How can we encourage our young learners to be creative in their writing, but at the same time ensure we provide them with adequate scaffolding? Often when we provide scaffolding before and during the writing process, our students’ work can look a lot like each other’s or like our own models and examples. To help teachers encourage and support their young learners in being creative in the writing process, I propose six key principles.

1 Design a task for creativity

It is important that the students are writing a real text. However, not all genres or text types lend themselves directly to creativity – some focus on providing accurate information, rather than creative ideas. Texts like information reports or recipes are unlikely to lend themselves to creative use of language, as this would interfere with their purpose of providing clarity of information or procedures. Therefore, we can start by selecting genres that do require creativity, such as stories and poems. We can also get our students to write fictional texts, which follow the structure of an authentic example but have fictitious topics or content.

« For example, we could ask the students to write an information report about a newly-discovered country. It is important that they understand the real purposes of authentic texts, but by writing fictitious ones, they can get really creative.

Here are three simple writing topics that can help promote creativity:

  • The .... animal in the world (descriptive text)
  • The day I met a ... (fictional narrative)
  • Once upon a time in xxx (situational story)

2 Identifying an audience for creativity

To get the creative juices flowing, it is important that the students are thinking about who is going to read their work. If their goal is to entertain their classmates with their writing, they will try harder to add elements that will interest and captivate them. If the audience is just the teacher, they won’t have the same motivation to make the text entertaining.

« For example, if we ask our students to write a description of a newly-discovered country, the final products could be shared with their classmates, who could be asked to select the country they would most like to visit, giving reasons.

3 Expanding content knowledge for creativity

We cannot be creative unless we have some knowledge of what we are writing about. Students need enough knowledge so they can make choices and select content that will help them make their texts entertaining and enjoyable for their audience. We can build up our students’ content knowledge by getting them to read texts similar to the ones we want them to write, brainstorming ideas before writing and providing them with access to relevant resources. We can also draw on their knowledge about the topic in their first language.

« For example, we could provide information about some different countries around the world, before asking the students to create and write about their newly-discovered country.  

4 Modelling for creativity

Students’ written work often lacks creativity because we have not modelled what creativity in a text looks like. Before we ask our students to write, it is important that we demonstrate or co-construct a text with them. During this process, we can verbalise our decisions and demonstrate how these decisions make the text more creative, interesting and enjoyable to read.

« For example, taking the new just-discovered country example again, we can model how to make words sound like countries by adding common affixes, eg The United States of Happiness or Happyland.

5 Language scaffolding for creativity

We often want to provide scaffolding for our students, so they have the knowledge and skills to complete the writing task. However, we have to be careful not to give them too much in the way of scaffolding or restrict creativity through our scaffolding practices. Providing a ‘thinking’ or ‘brainstorming’ stage where the students draw or complete a graphic organiser, for instance, means we can provide the language they need for their specific ideas without prescribing how they use that language.

« For example, we can get the students to draw different things about an imaginary country first, eg its flag, food and national costume, and then provide them with vocabulary that helps them describe their drawings. Providing thematic dictionaries or picture word banks can also help support their language needs.

6 Feedback for creativity

Our first priority when giving feedback tends to be language accuracy. However, if we focus solely on accuracy, we can stifle creativity. Students will play safe out of fear of getting red ink on their work. So, before we take out our red pen, we can provide feedback to help our students further develop the creativity of their texts.

« The best way to do this is by talking with each student and discussing where they could improve their work. We can ask questions to guide them to add more information or change words or sentences into more creative ones.

I have provided a few ways in which we can enrich our writing lessons to develop our students’ creativity. Often, young learners are more creative than we can ever be: it is our job to provide them with an opportunity to realise the creativity that is within them.

Benjamin Luke Moorhouse is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University. He is author of Writing with Young English Language Learners, published by SEAMEO Regional Language Centre, Singapore.