Connect, Grow, Thrive

ETAS Journal Editors' Choice, Number 17 (January 2017)

Alan Maley: Creative writing for students and teachers: Some practical ideas

This week I saw the film Paterson about a bus driver called Paterson, who drives a bus in small-town Paterson, NJ, and writes poetry in his notebook. An everyday life experience; low-key, movingly expressed in simple words.  Paterson writes about his world.  His wife calls it poetry. By writing down his thoughts, which he hones in his head while driving his passengers and observing his environment, Paterson celebrates life, his life. By encouraging students to write about their own lives in simple words, teachers can practice vocabulary, engage students and fulfil many other laudable aims, but most of all, they can provide their learners with a chance to see that they, too, can be creative and ‘own’ their life experience through telling others about it.

Most people, including highly-educated native speaker ELT teachers, might run a mile if asked to read poetry, let alone write it, but Alan Maley demonstrates in his article there could hardly be a simpler, more direct way of encouraging creativity and self-expression than through writing poetry. Although the title of the article is Creative writing, the activities all aim to produce ‘poetry’ in the widest sense of the word, rather than other forms of writing.

Maley does not waste time in discussing what a poem is or why students (or teachers) should write poetry, he just goes straight into providing some basic, practical advice and activities, starting with two-line poems such as:

      Hello sunshine
      Goodbye rain

By providing examples, the teacher can introduce a variety of grammar structures such as conditionals (If I were a bird, I would be…); used to (I used to…but now…); metaphors (Love is a vacuum cleaner) and acrostics (DOG: docile, obedient, growling) without actually mentioning the scary word ‘grammar’.

Maley’s advice on how to get started and his ideas for activities are so compelling that they make you want to run to your next class and get started right away! What could be more motivating?

NB: A way of engaging more advanced and/or sophisticated learners might be to introduce them to tongue twisters and limericks. I can recommend Geoff Tranter’s Using Humour in the English Classroom (Klett, 2011,  ISBN 978-3-12-534645-1).

Helena Lustenberger
Book Reviews Editor, ETAS Journal

Creative writing for students and teachers: Some practical ideas

Alan Maley

There are a number of general points which will help make implementing creative writing activities more likely to succeed:

  • Try to establish a relaxed, non-judgmental atmosphere, where your students feel confident enough to let go and not to worry that their every move is being scrutinized for errors.
  • Ensure that the students’ work is ‘published’ in some way. This could be by simply keeping a large notice-board for displaying the students’ work. Other ways would include giving students a project for publishing work in a simple ring binder, or as part of a class magazine. Almost certainly, there will be students able and willing to set up a class website where work can be published. Performances, where students read or perform their work for other classes or even the whole school, are another way of making public what they have done.
  • Encourage students to discuss their work together in a frank but friendly manner. We get good ideas by bouncing them off other people. Help them establish an atmosphere where criticism is possible without causing offence.
  • Explain regularly how important accurate observation is, and encourage ‘noticing’ things. They also need to be encouraged to be curious and to follow up with ‘research’ – looking for more information, whether in books, on the Internet, or by asking people.
  • Make it clear that what they do in the classroom is only the tip of the iceberg. To get real benefit from these activities, they need to do a lot of work outside class hours. Most of what we learn, we do not learn in class. You can capitalize on that fact.
  • Do the activities regularly in order to get the best effects. Maybe once a week is a sensible frequency. If you leave too long between sessions, you have to keep going back to square one. That is a waste of time and energy.

The following are simply a sample of some possible activities:

Hello/Goodbye poems

  1. Tell the class that they are going to write a poem. It will have only two lines, and each line will have just two words. The first line will start with ‘Hello’, the second with ‘Goodbye’.
  2. Give students one or two examples:

                  Hello sunshine,
                  Goodbye rain.

                  Hello smoking,
                  Goodbye health.

                  Hello paper,
                  Goodbye trees.

            Then, ask if they can think of any new ones. Note them on the board.

  1. Ask students to work in pairs (or alone if they prefer), and try to come up with at least two new poems. Allow 10 minutes for this task.
  2. Ask for their examples and put them on the board. Ask students to give feedback on each other’s examples.
  3. Collect all the poems. Display them on the class notice-board or upload them onto the class/school website.

The activity is very simple yet it does require students to call on their vocabulary store and to think about words that have a mutual or reciprocal relationship of meanings (smoking/health, etc.) If you prefer, this can be used as a short warm-up for other activities.

Stem poems

  1. Explain to students that they will be writing some lines that will fit together into a poem. Then, write up the stem you intend to use. For example: I wish I could…

           Elaborate further by eliciting samples of completed sentences, as in these examples:

                  I wish I could have an ice cream.
                  I wish I could speak French.
                  I wish I could visit Australia.

            Then, ask each student to write three sentences following the same pattern.

  1. After about 10 minutes, ask students to work in groups of four and to share their sentences. They should choose six sentences that they think are most interesting and then decide what order to put them in to form a 6-line poem. There is no need for the poems to rhyme but if they do, fine. Lastly, tell them to add one final line, which is: But I can’t.
  2. Ask groups to read their poems aloud to the class. Can they suggest any ways to improve the poems?
  3. Collect all the poems. Display them on the class noticeboard or upload them onto the class/school website.
  4. You can decide on other stems to use in subsequent classes. For example:

                 Loneliness is…
                 I used to… but now…
                 I love the way…
                 Nobody knows…
                 Who knows…?
                 I don’t know why…

It would be a good idea to choose stems that give practice in language points you are working on with the class at that time.


An acrostic poem is based on a word written vertically. The letters then each form the first letter of a word, and all the words are related to the meaning of the original word. Acrostics involve a kind of mental gymnastics that engages students in reactivating their vocabulary in an unusual way. Acrostics do not usually produce great poetry but they certainly exercise the linguistic imagination.*

For example:


  1. Explain what an acrostic is and write up one or two examples on the board. Then, ask them to write an acrostic based on their own name or the name of someone they know well. The words they choose should somehow describe the person. For example, Vuthy:

                  V Very
                  U Unlikely
                  T To
                  H Help
                  Y You

  1. Collect all the poems. Display them on the class notice-board or upload them onto the class/school website.
  2. Ask students to write at least one more acrostic before the next class. This time, they can choose any word they like (it doesn’t have to be someone’s name). For example:

                Everywhere -

*Acknowledgement: Some of the ideas for the activity above were developed by Tan Bee Tin.

If you were …

  1. First you make copies of this outline:

If I were a bird, I would be…
If I were a book, I would be…
If I were a song, I would be…
If I were the weather, I would be…
If I were a season, I would be…

  1. Then distribute the sheets that you have prepared. Ask students to work individually for about 10 minutes, completing the outline of the poem with words they prefer. For example: If I were a fruit, I would be a grape.
  2. Let students share what they have written in groups of four. Then conduct a class discussion and go through the poems line-by-line, asking for examples of what they have written.
  3.  Ask students to think of someone they like and to write the person’s name as the title of their poem. They then write a 12-line poem addressed to that person using the following format:

Line 1: describe the person as a kind of food
Line 2: describe the person as weather
Line 3: describe the person as a tree
Line 4: describe the person as a time of day
Line 5: describe the person as some kind of transport
Line 6: describe the person as an article of clothing
Line 7: describe the person as part of a house
Line 8: describe the person as a flower
Line 9: describe the person as a kind of music/a sound
Line 10: describe the person as something to do with colour
Line 11: describe the person as an animal
The last line should be the same for everyone: ‘You are my friend’.

So, their poem would look something like this:

          For Sharifa

        You are mango ice-cream
        You are a cool breeze on a hot day
        You are a shady coconut palm
        You are dawn
        You are a sailing boat crossing the bay
        You are my comfortable sandals
        You are the sunny verandah
        You are jasmine
        You are a soft gamelan music
        You are light blue
        You are a playful kitten
        You are my friend.

Metaphor poems

  1. Make copies of this list of words and phrases for use during the class:

Love an egg Hate a tooth brush Disappointment a vacuum cleaner Marriage a spoon Friendship a knife Hope a mirror Life a window Work a cup Time a banana

  1. Check that students know what a metaphor is – a form of direct comparison between two things. Give examples of metaphors in everyday life:
  • a blade of grass
  • a sharp frost
  • spending time
  • save time
  • opening up a can of worms
  • she’s a snake in the grass
  • he clammed up
  • he shelled out
  • a wall of silence

In fact, everyday language is so full of metaphorical expressions that we hardly notice them. They have become an accepted way of speaking. Explain that poets make great use of metaphor to make their words more vivid and easier to visualize.

  1. Hand out the sheets. Tell students to write three metaphors by combining one item on the left with another on the right (students will have to join the words using ‘is’). They should not spend time thinking about the combinations. For example:
  • Life is a window
  • Friendship is a knife
  • Love is a vacuum cleaner
  • Marriage is a banana
  • Hate is a mirror
  1. Now, ask them to choose just one of their new metaphors. They should now write two more lines after the metaphor to explain what it means. For example:

                   Marriage is a banana:
                   when you’ve eaten the fruit,
                   only the skin is left.

                   Hate is a mirror:
                   it reflects back
                   on the one who hates.

Tell students not to use ‘because’ as it is unnecessary, and to keep the lines short.

  1. Ask students to share their metaphor poems with the class. Students should then make an illustrated display of their work. Acknowledgement: This idea is adapted from Jane Spiro’s brilliant book, Creative Poetry Writing (OUP, 2004).

Editor’s note: This article is extracted from the article, Creative writing for students and teachers, originally published online (  Reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

About the Author

Alan Maley has been involved in ELT for over 40 years. He has lived and worked in 10 countries, including China, India, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. He is series editor for the Oxford Resource Books for Teachers, and has published over 30 books and numerous articles.