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Making the Impossible Possible – Q&A session

shutterstock_299889014Last 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.


Making the ‘Impossible’ Possible – How to get your students writing


Gareth Davies is a writer, teacher, teacher trainer, and storyteller. He has been in the ELT industry for 21 years teaching in Portugal, the UK, Spain and the Czech Republic. Since 2005 he has worked closely with Oxford University Press, delivering teacher training and developing materials. Gareth joins us today to preview his webinar ‘Making the Impossible Possible… How to get your students writing’.

Writing’s a Chore?

When I was on a recent short-term teaching assignment in Northern Spain, I decided to ask my students to do some creative writing. I gave them some prompts and asked them to write a story. Far from being a joyous activity, the students rolled their eyes. There was a lot of grumbling and sighing and the finished versions were no more than four or five lines long. They had written stories, but they had not written creatively. Why did my students have such a negative reaction to writing and how could I encourage them to enjoy it?


Why is writing an essential 21st century communication device? Well, take a brief look around in any town in any country you will see people hunched over their phones or tablets or laptops sending texts, emails or WeChat messages. Writing is in vogue. But it is more than that. It is argued that encouraging students to create in a foreign language helps them to internalise it more effectively. This is because they need to think about how language works and what they know, in order to be able to use the language successfully.

Merril Swain argues that input, being taught the language and being asked to manipulate it in controlled exercises, is useful, but it doesn’t produce the cognitive processing required to internalise language. Whereas:

“output pushes learners to process language more deeply – with more mental effort… With output, the learner is in control. In speaking or writing, learners can ‘stretch’ their interlanguage[1] to meet communicative goals.”

  • Swain

[1]Interlanguage is the learner’s current, work in progress version of the language. 

Thus when producing language, whether it be writing or speaking, students are being cognitively challenged which is helping them to internalise the language, and get better at it. Therefore, the work we do on writing in the classroom can be seen as work done on language development, helping students to improve their linguistic ability.

So how do we get our students writing?

One complaint I often hear from students is that they don’t know what to write about. Here are a couple of solutions.

Sit the students in circles of six. Ask students to write the topic they want to write about on the top of an A4 sheet of paper and then pass the paper around in the circle. Each student writes a question on the sheet about the topic at the top. Now each student has the subject they are going to write about and five questions to answer in the text.

Task: You are on a shopping trip to a big city with friends. Write a blog entry about your experience.

Instruction to Students: Decide which city you are visiting write it on top of the piece of paper.



Are the shops expensive?

Are there any street markets?

Is there a department store?


Are the shops expensive?

Is it crowded?

What is the food like?

If you want the students to all write about the same topic, write the topic on the board and draw two columns. Elicit all the things the students know about the topic and write them in the first column. Then give them time to think of what they would like to know about the topic. Elicit the questions they have thought of and write them in the second column. Now ask the students to do the writing task. The weaker or more cautious ones can rely on the information in the first column the more adventurous ones can try to find answers to the questions in the second column.

Task: Prepare a small advert for tourists about your home town.


What do we know?

Traditional markets at certain times of the year.

Best time to come is spring

Two castles

What would we like to know?

How much is it to stay in a hotel?

How much to taxis cost?

How do you take a boat trip?

Where’s the best place for a view of Prague?

If you want your students to do some creative writing, you might want to start by asking them to adapt an existing story. For example, you could take the story of Aladdin and ask the students to write a fifty-word summary or to write a 21st Century version or a version that would be more specific to their own country. This allows the students to work within an existing structure, but create their own ideas. An alternative might be to take a song or poem with regular repetitions and ask students to write their own version. Ian Dury’s I Believe is a good song for this kind of activity and can be found in Headway Intermediate.

Call a draft a draft

It is a good idea to encourage students to call their work drafts, to give them a sense that they can, and should, make changes. Asking questions is a really good way of giving feedback. The questions can help create a richer piece.  Some example feedback questions for a piece of creative writing might be: what happened next? why did this happen? how did the people feel? What did the street look like? This shows that the teacher has read the piece with interest and is keen to know more about the story, and was not just looking for mistakes and errors to correct.

In my webinar on the 25th and 26th of January, I will discuss some of these ideas in greater detail and suggest other ways to make the impossible possible and to get your students to enjoy their writing tasks.



Tasks mentioned are taken from Solutions Pre-Intermediate 2nd Edition.

Swain, M., ‘The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue’ in Sociocultural theory and second language acquisition ed. James P. Lantolf (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 97- 114 p. 99.

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Discover the NEW International Express Tests and Teacher’s Guides

Students Sitting at Desks and WritingBruce Wade, Managing Editor of International Express, introduces his upcoming webinar on 11th September about the new International Express Tests and Teacher’s Guides.

The new International Express launched earlier this year, and now, plenty of extra resources to support the course are available for free on Oxford Teachers’ Club.  In this webinar, I’ll be exploring how the new Teacher’s Guides can help you quickly plan your lessons, and I’ll show you around the new tests and Student Progress Report, which help you to regularly and quickly check your students’ performance.

Plan your lessons in a flash

International Express comes with extensive extra resources including photocopiable activities, videos for every unit, and worksheets to support each video – so you won’t be short of material, but how do you make the best use of it all?  We’ve developed Teacher’s Guides for every level, which give a clear, one-page overview of the course, meaning that you can see all the syllabus items, target language and skills, and resources in one go. I’ll be exploring how you can use these to plan your lessons quickly and easily.

Regularly check students’ progress

Tests are an important part of every course, and International Express tests provide comprehensive coverage of all the language in the Student’s Book.  Most test items are written as A‒B exchanges to reflect the communicative nature of the course.   There is a separate test for each section so teachers can test their students after completing a section, or a unit.  I’ll explain the different ways you can use these with your class, and we’ll look at how you can analyse the results to make direct comparisons of your students’ performance across sections, and whole units.

Analyse students’ performance

We developed the unique Student Progress Report to help you measure students’ performance unit-by-unit, and across different skills.  I’ll explain how you can use this tool to see how a student is performing across the four sections of a unit, and we’ll look at how you can customise it, for example, by drawing different types of graphs, or by adding comments on your students’ performance.

I look forward to helping you making the most of all of these resources on 11th September.  In the meantime, you can take a look at them on Oxford Teachers’ Club – you just need to sign in with your usual log in details.


#EFLproblems – EAP and low-level students: will it work?

Teacher helping adult studentWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Stacey Hughes responds to Raef Sobh Azab’s blog comment about whether to focus on general English or EAP for low-level university students.

Raef wrote:

I teach English to university students at the English Department in a non-native English speaking country. My students lack the basic skills of the language. Their levels are beginner and/or elementary at best. My question is: what is the best and the most suitable choice for them? Is it general English because of its language input and real life context or EAP which is badly needed for their academic studies?”

Raef has posed a fundamental question, and I suspect that at the heart of it lies the distinction between General English (GE) and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). For one thing, where each is traditionally taught is different: EAP being taught primarily in university settings in pre-sessional or in-sessional courses. EAP is also different in its aims, which are to prepare students for not only the culture of academic study but also for the topics they will encounter and the types of tasks they will have to do. The GE or EAP question is similar to the GE or Business English (BE) question posed by BE teachers. Can and should students learn more specialist language before they have learned generic language?

The answer, I feel, lies in the purpose for learning English. If a student needs EAP, why would we spend time teaching them GE?

Though there are certainly important differences between GE and EAP, I wonder if, at lower levels at least, these differences are really that marked. Look at the words and phrases below. Where would you place each in the Venn Diagram below?

General English and EAP Venn Diagram

Did you find that the majority of the above could fit easily into either category? Did you find yourself saying, “It depends”?

I would hazard that, to some degree, all of the tasks, skills and activities listed above are features of both GE and EAP. What might differ is the degree to which each is taught. So, for example, a GE student might give a short presentation about cultural differences. The aims of the task might be to showcase the student’s fluency, accuracy and pronunciation. An EAP student might give a similar presentation on the differences in educational culture between his country and another. The aim may be slightly different, which would be reflected in the marking of the presentation. This student might be marked on body language, eye contact, clarity of visuals and how well the student was able to present ideas clearly, in addition to his fluency, accuracy and pronunciation.

Similarly, in writing tasks, both the GE and EAP student would be asked to write a paragraph or email and would be assessed on similar things – format, grammar, linking, topic sentences, vocabulary choice, etc. However, the EAP student might also be assessed on how well she links ideas together (text cohesion) and whether or not her ideas follow a logical progression (text coherence).

So, if we consider the aims of the activity or task, the focus changes slightly, but the task remains effectively the same. This suggests that EAP can be taught at a low level, and arguably should be in the scenario that Raef mentions above. If his students have little time to reach a certain level of proficiency, then keeping in mind the academic rationale for tasks and activities will help students build the skills they will need as their language level increases.

In his question, Raef mentions “real-life context” as a difference between GE and EAP, and it is in this topical aspect that we might find a split. Traditionally, EAP topics have tended to centre around academic subjects and be more “weighty” or serious, while GE topics have tended to be more generic and “lighter”. Choice of topic has dictated which vocabulary students learn, with EAP vocabulary being more formal and ‘academic’. However, at lower levels, this distinction is not as great as at higher levels.

Looking through a couple of low level EAP course books, I see vocabulary being taught that would happily sit in a GE course book – apartment, big, friendly, library, mathematics, parents, teach, weather – as well as some vocabulary that is possibly more EAP specific – brain, gestures, poetry, organisation, research, survey. None of these ‘EAP’ words are greatly more difficult to learn than the ‘GE’ words.

The topics in these course books are not that different either, in that they are common topics that are accessible to lower-level students. Even so, there is one distinct difference: they have a more academic context – listening activities may be a short lecture, podcast or talk show involving an “expert”, and readings similarly present an authoritative “voice”. This sows the seeds for students thinking about source credibility and the need to question information while still studying the vocabulary for describing personality or communicating their reasons for their choice of holiday destination.

What about grammar? Grammar can be taught as usual, but within an academic context. Compare: Caroline studies hard at the university versus Robert plays tennis at the sports club. Each sentence shows good use of the present tense, though sentence A is possibly more “EAP”.

My feeling is that EAP is a suitable choice for Raef’s low-level academic students and may be a more efficient choice given their ultimate need for academic English.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of whether teaching EAP to low-level students is appropriate? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks.


I’m a teacher, get me out of here!

Teenager reading from a book on the grass and smilingIn his first guest post, Michael Harrison considers the importance of learning outside the classroom.

Teaching and learning goes on in classrooms, doesn’t it? It is fairly safe to say that the majority of teaching (including English language teaching) around the world takes place in a classroom setting. That’s what they’re for, and anyone who has completed some form of teacher training will know that classroom management is a very important thing to be aware of. But the classroom isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the be all and end all. Here are a few reasons I think it is advisable to get out of there once in a while.

[Note – make sure you are aware of your institution’s policies regarding outside trips. It is always recommended to get the student’s or their parent/guardian’s permission before getting out of the room]


Another word/phrase that gets bounced around on initial teacher training (in particular for ELT) is realia, and its use in teaching. Basically, using a real life example of something to teach it. Are you looking at train/bus travel? Bring in some examples of tickets to teach the vocab. Are you writing CVs with a group of Business English students? Get a few sample versions (or even your own real versions) to show to the students.

But what about if the classroom is the realia. Or rather, the location where the learning is taking place. Are you teaching supermarket vocabulary? Go to the supermarket. Looking at rivers and wildlife? Get yourself down to your local waterway. Those examples might not be appropriate for every situation, but there should be something that teachers can do in their own context.

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