Volume VI - 2001

Creative Language in the EFL Class: The Fun Hypothesis
by Laura Renart

Laura Renart (Post-graduate Diploma in Education and Professional Development) is a teacher trainer specialized in Applied Linguistics and Intonation at Instituto Superior del Profesorado "Dr Saenz", Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is EFL coordinator at T.S. Eliot Bilingual Studies, educational representative for Norwich Institute for Language Education and UCLES Oral Examiner. She has trained teachers all over her country and in the UK and has presented at TESOL conventions in Uruguay, Paraguay and the USA.

"She can write because she's bright. I'm not."
"I don't have any imagination."
"I don't know what to say."

      When students say things like this-and they often do-a writing assignment can be one of the most unsettling experiences that they encounter. Of course it is as unfounded as saying, "I can't think or speak." In this article, we will consider a few simple but effective ways of "exploiting" the student's imagination to develop creative writing in the foreign language classroom. Let us first consider the reasons for the negative reactions.

Solemnity, Haste and Punctuation

      First is our daily attitude to writing-the student is given to understand that writing is a solemn obligation. This has scared countless students and induced a fear of setting pen to paper lest fatal mistakes occur. To make matters worse, writing has lately been considered an extended way of testing grammar, with practically no connection to the content area the students are dealing with. This ignores the students' need to explore poetic and other forms of personal expression in the foreign language they are studying. Time-or the lack of it-is another serious constraint. How many times have we expected our students to write a wonderful piece "in the remaining fifteen minutes." Possibly even more of a straitjacket is the teacher's instruction "to write at least a hundred and fifty words on any topic that you like, such as your holidays." This unattractive load was to be executed within the strict conventions of punctuation.

A Fascinating Exploration

      For years, teachers were strongly encouraged to deal with writing as a skill, or rather, as something that must be accounted for. Since those days of constraints, we have entered into a period in which everything written about has to have a communicative purpose. From one point of view, such a purpose can easily be equally heavy and stultifying. We seem to have forgotten about one of the primary reasons for writing-that it is great and fascinating fun to explore and express what is going on within us. We have also forgotten what we all have realized-that we are all different. We all need different amounts of time to solve a problem. We don't all cry at the movies, and we don't all shout when our fingers get burnt in the oven. We know these things, yet we often expect our students to write uniformly. When we do work with expressive writing, we run another risk, that of requiring students to explore various complex reactions before they have acquired enough of the foreign language to accomplish that task.

A Personal Activity

      If we understand that writing is a personal activity, then the first step towards creativity has been taken. Let students use the dictionary. Watch them get angry with themselves, consult their friends, crumple up the paper, start again. See what different paces they have. Who wants to get rid of the piece? Who reflects? Who feels like showing the rest what he or she has just written? Revision, self-correction, hesitation are all central to the process of writing. Give your students short and clear instructions. Sit down and watch. Everything will start to run smoothly. The writing class is not a time-filler or, worse still, a punishment. In the same way as football players need to warm up before they get onto the field, writing also needs some stretching, movement and press-ups. Talk it over, discuss it. Has it helped you find a good way to start? If speech has always preceded writing, why should it be different in writing class? In the last years, the concept of "successful language has become wider than accurate language" (Lewis 1993). We can make ourselves understood. Great! That's what we wanted. As was the case before, we don't have to wait for years to ask our students to write. We don't need to wait until they are "proficient in the language". (When would that day be after all?) Our students' writing competence should never be the product of grammatical competence but its basis. And errors or miscues, rather-if we go a little further towards the whole language class-should spiral themselves towards comfortability in writing.

      Writing is an autonomous activity. It has got its own rules, but what we are going to concentrate on is a different way of tackling the process. Titles have so far been used and misused-why not try other resources in the classroom? We are going to suggest exploring what is next to you: phonics, context, connotation, definitions. For all this, you only need to concentrate on the word, the phrase, the name-the tools that surround us daily.

Stories from Word Banks

      Have you been working on the world and space? Then, you could ask your students to write about a new cosmogony. For the initial brainstorming, they could work in groups. Then they might break up and produce a word bank. For example, one student came up the following categories: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The class was asked to to write related terms. Using these terms made it easier to start a story.

Word Bank for Earth Air Fire Water:

ball mountains wash oceans
perfect sand clean seas
irregularities grains
stagnant rivers
desert

The goddess took a piece of plasticine and made a huge ball. So created she the "Earth". As she was quite stupid, the ball was not perfect. It had irregularities and her friends laughed because of that. She was very proud, too and told them that the irregularities were the "mountains". The ball fell from her hands on sand. She did not want to make another ball because plasticine was very expensive at those times. She she washed the ball with water, but she couldn't clean it completely. Lots of grains of sand were stuck to the ball. She called them "deserts". Water became stagnant between some mountains. The goddess's brother called them "oceans, seas, and rivers."
Written by Eugenio, aged 16

The Nationality Game

      The nationality game is very easy to play. Write out on cards a set of invented nationalities using recognized suffixes. The following are examples:

Oranger Tablish Machinal Nalian
      Give out two in each group. Then ask students to describe the prototype of the people in each country: their habits, their laws and regulations, what the country looks like, what they themselves look like, what their interests are. Once all this has been talked about-and written if you like-ask your students to suggest a reason for these two countries to meet. The most widely acclaimed have been a conference, an invasion, trade, an international football championship, or an aristocratic wedding.

Redefining Unknown Words

      The dictionary is another great resource. Playing with unknown words and redefining them imply a previous handling of the dictionary. For example:

What is a LAGAN? What is a FATBACK? What is a SIMOON?
      Again, students will be playing with signifiers and associations with the help of phonemes but without the constraint of accuracy of meaning. They will probably come out with definitions that might bear no resemblance at all to the original but that might make them laugh! In the classroom, the "fatback" was reported to be "a kind of male creature with a prominent behind" [sic]. What is the connection between the dictionary explanation: "a strip of fat from the back portion of a side of a pork, cured by salting"? 1 Probably none, but its phonic shape does the trick, creating a kind of "estranged" language we can only enjoy if we step away from standard language. By the way, do you know what a horsebit is, or maybe an eleraffe? Young learners can also attempt to create and describe new animals who live in a fantastic zoo.

Horse-Race Names

      The names of racing horses are a rich source of ideas. Give your class a list just as they come out in any city newspaper and ask them to include all of the names in a story. In the students' fiction, these names will become the names of people, places, shops, brands or whatever they fancy. For example:

Gure Echea Las Vegas La Democratic
Vero Beach Pupulina Ruinosa
Multiplicadora Frau Prospect La Nuestra

It didn't happen in Gure Echea, a place like Las Vegas but much smaller. Two men were walking on La Nuestra street. They were going to La Democratic camp situated in Vero Beach, two miles from Gure Echea. It was an Indian cemetery called Pupulina. In that cemetery were resting lots of facous people, but not so known as were Ruidosa or Multiplicadora. Half an hour later the two men arrived to the camp. There were nobody except of Frau Prospect, the caretaker. She told them that the camp was closed and they had to go out and disappear. Frau Prospect lit her pipe and went into her dirty cottage. The two men didn't know where to go so they began to walk without direction. The night was very dark and the couldn't see anything. At two o'clock they decided to stop because they were very tired. They didn't know that they were in the cemetery, Some minutes later they heard a noise: a stone was moving. The men had time only to lit a match. They saw some decayed and fetid dead Indians who were walking to them. Their skulls reflected the match's light. The men felt a strong strike in their heads. Minutes later, the Indians had a wonderful banquet.
Written by Valeria, aged 14

Titles of Imaginary Movies

      Titles of imagined movies can help students write "reviews" of those movies. For example, the following phrases could trigger off colorful stories starring great actors. Adapt the titles to the age of the class and take advantage of the video information the students have been exposed to. Students are to say what was good, bad, wonderful, terrible, boring, interesting, etc. about the "movie" they choose.

"Dead and Buried" "Heaven in Ninja Hell" "Lethal Attack"

Imaginary Movie Dialogue

      For this exercise, real dialog from real movies can be used, or the teacher can make up imaginary dialog from an imaginary movie and read it to the students. They then have to answer certain questions: Who's speaking? Where are they? What happened before? What will happen next? Students can be encouraged to ask and answer additional questions. An example of imaginary dialog follows:

A: We must talk.
B: Right, right.
A: The thing is....I've spoken to lots of people about you.
B: Oh God.
A: And everyone agrees-you're in real trouble.
B: Am I?
A: You see, you're turning into a sort of serial monogamist-one girlfriend after another. Yet you'll never really love anyone, because you never let anyone near you.
B: On the contrary.
A: You're affectionate to them, and sweet to them....You were even sweet to me although you thought I was an idiot.
B: I did not.

Fables and Superheroes

      Fables and superheroes can provide you with great ideas if you use them slightly differently from the original. The first step would be to mix a "salad of characters." What would Superman say to Terminator? How would Robin Hood ask Cinderella out? Would the Lion King agree to meet Pinocchio? Here, again, the sky's the limit.

The Disrupting Word

      Or why not try the "disrupting word" to write a story? Give your class a set of words that are traditionally associated with a fairy tale but with a word that is obviously out of context. For example:

Little Red Riding Hood: girl / forest / basket / wolf / Granny / helicopter

Unsettling Statement

      Regarding what is called the "unsettling statement," and in the same fashion, students must reconstruct the traditional story but with some changes:

Robin Hood helps the rich and gets a ticket for speeding.

Propp's Cards

      The last resource I will mention is one that has given us great pieces is "Propp's Cards." Taking advantage of Vladimir Propp's functions in his classification of folk tales, your class can make up a new story. Propp isolated thirty-one functions that usually occurred in the Russian traditional tale. (There are many coincidences with the Latin American traditional soap opera.) Some of Propp's functions are listed below. For the function of "mutilation" and a context, examples might be a crippled character who, in due course, will be able to walk again. For "absence," a father who left one day and never returned. (For a complete list, consult Gianni Rodari's Gramatica de la Fantasia. Write the name of each function on separate cards and give four or five to each group of students. Then ask them to reorder the cards and use the new sequence as the structure of a story they are to collaborate on.

punishment delay persecution mutilation prohibition wrongdoing
mediation fight between hero and antagonist mediation absence trap

Conclusion

      The above suggestions are short and need to be adjusted for the age of your students and the size of your classes. One way to proceed is to play dumb and tell the students that you saw the suggestion in a publication but don't know how to go about it. Let them use their imagination. It's a powerful tool.

References

Curtis, Richard (1994) Four Weddings and a Funeral. London: Corgi Books.

Lewis, Michael (1993) The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

New Webster's Dictionary of the English Language (1975). New York: Consolidated Book Publishers.

Pampillo, Gloria (1982) El Taller de Escritura. Buenos Aires: Plus Ultra.

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