Creative Writing in the ESL Classroom

post by Cat McLean

Recently, Cat McLean posted a request for ideas to the #AusELT Facebook page:

Cat McLean post screenshot

The #AusELT community responded enthusiastically with many ideas and suggestions (you can read the thread on Facebook here). Cat then generously agreed to compile the responses so we have a permanent record of them and she has written this brilliant blog post. Enjoy and learn!

Creative Writing in the ESL Classroom

I teach creative writing to pre-intermediate and intermediate ESL students. I have a creative writing background, so at the start, I tried a lot of the techniques that were taught to me by my own creative writing teachers. Some things worked in the ESL context, others didn’t. I’m loath to admit that a lot of the time, my approach to this course was rather (ahem) experimental, often with far too little scaffolding. So I took my dilemma to the #AusELT brains trust. Here’s what we came up with as a better approach to creative writing in the ESOL context.

It’s a triple didactic challenge

If the students don’t have a good background as readers, they will be unable to write anything decent even in their L1. That’s why a course like this is a triple challenge for an educator. A great piece of advice in the discussion was this: Develop students as readers in BOTH languages, develop them as analysts, and then develop them as writers.

Develop them as readers

Let’s start with how to develop students as readers. You should provide students with opportunities of extensive reading of creative writing genres as part of the class or for homework. This will inspire their writing and help them to have a grammar goal to work towards. Give them a related activity such as thinking about how many tenses the author used on one page and asking them to replicate it in their own piece later on.

If you do well, maybe you will get lucky and see the students put the learning into their own hands. One contributor to the conversation mentioned the idea of a book club to his students and a small group decided to start one of their own where they got through one graded reader a week.

Try to help them find a genre that works for them – or at least one that is familiar to them. My students are 90% Colombian, so I have tried to use some translations of Latin American magic realism with which they are likely to be familiar. You could also use fairytales as a stepping stone for students to retell stories from their own culture.

The next step: Understanding text and technique

Before they can write their own piece, students must comprehend writing techniques and how to use them. You should provide extracts from a variety of texts and go through fabula, plot, text organisation and structure, tropes, narrative styles, as well as the differences between metaphor, comparison and simile. Students should do plenty of theoretical and practical literary and linguistic analysis prior to actually writing something. This is how they can acquire sophisticated grammatical understanding.

Richard Ingold’s work on exploiting model texts provides strategies to apply grammar analysis of a model text and how to apply it to new writing. His work has an academic focus but many strategies could be equally used to demonstrate the link between grammar and creative writing more explicitly.

Give them grammar

In a creative writing class, it’s typical for ESL students to want more grammar handouts and tangible things. Students often need to be taught that education doesn’t only exist in gap fill exercises, it can exist in authentic texts and other realia. Here are some suggestions to combat this sort of thinking:

What grammar would you use if you’re talking about this…: Ask them to think about and discuss this question before they start an activity.

What would you do if…: Give students some activities that use certain grammar points in narrative; such as narrative tenses or conditionals. For example, ask them to write a story with the prompt ‘What would you do if…?’

Reflection: At the end of class, ask students to reflect on the grammar points and vocabulary they encountered during the class.

Peer correction: At the end of a writing activity, ask students to pass their writing to another student and ask them to correct that person’s errors. This one will do wonders for your sanity too so you’re not running between students beckoning you over to correct every little mistake they make.

Unleashing creativity

So we’ve finally made it to the creating stage. I’m sure I’m not alone in that the majority of my students have never done anything creative whatsoever. No macaroni artworks in primary school, no high school drawing class, and certainly no creative writing. You must teach them how to be creative, how to generate ideas, and how to let go. This can be scary for students who have never been allowed to do so.

So how can we teach them to let go?

Writing storms: One idea to help students feel more comfortable writing freely in English is to use writing storms. In other words, just write. Students write about something of their choosing or via a prompt for 3-4 minutes without stopping to edit or look up words. Tell them not to worry about accuracy or appropriacy of forms, choices, spelling, or punctuation. This is a good bridging activity to get them writing on a more regular basis.

Here, follow-up need not be editing and improving. It could be simply providing them the opportunity to reflect on the piece’s message, purpose, or what they could add in their own and others’ writing.

Inspire them with World Englishes: Another idea is to share some writing that is representative of World Englishes. This will help students feel more comfortable with the idea that even through they don’t write English in a typical way a native speaker would, it doesn’t make it less valid.

The variation and beauty of alternate English can be an asset to their work. One of my students wrote a piece titled ‘Life Is Not Pink in Colour’ – a strangely worded title to the English ear, but I found something very poetic in the way it was expressed.

One contributor mentioned that they welcomed a Tibetan writer as a guest speaker to their class. He talked about writing in English, brought examples of other poets’ books, and did a creative writing workshop with them. This exposed the students to a model whose English is good but not native speaker perfect – a goal to work towards!Limelight book cover

Here is another inspirational character, a young slam poet called Solli Raphael. His book, Limelight, might be inspirational for students and will provide them with some great writing tips.

Where to from here?

Once your students have a better grip on the power of reading and literary/linguistic analysis, and the creative juices are flowing, it’s time to start creating their own texts.

Short film: Short films are a good stimulus for creative writing.  One contributor found short films to be a good stimulus for creative writing. Show a short (around 3-12 minute) film and then ask them to write “what happens next” or “what happened before”. This way, they already have the idea of a narrative, scene, and characters.

You can find some film suggestions on the #AusELT website Movies & Videos page here.

Story reproduction via a model text: Dictate one of your own short stories on a particular prompt like ‘an embarrassing moment’. The students hear it once and try to summarise what happened. They hear it again and can make a note of the main plot points. Then you tell them that they’ll need to recreate it with a partner and give them one more listen. They then have to write it down. This will help you find what grammar they need and to help them analyse the grammar in your story and how it’s used in creative writing. Then they use the same prompt to write a story of their own. This is a nice way of satisfying their desire for grammar, while still encouraging them to create something of their own.

Humans of New York (or Australia): Gather some interviews from Humans of New York or, if like me, you find they are exposed to too much US or UK-centric material, New Humans of Australia. Select different stories depending on which grammar topic you’d like to focus on, or adapt some of the texts and have the studNew Humans of Australiaents correct them. Once you have done the analysis and grammatical part, have them interview each other and produce a HONY-esque text from it.

Embrace artistry through graphic novel/comics: Many students will shudder at the thought of drawing, but even stick figure storyboards can be effective. One suggestion was to have students storyboard an article about a man who got lost in the desert and survived by eating frogs.  The written focus in these kinds of activity can be on short utterances – mainly dialogue and descriptions.

If the issue of drawing is causing a stalemate, you can use existing textless graphic novels (or blank out the text) and have them write in the text.

Language is poetry: A daily 10 minute poem challenge is a nice way to warm up or cool down. Try some easy (non-rhyming) poetry like adjective, shape, acrostic or simple haikus every day.

Extra reading resources: Dancing with the Pen book cover

Dancing with the Pen: The Learner as a Writer by New Zealand Ministry Of Education staff

Reading for Life: The Learner As A Reader by New Zealand Ministry Of Education staff

Creative Output book coverMorphology of the Folk Tale by V. Propp

Creative Output: Activities for Teaching Speaking and Writing by Hall Houston and Gerhard Erasmus


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