M. Elhess, E. Elturki, and J. Egbert offer strategies to support creativity in the language classroom
“Our students aren’t creative,” claimed one of the language teachers in the professional development workshop. The other participating teachers nodded in agreement.
“How do you know?” asked the workshop facilitator.
The teacher hesitated. “Well,” she said, “I guess I don’t. We don’t ask them to do anything creative, mostly because we teachers are not creative either.”
The teacher in this real-life scenario was not only stating an assumption commonly held in many parts of the world but also pointing to a lack of professional development in an area that relates directly to student achievement in language learning. To address this issue, this article explains how supporting creativity in the language classroom can engage both teachers and students and provide opportunities for students to develop essential language and thinking skills. All humans have natural creative abilities, and this does not differ by culture, language background, previous education, or language level (Huh and Egbert, 2010; Torrance, 1962). Creative thinking is commonly understood as the process of thinking, acting, and/or producing differently, also known as divergent thinking. Producing art like Van Gogh and Shakespeare or inventing an electric car is considered creative because there is some aspect of novelty or innovation involved; however, creativity can also be found in much smaller outcomes, such as a child’s painting of a pink elephant or a language learner’s story about her superhero. Creativity can entail critical thinking and the assessment and validation of an issue, and it appears in making assumptions, generating new hypotheses, and developing analogical problem solving to come up with many different answers and possibilities. However, while critical thinking focuses on achieving a single answer or possibility (e.g., taking the train as the best way to escape traffic), creativity can employ critical thinking skills to seek different ways (e.g., driving different routes or flying a helicopter) to solve a problem. Creativity can also result from an inspired “Eureka!” moment; for example, when Percy Spencer observed a peanut butter candy bar melting in his pocket, it stimulated ideas that led to the invention of the microwave oven (Tweedie, 2015).
Guilford’s seminal article (1967) characterizes creativity as a process that produces numerous ideas (fluency), produces ideas of various types (flexibility), builds on and extends existing ideas (elaboration), and produces new ideas (originality). Examples of these aspects of creativity in the language classroom include:
Fluency: Brainstorming alternative words to describe a feeling (e.g., anger);
Flexibility: Changing the views, ideas, or actions of someone in a folktale;
Elaboration: Explaining in detail why humans should explore space;
Originality: Creating a product to solve world hunger.
Educators can focus on these four simple elements to develop and support creative thinking in language classrooms. Teaching and allowing for creativity in language classrooms, even in incremental doses, can result in better language learning and improved learner capability to address a variety of situations in life (Huh and Egbert, 2010).
Creativity, Engagement, and Language Learning
The ability to think creatively in general can facilitate students’ abilities to solve problems, to see alternatives, and to use language in new ways; more specifically, creative, open-ended tasks are often engaging for students, and student levels of engagement during language tasks is directly related to their language achievement (Reschly and Christenson, 2012). In the classroom context, learners can be engaged in creativity tasks when they participate in activities that are meaningful and have some real-life application, are given opportunities to interact with peers and others around the task, are challenged by the task, and receive sufficient support to complete the task. Since creativity can be included in any topic or task, language educators can provide a wide range of opportunities and choices for learners to utilize so they can use language in divergent ways.
For example, according to Jordan and Carlile (2013), creativity tasks can provide many opportunities for social interaction; in language classrooms, tasks can be based in collaborative work where learners are exposed to a variety of input and have opportunities to negotiate meaning in the target language (Egbert, 2009). In creating a novel work or solving an open-ended problem, language learners articulate new thoughts and ideas, express opinions, and make inferences, using language as the foundation. Because engaged language learners are typically focused on doing whatever they can to complete the task, this process generates opportunities for learning new concepts and language structures through recreating, paraphrasing, summarizing, and learning and using other skills needed to reach their goal. In this dynamic environment, students can be pushed past their current language abilities to express new meanings, “leading to greater linguistic intake and success in second-language acquisition” (Albert and Kormos, 2011, p. 90).
Creativity Tasks in the Language Classroom
A creative classroom environment, then, is active, safe, challenging, and motivating and provides engaging, open-ended opportunities for brainstorming, problem solving, interaction, collaboration, hands-on experience, and real-life applications. The teacher’s role is to support and extend learners’ creative thinking within a safe environment by, for example, encouraging them to think “outside the box,” elaborate on their responses, address the question from a different angle, and/or take a risk on something new. The following are some ways to nurture creativity in the language classroom:
Teachers can support students’ active participation in the learning process by, instead of lecturing, posing purposeful questions that assist students in making connections, generating hypotheses, and arriving at a variety of conclusions. To model this, during the presentation stage of a lesson, the teacher can pose questions and then answer the questions in a kind of think-aloud, making reasoning visible to students. Whether it is a grammar, reading, listening, or speaking lesson, the teacher can model creative thinking to students by wondering.
Creative Responses to Assignments
When creating an assignment, teachers can provide students with more than one format in which to complete the assignment; the teacher can also provide the choice for students to develop their own products. The same goes for assessment; teachers can leave room for creativity in how students demonstrate their understanding of a specific language skill or content item. For example, to demonstrate mastery of a learning objective, instead of writing sentences or completing a handout that contains the target grammar or vocabulary, students can choose to write a poem, a short story, a song, or another option to exhibit their knowledge. This supports the fundamental premise of creativity—that there are diverse paths and methods for expressing an idea—and creative pieces can also be much more engaging for the teacher to assess and discuss.
Hands-On Lessons and Collaboration
As noted previously, instead of—or in addition to—completing worksheets with practice drills and fill-in-the-blank exercises, students need opportunities to manipulate language and content. Teachers can work with their students to design hands-on lessons that integrate role plays, drama, artwork, and other creative outcomes to support language production. Grammar and other skills can be integrated into creativity tasks. For example, students can work together to act out a reading to demonstrate reading comprehension; create a role play by manipulating a dialogue from the textbook/audio to practice speaking, vocabulary, stress, and intonation; describe objects or pictures that they find intriguing with adjectives to try to get peers to “buy” their product; reinvent stories by inventing new characters, plots, and endings to practice narration (fanfiction websites can be popular vehicles for doing this); or use imperatives to give someone directions to a place students make up. Larry Ferlazzo provides engaging ways to teach creatively while addressing creative thinking and language through the use of photographs in “Using Photos with English-Language Learners” on the Edutopia website (www.edutopia.org/blog/ell-engagment-using-photos, 2016).
Students as Partners in Teaching
Students can use creative thinking to teach and create activities and materials for their peers. Students can be responsible for explaining a specific learning outcome to class using any means they find effective. This is a great way for students to get a chance to be creative and learn the material well—as the old saying goes, “the best way to learn is to teach.” Student-led discussion, including debate, is another great way for them to question what they read, verbalize their reasoning, and expand their thinking through listening to other perspectives. Additionally, students can work in groups to create games on a particular topic and then play each other’s games. They can also be challenged to summarize an assigned topic/unit in a creative and effective way to help their classmates understand the material. Empowering students by treating them as partners in teaching can boost their engagement and help them become active thinkers.
In addition to creating and getting feedback on fanfiction at sites such as fanfiction.net, technology can be used in many ways to support teacher and student creative thinking and language. A simple example is to take advantage of brainstorming and graphic-organization software tools such as the Popplet app (available from the Apple Store) or those listed on Mashable (mashable.com/2013/09/25/mind-mapping-tools/#lQKnf6f_qkqr). These tools can be used to start projects or at any point in the process where more divergent thinking is needed. Students can also design comic strips using simple sentences (e.g., to practice the verb “to be,” subject pronouns, and object pronouns) with web sites such as Pixton (www.pixton.com) and MakeBeliefsComix (www.makebeliefscomix.com). They can think of creative ways to develop and use room escapes with Room Escape Maker (doctorfou.com/room-escape-maker) and similar sites, or they can create videos to explain a process, compare and contrast, or argue for/against a controversial topic. Wixie (www.wixie.com), Microsoft Word, and other programs with text, graphics, and audio capabilities can be used to create brochures advertising a hotel or business or a menu to practice food vocabulary. Students may even build a website using a free website builder such as Wix (www.wix.com) or Weebly (www.weebly.com) for their favorite team, hobby, or book character; in the process, they use various sentence types, grammar, and vocabulary. Teachers and students can make hilarious short videos for any task, from introductions to impromptu speeches, with blabberize.com. A quick search on Google for “ELL” and “creativity” produces links to all kinds of technologies that can support creativity and language.
Challenges and Solutions
There are a number of factors that can prevent creativity in the classroom. For example, a restrictive school environment and standardized instructions may make teachers think that there is little room for creativity. A lack of resources (e.g., technology, storybooks, photos) and time constraints can also limit the focus on creativity. More importantly, teachers may not consider themselves creative or have ever considered the importance of creativity in language learning, and so not address it. Cultural attitudes toward creativity may also play a role in how it is considered. For example, some teachers may believe that students who think out of the box are questioning the teacher’s authority; others may regard creativity as wasting time, or associate being imaginative with wrong answers. In addition, students may display different attitudes toward creativity (Green, 1993) when rote learning and teacher-based instruction are pivotal to the learning processes of their home countries.
To overcome challenges that educators may face when integrating creativity into the language classroom, the first step is for teachers to take it slowly. Creativity can be encouraged in small ways. Educators can bring up the idea of creative thinking with the class by discussing the conversation questions about creativity from the Internet TESL Journal (iteslj.org/questions/creativity.html). Another idea is to ask one open-ended question (one that does not have a right or wrong answer) in each class session and allow students to propose even the wildest ideas they can think of in response. A five-minute period when no criticism is allowed and all ideas are explored can be a great beginning to supporting creative thinking and language fluency. Another small step is asking a different student to tell a short story on an impromptu topic to the class (or a smaller group) each time the class meets. This can be a great warmup for the class, does not take a lot of time, and can engage students in learning during the rest of the lesson.
As students and teachers become more used to the creative-thinking process, they can apply the four elements described previously in additional ways. The internet has an amazing array of creative-thinking resources for educators, students, and parents; the use of these materials can save time and effort in lesson planning and implementation and provide ideas for incorporating creative thinking in even the most restrictive classroom environments.
In addition, educators at all levels need to have time and support to practice creative thinking themselves. This is important because teacher beliefs influence their pedagogy, and if they, like the teachers in the workshop in the opening scenario, do not believe that they or their students are creative, they are not likely to facilitate creative thinking in their classrooms. Workshops and professional development that demonstrate the ubiquity and importance of creativity, along with its centrality in language learning, could help in this regard.
Creative thinking is not language specific, so any chance that learners have to practice in any language can advance their ability. If creativity cannot be addressed sufficiently in the language classroom, learners can be encouraged to use their creative-thinking skills outside of the classroom as they participate in social media, make up and play games with friends, and even tell bedtime stories with their families. However, with guidance from educators who understand not only their own creative abilities but the importance of creative thinking to language learning, work, and life, students can become better problem solvers, employees, and global citizens.
Mohamed Elhess is an adjunct faculty at the College of Education at Washington State University. He teaches courses in the English as Second Language (ESL) endorsement. His research interests include student engagement, creativity, and addressing the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse learner.
Eman Elturki has a PhD in Language, Literacy and Technology from Washington State University and a master’s degree in TESOL from the University of Southern California. She teaches ESL and serves as the Curriculum and Materials Coordinator at the Intensive American Language Center of Washington State University.
Joy Egbert is professor of ELL and Education Technology at Washington State University, Pullman, where she coordinates the ELL teacher education programs. Dr. Egbert’s research and teaching focus on task engagement and computer supported language learning. She is the current Editor of TESOL Journal.