How can we turn writing tasks into a stimulating, collaborative activity?
Here are 8 tips on boosting learner interaction and language learning through creative writing activities
For Harmer, ‘successful language teaching’ should be judged according to the ‘balance of the activities our students are involved in’. Since in most EFL classroom scenarios learners have limited opportunities to practise the language outside the classroom, Harmer considers ‘genuine communicative tasks’ as an important part of the lesson. We therefore need to come up with activities that will increase student talking time (STT) and will give our learners the opportunity to utilize their knowledge and find ways to interact, express themselves in a creative way and get their message across in the target language. Below you will find some key points to consider in order to promote learner interaction through creative and stimulating writing tasks.
- Focus on learner motivation
For Penny Ur (1996), activities that combine ‘purposeful and original writing’ will foster the learning process and will significantly boost learner motivation. We must give our students a reason to want to express their thoughts and ideas in the L2 and turn writing into a fascinating process for them. We need to increase our learners’ willingness to get actively involved in the lesson and use the TL in a more relaxed and playful way. Our learners need to feel motivated enough and discover new lexis and L2 structures on their own in order to appropriately convey meaning in the target language.
Through this process of finding new ways to express themselves in the L2, learner autonomy is being promoted. Our students do not only ‘discover’ new vocabulary and grammar but they also develop an intuition of how certain types of texts are being constructed. Ur (1996:169) stresses the positive impact to language acquisition of this ‘journey of self-discovery’ through imaginative writing. When students find the task and the topic interesting, challenging and relevant to their age, they will ‘strive’ harder than usual to ‘produce a greater variety of correct and appropriate language’ in order to express their ideas.
Active involvement is key to a successful learning environment. By letting our students have their say and choose the topics they want to focus on, we instantly give them a more active role, we make them co-designers of the lesson. Learning is then more meaningful to them as it is connected to their everyday lives, their preferences and interests. Through this inclusiveness our learners feel they are in control of the lesson flow and become more engaged in the language tasks.
2. Focus on learner creativity
As Harmer (2001:259) points out, the term creative writing suggests ‘imaginative tasks’, such as writing poems and stories, whose ‘end result’ is to promote effective learning and maximize learner motivation. For Beck (2012:35) creative writing does not only help students ‘develop their language skills’, but it also promotes our learners’ introduction to the TL’s cultural contexts and writing culture.
When it comes to unleashing learner creativity the options are endless: storytelling, article writing, rewriting a story, students alternating the end of their favorite book, pretending to be a famous writer/actor/singer/politician, writing imaginary replies to fan letters, writing stories based on pictures/songs, etc.
3. Increasing STT: practicing speaking through writing
In many cases our learners will rarely find the opportunity to practise the TL outside the language classroom. It is therefore essential to encourage them to interact in the foreign language as much as possible. We must give them the freedom to cooperate with other learners and to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately) in the TL. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active. As Harmer (2001) points out, the students’ attention during these tasks needs to be focused on the content of what they are saying rather than the form.
4. Task authenticity
In order to grasp our learners’ attention and increase their willingness to participate in the lesson we need to focus on their different learning styles, on their personalities, their feelings, their likes and dislikes. We need to make sure that the task is adapted to our learners’ level and that our students have received all the necessary input (lexis/grammar) they need in order to complete the activity and to effortlessly express themselves in the L2. We also need to make sure that the topics they will be focusing on are both interesting and relevant to our students’ level, needs and interests. Authenticity in the topics chosen is also important. Nobody wants to write about something they are not interested in. We need to give them a reason to express themselves in writing, to motivate them and arise their interest.
5. Activating learner schemata
We also need to make sure our learners have the adequate knowledge of lexis related to the topic they will be focusing on. Selecting and pre-teaching language chunks can be very beneficial. We also need to activate our learners’ relevant background knowledge on the subject through some discussion and brainstorming during the lead-in stage. Using a variety of stimuli to trigger their imagination, we arise our learners’ interest, we make them eager to participate in the lesson and pave the way for a smooth transition to the writing task.
6. Encouraging collaboration rather than competition
Real-life simulations, writing short dialogues and replies to imaginary letters etc. will not only increase student talking time (STT), but will also enhance our learners’ communication skills. By working in pairs or groups in order to write a role play or a story for example, our students will combine their imagination and their knowledge of L2 lexis and grammar and will learn from one another. It is important to focus on this positive aspect of student collaboration and to clarify that competitiveness is not the goal of these interactive tasks but creative and constructive learning.
For a collaborative writing activity to be successful, we must encourage a friendly, relaxed learning environment. If there is a a trusting and supportive rapport amongst the learners and between the learners and the teacher, then there is a much better chance for useful interaction to take place. Positive feedback plays a very important role here. By praising their efforts (instead of only making corrections) we keep their motivation levels up and encourage them to express themselves more freely in the TL. Praise and focusing on the positive aspects of our students’ TL output will motivate them to want to talk/write more in the L2. Our students’ self-confidence and self-esteem will increase and the fear of making errors will slowly go away.
7. The importance of extensive reading (turning input into output)
Creative writing should go in hand with extensive reading. For input to become intake and then output, our learners need a lot of exposure to the TL. Instilling the ‘reading bug’ to our learners is one of the greatest achievements of a language teacher. We need to make them want to read in the TL not because they have to but because they want to. This starts in the language classroom by choosing interesting texts, relevant to their age, level and needs. Texts that focus on topics that might trigger our learners’ interest will automatically boost their intrinsic motivation will turn reading in the TL into an enjoyable process. it is when our learners will have received the necessary input that they will begin to feel confident enough to turn it into output and freely express themselves creatively in the TL.
8. Allowing thinking time
Keeping the right balance between giving them enough time to process and absorb the information regarding the task, but at the same time having our learners learn to obey and stick to certain time limits is important. Again this will depend on the purpose of the interactive activity and what we want to achieve. We must make sure our students have enough time to listen, think, collaborate with one another, process their answer and start writing. Thinking time and monitoring are important as we need to check that our learners are ‘on task’, that they have fully grasped the purpose of the activity and are not switching to their L1 during group work.
It is important to remember though that participation during the lesson is beneficial as long as it is not stressful. Some students may not be willing to interact with others. We must therefore carefully examine and monitor our learners and adjust our teaching in order to satisfy their learning styles and needs. We need to be able to direct our teaching towards their strengths and offer as much personal focus and guidance as possible.
Harmer, J. (1982). What is communicative? ELT Journal, Volume 36, Issue 3, April 1982, Pages 164–168, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/36.3.164
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.
Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann
Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press