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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!

Very Short Stories

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“For sale: Baby shoes, Never worn.” Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway allegedly wrote the six-word story above in order to win a bet. Some say it is his best ever work.

After my last post on writing haikus I started to think about other short forms of creative writing to use in class. I haven’t written a lesson plan here, but rather some thoughts and ideas about some very short pieces of fiction that you could use for ELT.

Writing often gets pushed to one side as a class activity or set for homework but I believe by using short forms both teachers and students will enjoy writing in class without feeling like they have to sit in silence scribbling away for long stretches of time (collaborative writing is also a great way of avoiding this). Short forms also lend themselves to studying really carefully how words are used and are also good for students that find writing a bit daunting. I have listed a few different types with ideas here, from the shortest getting (a little!) longer. Despite them not requiring students to write a lot, most of them would be better for students that already have enough grasp of English and knowledge of vocabulary to be able to express themselves in different ways and control their writing.

6 Word Memoir

US online magazine Smith was inspired by Hemingway’s story and asked its readers to tell their life story in just six words. Here are some of my favourite examples:

‘Not quite what I was planning.’

‘Educated too little. Learned too much.’

‘Awkward moments make the best memories.’

‘I made everything up, except you.’

‘Got away with more than expected.’

You can find lots more on Smith’s six words site, and could even get your students to submit their own.

There are lots of circumstances where you could use these in the class. A great ‘getting to know you’ activity for more advanced students would be to get students to write a six-word memoir to introduce themselves and then ask them to mingle and discuss each other’s. I could also see it working well as a ‘getting to know you’ with business students, ask them to write a six-word memoir about their business philosophy, career, etc.

You could also use them as a Monday morning warmer, ask the students to write a six word story about their weekend, then write them all up on the board and see if they can guess who wrote which one.

Twitter Fiction

The ultimate modern short form must be twitter. The restraints of 140 characters or less doesn’t initially seem to lend itself to great works of fiction, however,  the Guardian newspaper in the UK has a series on ‘twitter fiction’ where they ask famous writers to come up with a story within the constraints of a tweet. Here are a couple of examples, you could even use them as a reading task:

‘Mother love is strong enough to lift a car. I’d heard that. But when my girl was hit by a Mercedes, I heaved, screaming. Nothing moved.’ – Esther Freud

‘Life is always flashing before your eyes. Look down. Children playing, trees and traffic, your shadow running over the ground to meet you.’ – Mark Haddon

‘Darkness. I woke, felt the familiar weight in the bed, the breathing, the hand on my skin. “Oh, Paul,” I said. “Who’s Paul?” said the voice.’ – Nicci French

I like the idea of giving students a story prompt (a picture, opening line, title, etc) and asking students to brainstorm some ideas for a story. Only after they had come up with some ideas would I tell them they needed to write the story in a tweet (140 characters or less). It is a great way to practice editing and reformulating ideas. You basically have to condense the idea of a story into one image or idea, which is easier said than done! Students can tweet their stories to @twitterfiction.

Classics as Tweets

Staying on the twitter theme, there is also a tongue in cheek movement of reducing great works of fiction to a single tweet. For example:

Woman meets man called Darcy who seems horrible. He turns out to be nice really. They get together. – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Upper-class woman gets it on with gamekeeper. – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

Orphan given £££ by secret follower. He thinks it’s @misshavisham but it turns out to be @magwitch – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

You could ask the students to try this activity as a follow-up to reading a graded reader, or even write them about each other’s stories by swapping round longer stories that they have written and converting them to tweets. It feeds in nicely to the ideas of ‘getting the main idea’ that are so beloved of reading tests! If your students come up with any for famous books you could get them to tweet them with the hashtag #twitternovels.

Microfiction (100 word stories)

Microfiction (sometimes known as flash fiction, short short stories, sudden fiction, postcard stories, etc) comes in many guises and forms. There are story competitions for microfiction with word limits from 100 to 1000 words. In class I like to stick with the 100 word rule, and to enforce this as exactly 100 words (not 99 or 101!). I have used this task several times with EAP students because I think it is a really good way of getting them to focus on editing skills. At University there are often very strict word limits and I know, for me, I found writing within these limits meant I had to become really ruthless at cutting words or reformulating ideas to be more economical with the language. It is also useful for students who will be taking exams where there are word limits (IELTS for example). Often students have no real idea of what 100 words look like, so they find it hard to imagine 200 words, 300 words, etc. If you give them practice at writing exactly 100 words and they are familiar with this it is easy for them to imagine it doubled, etc. If you ask them to write it by hand (if the test is hand-written) then it is even better as they can see how much space 100 words takes up in their own handwriting.

There are several sites with examples of 100 word stories, and Reader’s Digest magazine even has a competition you could encourage your students to enter (there are also some great examples of 100 word stories on that site). Again, I would just use a story prompt such as a photo, object, first line, etc to give them the stimulus. You don’t have to use fiction either, you could get them to write exactly 100 words on any topic, and could choose a subject related to their area of study for EAP students (although fiction is more fun!)

 

I hope this post has inspired you to try writing some very short stories with your class. If you do, let me know how it goes, and if you have any other ideas about short form writing I would love to hear about them too.

Getting some flow

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Aims: Often students (particularly EAP students) have a vague notion that they need to ‘improve their writing’. What does this mean? Well, for some students that might be working on grammatical accuracy, for others learning how to structure an essay, for others maybe expanding their vocabulary. For many though, what they really want to do is improve their writing ‘fluency’, that is to make their writing sound more natural, to ‘flow’. This isn’t an easy thing to teach though! However, apart from the (always good) advice to read, read, read, I have found this lesson to really help them to understand what you mean when you talk about writing fluency. As such it is a lesson I refer back to again and again.

Level: B2+ (and particularly good for EAP students)

Task:

1. Show the class the following text (or write one similar):

I woke up this morning. I was hungry. I didn’t have any food. It was raining. I walked to the shop with my umbrella. I bought milk and bread. I started to walk home. It was windy and there was heavy rain. My umbrella blew inside out and broke. I ran home. I got very wet. I made tea and toast. I went to bed.

Ask them: Is this a ‘good’ piece of writing? Why or why not? Is the meaning clear? How could we improve it?

What you should be able to elicit is that although the meaning is clear it is not very interesting. It has no ‘flow’. Suggestions to improve might include: varying sentence length, adding adjectives or adverbs, connecting sentences, giving more interesting details. Write any suggestions on the board.

2. Show them this text (or a similar one you have redrafted):

When I woke up this morning I was starving hungry because I hadn’t eaten any dinner the night before. I went to the kitchen to get breakfast, but my flatmates had finished all the food already and there was nothing to eat in the house. I looked out the window and saw it was raining. I was so hungry though! I decided I would just go to the corner shop to buy some food. I grabbed my umbrella and headed out.  At the shop I bought a loaf of bread and some milk. As I started walking home there was a sudden gust of wind, and my umbrella blew inside out. I heard a crack. It was completely broken! Just at that moment the rain started to pelt down really hard. I ran all the way home, but by the time I got there I was soaked through to the skin. I made some tea and toast and went back to bed.

Ask them if they think this text is better and why or why not (often they will suggest other improvements!) Ask if they can identify which of the things they had suggested before in the text and look through for examples.

3. Now it is their turn to try and improve a text. Show/give them a copy of this text.

I was tired. I was cleaning my teeth. I saw something in the mirror. I looked up it was a ghost. I screamed. My friend ran in. She said it was just the cat. I think it was a ghost.

You can give them different texts, or ask them to write simple texts and get them to swap around.

4. Ask them to swap around or read their stories out in groups and discuss what they changed, how different they are. You could even get them to collate their individual stories into one collaborative group effort.

5. Ask them what they think is meant by writing ‘flow’. You should be able to explain/elicit that it is connecting ideas together to make the writing interesting, easy to read and sound ‘natural’.

(This idea has been inspired and adapted from a lesson on Teachitworld called ‘Letting it Flow’.)

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