Last month, we hosted Gareth Davies’ webinar, ‘Making the Impossible Possible: How to get your students writing’. During the webinar and on his previous blog post, we called for questions for Gareth that we could ask him post-webinar, to delve deeper into creative writing in the EFL classroom. Here’s the full transcript of this interview:
What is your opinion on teachers writing a sample text for students to get used to writing?
This is a good question, reading and writing go hand in hand and there is evidence to suggest that the more reading a student does the better their writing will become, so in general having as much exposure to different texts can only help students. Having or not having a model is often the cited as the major difference between process and product writing. In process writing the students study a sample text and use it as a model and is a good approach for students who are preparing for an exam or who need to write formulaic emails or reports. However, sometimes I think this can impose restrictions on students. So if I am doing a creative writing exercise I might avoid giving students a model at the start of the activity, to allow their creative juices to flow.
Have you ever tried to channel the positive energy of these creative writing tasks and turn them into positive academic writing performance?
How could we use these ideas to writing for exams? I mean, IELTS, Cambridge exams?
Thanks for this question, let me try to give you an analogy. When someone trains to run a marathon, they don’t only run long distances. They do some gym work, some short runs, and perhaps they change their diet. For me it is the same with preparing for an exam. You need to do some exam practice, but you also need to hone your skills and prepare in different ways. Creative writing tasks can allow students to practise their writing in an interesting way, but they are still using the skills they will need for academic purposes. When I was teaching an EAP course in the summer I did several storytelling and writing activities just to free the students up, and they found it very helpful.
How you would evaluate or share the poems?
This is a very interesting point. When I ask my students to do creative writing activities, I try to focus as much as possible on the content rather than the accuracy. I see it as a fluency activity. Therefore, on their first draft, I might comment on how the story or poem made me feel, how I enjoyed it, etc., and only point out errors where the meaning is confused. I might also ask the students to peer correct each other’s work and ask me if they are not sure about something. As for sharing their work I ask the students to decide if they are public or private, they mark the top of the paper. If they are public then I will ask them to read them out or put them on display. If the students have marked it as private then only I will look at it. With creative writing, it is often personal, I don’t think it is fair to share the students’ work if they are not ready.
What do you think of beginning with more concrete descriptive language?
In one of my previous webinars, I talked about the following activity, which looks at descriptive language.
Write a sentence on the board
e.g. The boy walked up the stairs.
Tell the student the boy was scared, ask them where they would put that word in that sentence. e.g. The scared boy walked up the stairs.
Now ask them how he walked up the stairs. Elicit an adverb and ask them where it goes in the sentence.
e.g. The scared boy walked quickly up the stairs.
Next ask them to describe the stairs, (narrow? steep? dark?) and ask them where their adjective goes. e.g. The scared boy walked quickly up the dark stairs.
Finally, ask them to think of a different word for ‘walked’, (ran? climbed? tip-toed?)
e.g. The scared boy tip-toed quickly up the dark stairs.
Now it is time to edit. You’ve gone from a simple sentence to a much too complicated one. Which words leave the best impression on the reader, which are not needed?
e.g. Perhaps you don’t need scared because ‘tip-toed’ and dark imply this.
Put the students into pairs and ask them to do the same for other adjectives, excited, happy, sad, angry etc.
You can help them with the words by translating or filling in gaps in their knowledge.
Which do you prefer? Poet or Teacher.
Actually, I love both and they are not that different. Both require you to plan and prepare carefully, both make you bring your personality to the work. Both encourage you to be creative. With both, you hope to leave a positive influence on your audience. And finally, with both sometimes things go wrong and you have to reassess and start again.