Volume IV - 1997

Creativity with a Small "c"
by Alan Maley

        Alan Maley has been at the National University of Singapore since 1993. He teaches Materials and Methodology, English for Specific Purposes, Theory and Practice of Writing, and The Creative Process on the Masters' programme; Professional Writing and Oral Communication Skills on the undergraduate programme; and Voice on the Theatre Studies programme. He was previously Director-General of the Bell Educational Trust in Cambridge (1988-93). From 1963-68 he worked for the British Council in Jugoslavia, Ghana, Italy, France, P.R. China, and India. He is the author or co-author of over thirty books on language-related topics and is Series Editor for the Oxford Resource Books for Teachers.

"I'm not creative at all."
"I don't seem to have any imagination."
"I wish I was as creative as ..."

        Comments like these are all too common from teachers in workshops and on training courses. They imply that creativity is something so special that only a fortunate few are blessed with it. In this brief article, I hope to show that creativity is far more widespread than we tend to think, that it does not necessarily involve world-shaking acts of creation, and that we are all capable of a degree of creativity.
         Of course there are the giants of creative genius_the Newtons, the Mozarts, the Picassos, the Walt Whitmans, the Einsteins. They have all shown what has been called "H" creativity, that is Historical creativity. In "H" creativity, something is created or discovered which no one has ever created or discovered before. But there is another form of creativity, "P"' or Psychological creativity (Boden 1992). In "P" creativity, an individual creates or discovers something they themselves have never done before, even though others may have done it before them. Few of us achieve "H" creativity, but we can all exercise the "P" variety _creativity with a small 'c'.

New Ways of Looking

        An important aspect of either kind of creativity ("H" or "P") is the ability to find new ways of looking at what is familiar and to find new connections between previously unrelated things. Copernicus looked at the familiar sun in a new way and revolutionized astronomy. Archimedes, in an inspired flash of insight, made the connection between his own body's displacement of water in the bath, and the specific gravity of metals. But are there ways of helping such processes along? In other words, can we foster, or even train, creativity?

        I believe that there are certainly a number of procedures we can apply to our practice which help to break the mold of habit, and thereby make alternative ways of doing things possible. Of course this is no guarantee in itself that the alternatives will be better. But, unless we try them, we shall never find out. John Fanselow, in his book Breaking Rules (1987) advocates the heuristic procedure "Do the opposite." If you usually stand at the front, stand at the back. If you usually talk a lot, remain silent. If you correct students' written work, hand it back without corrections and ask them to correct it.

        It is interesting to view some of the alternative methodologies in the light of Fanselow's injunction: CLL, in which it is the students who set the agenda and the teacher ("knower") who responds; The Silent Way, in which the teacher reverses the usual expectations by remaining largely silent; Suggestopoedia, which uses extremely long texts rather than very short ones, which emphasizes relaxation rather than effort, and where the manner of reading is far from "natural"; TPR, where students are not required to speak but only to listen. All of these approaches derive at least part of their originality from a reversal of what is usually deemed "normal."

Commonly Used Heuristics

        Some commonly used heuristics we can employ to jog us out of the rut of habit and spark creative connections include:

o Reversal. "Do the opposite." Three possible examples_students take over the teacher's role and teach the class something they know about; students themselves write the comprehension questions on a reading text; a text is read starting from the end rather than from the beginning.

o Expansion/Contraction. The principle Jonathan Swift used for Gulliver. A long poem might be reduced to a haiku_or vice versa (see Widdowson 1992). A text might be lengthened in certain specified ways, by adding adverbs, authorial comment, etc.

o Re-ordering. For example, students might re-arrange the events in a story into a different time sequence. (This often occurs in fiction as the flashback). The normal sequence of events in a class hour might be re-arranged. The physical layout of the class might be altered.

o Combine. For example, by bringing together two or more texts, pictures, objects, people, etc. which have no obvious connection. The task is then to find a connection. Many of the techniques used by the Surrealists depended on this procedure.

o Reformulate. This involves expressing a given text or event in a different way, perhaps by using a different genre (newspaper article into poem), or by changing mood or point of view (as in Kurosawa's famous film Rashomon, where the same events are described from different viewpoints). But we can even use reformulation as a way of changing the whole classroom event, for example by transforming it into a newspaper office, a theatre, a court of law.

        I believe that, if we are willing to experiment with heuristics of this kind, we will come up with interesting new angles on our practice. (See Maley 1993, 1995a) In the remainder of this article I shall describe in a little more detail, a number of activities/techniques which derive in one way or another from the sort of heuristics I have just described. I hope you may want to try them but, better still, I hope they will spark off further ideas which you can develop for yourself.


        My focus throughout will be on using texts in classrooms. I shall propose five ideas for using oral/spoken texts and five ideas for written/read texts. For ease of access, I will deal with each idea under the headings: Description, Example, Discussion.

Five Ideas for Using Oral and/or Spoken Texts.

1. Permutations.

o Description.

        Either find a text which has lines which can be spoken in any order, or write one for yourself. When the idea becomes familiar to students, they may write their own. Students preferably listen with eyes closed as you read the text to them. You read it through once in the original order. Then you begin to vary the order of the lines in a reading which should be almost mesmerizing, and which should evoke a mood, a set of images or a network of associations. When you have used this technique a number of times, you can ask students to take over the reading from you.

o Examples.

Nobody knows the woman he loves.
He loves the woman nobody knows.
He knows the woman nobody loves.
The woman nobody knows, he loves.
The woman nobody loves, he knows.
The woman he loves knows nobody.
Nobody loves the woman he knows.
The woman he knows loves nobody.
Nobody he knows loves the woman.
Nobody he loves knows the woman.
The woman loves nobody he knows.
The woman knows nobody he loves.
It is cold.
I shiver in the wind.
Snow is falling.
The trees are bare.
I am cold and alone.
No one passes the house.
The wind whistles in the trees.
The lake is frozen.
Night is falling.
No food on the table.
No fire in the hearth.
No birds sing.
The house is dying.
Who will find me?

o Discussion.

        This relies mainly on the Reordering heuristic. The important thing is the quality of the reading, which should be evocative and almost hypnotic_a bit like the concert reading in Suggestopoedia. Students should focus on their feelings and associations and allow the reading to simply wash over them. This kind of reading allows students to sense the texture of the foreign language and to relate this to their own experiences and emotions. It can be a very powerful experience for learners. If you think it is appropriate, there can be discussion after the reading which focusses either on their feelings during the reading, or on the formal properties of the text. They may also be encouraged to continue the text by adding lines. The text may also be used in a dramatized choral reading. (See Orchestrated Choral Reading, below.)

2. Reading in Mood.

o Description.

        Choose a short text which could be read in more than one way. Ask students to listen with their eyes closed as you read it to them. First read it in a "normal" voice. Then vary your reading of it. For example, you can read it in a whisper, in a slow, deep voice, in a rapid, breathless way, in an angry way, a bored way, a disappointed way, an impatient way, etc.

o Example.

        The place was easy enough to find again_the small turning to the right off the village street and the narrow entrance opposite the whitewashed church. He drove in and parked under the cypress tree. Yet it all seemed strange. In his memory the village had been miles away from the town. Now it seemed almost part of it. But a child measures with its feet, and the distances of childhood are in the mind.
(Alan Maley. 1995b)

o Description

        This technique depends mainly on Reformulation. All too often our students hear just one version or rendition of a text. But no two readings are ever the same. And identical words take on new meanings when spoken in different ways. Listening between the lines is an important faculty to develop in using a language. By exposing our students to this kind of variation we allow them to "realize" the text in different ways, focussing not only on the "what" but on the "how". It also makes it possible to repeat the text many times without getting tired of it, because every time it is different. If it is appropriate, encourage students to present their own mood variations of the text.

3. Orchestrated Choral Reading.

o Description.

        Choose a text which lends itself to choral speaking. This might be a chorus from a play ( for example, Ted Hughes' version of Seneca's Oedipus) or a poem with a refrain or with different voices, such as the villanelle form ( see below.). In groups they then decide how to give a dramatized reading of the text, for example by having certain lines read by some students and others by other students. They can decide to have certain lines spoken by a single student, others by a group and others by the whole group. They then rehearse their reading before giving it.

o Example.

Our love is coming to an end.
The feelings that we thought we had have lied.
We think we know what we intend.
There are no letters left to send.
The flowers we grew together have just died.
Our love is coming to an end.
There's no emotion left to spend;
All the solutions have been tried.
We think we know what we intend.
I cannot change from lover into friend;
We both would be dissatisfied.
Our love is coming to an end.
The veil of love begins to rend.
We now know that we must decide.
We think we know what we intend.
We've plumbed the depths we must descend.
We're drowning in the tears we cried.
Our love is coming to an end;
We think we know what we intend.

o Discussion.

        The activity draws principally on the Re~combination heuristic. The rich patterning of voices in performing_not simply reading_the text, makes for a more satisfying and more deeply integrated experience of it. Simply reading a text like this to yourself is one thing; performing it as an aesthetic experience is quite another. Again, doing it like this permits students to focus on the "how" and not simply on the "what". Rehearsing different ways of rendering the text also allows students to experience it repeatedly without becoming bored by it.

4. Reading in Role.

o Description.

        Select a text with several "voices" in it. ( These may be represented in actual dialogue or through some form of reported speech.) Students then work in groups to prepare a dramatized reading of the text, in which each character in the text (and the narrator, if there is one) is spoken by a student. They need time to discuss the text carefully and to determine the characters of each person who is represented. After rehearsal, they present their texts to another group, or to the whole class.

o Example.

        It was half an hour before Vish and Molly came into the room. By then he was feeling distinctly nervous.
        Vish had put on weight. His eyes, nose and mouth were now surrounded by fat. It was as if a small, clever rat sat trapped in all the folds. His eyes were as sharp and wicked as ever though, and his mouth wore the unpleasant smile Dick remembered so well, revealing his two large front teeth. Molly too had put on weight, but she dressed to hide it. The rich Mysore silk sari was carefully folded around her, but even that could not hide her fatness. She wore more make-up than Dick remembered. But her eyes too shone dangerously, just as they had when he saw her last. If Vish was the rat, she was the snake.

        "So, we meet again. Only this time you're not any more the boss. In fact, you were never the boss, as you know now. It seems you have been looking into things which don't concern you."
        "Don't concern me?" Dick said. "I seem to remember that I lost my job because of them. And so did some of my friends."
        "That's just your imagination. Who will believe you? You're just trying to find someone to blame," Vish said.
        "You're so pathetic," Molly added, in her high voice. " I suppose you know that none of the staff ever respected you. I can't say I blame them." She flashed a look of pure hatred at him.
        Dick kept silent, refusing to respond. He wanted to know where all this was leading before he said anything.
        Vish spoke again,"Anyway, even if you tell what you say you know, what difference will it make to us? Who cares about these things? We'll just deny it all anyway. And you can't touch us here. You're just an interfering foreigner. And I've got plenty of friends who can take care of you."
        "Oh, I think quite a lot of people would be interested, don't you?'" Dick decided that the time had come to speak. "There's John Verghese for a start. I'm sure he'd be really pleased to find out who his parents are. He'd be delighted to know that his mother abandoned him as a baby."
        "You bastard!"Molly screamed, "Do you think I'd let you get away with that?"
        Dick suddenly realized that he had won. They did not know he had found out about Molly's child. They only knew about his inquiries into the Haridas business. He had caught them."
- (Alan Maley, 1996.)

o Discussion.

        This is based on the Reformulation heuristic. The need to dramatize the reading adds a depth of understanding to the text. There is nothing like getting inside a text, as an actor does for understanding it better. This is enhanced when different groups offer alternative interpretations, leading to discussion of which was closer to the spirit or the letter of the text. A possible development of the activity is to ask groups to produce a screenplay of the text. This would include directions for movement, positioning etc. as well as dialogue. Students can then present their scene as a part of a TV soap or movie. The activity can be made more demanding by selecting texts where there is no dialogue, only reported speech/action. For other ways of rendering a spoken text see Maley and Duff (1989).

5. Motivations.

o Description.

        Select a short story or an extract from a novel or a newspaper article which shows clearly how one or more of the characters has behaved. (See below.) In groups the students then allocate the roles of the character(s) concerned and a number of "questioners." The questioners may be journalists, police officers, psychologists, close family members, etc. depending on the text. It is the questioners role to probe the actions of the character(s) in order to try to understand better why they acted as they did. (Kramsch 1993)

o Examples.

        Space does not permit the inclusion of full texts here. However, imagine this activity as related to an inquest held on board the rescue vessel at the end of Golding's Lord of the Flies, where the naval officers attempt to probe the motivation behind the death of Piggy and Simon.

        In one of my own short stories, 'Fire! Fire!' an old French peasant has taken to setting fire to houses bought by foreigners in his area ( Maley 1997). In this case a judicial inquiry might look both at his motivation and possible justifications for his actions, and at the dubious moral claims which the foreign house owners make.

        The activity can also be done using characters from plays_Othello, for instance_or from poems: "The Ancient Mariner" comes to mind.

o Discussion.

        This is based on the idea of Reformulation. Getting inside a character by understanding his or her motivation is a far more involving process than simply understanding the surface meanings of the words in the text. It usually also leads on to a discussion of major issues: What does it mean to be evil? What is the significance of life? Why does the opinion of others exert such a strong pull on us? etc. A further development of this activity is to speculate about how a given character would behave in a situation not included in the original story or novel. (See Greenwood, 1988.)

Five Ideas for Using Written and/or Read Texts.

1. Word Arrays.

o Description

        Select a short text in which words are frequently repeated. Make an array of all the different words in the text. Students then have to use the array to construct as many sentences as they can, using only the words in the array. They then compare their sentences in groups of three and select a number of sentences so as to construct a short text of their own. Finally, they are given the original text to compare with the one they have written. (See Maley, 1993.)

o Example: Original text.

        He never sent me flowers. He never wrote me letters. He never took me to restaurants. He never spoke of love. We met in parks. I don't remember what he said, but I remember how he said it. Most of it was silence anyway.
-( Lescek Szkutnik).

Word Arrays



o Discussion.

        The activity draws on the Re-ordering and Combination heuristics. It enables students to, in a sense, construct the text they are to read before they meet it. There is usually a good deal of excitement at the final stage as they compare their texts with the original, especially if they find they have some sentences which are identical with those in the original. The activity is powerful in the sense that it enables students of different levels to participate: lower level students may produce fewer and simpler sentences, higher level students produce more and more complex writing_but both can participate according to their competence.

2. Mining a Text.

o Description.

        Select a text with a number of striking images, phrases or vocabulary items. After students have read the text, ask them to write down on a separate sheet of paper ten words or phrases which they think are particularly striking or colourful. Then collect back the original texts. They are then asked to construct a new text using the fragments they have "mined" from the original. You will need to make it clear that they are not to attempt to reproduce the original but to write a completely new text. When they have finished, they compare their texts.

o Example.

        Ken woke from a confused dream. Gradually his eyes focussed. The first thing he noticed was a hand a few inches in front of his face. The fingers were like a bird's claw, stiff, blue with cold. With a shock, he released that the hand belonged to him. At the same time, he became fully aware of just how cold it was. His bones felt like frozen lead. He remembered an incident from the previous day; he had been hanging about near the kitchen entrance to the Strand Palace Hotel, scavenging for scraps, when a delivery van arrived. The driver had carried in whole sides of beef, the red and white meat refrigerated into hard blocks. He now felt like that frozen meat, his back cold and stiff as a corpse. -(Maley, 1995b)

Students might select:

a confused dream
hanging around
frozen meat
a bird's claw
with a shock
blue with cold
stiff as a corpse
frozen lead

o Discussion.

The activity is inspired by Reformulation and Combination. Student discussion is usually lively, focussing on the items chosen by different students and on the variety of texts they have produced. An alternative procedure is to ask students to exchange their ten items and to write a text based on their classmates' selection.

3. Text Transformations.

o Description.

Select a reasonably short newspaper article. When they have read it carefully, students are asked to transform it into a different kind of text, for example a poem, without changing the information content too much. They then compare the texts they have produced.

o Example.

Waving Arms Indicate Trouble

        People with coronary heart disease wave their arms around more than those free of cardiac complaints, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.
But it is unclear if people who gesticulate are more prone to heart problems or if those with heart disease move their arms more because they are physically inactive or because the disease causes them to agitate.
         "My own suspicion is that arm movements over a lifetime may be a factor _ combined with other known factors_in the development of coronary heart disease,"
         Dr. Alan Rennie wrote in Friday's edition of the journal. Dr. Rennie, a retired doctor, interviewed 50 people between 15 and 80 years old to monitor their movements over a 10 minute discussion. Seated in an armless chair, they were asked about their lifestyle, health and family.
         "Patients with coronary heart disease moved their arms during the 10 minute interview significantly more than those in the control group," he wrote.
- (Straits Times 13/1/97)

Possible transformed text:

Not Waving_Just Dying.

Watch out for those telltale arms of yours, Grandad.
You could become just another statistic_
your arms are a dead giveaway.
If you flail,
your heart will likely fail. Dr. Rennie says so, and he's a doctor.
Just think,
arm movements over a lifetime,
such a bad habit.
Better break it now, even if you are 80 years old.
It could be the death of you.

o Discussion.

        The activity draws upon Reformulation and Re_ordering. The transformed text does not have to be a poem of course. It might be a letter, an advertisement (for straitjackets to restrain arm movement?), a prayer, an interview on a chat show, etc. Students may take some time to get used to the idea but once they understand that different text-types have their own characteristics, they are quick to use them in their own texts. This is an excellent activity for sensitizing students to "genre" and register differences.

4. Reconstructing a Text.

o Description

        Select a short text for dictation. This may be prose or poetry. Explain that the aim of the activity is to reconstruct the text 100% accurately. You will read the text once at normal speed without pauses. As soon as you have finished, students write down any words or phrases they can recall. They discuss these. You then read the text at normal speed again. They again write down anything they can recall and discuss with their partners. You continue the process, reading the text as many times as necessary (but always at normal speed) until they are satisfied that they have reconstructed it totally accurately. Then you distribute the original text for them to compare.

o Example

The Panther.
(In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris)

Year after year the bars go pacing past,
till in the end his very brain is blind.
With eyes wide open, all he sees at last
is bars, bars, bars, and emptiness behind.

And as he pads his cage with supple grace,
tracing his tiny circle, round and round,
a force goes turning, dancing round a place
in which a mighty wall stands dumb and bound.

Sometimes the curtain briefly moves away.
An image enters, flickers past the eyes,
speeds through the waiting body, finds its way
straight to the heart; and dies.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Michael Swan)

o Discussion

        Reversal of expectations is a leading heuristic here. We normally expect dictation to be slow, deliberate and full of pauses. We normally conduct it as a form of transcribing the spoken into the written text. Here the activity involves an active reconstruction of the text rather than mere transcribing. And students are not usually encouraged to share their information. This is just one of the creative reformulations of dictation in Davis and Rinvolucri (1988). It is one form of the Dictocomp exercise proposed by Wajnryb (1990) . Clearly the choice of text will be dictated by the teacher's judgment of the students' level of proficiency.

5. Simplifying a Text.

o Description.

        Choose an authentic text (extract from a short story, newspaper article, etc.) which is linguistically fairly dense (difficult vocabulary, complex syntax, etc.). Students are asked to rewrite the text in a simplified version so that their fellow students at a lower level of proficiency would be able to read it. They then compare their versions and agree on the one they think is most suitable.

o Example.

        Marian Salcedo, Senior Clerk, second grade, hurried to her desk to examine the deductions in her pay envelope. It was the fifteenth of July and, on the morrow, she would leave for Manila to follow up her promotion that was five years overdue. She had been in the Ministry for twenty years and, during the last five years, the cost of living had risen so much she was sure that, without this promotion, her youngest son would not be able to go to college. And now, there was this mortgage to their house and lot, incurred three years ago when her husband was hospitalized, and the bank had notified them of its decision to foreclose. The house and lot were their only property and for almost two decades they had slaved for it.
- (From "Progress" by Frankie Sionil Jose.)

Simplified version.

        Maria Salcedo was a second grade Senior clerk in the Ministry. She had worked in the Ministry for twenty years. She hurried to her desk because it was the fifteenth of July_her pay day. She wanted to know how much money had been deducted from her pay this month. The next day she planned to leave for Manila. Her promotion had been delayed for five years and she wanted to see the Ministry about it. During the last five years the cost of living had increased so much. If she did not get her promotion, she would not be able to afford to send her youngest son to college. She was also worried about their house and plot of land. It was their only property. They had worked so hard for twenty years to buy it. But, when her husband was in hospital three years ago, she had taken a loan from the bank. Now the bank wanted its money back or else it would take their house and land instead.

o Discussion.

        Reformulation is the key heuristic here. The activity gives students in-depth access to a text. They have first to decide what are the features likely to cause difficulties. They then have to reformulate the language and perhaps also to re-order the information in order to make it more accessible. They may be surprised that, to make a text simpler, it is often necessary to lengthen it. This is a complex and demanding task but it allows them to make the text their own in a quite unique way. Over a period of time, you may find it useful to build up a collection of such simplified texts for use with lower classes: student_made materials "par excellence."


        I have been arguing that we can all exercise a degree of creativity in devising language learning materials. Although we may start by applying some of the heuristics I have referred to in a tentative or mechanical fashion, with time we begin to get a feel for new ways of using them more intuitively. By discovering creative activities for ourselves, we become more aware of our own creative potential_and begin to trust ourselves to exploit it. One result is that our students too become more creative in their use of the language they are attempting to learn with our help.

        I should like to close this article with a quotation from one of the most creative materials writers it was ever my good fortune to know_the late Colin Mortimer. Some twenty years ago, he wrote, "It is sometimes salutary for those of us who write special dialogues, stories and other materials for language learning purposes to try to regard the restrictions under which we work...rather in the way that a poet would regard the narrow confines of sonnet form...that is, more as a stimulus and challenge to creative endeavor than as a justification for trite work" ( Mortimer 1975). This plea for a degree of artistic elegance in our materials is one I would heartily endorse. I can only hope that the activities I have described conform to it, in however small a way.

National University of Singapore
13 January 1997


Boden, Margaret. 1990. The Creative Mind. Abacus.

Davis, Paul and Mario Rinvolucri. 1988. Dictation. Cambridge University Press.

Fanselow, John. 1987. Breaking Rules. Longman.

Greenwood, Jean. 1988. Class Readers. Oxford University Press.

Kramsch, Claire. 1993. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford University Press.

Maley, Alan. 1993. Short and Sweet I. Penguin.

_____. 1995a) Short and Sweet II. Penguin.

_____. 1995b) Campbell's Crossing and other Short Stories. Penguin.

_____. 1996. He Knows Too Much. Cambridge University Press.

_____. 1997. Musical Cheers and other very Short Stories. Penguin.

Maley, Alan and Alan Duff. 1989. The Inward Ear. Oxford University Press.

Mortimer, Colin. 1975. The Dramatic_Implicatory Component. CIEFL, Hyderabad. India.

Wajnryb, Ruth. 1990. Grammar Dictation. Oxford University Press.

Widdowson, Henry. 1992. Practical Stylistics. Oxford University Press.

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