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Is anybody out there? The importance of audience for student writing

This post has been shortlisted for the British Council’s Teaching English blog post of the month for May!! If you would like to vote for it, please click here and then click ‘like’  Thank you so much for your support!

Most ELT teachers (hopefully) discourage students from the idea of only wanting to speak to the teacher. However, it strikes me that, in contrast, most writing is only read by one person – the teacher. Regular readers of Creativities might have noticed that most of the lesson plans I write finish with me suggesting that the writing that has been done is shared in some way. This post is about why I believe this to be important.

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(Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @mrsdkrebs, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

I understand that some students have fears about sharing their writing. They are worried about having made mistakes, worried that their ideas aren’t clear, sometimes worried about sharing things that are personal. Students shouldn’t be forced to share their writing, and some writing (such as journal writing) might be personal and only intended for the teacher to read. But I think it is good to try and give students the confidence to put their writing out there. In the same way that in their future English lives they will not only be talking to a teacher, they also will be writing for others too. Whether this is work emails, facebook updates, tweets, comments on blogs, application letters or university dissertations, they all have an audience. And that audience aren’t necessarily going to be looking for the correct use of the present perfect, but are definitely going to be looking at their ideas, how they express themselves, their communication.

It can also be very motivating for students to know that their work is going to be read, whether that is by their peers and classmates or a wider audience. They will often make more of an effort to redraft, to make sure their meaning is clear and to try and be more creative when they are writing for an audience. For creative writing I think it can be especially motivating as the ideas are often more diverse, students will often inspire each other as well as giving very encouraging (although at times a bit brutally honest) feedback.

If work is going to be shared with classmates, I find the readers often need some motivation to read too. Collaborative writing can be a good way to do this. If you have had a hand in the initial ideas for a story you will naturally want to read the result. Another nice way is to give students the writing anonymously and have the students guess who wrote it.

So, how can you find an audience for your students’ writing? Here are some ideas I have used, if you have any others I would love to hear them!

Posting on Walls

Simple and low-tech. I like to post work up anonymously with blu-tac around the room (as mentioned above) and have students guess who wrote what. Younger learners often like to make posters with their stories or poems and you can put them up to decorate the rooms, your own and other classes will often then read them before or after classes.

Swapping and reading

You can put students in pairs and ask them to exchange and read each other’s stories. You can ask them to do peer error correction but I often find it better with creative writing to ask for feedback on the ideas, which can be asked for specifically by the writer (ie. was the ending believable? Do you think the main characters are likeable? Do you understand why s/he did X? Can you think of a better way to describe X?). It’s a great way to get students to focus on what the writer is saying it, as opposed to ticking boxes on how many connectors they have used, if they have a topic sentence, etc.

Letter/E-mail Writing

Not strictly creative writing (although letters can be creative!) but encouraging real letter writing is nice. I used to ask my young learner classes on summer school in the UK to write postcards home and then we would go to the post office and send them.  You can also encourage fan letters to movie stars, pop stars, writers, etc.  If they receive a reply even better! Also, emails asking for information, complaining, saying thank you or applying for jobs can all be useful things to explore that will help students get used to the idea of writing for an outside audience.

Reading aloud

I’m not advocating asking students to read out pages and pages of a story, as even the greatest authors can be dull doing this. However, poems are perfect to be read aloud. It is important students are given time to rehearse before though, and it can be a great opportunity to focus on pronunciation, stress and rhythm.

Role-Plays

Role-plays are creative writing too! And they can be great collaborative writing tasks. Again, it is good to give students plenty of time to rehearse and help with pronunciation so they are confident enough to perform in front of the class or to record.

Class Wiki or Blog

Having a class blog or wiki is a great way for students to share work, and also potentially be able to share it with other people (particularly if they are studying abroad it is nice for the family to see what they are working on). I have used the wiki pbworks successfully with students, and I know other teachers use WordPress, Edublogs or Blogger with their classes. The advantage of blogging is that students can post easily, it is easy for you to give feedback and also you can set homework tasks to write comments on each other’s work. (See Chris Wilson’s great series on setting up class blogs for more information on doing this with your class).

Online flip-books

I recently came across a couple of online tools for making flip-books (for just pdfs and for various formats). I think they would make a lovely way of presenting the best of student writing at the end of a course, and could easily be shared with friends and family, and they can even be embedded onto blogs or websites. They look very professional too.

School Newsletters, Local papers, Online, Competitions

When your students have built up confidence in their writing, it might be time to bring it to a wider audience! If your school has a newsletter, why not ask if you can have a creative writing corner? You can publish one student’s work every issue (maybe voted for by the other students). Local English papers might also have a section for poems or stories you could submit your students’ work to. There are also places online you can submit work to (see my post on very short stories for some ideas for publishing them), and you could even keep an eye out for short story or poem competitions to encourage students to enter.

Is it more important for creative writing to have an audience than other types of writing? Honestly, I don’t know. What I do think though is that the purpose for other types of writing might be clearer (for example exam practice, practising particular vocabulary or grammar) whereas creative writing is often more about confidence and finding a ‘voice’ so perhaps there is a need for more of an aim to it. Also, it can really help with confidence for students to share and get feedback from people other than their teacher on creative writing. I think it is important to tell students the aim, purpose and audience for the writing before they do it, and also to discuss how to give feedback. Hopefully, in time, students will enjoy sharing their work and find it useful and rewarding to discuss it and reflect upon the writing process.

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Why use Creative Writing in ELT?

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!

ImageFirstly, 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.

(Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @mkofab, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

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.

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(Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @aClilToClimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

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!

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