Creativity in the English language classroom

Edited by Alan Maley and Nik Peachey
British Council 2015


Some publications for review come along at exactly the right moment. In this case, I was putting together a teacher development course on Creativity in the Classroom, so the timely arrival of this manual proved something of a blessing.

With 18 chapters on using the coursebook creatively, the role of storytelling, fostering oral creativity, creative thinking, the learner as a creativity resource, exploring literature, drama and creative writing and supporting teacher development, this is a compendium for teachers and trainers alike.

The selection covers ideas for teaching a range of age groups (young learners, secondary, adults, university students) and the focus is on learner creativity, teacher creativity, materials development and teacher training. Some of the very practically-slanted case studies give insights into teaching in Greek, German, Brazilian and Vietnamese classrooms or in under-resourced areas of the world. There are contributions from established writers and presenters (Andrew Wright, Brian Tomlinson, Tessa Woodward, Jill and Charlie Hadfield, Judit Feher) and those that are described as just beginning their journey as teachers. The key message being championed here is that creativity ‘is not the preserve of a privileged elite. While not everyone will have the big “C” creative genius of an Einstein, a Picasso, a Mozart or a Dostoevsky, everyone can exercise what some have called little “c” creativity, which is inherent in language itself.’ (Maley, p6)

For teacher trainers, one of the most valuable sections is the Overview, which sets out to investigate the what, the why and the how of creativity in the classroom. This provides ample food for thought and serves as a worthwhile introduction to a training course. Quoting a number of writers, Maley talks about the common threads of creativity: teachers as role models, relinquishing the ‘teacher-control’ persona and becoming part of the group; teachers using reactive creativity – a high degree of awareness and an ability to respond in the moment and teachers willing to ‘let go’ and ‘have a go’, this playful attitude and atmosphere a vital ingredient for creativity.

The how suggests some ways of building a creative classroom climate through a relaxed, non-judgmental atmosphere, the publication or display of students’ work, frank and friendly discussion in pairs or groups, a varied diet of inputs, processes and products to promote an air of expectancy. The section ends with the much-appreciated advice of not trying to do too much, taking small steps and being kind to yourself.

One of the most interesting points to arise from this volume is embodied by the following quote: ‘… creativity is widely believed to be about letting the imagination loose in an orgy of totally free self-expression. It is, of course, no such thing. Creativity is born of discipline and thrives in a context of constraints.’ (Maley, p 6)

For many teachers of language, creativity has often been seen as the domain of the art class, the drama workshop or the photography studio; certainly, at odds with the notion of linguistic competence. Thus, the prospect of departing from the coursebook, with its tried-and-tested grammar gap-fills and reading comprehensions, is uncomfortable. However, what this manual does eloquently is to show how some generic principles can be applied in order to foster creativity. Just doing common classroom activities in a different way (teaching from the back of the room instead of the front; standing up to teach rather than sitting) or by reversing the traditional order of things (giving a dictation text out at the beginning, then taking it away) can change the atmosphere of the class and give activities new life.

The constraints principle is best illustrated in the chapter by Jill and Charlie Hadfield, Teaching Grammar Creatively. While grammar equates with rules, prescription, following established connections and repetition, creativity represents the personal, the limitless, freedom of expression and making new connections. But, the authors point out, take limericks, haikus and sonnets: these are tightlyprescribed forms, and poems, stories, nursery rhymes and songs all gain their effect via repetition. So, paradoxically, creativity thrives within constraints.

This chapter has clear instructions for seven classroom activities that have ‘imaginative triggers’ designed to make grammar practice motivating, confidence-boosting and therefore memorable. There are pattern-poems for practice of the present continuous, prepositions of place and adjective order and listing activities to practise imperatives, gerund/infinitive and reported speech. The various triggers are in the form of picture/text/object stimulus, idea collision (brainstorming) and making the familiar strange. All of the activities are easy to prepare, set up and manage and all breathe new life into the tired, old format of the mindless grammar gap-fill. My teachers on the Creativity course enjoyed Platform 17 (a muted, thoughtful description of a scene using a photo and the present continuous) and How it’s Done (writing a set of instructions for common actions like bathing a dog, eating spaghetti or falling in love).

As we know, we need to make use of the coursebook as a resource and not follow it as a script; we need to develop the awareness, confidence and creativity to adapt book activities in a way that lifts the material off the page. One way is by opening up ‘closed’ activities (where there is only one correct answer) so that they invite personal comment and response. In chapter 2, Challenging Teachers to use their Coursebook Creatively, Brian Tomlinson reminds us that open activities encourage: personal response to meaning; language discovery by the students; authentic communication; risk-taking with language; affective engagement; cognitive engagement; being different. His ideas for creative amendments that bring the coursebook to life include: students drawing their interpretation of a text rather than answering the comprehension questions; students interviewing characters from a text or developing a text by continuing it, rewriting it from a different perspective or setting it in a different culture/ location. There is also the potential for the teacher to introduce a competitive element by getting each group to write an extra (reading, grammar, vocabulary) question to challenge their peers with. He even suggests breaking the mould and giving students the comprehension questions, asking them to create the text!

In Old Wine in New Bottles: Solving Language Teaching problems Creatively (chapter 9), Kathleen M. Bailey and Anita Krishnan share many creative ideas from experienced teachers who have worked in under-resourced contexts. The activities are listed as catering to various intelligences and make use of paper, pencils, magazines, brochures, boxes, wooden blocks and playing cards – in other words, images or objects readily available in a local environment where there are limited or no coursebooks. I counted 12 practical suggestions, ranging from pronunciation awareness-raising with lollipop sticks to personal event timeline, with strips of paper and dice. The latter activity went down very well with my teachers, who vowed they would try it out in their own large classes – it would be effective, because it allows all students to be engaged at the same time. The message is that commonplace materials may be used in new and fresh ways.

Many of the authors emphasise the need for ‘playfulness’, regardless of the age of the learner. Fun means engagement, so important for youngsters and teens, and this motivation can encourage learners to try things and have a go. Says Marjorie Rosenberg in chapter 13: ‘… providing the chance to remember what it was like to be creative, as we were as children, and providing a safe atmosphere in order to do this, can help learners of all ages to discover not only new words and grammar structures, but how to communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings in a new language’. Her classroom activities make use of music, pictures, slips of paper and seek to develop ‘positive interdependence’ via group work and fostering an atmosphere of growth and trust.

This book provides a wealth of practical activities for teaching grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, listening, reading and writing. There are suggestions as to how to use poetry, drama, mime, music, realia and images. There are many ideas that can be used to complement the syllabus of coursebooks we work from (lots of suggestions for creative grammar and writing practice).

Miska, one of the teachers I taught, wrote at the end of the two-week Creativity course: ‘I felt stuck and I knew that I could do things differently. So thank you for the gentle nudge to being/becoming once again an enthusiastic and inspired teacher.’ To echo the sentiments in Alan Maley’s poem Outside the Box (inside cover), Creativity in the English language classroom can give us all the nudge we need to step off the complacency cliff.

Clare Henderson
Clare Henderson has been a teacher at Bell Cambridge since 1994 and her interests are contemporary English and testing.