Connect, Grow, Thrive

ETAS Journal Editors' Choice, Number 11 (July 2016)

Enjoy reading our selection:

There's more to it than coloured pencils and bits of paper: Creativity-based activities and approaches in the classroom

Rob Dean

ETAS Journal, Volume 33 Number 3 (Summer 2016), pp. 28-30

How could you use the song Penny Lane by the Beatles to introduce creativity in your classroom? Can you apply creative methods to prepare your students for the listening and reading parts of exams? Are there any activities that make writing social and fun and at the same time make sure that students get valuable language practice?

If these questions spark your curiosity – and I imagine many English teachers will say they do – then you should read Rob Dean's article. And there is more to learn from it. What I particularly like about this article is that Dean manages to provide a definition of creativity that is both easy to understand and practicable. After a short introductory part, in which he recounts an experience he made while conducting the Art Workshop of an English summer camp, he asks how we can define creativity and concludes: "I will suggest that creativity will usually involve some or all of the following elements: Personalisation, Imagination, Choice, Thinking, and Problem Solving" (p. 29). He adds that "creative tasks are always 'open' in some way", which means that there is not "only one correct procedure, fixed content, and only one correct result" (p. 29). But this aspect of creativity must be balanced with a certain "degree of constraint – rules of the game" (p. 29). These rules give the students the framework they need to practise and extend their language skills in a creative way.

Based on this definition, Dean presents a number of communicative hands-on activities taken from his own teaching repertoire that will also add creativity to your classroom. He divides them into three groups: grammar and vocabulary, reading and listening, and speaking and writing. Dean recommends these activities for levels A1 to B1+ and mentions that he uses them with teenagers, but I do not see why you should not try them with other levels and age groups, too. As a teacher, you can always modify tasks and adapt them to your learners.

So Readers, let Rob Dean inspire you to promote creativity in your classroom!

Markus Jürgen Dietz

e-Newsletter Editor

Editorial Board, ETAS Journal

There’s more to it than coloured pencils and bits of paper: Creativity-based activities and approaches in the classroom

Rob Dean

Many years ago, while working as a teacher and social organiser at a teenagers’ English language summer camp in the Czech Republic, I was delighted to be assigned responsibility for the daily Art Workshop – I had always yearned to have a go at being an art teacher. So now was my chance, and for the first session we started by listening to Penny Lane – a song describing the various landmarks of the famous street in Liverpool and the people who lived there going about their daily lives. The students were then divided into groups and assigned one element of the song to illustrate on paper in whatever way they wanted. A group painted a background of the street on a two-metre roll of paper, and once all the individual pictures were glued on, much mess had been created – along with a rather excellent frieze illustrating all the people and places that they had heard about in the song – along with the appropriate excerpts from the lyrics to go with each one. The project was a resounding success. I enjoyed it, but more importantly, the students had a great time, and exercised their powers of creativity to the maximum.

How do we define creativity?

According to Maley (2015), “creativity is a quality which manifests itself in many different ways, and this is one of the reasons it has proved so difficult to define” (p. 7). We often associate creativity with great artists and inventors –Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh, and others, and while it is true that these people practised great creativity in their work, there’s more to creativity than designing a world-beating device or painting beautiful pictures of sunflowers – or images of streets in Liverpool… . Maley goes on to say that creativity is primarily about “making something new”, but he stresses that the acts in question “need to be relevant and practicable – not just novel” (2015, p. 7).

As this article is intended to be more practical than theoretical in nature, I will not attempt an all-encompassing definition, but I will suggest that creativity will usually involve some or all of the following elements: Personalisation, Imagination, Choice, Thinking, and Problem Solving. Creative tasks are always ‘open’ in some way, allowing students to provide their own input to the activity. ‘Closed’ tasks on the other hand usually have only one correct procedure, fixed content, and only one correct result – exam-style gapfills, for instance – and do not provide for creativity.

Creativity-based activities still need a degree of constraint – rules of the game in other words. A lack of structure in an activity can be unsettling for students – and getting them to design their own activities from scratch (perhaps the ultimate expression of creativity?) is simply impractical and excessively time consuming in most instances.  In the words of Maley (2015), “the constraints also act as supportive scaffolding for students. By limiting what they are asked to write, for example, students are relieved of the pressure to write about everything” (p. 9).

The activities and approaches that follow are all tried and tested with teenagers of various ages, and I have grouped them according to theme – grammar and vocabulary, receptive skills, and productive skills.

Grammar and vocabulary

Random Pelmanism

Language Area: Talking about similarities or differences, connections, vocabulary recycling
Level: A2+
Preparation: None
Materials: Scraps of paper
Interaction: Pairs or groups


  • Each group has 16 to 20 small scraps of paper – more if desired.
  • Students write one word (nouns work best for this) on each paper. This could be recent vocabulary from the coursebook.
  • The papers are turned face down on the desk.
  • Students take turns to turn over two papers.
  • The student who turns over the pair must make a sentence logically connecting the two in order to ‘win’ the pair. For example, if the two vocabulary items are ‘onion’ and ‘microwave oven’, they could be connected by saying: ‘You can cook onions in a microwave oven’, ‘Onions are cheaper than microwave ovens’, ‘Microwave ovens are bigger than onions’, ‘Onion is a shorter word than microwave oven’ … the possibilities are endless. 
  • The rest of the students in the group will be the judges of how valid the connection is.
  • The ‘winner’ – as in conventional pelmanism, is the student who collects the most pairs.

Modals Dice 

Language Area: Modals of Obligation
Level: A2/B1+
Preparation: None
Materials: 2 dice per group
Interaction: Small groups – minimum 3


  • Elicit to the board the six modals of obligation: 1) must; 2) don’t have to; 3) can; 4) can’t; 5) should; and 6) shouldn’t. Ensure they are numbered 1-6.
  • Each group thinks of six random places, writes them down and numbers them, for example: 1) a school; 2) a church; 3) a supermarket; 4) a nightclub; 5) Granny’s living room; and 6) a swimming pool.
  • Students take turn to roll the two dice. The first dice indicates a modal from the board; the second a place from their list.
  • Students work individually to create a sentence connecting the two. For example, if dice 1 shows 6 and dice 2 shows 5, then a combination could be ‘You shouldn’t swear in Granny’s living room’.
  • The first student to come up with a logical sentence wins a point.

Variation: You could get students to work in pairs within their groups – that way stronger students can help the weaker ones. Students could be asked to write their sentence down before they are allowed to shout it out – thereby allowing more thinking time. 

The beauty of these simple activities is that they allow personalisation and imagination to take a part in solving a challenge – and in so doing practise language in a fun, memorable and meaningful way.

Receptive skills: Reading and listening

Traditionally, with receptive skills work, it’s all about answering the questions and getting them right – a closed task and as a result not at all creative.

Of course, exam tasks rarely if ever provide for creativity in reading and listening, but I have successfully employed creative approaches in preparing students for receptive skills tasks in exams – in particular focusing on strategy development.

With gap-text reading activities, I have found it useful for students to take a complete text and create the gaps themselves, focussing on the kind of words that are often left out in the exams – then swapping with a partner to complete each other’s exercises.

With multiple-choice tasks, it’s important for students to know that the correct answer will not use the same words as those used in the text or recording, and that the incorrect answer will employ distractors – such as similar language to that in the text or recording, but used in a different way. A creative way of training students to realise this is to get them to create their own multiple choice answers.

In this example from FCE listening, students are asked to decide where the dialogue is taking place:

Man: Can I help?

Woman: Yes, I’d like to be moved to the back so I’m not disturbed so much by the noise of the traffic.

M: Well it is the holiday period Madam, so we’re fully booked, and…

W: I appreciate that, but if I’d known how much noise there’d be, I would have gone somewhere else. I might as well 

      put my bed on the motorway.

M: I’ll see what can be done. Would you like to take a seat in the bar while I have a word with the manager?

W: I’m just on my way to the dining room actually.

M: Very well Madam. 

Students could come up with three possible answers:

  1. In a hotel reception (The correct answer)
  2. In a restaurant (taking the words ’dining room’ as a cue to create a distractor)
  3. In a motorway café (taking the word ‘motorway’ as the cue for the distractor)

Clearly, there are many more possibilities for creativity here, and the students could use their own multiple-choiced tasks to ‘test’ each other.

Again, the results of this ‘ownership’ of the material and the tasks serves not only to develop strategy skills, but also to raise interest levels and ultimately motivation for what can be perceived as a dull part of skills development.

Productive skills: Speaking and writing

A common task in coursebooks is for students to write about a famous person. Problems with this can be many and varied – a shortage of ideas, everybody writing the same (Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, etc) – and if done for homework, a cut-and-paste from the internet. Here’s a creative approach I have used to get around this.

Circle biographies

Language Area: Describing life stories
Level: A1/A2+
Preparation: None
Materials: One sheet of A4 paper per student
Interaction: Individual then Pairwork


  • Ask students to write a name at the top of their sheet of paper. Any name at all will do – imaginary or that of a famous person.
  • Students then fold the top of the paper down so that what they have just written is hidden.
  • Students pass the paper to someone else.
  • Ask students what could come next in a biography (involving the students in the content of the task here is another motivating element of creativity) – a suggestion could be year of birth. Ask them to write only a year of birth below away from the folded part of their paper.
  • Students fold again and pass on the paper to another student.
  • The process continues, and typically the next stages are for students to suggest where the person was born, what they studied, what career they had, what their hobbies were, an important contribution to society … Of course, because the information written by the previous students is hidden, none of the biography will match in the conventional sense – but then that’s the fun in this.   
  • Finally, get the students to open out the folded paper and work in pairs to create a continuous text using the information before them.
  • Students can share the biographies by either passing them round and reading each other’s, or by presenting them to the class orally.

Variation: Students can work in pairs and pass the papers from pair to pair, thereby providing peer support and communication opportunities throughout the activity. The same activity can be used for all kinds of contexts, for example a short story or a film review. 

My own experience of this activity is that writing is made social and fun – and highly amusing whilst still providing the same valid way of practising language and skills as when writing and speaking about a real person. And of course it’s CREATIVE…  

… and a final creative activity that can be used with both a speaking and a writing focus.

Photos round the room

Language Area: Question forms, general fluency
Level: A2+
Preparation: None
Materials: Six or seven of the teacher’s personal photos (ideally with plenty going on in them!) plus a sheet of blank paper to go with each one.
Interaction: Individual then Groupwork


  • Stick each photo onto a sheet of paper and blu-tac them around the room.
  • Ask the students to write one question about each photo on the accompanying paper. Encourage interesting wh- questions.
  • Put students into groups, and give each group a photo and the accompanying questions.
  • Ask students to think of answers to the questions – the more imaginative the better. The aim here is not to try to answer the questions with anything real or too serious.
  • Students rehearse in their groups, then give a mini presentation to the class – ensuring that along the way, all the questions on the paper are answered. I have found that students will listen attentively at this stage as they want to know how the questions that they wrote earlier have been answered.
  • Optionally, the teacher could answer the questions for real – this provides further meaningful listening practice.

Variation: The students could bring in pictures of their own instead of using the teacher’s.

As with the circle writing activity described previously, creativity here is achieved through providing an activity for which there can be no wrong answers. This one also introduces a strong element of humour – another essential for a productive classroom atmosphere. 


Creativity may be difficult to define, but we recognise it when we see it. I have certainly seen the positive results of creativity in the activities I have described, and hope you do too. In the words of Albert Einstein: “Creativity is contagious, pass it on.”


Maley, A. & Peachey, N. (2015). Creativity in the language classroom. London, UK: British Council

Rob Dean Bio

Rob has been involved in ELT as a teacher, director of studies, and teacher trainer since 1994. During this time, he has taught a wide variety of ages and levels in numerous countries in Europe and South East Asia. Currently based in Poland, Rob now works as an independent international teacher trainer and academic consultant, and travels widely delivering talks, workshops, and seminars – as well as online webinars – to teachers all over the world.