in to Creativities, I think it is time I addressed the issue of why I am a strong supporter of using creative writing in the EFL/ESL classroom – and why I think you should be too!
Firstly, I think I should make it clear that I am not saying the only type of writing students should do is creative writing. I think students should be given a whole range of writing texts, exposed to lots of genres and styles and helped to understand differences in tone, style, register, vocabulary, etc. However, I do think creative writing has a major part to play in creating better writers.
I have had many English language learners (ELLs) over the years who have been reluctant to write, or have really struggled with writing, finding it slow and laborious. I also think writing is one of those things that is often scheduled for the end of a class (as a ‘freer practice’) or given as homework. This means that often there is not much time to focus on the writing, or the reluctant writers (who normally need the most help) just don’t do it as a homework task. Creative writing often shifts the main focus of the class on to the act of writing, and at times gets students writing by stealth! By using creative writing activities I have seen many students both start to enjoy writing more but also become more fluent writers.
Creative writing takes many forms. It can be collaborative, which encourages the students who would much rather be speaking to get involved in a writing process. You can work on very short forms of fiction or poetry, which can help students to focus more on the quality of what they are writing rather than the quantity, therefore avoiding ‘word count hang-ups’ that some students can have. It can have strict restrictions (eg. haikus) which can actually really help students who need help finding ideas and can help with creativity, the rules of the form often helping students to concentrate on the language and ideas. You can use poetry to work on word/sentence stress, pronunciation, rhythm and all sorts of performance skills which will be useful for giving presentations. Creative writing is perhaps most useful for helping students to find their own ‘voice’ or style and giving them confidence in their own ideas, which is really important for them for whatever type of writing they are doing. It can encourage them to take risks with the language and push the boundaries of what they know as the focus moves more to the content than to the form. I have seen students really struggle to find the right word for a creative piece in a way that they wouldn’t in a more informative piece of writing, as they want to create just the right ‘picture’ as opposed to just transmitting information. Similarly, ELLs can often focus on the way a text fits together, the way ideas are ordered and the subtleties of grammar more in a creative piece of writing.
Another major benefit is the relationship creative writing has with reading. My main advice to students who want to improve their writing is to read more, but also to read things that interest them. For many students this won’t be text books or essays, but rather stories or literature. I often recommend students read graded readers and I have had many students who have had a learning goal to read a novel in English (whether that is Harry Potter or Pride and Prejudice). By helping them explore fiction and creative or imaginative texts, they can develop a deeper understanding of the texts they are reading by getting a practical insight into the conventions and style of the genres they read. Perhaps my advice to students who want to improve their reading should be to write more!
Another benefit of creative writing is that you end up with a body of student generated texts that you can utilise in class. You can understand what your students are interested in and exploit this in your lessons. I find it is important with creative writing that the students have an audience, so it is a good idea to ‘publish’ or share their work in some way, whether this is displaying them on the walls, publishing them on a class blog or website, reading them to the class or just swapping with a partner and reading each other’s work. It is also a great benefit for the teacher to get involved too, to share their own stories or poems with the class. Sometimes sharing a creative work can be quite nerve-wracking but, if you share this experience with your students, it can help foster a closer relationship with your class.
Creative writing often seems to be restricted to general English or young learner classes. However, I have worked a lot with EAP students also and I have found it has a number of benefits here. In addition to the idea of helping them to find their own, unique voice, as I mentioned before, it can also really help them with their writing fluency and connecting ideas (see Getting Some Flow) and also with editing and sticking to word counts (particularly in very short stories), as well as the ideas of planning, brainstorming and organising ideas. I’ve also used the ideas with business students, getting them to write role plays, this being, of course, another form of creative writing.
The argument against creative writing seems to be that this isn’t something that students will need to do in ‘real life’. For many this will be true (although I have had a number of enthusiastic writers in past classes, including one student who used to email me a poem in English every few weeks for a year or so!) but also we need to think about how many of the tasks that we give students are used in real life and how many are just tools to develop skills that they will need. Students want to be able to write emails, tweets, Facebook updates, blog entries, text messages, as well as essays, reports, application forms, etc. All of these will be easier if students are comfortable with formulating ideas and getting them on to paper and being able to write in a way that is interesting and others want to read. More and more these days, our writing has an audience and students need to feel that they can enter this world and use English in a way that is comfortable and feels like they have found their own (English) voice.
Overall, I think creative writing can really help your students gain a feeling of achievement. Even at low levels, the feeling that they have created something only they could have written, which comes from their own feelings and ideas, can be very motivating.
I hope that this post has helped you to realise (if you didn’t already!) that creative writing has an important role to play in ELT and that you will explore my blog to find some ideas to use in your classes. Happy writing!