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Creative Writing For Language Learners

Writing stories in a second language boosts confidence.

One of my first jobs after university was to teach English in Japan. My students ranged from actual babies (there was little point but this class was hugely popular with Japanese mums) to salary men in their sixties, from teenagers cramming for exams to busy surgeons who fixed the broken bones of anyone who’d crashed their motorbike on the nearby Suzuka Circuit (thrillingly, they attended lessons in scrubs).

Group lessons were very much focused on real-life conversations one might have on holiday or at work and on passing crucial exams. One-to-one classes were all about fine-tuning spoken English and improving grammar. What I would have liked to have done was teach some creative writing classes but sadly it was never on the curriculum of the schools where I taught.

Which is a shame, as creative writing is an outstanding and incomparable tool when it comes to language teaching. A creative writing lesson encompasses grammar (a story has to be correctly written to be understood), interesting and precise vocabulary (a story needs to be well-written to be engaging) and it allows students to move beyond the typical language and scenarios they come across in EFL or ESOL classes and let their imaginations run riot. Whether they write about aliens or despots, weddings or heartbreak, stories set in the future or the past, in our world or a world they’ve created themselves, language learners are constantly expanding their vocabulary, improving their understanding of sentence structure and, most importantly, having fun as they act out scenes that fellow students have written.

The key building blocks of writing fiction are character, plot, setting, dialogue and tone. Creating interesting characters allows students to use complex adjectives and come up with motivations for their characters’ behaviours. Working on plot focuses on vocabulary relating to actions and consequences. Setting is all about descriptive language and using similes and metaphors. Writing dialogue asks students to think about what authentic speech sounds like. How do people really speak outside of exercises in a textbook? How do they speak when they are arguing or lying, apologising or making someone laugh? Tone allows language learners to understand the subtle differences between something that is humorous or sarcastic, menacing or frightening, sad or poignant.

But, more than any of these skills, writing creatively in a second (or third or fourth) language fills a student with confidence. How amazing it is to be able to write a story or scene entirely from your imagination. How brilliant to have created characters who speak authentically. How wonderful to have written a unique and beautiful description of the countryside or a city or an entirely imaginary world. Imagine how it feels to write a scene or story that makes your classmates laugh or that scares them or moves them in some way. To do this in a second language is incredibly gratifying. What a gift for a language learner.


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