Some Creative Writing Lessons Tom Booth

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Some Creative Writing Lessons
Tom Booth
Tom Booth teaches EFL to adults at Studio School of English, Cambridge, UK .


Do learners ‘need’ creative writing?

Classroom communication through creative writing

Lesson Plan 1: ‘Word List to Paragraph’

Lesson Plan 2: ‘Famous in Ten Years’

Lesson Plan 3: ‘Personal Narratives for Different Age Groups

Do learners ‘need’ creative writing?
Of all the learners who enroll on general EFL courses, the chances are that only a small minority regularly write creatively outside the classroom, and very few would put the development of creative writing skills high up their list of learning goals. So why spend classroom time - for which the learners have presumably paid considerable amounts - on creative writing activities?
Before answering this question, perhaps it is worth considering the relationship between what language learners do in the classroom and how they use language outside. Clearly, when we ask learners to produce language in the classroom, we want them to be able to transfer some element of this to ‘real-world’ situations. Equally, however, we do not only do things in the classroom so that learners can memorise these activities and replicate them outside. Otherwise, why do teachers do choral drilling or give gap-fill exercises? Sometimes, inevitably, we help our learners by doing things in the classroom which are different from the ways in which language is used outside. With this in mind, the fact that learners do not ‘need’ to write creatively outside the classroom stops being a barrier to us using creative writing in our teaching practice.
The lesson outlines below all require learners to use language creatively and imaginatively. The topics are personal, but probably things which the learners have never explored or thought about clearly before, even in their own language. I hope, and some learners have attested, that being allowed to use one’s imagination and communicate creatively gives a learner a sense of ‘ownership’ over the language, so that the learner can use the language more confidently, rather than feeling subservient to its rules. For many learners, lack of confidence or reluctance to experiment in English is as much of a barrier to communicative ability as grammatical or phonological accuracy. As gapfills are designed to help learners improve their grammatical accuracy, and choral drilling is used to promote accurate pronunciation, so creative writing can be used to build learners’ confidence in their abilities to use language in richly varied and unpredictable situations - something that all learners need to do outside the classroom.
Classroom communication through creative writing
All of the lesson outlines below attempt to achieve genuine communication: they are designed so that each learner’s writing has at least one naturally motivated reader. The interaction largely draws upon the ever-developing ‘shared space’ that exists between learner’s perceptions of each other. If you and I both become members of a new group, we will both begin to perceive each other, perhaps differently from how other people have perceived us in the past. As the group continues to interact together, these perceptions will develop and change, perhaps towards the perceptions that other groups might have of us, perhaps differently. I hope that these creative writing activities allow learners to see, explore and be aware of these developing perceptions.
Communicative language teaching depends on genuine interaction in the classroom: it is far easier to, say, raise awareness of how intonation is used to express emotions in interactional discourse if learners are ready to engage in meaningful discourse with each other. Awareness of developing perceptions within a group, I hope, makes learners more comfortable with such communicative classroom interaction, and one of the aims of these creative writing activities is to promote such a classroom environment.

Lesson Plan 1: Word List to Paragraph
In Vocabulary, (Morgan & Rinvolucri 2004: 89) there is a fantastic activity in which learners write a list of words to describe a picture, then write a paragraph based on another learner’s word list. The writer can then try to unite his/her writing with the original picture. The following two ideas are based on this concept.
a) ‘Think about a place’ (elementary to advanced; about 45 minutes - 1 hour)
In this activity, the teacher participates alongside the students at every stage.

  1. Ask learners to silently bring to mind a beautiful, scary, exciting or otherwise remarkable place where they have been. It could be their home, or a place they’ve visited. ‘London’ is too big; it should be more exact, for example ‘the park outside my brother’s house in Brixton’. Spend about 2 minutes with everyone silently concentrating on the sights, sounds, smells, people, colours etc. of the place.

  1. Repeat step 1 with another place, preferably one which contrasts with the first.

  1. Repeat one more time. Steps 1-3 should be carried out slowly and thoroughly: this will make the rest of the lesson more interesting for everyone.

  1. Of the three places they have thought about, ask everyone to choose the one which is most interesting to write about. The teacher also chooses a place

  1. Hand out an identical A4 piece of paper to each student, and the teacher also takes one. On this piece of paper everyone individually writes 12-15 words about the place they have chosen. No more than 3 of these words should be adjectives. When finished, everyone should write their names on the paper. Everyone must only use one side of the paper.

  1. Randomly redistribute the lists. Ask everyone not to let on whose paper they have. The teacher should also give his/her list to a student, and take another one.

  1. Everyone reads the word list, tries to imagine the place it describes, then writes a paragraph to describe the place as they imagine it, on the other side of the same piece of paper. (N.B. if the group are of a low level or lacking in confidence in terms of writing, it can help to supply a short description of a place as a model here, but more confident learners may appreciate the chance to be creative without following a model.) Again, everyone writes their name on the paper.

  1. Stick the writing up around the walls. Everyone walks around reading, but not touching the texts.

  1. Everyone tries to find the paragraph which relates to their place, then finds its author and comments (orally) on the writing and, perhaps, gives more information about the real place and its similarities and differences to the paragraph. This last stage takes the form of a group mingle.

b) ‘Weekend Timelines’ (elementary to advanced; about 30 - 40 minutes)
(Do this on a Monday morning)

  1. On the board, the teacher draws a horizontal timeline representing his/her weekend and writes a maximum of twelve words on it. These can be words like ‘friends’, ‘football’ or ‘Cardiff’ as well as feelings like ‘tired’ or ‘bored’. There should not be complete sentences but words and phrases, and exact times should not be included. The timeline will, and should, be slightly ambiguous. Learners then work alone and produce a similar timeline.

  1. Learners then receive a timeline written by someone else. Make sure that the timelines are distributed in pairs so that, for instance, if Junya has Ahmed’s timeline, Ahmed should have Junya’s.

  1. Pretending to be the person who wrote the timeline in front of them, learners write a paragraph describing the weekend represented by the timeline, in the first person. (This entails using their imaginations to fill in the timeline’s ambiguities.) Learners should not communicate with each other at this stage.

  1. Learners receive their partner’s writing and tell their partner which parts accurately reflect their real weekend, and what actually happened. This activity provokes genuine interest in each other’s weekends.

Variation: If I want to revise a specific grammar point e.g. conditionals, I insist that each learner includes at least two of these structures in their paragraphs. (If I want to practise the past perfect, I also insist that the paragraphs render the timelines in a non-linear order.) Then, after steps 1-4, I ask everyone to write one of their sentences containing the chosen structure on the board. Then, in open class, I and the class as a whole can comment on and perhaps correct the sentences’ accuracy and appropriacy.
Lesson Plan 2. ‘Famous in 10 years’ (elementary to advanced; about an hour)
1. Choose a very famous person who most people in the class will probably have heard of, such as Ronaldinho. Write on the board “Ronaldinho is famous for” and elicit a suitable ending. Ask a few learners to name a very famous person from their own countries. Write xxx is famous for yyy for each on the board. Elicit the structure ‘famous for + verb+ing’ and ‘famous for his/her + noun’.
2. Point out that you (the teacher) are not famous now, but there is a chance you might become famous in 10 years’ time. Write on the board: “In 10 years, I might be famous for…” and elicit and write on the board 3 different endings. These could be anything from ‘writing world famous English textbooks’ to ‘winning the lottery and spending the money in a ridiculous way’.
3. Ask learners to work alone and write three possible reasons why they might be famous in 10 years. Point out that these might well be related to their current lives, but they needn’t be; they could be totally random, although they should be somehow conceivable.
4. Elicit the format of a ‘Chat Show’. Elicit, and write on the board, some questions which a chat show host might ask Ronaldinho. Do the same for one or two of the scenarios you dreamt up for yourself in 10 years.

  1. Ask learners to work alone and, for each of the 3 scenarios they thought of before, to write 7 questions which a chat show host might ask them if they were indeed famous for this reason. There could be some overlap between the three sets of questions.

  1. Pair the students and ask them to swap their papers. Each student then answers the questions which he/she wrote for the first scenario, in role as him/herself in 10 years’ time. The answers should be as truthful as possible. For instance, if somebody has decided that he will be famous for playing chess in 10 years’ time, one question might be ‘When did you start playing chess,’ in which case the answer could be entirely honest. Of course, if the next question is ‘How did you feel when you won the 2014 World Championships,’ he will need to use his imagination.

7. Repeat step 6 for the other two scenarios, changing the pairs each time.

Comments: In the speaking part of this lesson, learners need to move freely and rapidly between the real and the imaginary, between ‘personal discussion’ and ‘role play’. Hopefully, therefore, this activity incorporates both the relevance and intrinsic interest of a personal speaking activity as well as the scope for using imagination and breadth of possible language which are features of a good role play.
Lesson Plan 3: Personal narratives for different age groups (upper intermediate – advanced, 90 minutes)
I find it helps to create a naturally interested reader if learners write each other’s personal narratives.
Preparation: find a short passage from a book aimed at 6-8 year olds, and another from a teenage fiction book, which you consider to be typical examples of their genres. I have used a short text from Writing Frames (Barton 2002: Unit 10) and an excerpt from the graded reader Death in the Dojo (Leather 1999: 50) Make photocopies of each passage for each student.
1. Dictate the following, or similar sentence heads:

• One of the best days of my life was when I…

• I was terrified when…

• One of the strangest things that has ever happened to me is…

• I hope I never have to…again.

• I thought I would never…but I did!

2. Learners complete the sentences individually, then exchange papers with a partner, who chooses which one of their partner’s sentences sounds most interesting.
3. Each partner in turn then spends about 5 minutes speaking in as much detail as possible about the event or story which their partner has chosen. The partner who is not speaking should listen carefully, take notes and ask for clarification if required. From this point each learner takes ‘ownership’ of the story they’ve just been told; I will refer to it as ‘their story’.
4. Hand out the extract from the children’s story. Ask learners to guess the target reader and explain their guesses. Try to talk about choice of vocabulary, grammatical structure, sentence length, depth of characters/psychology and themes/imagery.
5. Working alone, learners write the story their partner told them in the style of the kids’ fiction extract. They can change, adapt, leave out or invent any elements of the story they like.
6. Hand out the extract from the teenage story. Elicit the style and readership in the same way as for the other story. Teenage fiction is often far more psychological and has more three-dimensional characters and varied storylines, as well as more complex lexis and syntax.
7. Redistribute the learners’ stories randomly. Nobody should have the story they themselves wrote, nor the story written by their original partner. Learners read the story in front of them, then rewrite it, adapting it for a teenage audience.
8. Put the pairs of stories on the walls, so everybody can walk round reading and comparing them. People do this with great interest, perhaps because one of the pairs of stories is, albeit perhaps loosely, based on their own personal narrative.

Barton, G, (2002) Writing Frames, Oxford University Press, unit 10

Leather, S, (1999) Death in the Dojo, Oxford University Press, pp. 50
Morgan, J & Rinvolucri, M, (2004) Vocabulary (2nd Ed.), Oxford University Press, pp. 89
The Creative Writing course can be viewed here.

The Creative Methodology for the Classroom course can be viewed here.
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