How to Improve English Writing Skills in Chinese Classrooms
Creative writing classes are fun. Creative writing classes are rewarding. And sometimes, creative writing classes can be highly frustrating. I remember sitting down on a rainy day in Kunming, China, in front of me a cup of tea and a pile of homework assignments from my creative writing class. And I remember my disappointment as text after text turned out to be virtually identical, each one a variation of a popular Chinese fairy tale. Even the names of the characters seemed to have been picked from a very small pool of available names.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Jan T. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
The Lack of Creativity in China
Creativity is not a priority in Chinese classrooms. Even when talking about the deeper meaning of poetry, the students seem to demand repetition, memorization, and facts, because that is how you pass an exam. In this text, I will offer three techniques to improve creative writing skills in the Chinese classroom, because I think every language learner can be motivated to write a good and original story.
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ESA Approach to Writing
After eliciting well-known legends or tales from Chinese culture during the engage phase of the class and teaching the necessary vocabulary and phrases, the students are often confused when, during the activate phase, they are required to create something of their own. Instead of immediately asking the students to write something original, it can be helpful to first ask them to change an existing story. This can be done by asking them to insert a new character into the story. This can be their favorite celebrity, a person from history, or even themselves. Since all the parts of the original story are still there, the students are forced to add a new aspect to it, e.g. a love interest or a sidekick to the main villain. By asking the language learners to change an existing story instead of writing an original one, they can more confidently experiment with their language and creativity.
The study phase of a creative writing class often includes teaching vocabulary corresponding to a certain mood or genre, e.g., noir fiction or science fiction, or vocabulary corresponding to an archetypal character, e.g., the knight in shining armor or the evil vampire. Using worksheets or group activities, the students will collect words to describe a setting and the characters in it. During the activate phase, when the students expect to write a story with the vocabulary they have gathered, the teacher collects and randomly redistributes the vocabulary among the groups. This results in the evil vampire becoming the love interest of the damsel in distress or the knight in shining armor trying to find his way through a futuristic city. Providing a lot of vocabulary and background information about archetypes, settings, and genres give the students the confidence to get started, mixing them up in unexpected ways boosts creativity.
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Chinese people, especially young Chinese people, very easily accept new technologies. Paying for everything with your phone and living completely without cash is the norm for most Chinese city dwellers and cutting-edge smart technologies are a sign of being a modern Chinese person. On the other hand, as students will proudly and repeatedly tell you, China has a long and very rich history. What does that mean for the creative writing classroom? It means that when the students are tasked with writing a story in a historical, classical or cultural setting, e.g. fairy tales, romantic love stories or myths and legends, they will gladly fall back on well-known and reliable patterns and will recycle a narrative from the vast body of Chinese stories. If they are however asked to look into the future and extrapolate from the modern world around them, they have less memorized data to distract them from finding their own voice and suddenly create fascinating and original science fiction narratives. Choosing a futuristic setting for a creative writing assignment in a Chinese classroom often yields more creative results. More robots, fewer witches.
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Creative writing classes are fun. They are rewarding too if the students are made to add to or twist the stories they know so well into something new. This gives them the chance to tap into their knowledge of Chinese culture and to find their own creative voice at the same time. And if you feel your students are ready to create something truly original in your creative writing classroom, throw them into a world of space exploration and artificial intelligence, but not into Shakespeare’s bubbling cauldron.
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