Sponsored by
Less can be More
September 3, 2010
Language learning can be tricky. I once worked with a colleague who was a science teacher. He was asked to teach French because he spoke it quite well as his wife is French. He didn't understand or have much experience of the methodology of teaching foreign languages. "It's an awful lot of facts compared with science," he said. He was right. Our students often seem to swim through treacle as they try to come to grips with their new language. There's an awful lot of facts.

Students and teachers tend to spend a lot of time worrying about what students don't know. They don't know enough, for instance, to write creatively, do they, because doesn't that take a lot of control?

I'd argue that being creative actually happens most when we have limited resources. What if we learn to make a lot of a very little? What might we then do when we do have a lot?

Perhaps students and teachers need to start looking at what learners do know. Typically, a new learner will have met within the first month of learning a foreign language:
Number 1-31
Months
Classroom objects
Classroom language.

Look what they might already be able to do with that:
The learner could compose what I call an "opposite" poem:
Hello Tuesday, goodbye Monday,
Hello March, goodbye February
Hello 1, goodbye 28

Or they could design a counting book for a younger child:
One ruler
Two pencils
Three exercise books
Four books

The students might be able to produce a short drama that could happen in the classroom:
Miss Jones: Good morning, class.
Class: Good morning Miss Jones.
Miss Jones: Sit down.
Student A Miss, I don't have my exercise book.
Student B Miss, I don't have my ruler.
Student C Miss, I don't have a pencil.
Student D Miss I don't have a pen.
Student E Miss, please may I go to the toilet?
Miss Jones: Oh dear, oh dear, turn to page ten?

Students might be asked to produce a haiku about classroom objects. A haiku is a very effective three line poem with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. There should be a "turn" usually between second and third lines. We can interpret this as a change of tone or pace. Haikus should also contain a strong image of nature. Aren't we all natural? They should be written near the objects they are about. So, writing about classroom objects in the classroom is ideal.
My books, my paper,
My pen, my crayons, my rubber,
Where is my ruler?

Jack: pen, pencil, desk,
Ruler, rubber, paper, book,
Teacher: computer mouse.

Further ideas include crosswords and wordsearches for others. The key is always to have a practical outcome in writing on any topic. For this range of vocabulary we might consider:
A calendar
A weather chart
A graffiti wall

We become creative in our use of language when we use the familiar in a fun way, when we combine the familiar in new ways, when we add in surprise elements and when we discover new material through playfulness.

Take using bilingual dictionaries, for instance. Teachers often fear these as inexperienced learners often make mistakes. However, we can teach them how to use dictionaries in a safe way, gradually allowing them more and more freedom and we can set up a task in such a way that learners can avoid the traps. Students think in their own language first about the colour blue, for example. In their bilingual dictionary they find these words:
Sea, sky, blackberry, sapphire, blue moon, blue cheese, mould, bluebell, hyacinth, ink, navy, night, velvet, sad, blues, denim, jeans, cold, eyes.

They then play with the sounds and senses, possibly writing each word on a card.
A possible haiku might be:
Sad velvet blue eyes
Blackberry night of cold moon
Sapphire sky in blue jeans.

Another exercise does not involve even thinking in your own language first and a monolingual dictionary may be used. Sue Jones wrote the following acrostic poem:

Super
Uncomplicated
Energetic

Jolly
Omnipotent
Nice
Elegant
Sunny

She simply looked through the S section of the dictionary until she found something suitable, then the U and so on. She probably learnt a host of other new words on the way.

Learners and teachers alike often fear grammar. Ironically lack of grammatical control is often flagged up as a reason why learners cannot use language creatively. Yet we can do some creative writing with a second language as students learn its grammar. They can complete "cloning" exercises as they substitute words with the same grammatical function in a text. See this example:
My friend Alex is tall and strong.
His friend Alex is tall and strong.
His brother Alex is tall and strong.
His brother Roy is tall and strong.
His brother Roy was tall and strong.
His brother Roy was short and strong.
His brother Roy was short but strong.
His brother Roy was short but brave.

If students have a little more grammatical control they can add words and phrases into a text:
Jack lives in a house in Chester.
Jack, the plumber, lives in a house in Chester.
Jack, the plumber, lives quietly in a house in Chester.
Jack, the plumber, lives quietly in a big house in Chester.
Jack, the plumber, lives quietly in a big house in Chester, a market town.
My friend, Jack, the ace plumber, lives quietly and alone in a big old house in Chester, a market town, in the North West of England.

Or they could subtract words:
My friend, the ace plumber, lives alone in a big old house in a market town, in the North West of England.
My friend lives in a big house in a town, in the North West of England.
My friend lives in a town in the North West of England.
My friend lives in a town in England.

They may like to become even more playful and adapt some of the amusing games that the French OULIPO poets devised. N+7 again involves the use of a dictionary. Students look up each noun in a dictionary and find the seventh noun further on. A well-known poem by Wordsworth might become:
I wondered lonely as a criminal
That floats on high over hops and dogs
And all at once I spied a cyst, a hunt of golden dung-beetles

Grammar, anyway, has patterns learners can play with creatively.
I get up.
I get dressed.
I get breakfast.
I have eaten.
I have drunk.
I have listened.
You will go.
You will see.
You will hear.
They do understand.
They do exist.
They do know.

So, we can write creatively without an extensive knowledge of grammar and we can also write creatively as we learn grammar. I'd also like to suggest a creative attitude towards grammar: grammar is not to be feared and should be learnt quickly. There is every chance that as learners become confident about doing a lot with a little, they will actually want to do even more. Why not give them grammatical control sooner rather than later?

The grammar of any language has basically five parts:
Verbs person, number, tense, voice, mood (a big part, admittedly, with big subdivisions)
Word order
Prepositions
Parts of speech
Number and gender (really usage rather than grammar, but it is useful to put it in here.)

Wouldn't it be beneficial to our learners if we helped them to recognise and use these five parts? Wouldn't it be good to give them practice in all five at once e.g. get students to work regularly on writing diaries or stories, again one of those real outcomes, this time from learning grammar. Then we might mark for content but correct grammar in a way which proactively engages students. You might use a code like this for correction:
Vt verb tense
Vp verb person
Vv verb voice
Vm verb mood
Wo word order
Pr preposition
Pos part of speech
Ag agreement
U usage, i.e. it works grammatically but it's what we actually say in English
M meaning you've used the wrong word; this sometimes happens because you've been unlucky when using a dictionary.

By now, you will have encouraged your learners to work within their constraints and to get control of those constraints. Now we are going to look at giving them complete free reign. We are going to ask them to write with the senses. This always produces good writing in any language. It is often ideal to do this when on a school trip. It's good to get them out of the classroom anyway. If both are impossible, you can achieve almost the same effect by providing a DVD in the classroom. Ask the students:
What do you see?
What do you hear?
What do you smell?
What do you taste?
What do you feel (both senses)?

Here are some potential answers:
Traffic rushing. Computer creaking. A door shuts. "Tap tap" as I write. "Dryness" in throat. Even temperature. The sun sets over the "gas works". The tree is full of leaves, and waves against "Rainy City" grey sky. Time to go home.

The words in quotes are those that the teacher may have given to kick-start the exercises. In this exercise, the students are using familiar, recognised and new language.

As they've worked through the exercises described above students have learnt that less can be more. They are now more aware of how language works. They are more aware of the sounds of the target language and, if living in the country where their new language is spoken, they will be more aware of the language around them. This may even transfer to their own language and improve their writing there.

About the author

Dr Gill James is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing and Erasmus Officer English at ESPaCH, University of Salford, Salford, Greater Manchester, UK.