Teaching creative writing in primary schools: a systematic review of the literature through the lens of reflexivity
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- Published: 17 June 2023
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- Georgina Barton ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-2703-238X 1 ,
- Maryam Khosronejad 2 ,
- Mary Ryan 2 ,
- Lisa Kervin 3 &
- Debra Myhill 4
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Teaching writing is complex and research related to approaches that support students’ understanding and outcomes in written assessment is prolific. Written aspects including text structure, purpose, and language conventions appear to be explicit elements teachers know how to teach. However, more qualitative and nuanced elements of writing such as authorial voice and creativity have received less attention. We conducted a systematic literature review on creativity and creative aspects of writing in primary classrooms by exploring research between 2011 and 2020. The review yielded 172 articles with 25 satisfying established criteria. Using Archer’s critical realist theory of reflexivity we report on personal, structural, and cultural emergent properties that surround the practice of creative writing. Implications and recommendations for improved practice are shared for school leaders, teachers, preservice teachers, students, and policy makers.
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Creative writing in schools is an important part of learning, assessment, and reporting, however, there is evidence globally to suggest that such writing is often stifled in preference to quick on-demand writing, usually featured in high-stakes testing (Au & Gourd, 2013 ; Gibson & Ewing, 2020 ). Research points to this negatively impacting particularly on students from diverse backgrounds (Mahmood et al., 2020 ). When teachers teach on-demand writing typical pedagogical traits are revealed, those that are often referred to as formulaic (Ryan & Barton, 2014 ). When thinking about creative writing, however, Wyse et al. ( 2013 ) noted that it involves the absence of structure and teaching creative writing requires an ‘open’ pedagogical approach for students to be given imaginative choice. By this, they mean that teachers need to consider less formulaic ways to teach writing so that students can experience different opportunities and ways to write creatively. They argued that if students are not given the flexibility to experiment through writing then their creativity might be stifled. Similarly, Barbot et al. ( 2012 ), who carried out a study with a panel of 15 experts of creative writing, posited that creative writing is when students draw on their imagination and other creative processes to create fictional narratives or writing that is ‘unusually original’. They also noted that creative writing is important for the development of students’ critical and creative thinking skills and ways in which they can approach life in creative ways.
Creative writing is defined in various ways in literature. Wang ( 2019 ) defined creative writing as a form of original expression involving an author’s imagination to engage a reader. Other definitions of creative writing involve the notion of children’s imagination, choice, and originality and much research has explored the concept of creativity within and through the writing process.
While creative writing is defined in various ways, and the many ways that it is treated in literacy education, this article is not concerned with the nature of the term per se. Rather, it focusses on research about creative writing and creativity in writing to understand how research unpacks the personal and contextual characteristics that surround creative writing practices. To this aim, we adopt a broad definition of creative writing as a form of original writing involving an author’s imagination and self-expression to engage a reader (Wang, 2019 ). Creative writing is important for children’s development (Grainger et al., 2005 ), allowing them to use their imagination and broaden their ability to problem-solve and think deeply. Creativity in writing refers to specific aspects within a writing product that can be deemed creative. Some examples include the use of senses and how a writer might engage a reader (Deutsch, 2014 ; Smith, 2020 ).
International research on teaching writing has indicated a loss in innovative or creative pedagogical practices due to the pressure on teachers to teach prescribed writing skills that are assessed in high-stakes tests (Göçen, 2019 ; Stock & Molloy, 2020 ), often resulting in specific trends including teaching a genre approach to writing (Polesel et al., 2012 ; Ryan & Barton, 2014 ). A comprehensive meta-analysis by Graham et al ( 2012 ), designed to identify writing practices with evidence of effectiveness in primary classrooms, found that explicitly teaching imagery and creativity was an effective teaching practice in writing. In addition, a review of methods related to teaching writing conducted by Slavin et al. ( 2019 ) included studies that statistically reported causal relationships between teacher practice and student outcomes. Common themes in Slavin et al’s ( 2019 ) quest for improving writing included comprehensive teacher professional development, student engagement and enjoyment, and explicit teaching of grammar, punctuation, and usage. While they did not specifically cite creativity, motivating environments and cooperative learning were important characteristics of writing programs.
This systematic literature review aims to share empirical international research in the context of elementary/primary schools by exploring creativity in writing and the conditions that influence its emergence. It specifically aims to answer the question: What influences the teaching of creative writing in primary education? And how can reflexivity theorise these influences? The review shares scholarly work that attempts to define personal aspects of creative writing including imagination, and creative thinking; discusses creative approaches to teaching writing, and shows how these methods might support students’ creative writing or creative aspects of writing.
Writing is a complex process that involves students making decisions about word choice, sentence, and text structure, and ways in which to engage readers. Such decisions require a certain amount of reflection or at times deeper reflexive judgments by both teachers and students. Consequently, we draw on Archer’s ( 2012 ) critical realist theory of reflexivity to guide our review as research shows that reflexive thinking in practice can improve writing outcomes (Ryan et al., 2021 ). Archer ( 2007 ) highlights how reflexivity is an everyday activity involving mental processes whereby we think about ourselves in relation to our immediate personal, social, and cultural contexts. She suggests we make decisions through negotiating the connected emergences of personal properties (PEPs) related to the individual, structural properties (SEPs) related to the contextual happenings and cultural properties (CEPs) related to ideologies, each of which is influenced by the other developments. These decisions influence, and are influenced by, our subsequent actions. In applying reflexivity theory to writing (see Ryan, 2014 ), we cannot simply focus on the writing product, but should also interrogate the process of writing, that is, the influences on decision-making and design which are enabled or constrained through pedagogical practices in the classroom. Writing practices and outputs are formed through the interplay of personal, structural, and cultural conditions. Student decisions and actions about writing ensue through the mediation of personal (e.g. beliefs, motivations, interests, experiences), structural (e.g. curriculum, programs, testing regimes, teaching strategies, resources), and cultural (e.g. norms, expectations, ideologies, values) conditions. Therefore, teachers play an important role in facilitating the interplay of these conditions for their students and recontextualising curricula and policy (Ryan et al., 2021 ). For example, by enabling students’ agency and creating an authentic purpose for writing, teachers can balance the personal conditions of students (such as their motivation and interest) against the structural effects of the curriculum requirements. Using a reflexive approach to investigating the literature on creative writing we aim to reveal the personal, structural, and cultural conditions surrounding the study and the practice of creative writing. We argue that it is through the understanding of these conditions that we can theorise how a. students might make their writing more creative and b. how teachers might establish classroom conditions conducive to creativity.
The approach taken for this paper was guided by the PRISMA method (Moher et al., 2009 ) for conducting systematic literature reviews (see Table 1 ).
Our electronic search involved several databases: researchers’ library online catalogue, EBSCO host ultimate, ProQuest, Eric, Web of Science, Informit, and ScienceDirect. Using the following search terms: creativ* AND (‘teaching methods’ OR pedagog*) AND writing AND (elementary OR primary) to search titles and abstracts as well as limiting the search to peer-reviewed articles written in English within a 10-year timeframe (2011–2020), we initially retrieved 172 articles. Information about all 172 articles was input into a data spreadsheet including author, article title, journal title, volume and issue number, and abstract. Once completed, these articles were divided into two equal groups and two researchers were assigned to review the articles for relevancy against the following inclusion criteria:
Studies were peer-reviewed empirical research published in English;
Participants were primary students and/or teachers;
Students were not specifically English as a Second or Additional Language/Dialect learners (samples of culturally and linguistically diverse students in primary classrooms were included);
Studies were not carried out in curriculum areas other than English; and
Studies did not have a specific focus on digital technologies in the classroom.
For this systematic review, we were interested in the ways in which teachers thought about, understood, and taught the ‘creative’ aspect of writing.
The 25 studies that met the inclusion criteria were synthesised to review what influences the improvement of creative writing in primary education. We analysed the papers for how creative writing and/or creative aspects in writing were viewed as well as how teachers might best support students to develop reflexive capacities to improve the creative aspects of writing. We also identified any personal, structural, and/or cultural emergences that might impact on the effectiveness of students’ creative writing. Two of the authors read the entire articles and identified four main categories of research which were (1) understanding creative writing; (2) creative thinking and its contribution to writing; (3) creative pedagogy; and (4) what students can do to be more creative in their writing. These were cross-checked by the entire research team. Some of the papers fit more than one of these themes. In the next section, each theme is introduced and defined and then the articles that fall within the theme are reviewed.
Overall a total number of 25 articles had overlapping themes that included various personal and contextual aspects. Figure 1 shows what we have identified as the key themes under each category. In the next sections, we represent papers based on their main theme.
The personal, structural, and cultural conditions surrounding creative writing
Personal emergent properties
A total number of 13 articles were about what students can do to be more creative in their writing (Mendelowitz, 2014 ; Steele, 2016 ) and how teachers’ and students’ personal characteristics relate to the development of creative writing. These articles were mainly focussed on the personal emergent aspects of writing (Alhusaini & Maker, 2015 ; Barbot et al., 2012 ; Cremin et al., 2020 ; DeFauw, 2018 ; Dobson, 2015 ; Dobson & Stephenson, 2017 , 2020 ; Edwards-Groves, 2011 ; Healey, 2019 ; Lee & Enciso, 2017 ; Macken-Horarik, 2012 ; Ryan, 2014 ). The personal aspects identified in our review were (1) personal views about creative writing, (2) creative thinking, (3) writer identity, (4) learner motivation and engagement, and (5) knowledge and capabilities.
Personal views about creative writing
From our systematic review, we identified three articles exploring views about what creative writing is, and more specifically the role that it plays and the elements that make creative writing, in primary classrooms. One of these studies was focussed on the views and experiences of experts in writing (Barbot et al., 2012 ), whereas the other two investigated students’ perspectives and experiences (Alhusaini & Maker, 2015 ; Healey, 2019 ). Barbot et al’s ( 2012 ) work, for example, recognised that creative writing involves both cognitive and metacognitive abilities. This was determined by the expert panel of people whose work related to writing including teachers, linguists, psychologists, professional writers, and art educators. The panel were asked to complete an online survey that rated the relative importance of 28 identified skills needed to creatively write. Six broad categories were identified as a result of the responses and the rank given to each factor by the expert groups (See Table 2 ). They acknowledged that these features cross over various age groups from children to professional writers.
Findings suggested that each independent rater weighted different key components of creative writing as being more or less important for children. Overall, the findings showed.
a global ‘consensus’ across the expert groups indicated that creative writing skills are primarily supported by factors such as observation, generation of description, imagination, intrinsic motivation and perseverance, while the contributions of all of the other relevant factors seemed negligible (e.g. intelligence, working memory, extrinsic motivation and penmanship). (p. 218)
One factor that was ranked as critical by most respondents, but underemphasised by teachers, was imagination. Teachers’ work in classrooms around creative writing is complex due to the difficulty in defining imagination (Brill, 2004 ). Teachers also under-rated other aspects related to creative cognition.
Another study that explored students’ creativity in writing was conducted by Alhusaini and Maker ( 2015 ) in the south-west of the United States. Participants included 139 students with mixed ethnicities including White, Mexican American, and Navajo. This study involved six elementary/primary school teachers judging students’ writing samples of open-ended stories. To assess the work a Written Linguistic Assessment tool, which was based on the Consensual Assessment Technique [CAT] (Amabile, 1982 ) was implemented. According to Baer and McKool ( 2009 ), The CAT involves experts rating written artefacts or artistic objects by using their ‘sense of what is creative in the domain in question to rate the creativity of the products in relation to one another’ (p. 4). Interestingly, Alhusaini and Maker ( 2015 ) found the CAT to be effective in relation to interrater reliability. The authors do not share what the Judge’s Guidelines to Assess Students’ Stories entail. They mention the difference between technical quality and creativity and note that assessors were able to distinguish the differences between the two, but the reader is not made aware of the aspects of each quality. Overall, the study revealed that one of the most challenging problems in the field of creativity and writing is trying to measure creativity across cultures by using standardised tests. Such studies could have implications for other students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds as teachers become more aware of cultural nuances in constituting ‘creative’ in creative writing.
The final study we identified in this category was by Healey ( 2019 ). Healey employed an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) and explored how eight children (11–12 Years of age) experienced creative writing in the classroom. He shared how children’s writing experiences were based on ‘the affect, embodiment, and materiality of their immediate engagement with activities in the classroom’ (p. 184). Results from student interviews showed three themes related to the experience of writing: the writing world (watching, ideas from elsewhere, flowing); the self (concealing and revealing, agency, adequacy); and schooled writing (standards, satisfying task requirements, rules of good writing). The author stated that children’s consciousness shifts between their imagination (The Writing World) and set assessment tasks (Schooled Writing). Both of these worlds affect the way children experience themselves as writers. Further findings from this work argued that originality of ideas and use of richer vocabulary improved students’ creative writing. Vocabulary improvement included diversity of word meanings, appropriate usage of words, words being in line with the purpose of the text; while originality of ideas featured creative and unusual (original) ideas—which in many ways is difficult to define.
Overall, when concerned with personal views and attitudes in creative writing, the two studies by Healey ( 2019 ) and Barbot et al. ( 2012 ) show contrasting findings about ‘imagination’ captured through the view of students and teachers, respectively. While Healey’s ( 2019 ) study suggests that children shift between their imagination and set assessment tasks in creative writing, Barbot et al. ( 2012 ) highlight the lack of attention to imagination among their participated teachers. Although these results cannot be generalised, they highlight the significance of understanding personal emergent properties that both students and teachers bring to the classroom and the way that they interact to affect the experience of creative writing for learners. From this theme, we suggest the importance of educators acknowledging students’ imagination through their definition of creative writing as well as providing quality time for students to choose what they write through imaginative thought. We now turn to creative thinking and related pedagogical approaches to teaching creative writing from the research literature.
We identified two articles that were focussed on creative thinking and its contribution to writing (Copping, 2018 ; Cress & Holm, 2016 ). Copping ( 2018 ) explored writing pedagogy and the connections between children’s creative thinking, or a ‘new way of looking at something’ (p. 309), and their writing achievement. The study involved two primary schools in Lancashire, one in an affluent area and one in an underprivileged area. Approximately 28 children from each school were involved in two, 2-day writing workshops based on a murder mystery the children had to solve. Findings from this study revealed that to improve students’ writing achievement (1) a thinking environment needs to be created and maintained, (2) production processes should have value, (3) motivation and achievement increase when there is a tangible purpose, and (4) high expectations lead to higher attainment.
Cress and Holm’s ( 2016 ) study described a curricular approach implemented by a first-grade teacher and their class comprised 13 girls and 11 boys. The project known as the Creative Endeavours project aimed to develop creative thinking by (1) creating an environment of respect with a positive classroom climate. (2) offering new and challenging experiences, and (3) encouraging new ideas rather than praise. The authors argued that through peer collaboration and the flexibility to choose their own projects, children can become more authentically engaged in the writing process. The children wrote about their experiences and their choices, and reflected upon the projects undertaken. In this study, it was revealed that the children showed diversity in their writing assignments including presentation through sewing, photography, and drama. While there were only two papers in this particular theme, their findings are supported by systematic reviews (Graham et al., 2012 ; Slavin et al., 2019 ) that emphasise not only new ways of exploring a range of concepts for learning but also the creation of motivating environments for improving writing (Copping, 2018 ). In addition to the significance of positive and encouraging learning environments, these two studies suggest that setting ‘high expectations’ or ‘challenging experiences’ are conducive to creative thinking however, teachers would need to set appropriate, reflexive conditions for this to occur.
Studies in this category revolve around choice and learner writer identity. The study carried out by Dobson and Stephenson ( 2017 ) focussed on developing a community of writers involving 25 primary school pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds. The project was offered over 2 weeks and featured a number of creative writing workshops. The authors applied the theoretical frameworks of practitioner enquiry and discourse analysis to explore the children’s creative writing outputs. They argued that the workshops, which promoted intertextuality and freedom for the children as writers, enabled a shifting of their ‘writer’ identities (Holland et al., 1998). Dobson and Stephenson ( 2017 ) showed that allowing students to make decisions and choices in regard to authentic writing purposes supported a more flexible approach. They recommend stronger partnerships between schools and universities in relation to research on creative writing, however, it would be important for these relationships to be sustainable.
The second paper on this theme is by Ryan ( 2014 ) who noted that writing is a complex activity that requires appropriate thinking in relation to the purpose, audience, and medium of a variety of texts. Writers always make decisions about how they will present subject matter and/or feelings through all of the modes. Ryan ( 2014 ) suggested that writing is like a performance ‘whereby writers shape and represent their identities as they mediate social structures and personal considerations’ (p. 130). The study analysed writing samples of culturally and linguistically diverse Australian primary students to uncover the types of identities students shared. It found that three different types of writers existed—the school writers who followed teacher instructions or formulas to produce a product; the constrained writers who also followed instructions and formulas but were able to add in some authorical voice; and the reflexive writers who could show a definite command of writing and showed creative potential. Ryan ( 2014 ) argued that teachers’ practices in the classroom directly influence the ways in which students express these identities. She stated that when students are provided choices in writing, they are more able to shape and develop their voices. Such choices would need to include quality time and support to be reflexive in the decisions being made by the students.
The Teachers as Writers project (2015–2017) was conducted by Cremin, Myhill, Eyres, Nash, Wilson, and Oliver. In a recent paper ( 2020 ), the team reported on a collaborative partnership between two universities and a creative writing foundation. Professional writers were invited to engage with teachers in the writing process and the impact of these interactions on classroom teaching practices was determined. Data sets included observations, interviews, audio-capture (of workshops, tutorials and co-mentoring reflections), and audio-diaries from 16 teachers; and a randomised controlled trial (RCT) involving 32 primary and secondary classes. An intervention was carried out involving teachers writing in a week long residence with professional writers, one-on-one tutorials, and extra time and space to write. They also continued learning through two Continuing Professional Development (CPD) days. Results showed that teachers’ identities as writers shifted greatly due to their engagement with professional authors. The students responded positively in terms of their motivation, confidence, sense of ownership, and skills as writers. The professional authors also commented on positive impacts including their own contributions to schools. Conversely, these changes in practice did not improve the students’ final assessment results in any significant way. The authors noted that assuming a causal relationship between teachers’ engagement with writing workshops and students’ writing outcomes was spurious. They, therefore, developed further research building on this learning.
Knowledge and capabilities
The role of knowledge and capability is central to the articles in this category. In Australia, Macken-Horarik ( 2012 ) reported on the introduction of a national curriculum for English. This article drew on Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) by investigating the potential of Halliday’s notion of grammatics for understanding students’ writing as acts of creative meaning in context. Macken-Horarik ( 2012 ) argued that students needed to know deeply about language so that they could make creative decisions with their writing. She outlined that a ‘good enough’ grammatics would assist teachers in becoming comfortable with ‘playful developments in students’ texts and to foster their control of literate discourse’ (p. 179).
A project carried out by Edwards-Groves in 2011 highlights the role of knowledge about digital technologies in writing practices. 17 teachers in primary classrooms in Australia were asked to use particular digital technologies with their students when constructing classroom texts. Findings showed that an extended perspective on what counts as writing including the writing process was needed. Results revealed that collaborative methods when constructing diverse texts required teachers to rethink pedagogies towards writing instruction and what they consider as writing. It was argued that technology can be used to enhance creative possibilities for students in the form of new and dynamic texts. In particular, it was noted that teachers and students should be aware that digital technologies can both constrain and/or enable text creation in the classroom depending on a number of variables including knowledge and understanding, locating resources and logistical issues such as connectivity and reliability.
In addition, Mendelowitz’s ( 2014 ) study argued that nurturing teachers’ own creativity assisted their ability to teach writing more generally. She noted several ‘interrelated variables and relationships that still need to be given attention in order to gain a more holistic understanding of the challenges of teaching creative writing’ (p. 164). According to Mendelowitz ( 2014 ), elements that impacted on these challenges include teachers’ school writing histories, conceptualisations of imagination, classroom discourses, and pedagogy. Documenting teachers’ work through interviews and classroom observations by the researcher, the study found that teachers need to be able to define imagination and imaginative writing and know what strategies work best with their students. She noted that the teacher’s approaches to teaching writing ‘powerfully shaped by the interactions between their conceptualisations and enactments of imaginative writing pedagogy’ (p. 181) and that these may either limit or create a space for students to be more creative with their writing.
Such Personal Emergent Properties show that individual attributes of both teachers and students are important in learning creative writing. The next section of the paper explores the articles that shared various structural and cultural properties.
Structural emergent properties
In the subset of structural emergent properties, we mainly identified pedagogical approaches for creative writing that explored primary school learning and teaching (Christianakis, 2011a ; Christianakis, 2011b ; Coles, 2017 ; DeFauw, 2018 ; Hall & Grisham-Brown, 2011 ; Portier et al., 2019 ; Rumney et al., 2016 ; Sears, 2012 ; Steele, 2016 ; Southern et al., 2020 ; Yoo & Carter, 2017 ). These pedagogical approaches were aimed at addressing issues related to personal emergent properties such as motivation and engagement, and confidence in writing. The two categories of writing pedagogies were those that engaged professional authors and artists in teaching about creative writing, and the approaches that involved play(ful) activities, and use of visual arts, and drama.
Engaging professional authors and artists
Interestingly, many of the studies used literary forms and/or professional creative authors to spike interest and motivation in the students. Coles’ ( 2017 ) study, for example, used a garden-themed poetry writing project to support 9–10-year-old children’s creative writing in a London primary school. The 5-week project partnered with a professional creative writing organisation that facilitated the Ministry for Stories (MoS) writing centres across the USA. The study found that the social relationships created through this partnership allowed for a more inclusive and socially generative model of creativity. This meant that teachers should not just include creative aspects in assessment rubrics but rather recognise that creativity is encouraged through imagination and working with others. The researchers found improvements in the children’s participation in classroom writing activities as well as diversity in the ways they expressed their writing. The approach valued ‘rich means of expression rather than a set of rules to be learnt’ (p. 396). They also acknowledged issues associated with school–community partnerships including the sustainability of the practice.
Similarly, Rumney et al. ( 2016 ) found that using creative multimodal activities increased students’ confidence and motivation for writing. The study implemented the Write Here project with over 900 children in 12 primary and secondary schools. The study involved the children visiting local art galleries to work with professional authors and artists. Case studies were presented about pre-writing activities, the actual gallery work and post-gallery follow-up sessions. It aimed to improve students’ social development and literacy outcomes through diverse learning activities such as visual art and play in different contexts such as art galleries and classrooms. Like Coles’ ( 2017 ) study, this project showed that creative activities (e.g. talking about and acting out pictures; using story maps; backwards writing and planning) engaged students more than just teaching skills.
In addition, DeFauw’s ( 2018 ) study had student-centred learning and leadership at the core when working with a children’s book author for one year. The collaboration involved three face-to-face sessions with the author as well as online communication through blog posts. Data included recorded interactions, readings and pre and post interviews with teachers ( n = 9), students ( n = 36), and the author. The partnership showed that students’ interest was activated and sustained due to the situational context as well as the extended time given to students to interact with the author. The project improved students’ interest in and motivation to write as a result of engaging with authors and hearing about their own experience and writing strategies. It also found that teachers gained more confidence to support students’ exploration of writing in more creative ways. The creative pedagogies were also used in addressing issues related to creative writing outcomes for students, including teachers’ lack of confidence about pedagogies (Southern et al., 2020 ). Through a creative social enterprise approach, the authors facilitated professional development and learning involving artist-led activities for students. The program called Zip Zap had been implemented in schools in Wales and England, and data were collected through focus groups with teachers, students, and parents/carers. Observations of some of the professional development workshops were also video recorded. Third space theory was used to describe the collaborative practice between educators and artists that supported students’ creative writing outcomes. It was noteworthy that involving ‘creative’ practitioners largely focussed on the specific strategies that could be used in classrooms, to which our next section now turns.
Play(ful) activities, visual arts, and drama
Much research explores how to best support students who find writing difficult. Sears’ research ( 2012 ) is a case in point. The author shared how visual arts may be an effective way to improve struggling students with writing. They argued that the visual arts can provide ways of ‘accessing and expressing [student] ideas and ultimately opening a world of creative possibilities’ (p. 17). In the study, six third-grade students engaged with drawing and painting as pre-writing strategies, leading to the creation of poems based on the artworks. The students’ final poems were assessed and showed improved knowledge of all 6 technical categories in writing: ideas, organisation, fluency, voice, word choice, and conventions. The author also argued that students’ motivation to write increased as a result of the visual art activities.
A study by Portier et al. ( 2019 ) investigated approaches to teaching writing that were motiving and engaging for students. Involving 10 northern rural communities in Canada, the project implemented collaborative, play(ful) learning activities alongside sixteen teachers and their students. Interestingly, the study, like many others in our review, found a disconnect ‘between the achievement of curricular objectives and the implementation of play(ful) learning activities’ (p. 20); an approach valued in early childhood education. The students were supported through action research projects in creating texts with different purposes. Students’ motivation as well as samples of work were analysed and showed that student interest areas and collaborative approaches benefited both teachers and students. Further research on how reflexive thinking might have influenced these benefits is recommended.
Similarly, Lee and Enciso ( 2017 ) highlighted the importance of motivation and engagement in their study. In a collaboration with Austin Theatre Alliance, Lee and Enciso ( 2017 ) investigated how dramatic approaches to teaching, such as through expanded imagination and improvisation, can improve students’ story writing. They argued that the students’ motivation to write was also increased. The study was carried out through a controlled quasi-experimental study over 8 weeks of story-writing and drama-based programs. 29 third-grade classrooms in various schools, located in an urban district of Texas, were involved. The study also pre- and post-tested the students’ writing self-efficacy through story building. The study found that students were more able to use their cultural knowledge such as ‘culturally formed repertoires of language and experience to explore and express new understandings of the world and themselves…’ (p. 160) for creative writing purposes but needed more quality resources to support opportunities such as the Literacy for Life program. A most important finding was that for children who experience poverty, drama-based activities developed and led by teaching artists were extremely powerful and allowed the students to express themselves in entertaining ways. We do note that ‘entertainment’ and or engagement might mean different things for different students so reflexive approaches to deciding what these are would be necessary.
Steele’s ( 2016 ) study also looked at supporting teachers’ work in the classroom. Involving 6 out of 20 teacher workshop participants in Hawaii, this exploratory case study utilised observations, interview, and portfolio analyses of teacher and student work. Findings from the study showed that some teachers relished moving away from everyday ‘typical’ practice and increased student voice and choice. Other teachers, however, found it difficult to take risks and hence respond to student needs and ideas.
Dobson and Stephenson’s ( 2020 ) study focussed on the professional development of primary school teachers using drama to develop creative writing across the curriculum. The project was sponsored by the United Kingdom Literacy Association and ran for two terms in a school year. Researchers based the research on a collaborative approach involving academics and four teachers working with theatre educators to use process drama. Data sets included lesson observations, notes taken during learning conversations, and interviews with the teachers. The findings showed that three of the four teachers resisted some of the methods used such as performance; resulting in a lack of child-centred learning. The remaining teacher could take on board innovative practice, which the researchers attributed to his disposition. The study argued that these teachers, while a small participant group, needed more support in feeling confident in implementing new and creative approaches to teaching writing.
The final study, identified as addressing creative pedagogies for creative writing, was carried out by Yoo and Carter ( 2017 ) as professional development for teachers. Data included teacher survey responses and field notes taken by the researchers at each workshop (note: number of workshops and participants is unknown). The program aimed to investigate how emotions play a role in teachers’ work when teaching creative writing. The researchers found that intuitive joint construction of meaning was important to meet the needs of both primary and secondary teachers. A community of practice was established to support teachers’ identities as writers (see also Cremin et al., 2020 ). Findings showed that teachers who already identified as writers engaged more positively in the workshop.
These studies presented some approaches for teachers to consider how to teach creative writing. For example, the need to value unique spaces for students to write, including authentic connections with people and places outside of school environments was shared. Further, the need for quality stimuli and time for writing was acknowledged. Several other studies identified that blended teaching approaches to support student learning outcomes in the area of creative writing is important for schools and teachers to consider. We do acknowledge there may be other methods available to support students in creative writing, however, understanding what types of SEPs are impacting on teaching creative writing is an important step in determining improvements in schools.
Cultural emergent properties
Christianakis ( 2011a , 2011b ) wrote two papers about children’s creative text development with an emphasis on the cultural aspects. The first was an ethnographic study across 8 months with a year five class in East San Francisco Bay. The study included audio recording the students’ conversations and analysing over 900 samples of work. In the classroom, students were involved in a range of meaning-making practices including those that were arts-based and multimodal. The conversations with the students involved the researcher asking questions such: tell me more about this drawing, how did you come up with the idea? or why did you make this choice? The study found that there was a need for schools to reconceptualise the teaching of writing ‘to include not only orthographic symbols, but also the wide array of communicative tools that children bring to writing’ (p. 22). The author argued that unless corresponding institutional practices and ideologies were interrogated then improved practice was unlikely.
Christianakis’ ( 2011b ) second article, from the same project, explored more specifically the creation of hybrid rap poems by the children. She explicated how educators needed to negotiate and challenge dominant practices in primary classroom literacy learning. Like many studies before, a strong recommendation was to be more inclusive of youth popular cultures and culturally relevant literacies for students to be more engaged in creative writing practices. For Christianakis, culturally relevant literacies meant practices that embraced diversity in class and race and accounted for, and challenged, the dominant hegemonic curriculum that ‘privileges a traditional canon’ (p. 1140).
In summary, we found several themes under PEPs that could be considered for further research including those outlined in Table 3 below.
Discussion and implications for classroom practice
From this systematic literature review, several positions were exposed about the personal, structural, and cultural influences (Archer, 2012 ; Ryan, 2014 ) on teaching creative writing. These include limited teacher and student knowledge of what constitutes creative writing (Personal Emergent Properties [PEPs]), and no shared understanding or expectation in relation to creative writing pedagogy in their context (Cultural Emergent Properties [CEPs]). The negative impact of standardised testing and trending approaches on how teachers teach writing (CEP; Structural Emergent Properties [SEPs]) could also be considered (see AUTHORS 1 and 3, 2014 for example). In addition, teachers’ poor self-efficacy in terms of teaching creative writing (PEP); a paucity of quality professional development about teaching and assessing creative writing (SEP); and issues related to the sustainability of creative approaches to teach writing (SEP; CEP) need to be considered by leaders and teachers in schools. Our literature review advances knowledge about creative writing by revealing two interconnected areas that affect creative writing practices. Findings suggest that a parallel focus on personal conditions and contextual conditions—including structural and cultural—has the potential to improve creative writing in general. Below, we share some implications and recommendations for improved practice by focussing on both (1) personal views about creative writing and (2) the structural and cultural aspects that affect creative writing practices at schools.
Focussing on personal views about creative writing
School leaders and teachers must clearly define what creative writing is, what key skills constitute creative writing.
From our search it was apparent that schools and their educators often do not have a clear idea or indeed a shared idea as to what constitutes creative writing in relation to their own context. Without a well-defined focus for creative writing students may find it difficult to know what is required in classroom tasks and assessment. In addition, when planning for creative writing in school programs, teachers should consider flexible learning opportunities and choice for their students when developing their creative writing skills. Such flexibility should also involve choice of topic, ways of working (e.g. peer collaboration, individual activities etc.), and open discussions led by students in the classroom as shown throughout this paper. It would also be important for leaders and teachers to interrogate current approaches to teaching writing which we argued in the introduction to be formulaic and genre based.
Improve teacher self-efficacy, confidence, and content knowledge in teaching writing
Many of our studies showed that teachers who lacked confidence about writing themselves had less knowledge and skills to teach writing than those that may have participated in projects encouraging ‘teachers as writers’. Further, improved knowledge of grammar (as highlighted in Macken-Horarik’s, 2012 work); talk about writing in the classroom and other spaces (Cremin et al., 2020 ) and the writing process (see Ryan, 2014 ) could assist teachers in becoming more confident to take risks in the classroom with their students. Above all being playful about writing through extended conversations and practices is required.
Focussing on the structural and cultural resources
Improve training and further professional development and learning about teaching and assessing creative writing.
In order for the above personal attributes to be improved, further professional development and learning are required. Many of the papers presented throughout this review demonstrated the powerful impact of immersive professional learning for teachers. Working alongside professional authors, researchers, drama practitioners, visual artists, poets, for example, provided positive opportunities for teachers to learn about writing but also to feel more confident to teach it without imposing strict boundaries on students. We argue for professional development to be both formal and informal including such approaches as coaching and mentoring in the classroom. Demonstrated practice alongside the teacher is also recommended. This, in turn, would address the ongoing issue of creative writing being stifled for students in the classroom context.
Consider sustainability of creative pedagogic approaches and spaces for creative writing in curriculum planning
Many of the studies throughout this paper shared creative approaches to teaching writing but there were concerns that some of these methods may not be sustainable. It is important for school leaders to support the work of teachers in relation to teaching creative writing. We acknowledge that there is increasing uncertainty and scrutiny surrounding teachers’ everyday work (Knight, 2020 ), however, continued engagement in learning about and participating in creative pedagogy for writing is highly recommended. In addition, the studies suggested the provision of appropriate and authentic spaces in which students could creatively write and these often included spaces outside of the normal classroom environment and arts-based approaches implemented in such spaces. Teachers should be encouraged to collaborate and take risks rather than follow predetermined strategies for every lesson. A whole of school practice can be developed with important conversations about the ideologies that inform the school’s approach to writing.
Schools should not stifle creativity in the classroom due to the infiltration of standardised and/or trending approaches to teaching and assessing writing
It is evident that pedagogical approaches to teaching writing have been stifled by more formulaic methods aiming to meet expectations of standardised tests despite other evidence showing the benefits of more productive, engaging, and creative approaches to teaching writing as highlighted above. This can be particularly the case for students from non-dominant backgrounds where writing about cultural and life experiences through innovative practices has been proven to empower their voices (Johnson, 2021 ). The research shows that when students are offered rigid structures of texts, no choice of genres, and indeed word lists, their own decisions about writing are diminished (Ryan & Barton, 2013 ). It has been proven that students’ engagement and motivation to write can increase when they are able to write directly from their own experience or in social groups. It is therefore recommended that school leaders and teachers reconsider their ideologies about writing and explicitly indicate the importance of real-world purposes for writing—not just formulised, quick writing as usually included in external tests—but also those that encourage students’ growth in imagination, creativity, and innovative thought.
This systematic review used a lens of reflexivity to situate writing as a process of active and creative design whereby students make conscious decisions about their writing, with guidance from their teachers. As explained, we see creative writing as writing that engages a reader and, therefore, requires knowledge of authorial voice and appropriate word choice. This involves reflexive decisions relating to personal, structural, and cultural emergent properties. Predominant in the literature was the striking influence of CEPs or the values and expectations ascribed to writing, which in turn influence the strategies and resources (SEPs) and the experiences and motivations of students and teachers in the classroom (PEPs). Writing is about more than a series of perfectly formed sentences in a recognisable structure, which dominates conceptions of writing through high-stakes testing globally. It is about engagement with the expressive self, emergent identities, and relationships to places and people and above all communicating to and/or entertaining a reader. Without quality education in creative writing, society is at risk of losing an art form that is important for cultural practice and expression (Watson, 2016 ).
We do foresee several limitations with such a review, largely related to the positive nature of the studies in relation to creative approaches to teaching writing as well as the relatively small numbers of participants in some of the studies. Most of the studies reported favourably on the approaches taken by teachers to influence student motivation towards writing with limited comments about adverse effects. In terms of contributions, the notion that students need to draw on creative thought and ideas when writing means that teachers and leaders must think about diverse ways to teach writing. We argue, on the basis of the findings, that inquiry-based and reflexive professional learning projects about creativity are crucial for primary classrooms: what creativity means in different contexts and for different writers; how it is enabled; and the decisions and actions that emerge when creative and reflexive design guide our approach to classroom writing. Without quality knowledge and understanding of what creative writing is and how it is taught, we would be at risk of diminishing students’ self-expression and ability to communicate meaning to others in literary forms.
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Open Access funding enabled and organized by CAUL and its Member Institutions. The project that informed this systematic review was on the teaching of writing and funded by the Australian Research Council. The views expressed here are in no way reflective of the ARC.
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School of Education, University of Southern Queensland, Springfield, QLD, Australia
Australian Catholic University, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Maryam Khosronejad & Mary Ryan
Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW, Australia
Centre for Research in Writing, The University of Exeter, Exeter, UK
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Correspondence to Georgina Barton .
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Barton, G., Khosronejad, M., Ryan, M. et al. Teaching creative writing in primary schools: a systematic review of the literature through the lens of reflexivity. Aust. Educ. Res. (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384-023-00641-9
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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384-023-00641-9
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A Guide to Descriptive Writing
by Melissa Donovan | Jan 7, 2021 | Creative Writing | 8 comments
What is descriptive writing?
Writing description is a necessary skill for most writers. Whether we’re writing an essay, a story, or a poem, we usually reach a point where we need to describe something. In fiction, we describe settings and characters. In poetry, we describe scenes, experiences, and emotions. In creative nonfiction, we describe reality. Descriptive writing is especially important for speculative fiction writers and poets. If you’ve created a fantasy world, then you’ll need to deftly describe it to readers; Lewis Carroll not only described Wonderland (aff link); he also described the fantastical creatures that inhabited it.
But many writers are challenged by description writing, and many readers find it boring to read — when it’s not crafted skillfully.
However, I think it’s safe to say that technology has spoiled us. Thanks to photos and videos, we’ve become increasingly visual, which means it’s getting harder to use words to describe something, especially if it only exists in our imaginations.
What is Descriptive Writing?
One might say that descriptive writing is the art of painting a picture with words. But descriptive writing goes beyond visuals. Descriptive writing hits all the senses; we describe how things look, sound, smell, taste, and feel (their tactile quality).
The term descriptive writing can mean a few different things:
- The act of writing description ( I’m doing some descriptive writing ).
- A descriptive essay is short-form prose that is meant to describe something in detail; it can describe a person, place, event, object, or anything else.
- Description as part of a larger work: This is the most common kind of descriptive writing. It is usually a sentence or paragraph (sometimes multiple paragraphs) that provide description, usually to help the reader visualize what’s happening, where it’s happening, or how it’s happening. It’s most commonly used to describe a setting or a character. An example would be a section of text within a novel that establishes the setting by describing a room or a passage that introduces a character with a physical description.
- Writing that is descriptive (or vivid) — an author’s style: Some authors weave description throughout their prose and verse, interspersing it through the dialogue and action. It’s a style of writing that imparts description without using large blocks of text that are explicitly focused on description.
- Description is integral in poetry writing. Poetry emphasizes imagery, and imagery is rendered in writing via description, so descriptive writing is a crucial skill for most poets.
Depending on what you write, you’ve probably experimented with one of more of these types of descriptive writing, maybe all of them.
Can you think of any other types of descriptive writing that aren’t listed here?
How Much Description is Too Much?
Classic literature was dense with description whereas modern literature usually keeps description to a minimum.
Compare the elaborate descriptions in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy with the descriptions in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (aff links). Both series relied on description to help readers visualize an imagined, fantastical world, but Rowling did not use her precious writing space to describe standard settings whereas Tolkien frequently paused all action and spent pages describing a single landscape.
This isn’t unique to Tolkien and Rowling; if you compare most literature from the beginning of of the 20th century and earlier to today’s written works, you’ll see that we just don’t dedicate much time and space to description anymore.
I think this radical change in how we approach description is directly tied to the wide availability of film, television, and photography. Let’s say you were living in the 19th century, writing a story about a tropical island for an audience of northern, urban readers. You would be fairly certain that most of your readers had never seen such an island and had no idea what it looked like. To give your audience a full sense of your story’s setting, you’d need pages of detail describing the lush jungle, sandy beaches, and warm waters.
Nowadays, we all know what a tropical island looks like, thanks to the wide availability of media. Even if you’ve never been to such an island, surely you’ve seen one on TV. This might explain why few books on the craft of writing address descriptive writing. The focus is usually on other elements, like language, character, plot, theme, and structure.
For contemporary writers, the trick is to make the description as precise and detailed as possible while keeping it to a minimum. Most readers want characters and action with just enough description so that they can imagine the story as it’s unfolding.
If you’ve ever encountered a story that paused to provide head-to-toe descriptions along with detailed backstories of every character upon their introduction into the narrative, you know just how grating description can be when executed poorly.
However, it’s worth noting that a skilled writer can roll out descriptions that are riveting to read. Sometimes they’re riveting because they’re integrated seamlessly with the action and dialogue; other times, the description is deftly crafted and engaging on its own. In fact, an expert descriptive writer can keep readers glued through multiple pages of description.
Descriptive Writing Tips
I’ve encountered descriptive writing so smooth and seamless that I easily visualized what was happening without even noticing that I was reading description. Some authors craft descriptions that are so lovely, I do notice — but in a good way. Some of them are so compelling that I pause to read them again.
On the other hand, poorly crafted descriptions can really impede a reader’s experience. Description doesn’t work if it’s unclear, verbose, or bland. Most readers prefer action and dialogue to lengthy descriptions, so while a paragraph here and there can certainly help readers better visualize what’s happening, pages and pages of description can increase the risk that they’ll set your work aside and never pick it up again. There are exceptions to every rule, so the real trick is to know when lengthy descriptions are warranted and when they’re just boring.
Here are some general tips for descriptive writing:
- Use distinct descriptions that stand out and are memorable. For example, don’t write that a character is five foot two with brown hair and blue eyes. Give the reader something to remember. Say the character is short with mousy hair and sky-blue eyes.
- Make description active: Consider the following description of a room: There was a bookshelf in the corner. A desk sat under the window. The walls were beige, and the floor was tiled. That’s boring. Try something like this: A massive oak desk sat below a large picture window and beside a shelf overflowing with books. Hardcovers, paperbacks, and binders were piled on the dingy tiled floor in messy stacks. In the second example, words like overflowing and piled are active.
- Weave description through the narrative: Sometimes a character enters a room and looks around, so the narrative needs to pause to describe what the character sees. Other times, description can be threaded through the narrative. For example, instead of pausing to describe a character, engage that character in dialogue with another character. Use the characters’ thoughts and the dialogue tags to reveal description: He stared at her flowing, auburn curls, which reminded him of his mother’s hair. “Where were you?” he asked, shifting his green eyes across the restaurant to where a customer was hassling one of the servers.
Simple descriptions are surprisingly easy to execute. All you have to do is look at something (or imagine it) and write what you see. But well-crafted descriptions require writers to pay diligence to word choice, to describe only those elements that are most important, and to use engaging language to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. Instead of spending several sentences describing a character’s height, weight, age, hair color, eye color, and clothing, a few, choice details will often render a more vivid image for the reader: Red hair framed her round, freckled face like a spray of flames. This only reveals three descriptive details: red hair, a round face, and freckles. Yet it paints more vivid picture than a statistical head-to-toe rundown: She was five foot three and no more than a hundred and ten pounds with red hair, blue eyes, and a round, freckled face.
10 descriptive writing practices.
How to Practice Writing Description
Here are some descriptive writing activities that will inspire you while providing opportunities to practice writing description. If you don’t have much experience with descriptive writing, you may find that your first few attempts are flat and boring. If you can’t keep readers engaged, they’ll wander off. Work at crafting descriptions that are compelling and mesmerizing.
- Go to one of your favorite spots and write a description of the setting: it could be your bedroom, a favorite coffee shop, or a local park. Leave people, dialogue, and action out of it. Just focus on explaining what the space looks like.
- Who is your favorite character from the movies? Describe the character from head to toe. Show the reader not only what the character looks like, but also how the character acts. Do this without including action or dialogue. Remember: description only!
- Forty years ago we didn’t have cell phones or the internet. Now we have cell phones that can access the internet. Think of a device or gadget that we’ll have forty years from now and describe it.
- Since modern fiction is light on description, many young and new writers often fail to include details, even when the reader needs them. Go through one of your writing projects and make sure elements that readers may not be familiar with are adequately described.
- Sometimes in a narrative, a little description provides respite from all the action and dialogue. Make a list of things from a story you’re working on (gadgets, characters, settings, etc.), and for each one, write a short description of no more than a hundred words.
- As mentioned, Tolkien often spent pages describing a single landscape. Choose one of your favorite pieces of classic literature, find a long passage of description, and rewrite it. Try to cut the descriptive word count in half.
- When you read a book, use a highlighter to mark sentences and paragraphs that contain description. Don’t highlight every adjective and adverb. Look for longer passages that are dedicated to description.
- Write a description for a child. Choose something reasonably difficult, like the solar system. How do you describe it in such a way that a child understands how he or she fits into it?
- Most writers dream of someday writing a book. Describe your book cover.
- Write a one-page description of yourself.
If you have any descriptive writing practices to add to this list, feel free to share them in the comments.
Does descriptive writing come easily to you, or do you struggle with it? Do you put much thought into how you write description? What types of descriptive writing have you tackled — descriptive essays, blocks of description within larger texts, or descriptions woven throughout a narrative? Share your tips for descriptive writing by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
Further Reading: Abolish the Adverbs , Making the Right Word Choices for Better Writing , and Writing Description in Fiction .
I find descriptions easier when first beginning a scene. Other ones I struggle with. Yes, intertwining them with dialogue does help a lot.
I have the opposite experience. I tend to dive right into action and dialogue when I first start a scene.
I came across this article at just the right time. I am just starting to write a short story. This will change the way I describe characters in my story.
Thank you for this. R.G. Ramsey
Great tips and how to practise and improve our descriptive writing skills. Thank you for sharing.
You’re welcome, Bella.
I have read many of your articles about different aspects of writing and have enjoyed all of them. What you said here, I agree with, with the exception of #7. That is one point that I dispute and don’t understand the reason why anyone would do this, though I’ve seen books that had things like that done to them.
To me, a book is something to be treasured, loved and taken care of. It deserves my respect because I’m sure the author poured their heart and soul into its creation. Marking it up that way is nothing short of defacing it. A book or story is a form of art, so should a person mark over a picture by Rembrandt or any other famous painter? You’re a very talented author, so why would you want someone to mark through the words you had spent considerable time and effort agonizing over, while searching for the best words to convey your thoughts?
If I want to remember some section or point the author is making, then I’ll take a pen and paper and record the page number and perhaps the first few words of that particular section. I’ve found that writing a note this way helps me remember it better. This is then placed inside the cover for future reference. If someone did what you’ve suggested to a book of mine, I’d be madder than a ‘wet hen’, and that person would certainly be told what I thought of them.
In any of the previous articles you’ve written, you’ve brought up some excellent points which I’ve tried to incorporate in my writing. Keep up the good work as I know your efforts have helped me, and I’m sure other authors as well.
Hi Stanley. Thanks so much for sharing your point of view. I appreciate and value it.
Marking up a book is a common practice, especially in academia. Putting notes in margins, underlining, highlighting, and tagging pages with bookmarks is standard. Personally, I mark up nonfiction paperbacks, but I never mark up fiction paperbacks or any hardcovers (not since college).
I completely respect your right to keep your books in pristine condition. And years ago, when I started college, I felt exactly the same way. I was horrified that people (instructors and professors!) would fill their books with ugly yellow highlighting and other markips. But I quickly realized that this was shortsighted.
Consider an old paperback that is worn and dog-eared. With one look, you know this book has been read many times and it’s probably loved. It’s like the Velveteen Rabbit of books. I see markups as the same — that someone was engaging with the book and trying to understand it on a deeper level, which is not disrespectful. It’s something to be celebrated.
Sometimes we place too much value on the book as a physical object rather than what’s inside. I appreciate a beautiful book as much as anyone but what really matters to me is the information or experience that it contains. I often read on a Kindle. Sometimes I listen to audio books. There is no physical book. The experience is not lessened.
I understand where you’re coming from. I used to feel the same way, but my mind was changed. I’m not trying to change yours, but I hope you’ll understand.
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How to Teach Creative Writing to High School Students
Creative Writing was forced onto my schedule; I didn’t ask for it. But it ended up becoming my favorite class period of the day. While academic English courses can feel high-stakes and always short on time, Creative Writing can be a refreshingly relaxed elective class. In many districts with loose curriculums, Creative Writing is what you make of it. In this post, I outline six steps to show you how to teach creative writing to high school students.
Why Teach Creative Writing
Before we get into the how , let’s first address the why . Why bother teaching Creative Writing in the first place? Students’ basic skills are lower than ever; is now really the time to encourage them to break the rules?
If you want to get really deep into why you should teach Creative Writing, I have a whole post about it here.
But think about why you love reading. Is it because you were made to annotate or close read a bunch of classic novels? Probably not. You probably fell in love with reading while you were reading something that was fun. And because it was fun, you read more, and your skills as a reader grew.
The same principle applies to writing. If we can make it fun for our students, perhaps we can foster a love for it. And passion is what leads, eventually, to mastery.
Giving our students the opportunity to fall in love with writing is a gift that might help them grow in their academic writing later.
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #1: Decide on Your Standards or Goals
Your school or district may have a mandated syllabus or curriculum. Mine did not.
Whether you’re given student goals or have to create them, you must have an overall vision for what your Creative Writing class will accomplish.
Is this a laid-back, engaging course designed to help students discover the fun in writing? Or is it a supplement to rigorous academics for college-bound high school students?
If you know your school’s student population well, I encourage you to think about their needs. Some students just need to write more–more of anything, but lots more. Some students are high achieving and ready to write their first novels! If possible, design your course around the needs and interests of the general student population in your school or district.
Regardless of how rigorous your Creative Writing course will be, deciding on these goals first will help you in backwards planning.
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #2: Choose Your Final Assessments and Big Projects
Before we can start planning our lessons, we have to decide what skills or knowledge our students will need. And to know what they need, we have to decide on their summative assessments.
Will your final assessment be a short story? A collection of poetry? Are you required to offer a final exam?
Once you know what students will need to do, you can make a list of the skill they’ll need. This list will become a list of lessons you’ll need to teach.
Fairy Tale Retelling Project
My Fairy Tale Retelling Project is a great Creative Writing assessment. For this project, students had to first choose a fairy tale. Then, they rewrote the story from the perspective of the villain.
This project works really well because students have structure. They can pick any fairy tale they want, but they can’t write about just anything.
Secondly, students already know the story, so they don’t have to worry about a beginning, middle, and end. The open-endedness of writing a story completely from scratch has paralyzed my students before. Structure allows students lots of creative freedom without the excuse of “I don’t know what to write.”
Author Study Project
If you’d like your Creative Writing class to help beginner writers have fun and just get some practice with fiction writing, a Fairy Tale Retelling Project would probably be perfect for your class.
Another project I’ve done with my students is an Author Study . In this project, students choose one author to study in-depth. Then, they attempt to replicate that author’s style in an original work.
If you’d like your class to also include lots of exposure to other writers or classic literature, then this might be a great assessment for your class.
Learn more about doing an author study in this step-by-step post.
Test or Final Exam
I also gave my students a final exam focused on literary terms.
This Literary Terms Test allowed me to test students on the academic knowledge they gained throughout class instead of their writing ability. This test also helped me fulfill my district’s requirement of having a final exam at the end of each course.
Once you’ve decided on your class’s major projects and assessments, you can begin designing the rest of your class.
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #3: Backwards Plan
Now that you know what your students will need to do at the end of this class, you can list out everything you need to teach them in order for them to be successful.
For example, if you opt for an author study as a final project, you know what you will need to cover. You will need to teach students some literary terms so that they can describe an author’s style. You’ll need to show them how to analyze a poem.
During the course of your class, you’ll also want to expose students to a variety of authors and mentor texts. Students will need to practice basic writing techniques in order to replicate those of their chosen authors.
If you need some inspiration for what kinds of lessons to teach, check out this post on essential Creative Writing lessons.
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #4: Decide on Your Class Structure
Once you’ve decided on the end goals for your Creative Writing class, you can use them to help create day-to-day plans.
What will your class look like? Will it be full of lots of quiet and independent work time? Will it be full of frenetic energy with students working in collaborative groups? Are students writing in notebooks or on laptops?
Of course, a successful class will most likely include a mixture of all of the above. But it’s up to you to decide on your ratio.
Again, I encourage you to think about your school’s population. If you’re on ninety-minute blocks, is it realistic for students to be quietly writing that whole time? If you have high-achieving students, might they benefit from working independently at home and then getting and giving peer feedback during class time?
Use your goals to help decide on a general class structure.
Warm-ups for Creative Writing
You’ll need a consistent way to begin each class.
When I initially began teaching Creative Writing, I just wanted to provide my students with more time to write. We began every class period with free writing. I gave students a couple of prompts to choose from each day, and then we’d write for about ten minutes.
( Those journal prompts are right here . Every day includes two prompts plus a third option of freewriting.)
Students were given the option to share part of their writing if they wanted to. Every couple of weeks I’d flip through their notebooks to make sure they were keeping up, but I only read the entries they starred for me in advance.
Later, I wanted to add some rigor to my Creative Writing class and leverage more mentor texts. I created a Poem of the Week activity for each week of the course.
This gave students the opportunity to study professional writing before using it as a mentor text for a new, original piece.
(You can read more about using these Poem of the Week activities here.)
As my goals for the class and my students change, so did the way we began class.
How can you begin your class in a way that supports the end goals or teaches the desired standards? How often will peers work together?
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #5: Focus on Engagement Strategies
Now you can actually start planning lessons and projects!
But as you do so, focus on creating engaging ones–especially if your class is meant to be a fun elective.
Need more tips? Check out this post full of Creative Writing teaching tips!
Use Mentor Texts and Lots of Examples
Have you ever tried putting a puzzle together without knowing what the image was going to look like? It would be pretty difficult! Similarly, students need lots of examples of strong writing to aspire to.
Without clear models or mentor texts , students will happily turn in unread drafts. They’ll choose the first word that comes to their mind instead of searching for a better one.
But if you surround students with great writing, highlight strong technique when discussing the writing of others, and challenge them to notice the details in their own writing, they’ll naturally become better at self-editing.
I don’t believe that you can provide students with too many mentor texts or examples of strong writing. As you teach Creative Writing, keep or take pictures of strong writing samples from students to use as examples later.
Nearly all of my lessons and projects include an example along with instruction.
Model and Create with Your Students
You can even use your own writing as an example. When I had students free write to creative writing prompts, I always wrote with them. Sometimes I would then put my notebook under the document camera and model reading my own work.
I would cross out words and replace them or underline phrases I thought were strong enough to keep. Model for students not just great writing, but the process of strengthening writing.
And then give them plenty of time to edit theirs. This is when having students engage in peer feedback is a game-changer.
Without great writing to aspire to, however, students easily become lazy and turn in work that is “good enough” in their eyes. Don’t let them get lazy in their writing. Keep throwing greater and greater work in front of them and challenge them to push themselves.
(This is another reason I love using Poem of the Week warm-ups –they expose students to a new writer every week!)
Set Clear Expectations
Creative writing causes a lot of students anxiety. There’s no “right” answer, so how will they know if they creatively wrote “correctly?”
Help them out by setting clear expectations. Offering a rubric for every project is great for this. If you can, give them specifics to include. “At least 500 words” or “three or more similes” are nice, concrete guidelines that students can follow.
Give Students Choice
Offering students choice always boosts engagement. It lets students take charge of their learning and pursue something that interests them.
For example, when I teach odes , students are given the opportunity to write about something they love.
With an author study , students can study a writer whose style and work they admire.
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #6: Use Clear and Structured Expectations
While showing students excellent prose or perfect poetry should help inspire students, your writers will still need some hard parameters to follow.
Academic writing is often easier for students than creative writing. Usually, academic writing follows a structure or certain formula. The rubric dictates exactly how many quotes need to be included or how long an essay needs to be. MLA or APA formats tell students how to punctuate quotes and citations.
These rules don’t apply to creative writing. And while that’s exactly what makes creative writing awesome, it’s often overwhelming.
So do your students a favor and give them some clear expectations (without, of course, entirely dictating what they need to write about).
The project also includes a rubric, so young writers know what should be included in their stories.
Don’t give your students so much creative freedom that it paralyzes them! Your writers are still students; give them the same level of structure and organization that you would in any other class.
Engage your students in more creative writing!
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Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #7: Give Students Choices
So how do you give students frameworks, requirements, and uphold high expectations without stifling their creativity?
Give students choices. You can write about A, B, or C, as long as you meet requirements 1, 2, and 3.
Offering choices works with small one-day assignments or lessons as well as bigger, longer-term projects.
The previously mentioned Fairy Tale Retelling Project is a great example of offering a narrow selection of choices that uphold expectations without dictating what students write.
Another one of my favorite examples of offering students choices is my “Show. Don’t Tell” Mini-lesson . This lesson touches on everything students need to successfully learn creative writing.
First I teach them the concept of showing vs. telling in writing through direct instruction. I show them lots of examples of expanding a “telling sentence” into a “showing paragraph.”
Then I model for students how I would write a paragraph that shows crucial information, rather than telling it.
Lastly, I have students pick a strip of paper from a hat or a bag. Each strip of paper contains a “telling sentence” that they must then write as a “showing paragraph.” Students are limited by the sentences I provide, but they still have complete freedom over how they achieve that detailed paragraph.
If you wanted to give students even more freedom, you could let them pick their sentences or trade with a peer rather than blindly choosing.
Any time you can give students a choice, you give them permission to use their creativity and allow them to take some of the initiative in their own learning.
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #8: Encourage Peer Collaboration and Feedback
We can tell students something a hundred times, but they won’t listen until a peer says the same thing. Us educators know the value of positive peer interaction, so don’t limit it in a creative writing class!
There are a ton of ways to implement peer interaction in a creative writing class. I often do this on the first day of class with a writing game. You’ve probably heard of it: everyone writes a sentence on a piece of paper, then everyone passes the paper and adds a sentence, and so on.
I highly encourage you to use peer feedback throughout the class. I usually start having students share their work from day one with my free “I Am” Poem Lesson so that they can start getting used to having their work read by others immediately.
Make getting feedback so routine in your room that students don’t even question it.
It’s really tempting to let students get away without sharing their work. We don’t want to make shy or anxious students uncomfortable. I mean, what better way to completely ruin creative writing for a student than to make them feel embarrassed all the time, right?
But keep trying to encourage shy students to share. Even if that means you share it anonymously or read it aloud for them.
I recommend including some kind of peer feedback with every writing assignment . Yes, even short practice assignments. This will work as a kind of “immersion therapy” for receiving feedback on more involved work.
After some time, you might find that your students even begin to share their work without your prompting!
I like to organize the desks in my Creative Writing class so that students are in little groups. I’ve found that at least half of my classes will begin talking and sharing with one another in their little groups while working on projects.
They’ll ask each other questions or to remind them of a word. They’ll read sentences aloud and ask if they sound right. Personally, I would much rather hear this kind of chatter in my class than have a dead silent room of boring writers!
However you decide to allow students to work together, be sure to provide the opportunity. Reading and getting feedback from peers could possibly teach students more about writing than any of your instruction (sorry!).
One of the truly great things about teaching creative writing to high school students is that there often isn’t a rigid curriculum. Of course, this is also sometimes one of the worst things about teaching creative writing to high school students!
You have total freedom over the assignments you give, the standards you teach, and how you organize and structure your classroom. After a few years of teaching Creative Writing, however, I’ve found that sticking to these six steps is a great way to have a successful semester.
If you’re excited about teaching your Creative Writing class, but are running low on prep time, check out my complete 9-week Creative Writing course ! Included are two different types of warm-ups, poetry analysis activities from well-known authors, mini-lesson, projects, and more!
Creative Writing 101: Everything You Need to Get Started
Creative writing: You can take classes in it, you can earn a degree in it, but the only things you really need to do it are your creative thinking and writing tools. Creative writing is the act of putting your imagination on a page. It’s artistic expression in words; it’s writing without the constraints that come with other kinds of writing like persuasive or expository.
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What is creative writing?
Creative writing is writing meant to evoke emotion in a reader by communicating a theme. In storytelling (including literature, movies, graphic novels, creative nonfiction, and many video games), the theme is the central meaning the work communicates.
Take the movie (and the novel upon which it’s based) Jaws , for instance. The story is about a shark that terrorizes a beach community and the men tasked with killing the shark. But the film’s themes include humanity’s desire to control nature, tradition vs. innovation, and how potential profit can drive people in power to make dangerous, even fatal, decisions.
A theme isn’t the only factor that defines creative writing. Here are other components usually found in creative writing:
- Connecting, or at least attempting to connect, with the reader’s emotions
- Writing from a specific point of view
- A narrative structure can be complex or simple and serves to shape how the reader interacts with the content.
- Using imaginative and/or descriptive language
Creative writing typically uses literary devices like metaphors and foreshadowing to build a narrative and express the theme, but this isn’t a requirement. Neither is dialogue, though you’ll find it used in most works of fiction. Creative writing doesn’t have to be fictional, either. Dramatized presentations of true stories, memoirs, and observational humor pieces are all types of creative writing.
What isn’t creative writing?
In contrast, research papers aren’t creative writing. Neither are analytical essays, persuasive essays , or other kinds of academic writing . Similarly, personal and professional communications aren’t considered creative writing—so your emails, social media posts, and official company statements are all firmly in the realm of non-creative writing. These kinds of writing convey messages, but they don’t express themes. Their goals are to inform and educate, and in some cases collect information from, readers. But even though they can evoke emotion in readers, that isn’t their primary goal.
But what about things like blog posts? Or personal essays? These are broad categories, and specific pieces in these categories can be considered creative writing if they meet the criteria listed above. This blog post, for example, is not a piece of creative writing as it aims to inform, but a blog post that walks its reader through a first-person narrative of an event could be deemed creative writing.
Types of creative writing
Creative writing comes in many forms. These are the most common:
Novels originated in the eighteenth century . Today, when people think of books, most think of novels.
A novel is a fictional story that’s generally told in 60,000 to 100,000 words, though they can be as short as 40,000 words or go beyond 100,000.
Stories that are too short to be novels, but can’t accurately be called short stories, are often referred to as novellas. Generally, a story between 10,000 and 40,000 words is considered a novella. You might also run into the term “ novelette ,” which is used to refer to stories that clock in between 7,500 and 19,000 words.
Short stories are fictional stories that fall generally between 5,000 and 10,000 words. Like novels, they tell complete stories and have at least one character, some sort of conflict, and at least one theme.
When a story is less than 1,000 words, it’s categorized as a work of flash fiction.
Poetry can be hard to define because as a genre, it’s so open-ended. A poem doesn’t have to be any specific length. It doesn’t have to rhyme. There are many different kinds of poems from cultures all over the world, like sonnets, haikus, sestinas, blank verse, limericks, and free verse.
The rules of poetry are generally flexible . . . unless you’re writing a specific type of poem, like a haiku , that has specific rules around the number of lines or structure. But while a poem isn’t required to conform to a specific length or formatting, or use perfect grammar , it does need to evoke its reader’s emotions, come from a specific point of view, and express a theme.
And when you set a poem to music, you’ve got a song.
Plays, TV scripts, and screenplays
Plays are meant to be performed on stage. Screenplays are meant to be made into films, and TV scripts are meant to be made into television programs. Scripts for videos produced for other platforms fit into this category as well.
Plays, TV scripts, and screenplays have a lot in common with novels and short stories. They tell stories that evoke emotion and express themes. The difference is that they’re meant to be performed rather than read and as such, they tend to rely much more on dialogue because they don’t have the luxury of lengthy descriptive passages. But scriptwriters have more than just dialogue to work with; writing a play or script also involves writing stage or scene directions.
Each type of script has its own specific formatting requirements.
Creative nonfiction covers all the kinds of creative writing that aren’t fiction. Here are some examples:
- Personal essays: A personal essay is a true story told through a narrative framework. Often, recollections of events are interspersed with insights about those events and your personal interpretations and feelings about them in this kind of essay.
- Literary journalism: Think of literary journalism as journalism enhanced by creative writing techniques. These are the kinds of stories often published in outlets like The New Yorker and Salon. Literary journalism pieces report on factual events but do so in a way that makes them feel like personal essays and short stories.
- Memoirs: Memoirs are to personal essays what novels are to short stories. In other words, a memoir is a book-length collection of personal memories, often centering around a specific story, that often works opinions, epiphanies, and emotional insights into the narrative.
- Autobiographies: An autobiography is a book you write about yourself and your life. Often, autobiographies highlight key events and may focus on one particular aspect of the author’s life, like her role as a tech innovator or his career as a professional athlete. Autobiographies are often similar in style to memoirs, but instead of being a collection of memories anchored to specific events, they tend to tell the author’s entire life story in a linear narrative.
- Humor writing: Humor writing comes in many forms, like standup comedy routines, political cartoons, and humorous essays.
- Lyric essays: In a lyric essay, the writer breaks conventional grammar and stylistic rules when writing about a concept, event, place, or feeling. In this way, lyric essays are like essay-length poems. The reason they’re considered essays, and not long poems, is that they generally provide more direct analysis of the subject matter than a poem would.
Tips for writing creatively
Give yourself time and space for creative writing.
It’s hard to write a poem during your lunch break or work on your memoir between calls. Don’t make writing more difficult for yourself by trying to squeeze it into your day. Instead, block off time to focus solely on creative writing, ideally in a distraction-free environment like your bedroom or a coffee shop.
>>Read More: How to Create Your Very Own Writing Retreat
Get to know yourself as a writer
The more you write, the more in tune you’ll become with your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. You’ll identify the kinds of characters, scenes, language, and pieces you like writing best and determine where you struggle the most. Understanding what kind of writer you are can help you decide which kinds of projects to pursue.
Once you know which kinds of writing you struggle with, do those kinds of writing. If you only focus on what you’re good at, you’ll never grow as a writer. Challenge yourself to write in a different genre or try a completely new type of writing. For example, if you’re a short story writer, give poetry or personal essays a try.
Need help getting started? Give one (or all!) of these 20 fun writing prompts a try .
Learn from other writers
There are lots of resources out there about creative writing. Read and watch them. If there’s a particular writer whose work you enjoy, seek out interviews with them and personal essays they’ve written about their creative processes.
>>Read More: How to Be a Master Storyteller—Tips from 5 Experts
Don’t limit yourself to big-name writers, either. Get involved in online forums, social media groups, and if possible, in-person groups for creative writers. By doing this, you’re positioning yourself to learn from writers from all different walks of life . . . and help other writers, too.
I wrote something. Where do I go from here?
Give yourself a pat on the back: You did it! You finished a piece of creative writing—something many attempt, but not quite as many achieve.
What comes next is up to you. You can share it with your friends and family, but you don’t have to. You can post it online or bring it to an in-person writing group for constructive critique. You can even submit it to a literary journal or an agent to potentially have it published, but if you decide to take this route, we recommend working with an editor first to make it as polished as possible.
Some writers are initially hesitant to share their work with others because they’re afraid their work will be stolen. Although this is a possibility, keep in mind that you automatically hold the copyright for any piece you write. If you’d like, you can apply for copyright protection to give yourself additional legal protection against plagiarizers, but this is by no means a requirement.
Write with originality
Grammarly can’t help you be more creative, but we can help you hone your writing so your creativity shines as brightly as possible. Once you’ve written your piece, Grammarly can catch any mistakes you made and suggest strong word choices that accurately express your message.
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Writing skills - creative and narrative writing
Imaginative or creative writing absorbs readers in an entertaining way. To succeed with this kind of writing you will need to write in a way that is individual, original and compelling to read.
Responding to Prompts
Imagine you’re in an exam and you are asked to write a creative piece called ‘The Party’. What does this title make you think of? Before you decide what you’d write, it’s useful to remember that you do whatever you want with the prompt as long as it’s somehow connected to a party.
- It doesn’t have to be something that really happened
- It doesn’t have to be based on exactly what the title says or is
- It can be as abstract or as mundane as you want it to be.
So this means that for the title ‘The Party’, you could write a lovely descriptive piece about your dream birthday party, or a personal account of a party you attended that was very good – or very bad. You could write a story about a political party, or a doll’s tea party, or a party held by fans to watch the final episode of a TV show everyone is very excited about, or a party that didn’t actually happen because no one turned up. The most important thing is that you choose a story you can write well, showing off your skill in using language effectively and keeping your reader entertained.
There is no formula for having a great idea – but to begin your writing, you do need, at least, some kind of idea. Then you need to find ways to turn your idea into something a reader would enjoy reading. This is the creative part, taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary.
For example, think about writing a description of a coastline. You might start to think straight away about a crowded beach - children playing, deck chairs, sun shining, happy sounds; but, if you stop for a moment, you’ll recall that that's been done before. It's okay, but it's hardly original.
What about turning that idea on its head - not a crowded beach, but a deserted beach? Not summer, but winter? Not lovely and inviting, but covered in oil and polluted? It's not a pretty picture, but it's original - and that gives impact.
Telling a story
When you tell a friend a story of something real that happened in life, you’ll build it up around a climax of action, but tell it in a way that keeps your friend interested and listening. Maybe you saw a footballer break his leg during a Saturday match and you then tell it at school on Monday.
A written story isn’t face-to-face and you don’t know the reader and this means you’ll need more elaboration, explanation and detail – but you can still write it in a very similar way to how you might tell it. Even everyday incidents can make very effective stories if you elaborate and dramatise, add detail and explanation, always keeping a sense of tension till the end. Your reader, like your listening friend, enjoys wondering 'where is it all leading' and 'what will happen next'.
A short story needs to be compelling to read and to be this it needs to be given an effective structure. Like all texts, stories also have their own basic 'recipe' called 'genre conventions'. Here is a typical story structure that will help you to keep your own story moving through different stages in a compelling way – and help make sure you don’t accidentally ramble on!
This part of your story must work to engage your reader, beginning to absorb them into your 'story-world'. You should aim to hook the reader into the story with the 'plot hook'. Whether you choose to start the story by giving the end away just like Shakespeare did in his play Romeo and Juliet; or you start in the middle of lots of action; or even with very little action at all, you will definitely need to start in a way that hooks your reader – and do so pretty quickly.
Can you find the 'plot hook'?
It was a brilliant summer’s day smack in the middle of the school holidays. It was my birthday, too. I was ten. You can imagine I was feeling that life couldn’t get much better than this: warm weather, holidays, a bar of chocolate all to myself, a bunch of texts from my mates to answer, and being driven with mum and dad to Twycross Zoo. They knew just how much I loved animals and the chimps there were always my favourites. What could possibly go wrong? That day any thoughts of problems weren’t even a distant cloud on the horizon of my sunny mind.
The 'plot hook' in this example is 'What could possibly go wrong?'.
Establish the time and place, as well as the general situation. This can also be used to help develop a suitable mood or atmosphere. It can sometimes help to use a familiar place that your reader can relate to in some way. At this stage, you need to 'set up' the story and begin to introduce the main character(s).
Fiction trigger (or inciting incident)
Use your narrator to tell of an incident or event that the reader feels will spark a chain of events. This helps make the reader feel that the story has really started. From this point, life cannot be quite the same for your main character (that is your protagonist). There is a problem that has to be faced and overcome.
The fiction trigger can be an event that really starts the story. It will develop from the 'plot hook'. If the story is about a day out at the zoo, then maybe an animal has escaped. If it is about a robbery, it might be the event that makes a character consider carrying out a robbery; and if it is about an accident, it will be the event that causes it to happen.
Keeping up the momentum (plot development or rising action) This section builds the tension – keeps the reader absorbed and guessing where it will all lead.
This is where you will move the story forward and will use lots of techniques to keep the reader guessing, 'What will happen next?!'
The problem reaches a head, with suspense creating lots of tension for the reader– showing the reader the possible result of what has come before.
This is not the end of your story – not quite. It will be the key event but your protagonist will, somehow, overcome it and all will be well.
Conclusion (the resolution)
This must leave your reader with a sense of satisfaction, or it could be a twist in the tale leaving questions that linger in the mind.
This is the ending of your story – where all loose ends are tied up to the satisfaction of the reader. A good story will cause the reader to go, 'Hmm – I liked that' or even 'Wow'
By following this story structure, and planning under each of the above headings, you should be able to come up with a tense plot for your own story, one that will engage and absorb your reader.
Throughout your own story, you will also need to use writing techniques that will work to keep your reader engaged and absorbed. An important skill is to put clear images of the setting and characters in your reader’s mind, as well as to create a sense of atmosphere that suits each part of the story.
- Narration - the voice that tells the story, either first person (I/me) or third person (he/him/she/her). This needs to have the effect of interesting your reader in the story with a warm and inviting but authoritative voice.
- Description - describing words such as adjectives , adverbs , similes and metaphors that add detail. This is told by the narrator. It helps engage readers by creating vivid pictures and feelings in their 'mind’s eye'.
- Dialogue - the direct speech of characters, shown inside quotation marks. We all judge characters by what they talk about and by the way they speak. This makes dialogue a key technique for creating interest and realism.
- Alliteration - repetition of the same beginning sounds in nearby words.This can create a useful emphasis, maybe to highlight a sound or movement, or to intensify feeling or even to bind words together.
- Connotation - a word’s meaning can be literal, as in 'It looked like a cat', or it can create connotations as in 'As soon as the food reached the table, the boy pounced on it like a cat.' A connotation is a meaning created by a special use of a word in a particular way or context. It works by adding some kind of emotion or a feeling to a word’s usual meaning. All literature depends upon using language that creates connotations. They engage the reader because they evoke reactions and feelings.
- Pathetic fallacy - personification is a kind of metaphor and when nature is described in this way, it is called a use of pathetic fallacy. This can help suggest a suitable atmosphere or imply what the mood of the characters is at a certain point, eg in a ghost story, the storm clouds could be said to 'glower down angrily upon the group of youngsters'. A pathetic fallacy can add atmosphere to a scene. It can even give clues to the reader as to what is to come, acting as a kind of foreshadowing .
- Personification - this is a technique of presenting objects as if they have feelings, eg 'the rain seemed to be dancing merrily on the excited tin roof.' This creates a sense of emotion and mood for the reader.
- Repetition - the action of repeating a word or idea. This can add emphasis or create an interesting pattern of sound or ideas.
- Onomatopoeia - use of words which echo their meaning in sound, for example, 'whoosh' 'bang'. Using this can add emotion or feeling that helps give the reader a vivid sense of the effect being described.
- Simile - a kind of description. A simile compares two things so that the thing described is understood more vividly, eg 'The water was as smooth as glass.' (Hint - 'like' or 'as' are key words to spot as these create the simile). A simile can create a vivid image in the reader’s mind, helping to engage and absorb them.
- Symbolism - we grow up learning lots of symbols and these can be used in stories to convey a lot of meaning as well as feeling in a single idea or word, eg a red rose can symbolise romantic love; a heavy buckled belt can hint at the power held by the character; an apple can even symbolize temptation if it is used in a way that the reader links to the apple that tempted Eve in the biblical Garden of Eden.
- Impact - symbols help writers pack a lot of meaning into just a single word. They work to engage the reader, too, for the reader automatically gets involved in working out the meaning.
Examples of narration
First person narrator.
I held on to the tuft of grass and slowly looked down - I was too shocked to speak. One moment I had been strolling along the cliff with Vicki, the next I was hanging over the edge. And where was Vicki?
The only thing you shouldn't do is swap the narrative point of view during the story - don’t start with 'I' and then switch to 'he', as it is likely to confuse your reader.
Third person narrator
Steve held on to the tuft of grass and slowly looked down - he was too shocked to speak. One moment he had been strolling along the cliff with Vicki, the next he was hanging over the edge. And where was Vicki?
Ending a short story
The ending of a story doesn't necessarily have to be happy but it has to make sense in a way that ties up what has happened.
There are different types of story endings, for example:
- The cliff-hanger - this isn’t an ending as such, it’s a way of tempting the reader to read the next chapter or instalment. Charles Dickens wrote his chapters like this as they were originally published in magazines in serial form. For example, does the spy manage to stop the bomb in time?
- The twist-in-the-tale - the reader will feel fairly sure about the ending, but in the final part everything changes and we are surprised. For example, we learn that it isn’t a bomb after all, it’s a birthday present!
- The enigma ending - the story stops, but the reader is left a little unsure what will come to happen, yet is intrigued by the possibilities - and still feels satisfied. For example, the bomb is defused and everyone is safe, but then an army commander reports the theft of another bomb... only this time twice as powerful.
There are many possibilities; but there are two endings you should try to avoid:
- The trick ending - a bomb will inevitably explode and as it does, the narrator wakes up - it was all a dream. This is too clichéd and unsatisfying for modern readers.
- The disconnected ending - the secret agent suddenly stops worrying about the bomb, retires, and goes off to play golf. Readers don't like this because the ending has nothing to do with the story – very unsatisfying.
Whatever kind of story you write, work out a satisfying ending and include it in your plan.
Writing that is creative and imaginative needs to be entertaining. You need to experiment a little and not be frightened to try something new.
What might you write about if the following tasks came up in an exam? Take a few minutes to think about different ways you could interpret the task, and maybe sketch a quick plan for your best idea.
- The Best Day of My Life
- The Mysterious Door
- Never Again
- Stormy Weather
- How to be a Hero
- Sunday at the Beach
- My Life as an Expert
- Greetings from the Future
- What I REALLY Learned at School
ENG 231. Intro to Creative Writing
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Our 2020-21 Writing Curriculum for Middle and High School
A flexible, seven-unit program based on the real-world writing found in newspapers, from editorials and reviews to personal narratives and informational essays.
Update, Aug. 3, 2023: Find our 2023-24 writing curriculum here.
Our 2019-20 Writing Curriculum is one of the most popular new features we’ve ever run on this site, so, of course, we’re back with a 2020-21 version — one we hope is useful whether you’re teaching in person , online , indoors , outdoors , in a pod , as a homeschool , or in some hybrid of a few of these.
The curriculum detailed below is both a road map for teachers and an invitation to students. For teachers, it includes our writing prompts, mentor texts, contests and lesson plans, and organizes them all into seven distinct units. Each focuses on a different genre of writing that you can find not just in The Times but also in all kinds of real-world sources both in print and online.
But for students, our main goal is to show young people they have something valuable to say, and to give those voices a global audience. That’s always been a pillar of our site, but this year it is even more critical. The events of 2020 will define this generation, and many are living through them isolated from their ordinary communities, rituals and supports. Though a writing curriculum can hardly make up for that, we hope that it can at least offer teenagers a creative outlet for making sense of their experiences, and an enthusiastic audience for the results. Through the opportunities for publication woven throughout each unit, we want to encourage students to go beyond simply being media consumers to become creators and contributors themselves.
So have a look, and see if you can find a way to include any of these opportunities in your curriculum this year, whether to help students document their lives, tell stories, express opinions, investigate ideas, or analyze culture. We can’t wait to hear what your students have to say!
Each unit includes:
Writing prompts to help students try out related skills in a “low stakes” way.
We publish two writing prompts every school day, and we also have thematic collections of more than 1,000 prompts published in the past. Your students might consider responding to these prompts on our site and using our public forums as a kind of “rehearsal space” for practicing voice and technique.
Daily opportunities to practice writing for an authentic audience.
If a student submits a comment on our site, it will be read by Times editors, who approve each one before it gets published. Submitting a comment also gives students an audience of fellow teenagers from around the world who might read and respond to their work. Each week, we call out our favorite comments and honor dozens of students by name in our Thursday “ Current Events Conversation ” feature.
Guided practice with mentor texts .
Each unit we publish features guided practice lessons, written directly to students, that help them observe, understand and practice the kinds of “craft moves” that make different genres of writing sing. From how to “show not tell” in narratives to how to express critical opinions , quote or paraphrase experts or craft scripts for podcasts , we have used the work of both Times journalists and the teenage winners of our contests to show students techniques they can emulate.
“Annotated by the Author” commentaries from Times writers — and teenagers.
As part of our Mentor Texts series , we’ve been asking Times journalists from desks across the newsroom to annotate their articles to let students in on their writing, research and editing processes, and we’ll be adding more for each unit this year. Whether it’s Science writer Nicholas St. Fleur on tiny tyrannosaurs , Opinion writer Aisha Harris on the cultural canon , or The Times’s comics-industry reporter, George Gene Gustines, on comic books that celebrate pride , the idea is to demystify journalism for teenagers. This year, we’ll be inviting student winners of our contests to annotate their work as well.
A contest that can act as a culminating project .
Over the years we’ve heard from many teachers that our contests serve as final projects in their classes, and this curriculum came about in large part because we want to help teachers “plan backwards” to support those projects.
All contest entries are considered by experts, whether Times journalists, outside educators from partner organizations, or professional practitioners in a related field. Winning means being published on our site, and, perhaps, in the print edition of The New York Times.
Webinars and our new professional learning community (P.L.C.).
For each of the seven units in this curriculum, we host a webinar featuring Learning Network editors as well as teachers who use The Times in their classrooms. Our webinars introduce participants to our many resources and provide practical how-to’s on how to use our prompts, mentor texts and contests in the classroom.
New for this school year, we also invite teachers to join our P.L.C. on teaching writing with The Times , where educators can share resources, strategies and inspiration about teaching with these units.
Below are the seven units we will offer in the 2020-21 school year.
Unit 1: Documenting Teenage Lives in Extraordinary Times
This special unit acknowledges both the tumultuous events of 2020 and their outsized impact on young people — and invites teenagers to respond creatively. How can they add their voices to our understanding of what this historic year will mean for their generation?
Culminating in our Coming of Age in 2020 contest, the unit helps teenagers document and respond to what it’s been like to live through what one Times article describes as “a year of tragedy, of catastrophe, of upheaval, a year that has inflicted one blow after another, a year that has filled the morgues, emptied the schools, shuttered the workplaces, swelled the unemployment lines and polarized the electorate.”
A series of writing prompts, mentor texts and a step-by-step guide will help them think deeply and analytically about who they are, how this year has impacted them, what they’d like to express as a result, and how they’d like to express it. How might they tell their unique stories in ways that feel meaningful and authentic, whether those stories are serious or funny, big or small, raw or polished?
Though the contest accepts work across genres — via words and images, video and audio — all students will also craft written artist’s statements for each piece they submit. In addition, no matter what genre of work students send in, the unit will use writing as a tool throughout to help students brainstorm, compose and edit. And, of course, this work, whether students send it to us or not, is valuable far beyond the classroom: Historians, archivists and museums recommend that we all document our experiences this year, if only for ourselves.
Unit 2: The Personal Narrative
While The Times is known for its award-winning journalism, the paper also has a robust tradition of publishing personal essays on topics like love , family , life on campus and navigating anxiety . And on our site, our daily writing prompts have long invited students to tell us their stories, too. Our 2019 collection of 550 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing is a good place to start, though we add more every week during the school year.
In this unit we draw on many of these resources, plus some of the 1,000-plus personal essays from the Magazine’s long-running Lives column , to help students find their own “short, memorable stories ” and tell them well. Our related mentor-text lessons can help them practice skills like writing with voice , using details to show rather than tell , structuring a narrative arc , dropping the reader into a scene and more. This year, we’ll also be including mentor text guided lessons that use the work of the 2019 student winners.
As a final project, we invite students to send finished stories to our Second Annual Personal Narrative Writing Contest .
Unit 3: The Review
Book reports and literary essays have long been staples of language arts classrooms, but this unit encourages students to learn how to critique art in other genres as well. As we point out, a cultural review is, of course, a form of argumentative essay. Your class might be writing about Lizzo or “ Looking for Alaska ,” but they still have to make claims and support them with evidence. And, just as they must in a literature essay, they have to read (or watch, or listen to) a work closely; analyze it and understand its context; and explain what is meaningful and interesting about it.
In our Mentor Texts series , we feature the work of Times movie , restaurant , book and music critics to help students understand the elements of a successful review. In each one of these guided lessons, we also spotlight the work of teenage contest winners from previous years.
As a culminating project, we invite students to send us their own reviews of a book, movie, restaurant, album, theatrical production, video game, dance performance, TV show, art exhibition or any other kind of work The Times critiques.
Unit 4: Informational Writing
Informational writing is the style of writing that dominates The New York Times as well as any other traditional newspaper you might read, and in this unit we hope to show students that it can be every bit as engaging and compelling to read and to write as other genres. Via thousands of articles a month — from front-page reporting on politics to news about athletes in Sports, deep data dives in The Upshot, recipes in Cooking, advice columns in Style and long-form investigative pieces in the magazine — Times journalists find ways to experiment with the genre to intrigue and inform their audiences.
This unit invites students to take any STEM-related discovery, process or idea that interests them and write about it in a way that makes it understandable and engaging for a general audience — but all the skills we teach along the way can work for any kind of informational writing. Via our Mentor Texts series, we show them how to hook the reader from the start , use quotes and research , explain why a topic matters and more. This year we’ll be using the work of the 2020 student winners for additional mentor text lessons.
At the end of the unit, we invite teenagers to submit their own writing to our Second Annual STEM writing contest to show us what they’ve learned.
Unit 5: Argumentative Writing
The demand for evidence-based argumentative writing is now woven into school assignments across the curriculum and grade levels, and you couldn’t ask for better real-world examples than what you can find in The Times Opinion section .
This unit will, like our others, be supported with writing prompts, mentor-text lesson plans, webinars and more. We’ll also focus on the winning teenage writing we’ve received over the six years we’ve run our related contest.
At a time when media literacy is more important than ever, we also hope that our annual Student Editorial Contest can serve as a final project that encourages students to broaden their information diets with a range of reliable sources, and learn from a variety of perspectives on their chosen issue.
To help students working from home, we also have an Argumentative Unit for Students Doing Remote Learning .
Unit 6: Writing for Podcasts
Most of our writing units so far have all asked for essays of one kind or another, but this spring contest invites students to do what journalists at The Times do every day: make multimedia to tell a story, investigate an issue or communicate a concept.
Our annual podcast contest gives students the freedom to talk about anything they want in any form they like. In the past we’ve had winners who’ve done personal narratives, local travelogues, opinion pieces, interviews with community members, local investigative journalism and descriptions of scientific discoveries.
As with all our other units, we have supported this contest with great examples from The Times and around the web, as well as with mentor texts by teenagers that offer guided practice in understanding elements and techniques.
Unit 7: Independent Reading and Writing
At a time when teachers are looking for ways to offer students more “voice and choice,” this unit, based on our annual summer contest, offers both.
Every year since 2010 we have invited teenagers around the world to add The New York Times to their summer reading lists and, so far, 70,000 have. Every week for 10 weeks, we ask participants to choose something in The Times that has sparked their interest, then tell us why. At the end of the week, judges from the Times newsroom pick favorite responses, and we publish them on our site.
And we’ve used our Mentor Text feature to spotlight the work of past winners , explain why newsroom judges admired their thinking, and provide four steps to helping any student write better reader-responses.
Because this is our most open-ended contest — students can choose whatever they like, and react however they like — it has proved over the years to be a useful place for young writers to hone their voices, practice skills and take risks . Join us!
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What is creative writing?
Narrative or creative writing will be developed throughout a child's time at primary school. This table gives a rough idea of how story structure, sentence structure, description and punctuation are developed through story-writing lessons at school. (Please note: expectations will vary from school to school. This table is intended as an approximate guide.)
Download a FREE Creative Writing toolkit!
- KS1 & KS2 workbooks
- Bursting with fill-in prompt sheets and inspiring ideas
- Story structure tips, style guides and editing suggestions
Creative writing in primary school
Story structure Events in a story in an order that makes sense.
Sentence structure Joining two clauses in a sentence with the word 'and.'
Description Simple adjectives to describe people and places.
Punctuation Use of capitals, full stops, exclamation marks and question marks.
Year 2 Story structure Stories sequenced with time-related words such as: then, later, afterwards, next.
Sentence structure Starting to use sentences with two clauses connected by 'and,' 'but,' 'so,' 'when,' 'if' and 'then.' Keeping the tense of the writing consistent.
Description Using a broader range of adjectives.
Punctuation Using capital letters, full stops , question marks , exclamation marks , commas for lists and apostrophes for contracted forms (e.g. they're) and the possessive (e.g. 'Sarah's pen').
Year 3 Story structure Stories structured with a clear beginning, middle and end. Starting to write in paragraphs.
Sentence structure Continuing to use sentences with two parts, linked with connectives such as 'because', 'but' and 'so'.
Description Broad range of adjectives plus some powerful verbs .
Punctuation Using all of the punctuation above. Starting to use some speech punctuation .
Story structure Gaining confidence with structuring a story and with organising paragraphs .
Sentence structure Using sentences connected with more sophisticated connectives such as because,' 'however,' 'meanwhile' and 'although.'
Description Using a range of adjectives, powerful verbs and adverbs. Some use of similes . Using fronted adverbials (placing the adverb at the start of the sentence, e.g. 'Quickly, the children stood up').
Punctuation Increasingly accurate use of speech punctuation. Using commas after fronted adverbials .
Story structure Good structure of description of settings , characters and atmosphere. Integrating dialogue to advance the action. Using time connectives to help the piece of writing to come together.
Sentence structure Using a range of connectives to connect parts of sentences.
Description Using adjectives, powerful verbs and adverbs. Possibly some use of figurative language such as metaphors , similes and personification .
Punctuation Using brackets , dashes or commas to indicate parenthesis .
Story structure Continuing to structure stories confidently. Using adverbials such as: in contrast, on the other hand, as a consequence.
Sentence structure Using more sophisticated connectives like 'although,' 'meanwhile' and 'therefore.' Using the passive form. Using the subjunctive .
Description Continuing to use a range of descriptive language (see above) confidently.
Punctuation Using all of the previously mentioned punctuation correctly. Using semi-colons , colons and dashes to mark the boundary between clauses.
How creative writing is taught in primary schools
When teachers teach creative writing, they usually follow the units suggested by the literacy framework, including the following:
- stories with familiar settings
- stories from other cultures
- fairy tales (also known as traditional tales )
- fantasy stories
- myths and legends
- adventure and mystery
- stories with historical settings.
Teachers will start with a text that they are confident will engage the interest of the class. It is often a good idea to find a well-illustrated text to bring the story alive further. They will spend a week or two 'loitering on the text', which will involve tasks where characters and scenarios from the text are explored in-depth. These tasks may include:
- Drawing a story map or mountain to get an idea of the structure of the story
- Writing a letter from one character to another
- In pairs, improvising a conversation between two characters in the story
- Making notes on a spider diagram about a particular character
- Writing the thoughts of a character at a particular point in the story
- Writing a diary entry as one character in the story
Once teachers feel that the text has been thoroughly explored, they will guide the children in writing their own version of the story . This involves planning the story, brainstorming characters and setting and then writing a draft of the story. Children will then be encouraged to edit and re-write their draft. Teachers may mark the draft and write their own suggestions on it, or they may ask children to swap their writing with their partner and encourage them to make suggestions on each other's work. Throughout this process, teachers are aiming to encourage children to develop skills in the above four sections of the table: story structure, sentence structure, description and punctuation.
Finally, children will write up a 'neat' finished version of their writing. Teachers often give children a format for doing this, such as bordered paper on which they can add illustrations, or a booklet for which they can design a front cover.
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Unlock your creative potential and hone your unique voice.
Build a strong foundation in literary criticism and writing across multiple genres — including fiction, nonfiction, and drama — in our live online writing and literature program with an in-person writer’s residency at Harvard.
Through the master’s degree in creative writing and literature, you’ll hone your skills as a storyteller — crafting publishable original scripts, novels, and stories.
In small, workshop-style classes, you’ll master key elements of narrative craft, including characterization, story and plot structure, point of view, dialogue, and description. And you’ll learn to approach literary works as both a writer and scholar by developing skills in critical analysis.
Instructors who are published authors of drama, fiction, and nonfiction
A community of writers who support your growth in live online classes
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Customizable Course Curriculum
As you work through the program’s courses, you’ll enhance your creative writing skills and knowledge of literary concepts and strategies. You’ll practice the art of revision to hone your voice as a writer in courses like Writing the Short Personal Essay and Writing Flash Fiction.
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11 Online Courses
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A 1- or 3-week summer master class taught by a notable instructor, followed by an agents-and-editors weekend
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The path to your degree begins before you apply to the program.
First, you’ll register for and complete 2 required courses, earning at least a B in each. These foundational courses are investments in your studies and count toward your degree, helping ensure success in the program.
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Playwright and Screenwriter
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Lecturer in Extension, Harvard University
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Career Opportunities & Alumni Outcomes
Graduates of our Creative Writing and Literature Master’s Program have writing, research, and communication jobs in the fields of publishing, advertising/marketing, fundraising, secondary and higher education, and more.
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Upon successful completion of the required curriculum, you will earn the Master of Liberal Arts (ALM) in Extension Studies, Field: Creative Writing and Literature.
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As a graduate, you’ll become a member of the worldwide Harvard Alumni Association (400,000+ members) and Harvard Extension Alumni Association (29,000+ members).
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A master’s degree in creative writing and literature prepares you for a variety of career paths in writing, literature, and communication — it’s up to you to decide where your interests will take you.
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The value you find in our Creative Writing and Literature Master’s Degree Program will depend on your unique goals, interests, and circumstances.
The curriculum provides a range of courses that allow you to graduate with knowledge and skills transferable to various industries and careers.
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Program length is ordinarily anywhere between 2 and 5 years. It depends on your preferred pace and the number of courses you want to take each semester.
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What skills do you need prior to applying for the creative writing and literature degree program?
Harvard Extension School does not require any specific skills prior to applying, but in general, it’s helpful to have solid reading, writing, communication, and critical thinking skills if you are considering a creative writing and literature master’s degree.
Initial eligibility requirements can be found on our creative writing and literature master’s degree requirements page .
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The Division of Continuing Education (DCE) at Harvard University is dedicated to bringing rigorous academics and innovative teaching capabilities to those seeking to improve their lives through education. We make Harvard education accessible to lifelong learners from high school to retirement.
- Kids & Teens Write!
- Story Prompts from Scholastic Choose from Adventure, Fantasy, or Sci-Fi. There is even a fun option to scramble your prompt!
- Creative writing prompts for teens Students can choose one of these creative writing prompts for teens. Options include describing a personal experience as if it were a movie, developing fun poems or stories, writing about their first name, creating a story using only one-syllable words, or exploring point of view.
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Creative and descriptive writing
Resources for KS3, KS4 and upper secondary
Let your students’ creativity run wild with our selection of worksheets, lessons, exam questions and revision activities, designed to embed language techniques and improve crafted writing.
Lessons and activities
Creative and descriptive writing is a great opportunity for students to explore different themes, audiences and purposes as well as demonstrate their understanding of how structure and punctuation can be used to impact a reader. From creative writing prompts to technique booklets and structure strips, we have drawn together a small collection of resources you can use to help with your planning of this unit.
Descriptive / Creative Writing
Manipulating structure and punctuation for creative writing
Descriptive Writing Task
Creative/ Descriptive Writing Placemat: Image Prompt: Structure Strips
Crafting creative writing - AQA English Language Paper 1, Question 5
Descriptive writing booklet
Structuring and Organising Creative Writing
Gothic Horror Creative Writing Lesson
24 creative writing prompts
Places - Creative & Descriptive Writing - English Language GCSE
FREE LESSON creative writing AQA Language Paper 1 Question 5
Language Paper 1 Question 5 - Full lesson
Key learning and revision.
To help your students practice crafting their creative pieces, we have pulled together a selection of resources from structure strips to exam questions to support your students when tackling such a large part of the English language exam.
AQA English Language Paper 1: Question 5 Examples
English Language Paper One Question Five Revision & Exam Practice Questions
Descriptive writing structure strips
AQA Paper 1 Question 5 Descriptive Writing
AQA Language Paper 1, Question 5: Creative Writing Booklet
Language Paper 1: Question 5 Creative Writing
Paper 1 Question 5 learning journey
Gcse/igcse revision resources.
Support your students in the run-up to May with this bumper collection of GCSE revision and IGCSE revision resources.
Explore this collection of essential resources including starter and plenary activities, templates, marking and feedback tools and more.
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The primary purpose of descriptive writing is to describe a person, place or thing in such a way that a picture is formed in the reader’s mind. Capturing an event through descriptive writing involves paying close attention to the details by using all of your five senses. Teaching students to write more descriptively will improve their writing by making it more interesting and engaging to read.
Appropriate group size, what is descriptive writing.
Descriptive writing helps the reader visualize the person, place, thing, or situation being described. When a text conjures a vivid, sensory impression in the reader’s mind, not only does it make the writing more interesting to read; it helps the reader understand the text better and recognize the author’s intention more clearly.
Why teach descriptive writing?
- It helps students make their writing more interesting and engaging to read.
- It creates opportunities for students to practice using new words in meaningful contexts, a key strategy for building vocabulary.
- Descriptive writing tends to include figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, and onomatopoeia. Noticing figurative language in mentor texts and incorporating it into their own writing help students build critical verbal reasoning skills. To find out more about verbal reasoning and other components of language comprehension, see the “In Depth” section from the Comprehension module of our Reading 101 Course.
- It encourages students to learn from—and be metacognitive about—the techniques other authors use to write vivid descriptions.
- It can help students clarify their understanding of new subject matter material and remember more of what they learn.
How to teach descriptive writing
If only descriptive writing were as simple as “show, don’t tell”! Descriptive writing is a skill — and a craft — that takes instruction, practice, and time to learn. The good news is that it can be explicitly taught. An understanding of the characteristics of effective descriptive writing, combined with a toolkit of structures and strategies to scaffold learning and practice, can enhance students’ development as authors of vivid, evocative writing.
What effective descriptive writing looks like
Authors of descriptive writing use a variety of styles and techniques to connect with readers, but effective descriptive writing often shares these characteristics:
- Vivid details. Specific details paint a picture in the reader’s mind and appeal to the reader’s senses. Descriptive writing may also go beyond creating a strong sensory impression to give the reader a “picture” of the feelings the description evokes in the writer.
- Figurative language. Tools of the writer’s craft such as analogy, simile, and metaphor add depth to authors’ descriptions.
- Precise language. General adjectives, nouns, and passive verbs are used sparingly. Instead, specific adjectives and nouns and strong action verbs give life to the picture being painted in the reader’s mind.
- Thoughtful organization. Some ways to organize descriptive writing include: chronological (time), spatial (location), and order of importance. Descriptive writing about a person might begin with a physical description, followed by how the person thinks, feels and acts.
What effective instruction in descriptive writing looks like
There isn’t one right approach to teaching descriptive writing, but effective instruction often includes:
- Mentor texts. Reading aloud and analyzing high-quality mentor texts to help students understand how authors use descriptive writing to connect with readers.
- Focus on the five senses. Helping students make the connection between sensory input (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) and descriptive writing.
- Teacher modeling. Modeling different ways to generate descriptive writing.
- Guided practice. Repeated, structured practice scaffolded to meet students’ needs.
- Feedback and revision. Cycles of constructive teacher and peer feedback followed by thoughtful revision.
Watch a demonstration: show NOT tell using your 5 senses
In this virtual lesson, the teacher models generating written descriptions of a hot day using the five senses as a framework.
Watch a classroom lesson: five senses graphic organizer
Students use their five senses and a graphic organizer to brainstorm ideas for writing a report on a recent school event and to help them think about interesting words to include in their report. See the lesson plan (opens in a new window) .
Watch a classroom discussion: writer’s workshop
Writer’s Workshop connects great children’s literature with children’s own writing experiences. In this video clip from our Launching Young Readers PBS series , Lynn Reichle’s second graders practice their use of descriptive writing.
Here are some routines and structures for teaching descriptive writing:
The RAFT strategy encourages descriptive writing and supports writing in general by encouraging students to think through the writer’s Role, the Audience, the Format, and the Topic. ReadWriteThink offers this RAFT Writing Template .
This Sense Chart (opens in a new window) — organized into sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch categories — helps students capture sensory details related to a topic. The Describing Wheel (opens in a new window) offers a more open-ended format for capturing and organizing descriptive language.
The Show-Me Sentences (opens in a new window) lesson plan from ReadWriteThink was created for students in grades 6-12. However, elementary teachers can modify the Show-Me sentences to make them interesting for younger students.
This lesson plan from Utah Education Network (opens in a new window) guides students through the process of writing about a favorite place using descriptive language.
This lesson plan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (opens in a new window) has students work collaboratively to generate descriptive writing about works of art. It is intended for upper elementary and middle grades but can be adapted for lower grades.
Teacher Laura Torres created a lesson plan that uses images to jumpstart vivid writing: Three Descriptive Writing Picture Prompts .
For second language learners, students of varying reading skill, and younger learners.
- Use dictation as a way to help capture students thoughts and ideas.
- Provide sentence frames for writing descriptive sentences or paragraphs.
- Use pictures and other sensory prompts.
- Provide budding writers with real-life or virtual experiences that give them something to write about. Trips to a relative’s house, playground or grocery store provide real-life experiences that can be recorded by a new writer.
- Encourage students to work with a buddy or in a small group to develop first drafts .
- Work with students to brainstorm a word bank of interesting and descriptive words students can incorporate into their writing.
Extend the learning
This resource from Greenville County Schools in South Carolina provides several ideas for writing in math class . Writing and mathematics are similar in that they both require gathering, organizing, and clarifying thoughts. Writing can support math instruction by helping students make sense of important concepts and procedures.
Descriptive writing in science can help students capture observations and scientific phenomena with greater precision, and can help them comprehend new material by explaining it in their own words. Fazio and Gallagher propose two instructional strategies to assist teachers and student when writing in science: a mnemonic acronym (POWER) and an editing checklist.
In social studies, descriptive writing can help students describe an important historical figure or event more clearly. Writing rich in detail will create vivid depictions of people and places and help make history come alive.
- RAFT helps students understand their roles as writers, the audience they will address, the varied formats for writing, and the topic they’ll be writing about.
- Revision teaches students about the characteristics of good writing, which will carry over into their future writing. Revision skills complement reading skills; revision requires that writers distance themselves from the writing and critically evaluate a text.
- Writing Conferences give students a chance to share their writing and and receive feedback from peers or the teacher.
- Think-alouds can be used for writing as well as reading instruction
Learn more about building writing skills in our self-paced module Reading 101: Writing .
See the research that supports this strategy
Akerson, V. L., & Young, T.A. (2005). Science the ‘write’ way. Science and Children , 43(3), 38-41.
MacArthur, C., Graham, S., & Fitzgerald, J. (2016). Handbook of research on writing (2nd Edition). NY: Guilford.
Miller, R.G., & Calfee, R.C. (2004). Making thinking visible: A method to encourage science writing in upper elementary grades. Science and Children , (42)3, 20-25.
Mitchell, D. (1996). Writing to learn across the curriculum and the English teacher. English Journal , 85, 93-97.
Children’s books to use with this strategy
This boy’s curse begins when his teacher suggests that the “poetry of science” can be heard everywhere. From Moore to Frost, familiar poems are parodied and turned into science verse. Again art and illustration are inseparable as are the laughs in this offbeat look at science.
When Louis’ uncle sends a tadpole from a certain lake in Scotland, the small tadpole grows to enormous proportions. With the help of a resourceful librarian, Louis figures out a way to feed his large and ever-hungry Alphonse as well as determine a permanent solution. Humor abounds in this contemporary classic.
The Mysterious Tadpole
Martin Luther King Jr. grew up fascinated by big words. He would later go on to use these words to inspire a nation and call people to action. In this award-winning book, powerful portraits of King show how he used words, not weapons, to fight injustice.
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
At One Hoppin’ Place, the countdown to bedtime is about to begin when a family of hamsters — a mother and father with nine kids and a baby all wearing numbered striped jerseys — arrives at the front door.
10 Minutes Till Bedtime
Every day children around the world awake to begin their days having breakfast, going to school, coming home to families. A poetic text combines with photographs from myriad countries to visually highlight the richness of the world and its people.
One World, One Day
If all of the 300 million people were simply one village of 100 people, its diversity is easier to understand. That’s just what the author has done to make the complex make-up of the U.S. residents (in terms of languages spoken, ages, and more). Colorful illustrations accompany the understandable text. Additional resources complete the book. If the World Were a Village: A Book About the World’s People (opens in a new window) , also by Smith, looks at the inhabitants of the world as a village to allow its diversity to become more understandable for adults and children.
If America Were a Village: A Book About the People of the United States
Relive the journey of the Apollo 11 where the first people stepped on the Moon’s surface and saw Earth from a very different perspective. Eloquent language and illustrations combine to present this historical event in a unique, unforgettable way.
Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11
Two machines captivated young Philo Farnsworth: a telephone and a phonograph. Both had cranks and both connected people with others (one in real time, the other through music). These and other inspirations motivated young Philo to invent what was to become known as the television. His early story is fascinatingly told and well illustrated.
The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth
Ted Williams never flinched at hard work or a challenge. In his last season with the Boston Red Sox, Williams had to decide if he wanted to take the chance and lose his rare .400 average or go to bat. Williams’ decision creates a riveting read in this handsome and thoughtful look at one man’s ethics and the times in which he lived.
No Easy Way: The Story of Ted Williams and the Last .400 Season
A mother and her child get the ingredients for soup on a snowy day and then add everything to the pot. The pair plays snug and warm while the soup simmers until Dad comes home when they enjoy soup together. Crisp collage and a simple text make for a cozy read.
The traditional tale of a boy who planted magic beans is reimagined as a city story of a spell broken. Illustrations are photographs that have been manipulated for good effect.
Jack and the Beanstalk
Children are encouraged to observe as experiment as they learn about wind and air as well as practice science writing by describing their findings.
I Face the Wind
26 Letters and 99 Cents
Arresting photographs of water in various states not only introduces water but also weather, solids and liquids, and more. The sophisticated text further encourages experimentation and observation, although is not necessary to use the entire book with younger children.
A Drop of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder
Each Orange Had 8 Slices: A Counting Book
Cinderella stories are found around the world; here, they have been fused into one tale with special characteristics in text and illustrations that reflect the different origins. Expand parts of the story to echo the traditions of the culture and its history from which it comes. It may be possible to develop a map of tales (e.g., ancient vs. modern countries, or as a visual as to where it is/was told).
Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella
Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme
The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza)
Scieszka and Smith set sights on creating fresh fables — short traditional tales intended to teach a moral lesson. With humorous twists and take-offs, new, different and wacky fables are presented for readers’ edification and amusement.
Squids Will Be Squids
Liked it share it, topics this strategy is especially helpful for.
French Journal of English Studies
Home Numéros 59 1 - Tisser les liens : voyager, e... 36 Views of Moscow Mountain: Teac...
36 Views of Moscow Mountain: Teaching Travel Writing and Mindfulness in the Tradition of Hokusai and Thoreau
L'auteur américain Henry David Thoreau est un écrivain du voyage qui a rarement quitté sa ville natale de Concorde, Massachusetts, où il a vécu de 1817 à 1862. Son approche du "voyage" consiste à accorder une profonde attention à son environnement ordinaire et à voir le monde à partir de perspectives multiples, comme il l'explique avec subtilité dans Walden (1854). Inspiré par Thoreau et par la célèbre série de gravures du peintre d'estampes japonais Katsushika Hokusai, intitulée 36 vues du Mt. Fuji (1830-32), j'ai fait un cours sur "L'écriture thoreauvienne du voyage" à l'Université de l'Idaho, que j'appelle 36 vues des montagnes de Moscow: ou, Faire un grand voyage — l'esprit et le carnet ouvert — dans un petit lieu . Cet article explore la philosophie et les stratégies pédagogiques de ce cours, qui tente de partager avec les étudiants les vertus d'un regard neuf sur le monde, avec les yeux vraiment ouverts, avec le regard d'un voyageur, en "faisant un grand voyage" à Moscow, Idaho. Les étudiants affinent aussi leurs compétences d'écriture et apprennent les traditions littéraires et artistiques associées au voyage et au sens du lieu.
Keywords: , designing a writing class to foster engagement.
1 The signs at the edge of town say, "Entering Moscow, Idaho. Population 25,060." This is a small hamlet in the midst of a sea of rolling hills, where farmers grow varieties of wheat, lentils, peas, and garbanzo beans, irrigated by natural rainfall. Although the town of Moscow has a somewhat cosmopolitan feel because of the presence of the University of Idaho (with its 13,000 students and a few thousand faculty and staff members), elegant restaurants, several bookstores and music stores, and a patchwork of artsy coffee shops on Main Street, the entire mini-metropolis has only about a dozen traffic lights and a single high school. As a professor of creative writing and the environmental humanities at the university, I have long been interested in finding ways to give special focuses to my writing and literature classes that will help my students think about the circumstances of their own lives and find not only academic meaning but personal significance in our subjects. I have recently taught graduate writing workshops on such themes as "The Body" and "Crisis," but when I was given the opportunity recently to teach an undergraduate writing class on Personal and Exploratory Writing, I decided to choose a focus that would bring me—and my students—back to one of the writers who has long been of central interest to me: Henry David Thoreau.
2 One of the courses I have routinely taught during the past six years is Environmental Writing, an undergraduate class that I offer as part of the university's Semester in the Wild Program, a unique undergraduate opportunity that sends a small group of students to study five courses (Ecology, Environmental History, Environmental Writing, Outdoor Leadership and Wilderness Survival, and Wilderness Management and Policy) at a remote research station located in the middle of the largest wilderness area (the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness) in the United States south of Alaska. In "Teaching with Wolves," a recent article about the Semester in the Wild Program, I explained that my goal in the Environmental Writing class is to help the students "synthesize their experience in the wilderness with the content of the various classes" and "to think ahead to their professional lives and their lives as engaged citizens, for which critical thinking and communication skills are so important" (325). A foundational text for the Environmental Writing class is a selection from Thoreau's personal journal, specifically the entries he made October 1-20, 1853, which I collected in the 1993 writing textbook Being in the World: An Environmental Reader for Writers . I ask the students in the Semester in the Wild Program to deeply immerse themselves in Thoreau's precise and colorful descriptions of the physical world that is immediately present to him and, in turn, to engage with their immediate encounters with the world in their wilderness location. Thoreau's entries read like this:
Oct. 4. The maples are reddening, and birches yellowing. The mouse-ear in the shade in the middle of the day, so hoary, looks as if the frost still lay on it. Well it wears the frost. Bumblebees are on the Aster undulates , and gnats are dancing in the air. Oct. 5. The howling of the wind about the house just before a storm to-night sounds extremely like a loon on the pond. How fit! Oct. 6 and 7. Windy. Elms bare. (372)
3 In thinking ahead to my class on Personal and Exploratory Writing, which would be offered on the main campus of the University of Idaho in the fall semester of 2018, I wanted to find a topic that would instill in my students the Thoreauvian spirit of visceral engagement with the world, engagement on the physical, emotional, and philosophical levels, while still allowing my students to remain in the city and live their regular lives as students. It occurred to me that part of what makes Thoreau's journal, which he maintained almost daily from 1837 (when he was twenty years old) to 1861 (just a year before his death), such a rich and elegant work is his sense of being a traveler, even when not traveling geographically.
Traveling a Good Deal in Moscow
I have traveled a good deal in Concord…. --Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854; 4)
4 For Thoreau, one did not need to travel a substantial physical distance in order to be a traveler, in order to bring a traveler's frame of mind to daily experience. His most famous book, Walden , is well known as an account of the author's ideas and daily experiments in simple living during the two years, two months, and two days (July 4, 1845, to September 6, 1847) he spent inhabiting a simple wooden house that he built on the shore of Walden Pond, a small lake to the west of Boston, Massachusetts. Walden Pond is not a remote location—it is not out in the wilderness. It is on the edge of a small village, much like Moscow, Idaho. The concept of "traveling a good deal in Concord" is a kind of philosophical and psychological riddle. What does it mean to travel extensively in such a small place? The answer to this question is meaningful not only to teachers hoping to design writing classes in the spirit of Thoreau but to all who are interested in travel as an experience and in the literary genre of travel writing.
5 Much of Walden is an exercise in deftly establishing a playful and intellectually challenging system of synonyms, an array of words—"economy," "deliberateness," "simplicity," "dawn," "awakening," "higher laws," etc.—that all add up to powerful probing of what it means to live a mindful and attentive life in the world. "Travel" serves as a key, if subtle, metaphor for the mindful life—it is a metaphor and also, in a sense, a clue: if we can achieve the traveler's perspective without going far afield, then we might accomplish a kind of enlightenment. Thoreau's interest in mindfulness becomes clear in chapter two of Walden , "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," in which he writes, "Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?" The latter question implies the author's feeling that he is himself merely evolving as an awakened individual, not yet fully awake, or mindful, in his efforts to live "a poetic or divine life" (90). Thoreau proceeds to assert that "We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn…. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor" (90). Just what this endeavor might be is not immediately spelled out in the text, but the author does quickly point out the value of focusing on only a few activities or ideas at a time, so as not to let our lives be "frittered away by detail." He writes: "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; … and keep your accounts on your thumb nail" (91). The strong emphasis in the crucial second chapter of Walden is on the importance of waking up and living deliberately through a conscious effort to engage in particular activities that support such awakening. It occurs to me that "travel," or simply making one's way through town with the mindset of a traveler, could be one of these activities.
6 It is in the final chapter of the book, titled "Conclusion," that Thoreau makes clear the relationship between travel and living an attentive life. He begins the chapter by cataloguing the various physical locales throughout North America or around the world to which one might travel—Canada, Ohio, Colorado, and even Tierra del Fuego. But Thoreau states: "Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing, and the doctors prescribe for diseases of the skin merely. One hastens to Southern Africa to chase the giraffe; but surely that is not the game he would be after." What comes next is brief quotation from the seventeenth-century English poet William Habbington (but presented anonymously in Thoreau's text), which might be one of the most significant passages in the entire book:
Direct your eye sight inward, and you'll find A thousand regions in your mind Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be Expert in home-cosmography. (320)
7 This admonition to travel the mysterious territory of one's own mind and master the strange cosmos of the self is actually a challenge to the reader—and probably to the author himself—to focus on self-reflection and small-scale, local movement as if such activities were akin to exploration on a grand, planetary scale. What is really at issue here is not the physical distance of one's journey, but the mental flexibility of one's approach to the world, one's ability to look at the world with a fresh, estranged point of view. Soon after his discussion of the virtues of interior travel, Thoreau explains why he left his simple home at Walden Pond after a few years of experimental living there, writing, "It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves" (323). In other words, no matter what we're doing in life, we can fall into a "beaten track" if we're not careful, thus failing to stay "awake."
8 As I thought about my writing class at the University of Idaho, I wondered how I might design a series of readings and writing exercises for university students that would somehow emulate the Thoreauvian objective of achieving ultra-mindfulness in a local environment. One of the greatest challenges in designing such a class is the fact that it took Thoreau himself many years to develop an attentiveness to his environment and his own emotional rhythms and an efficiency of expression that would enable him to describe such travel-without-travel, and I would have only sixteen weeks to achieve this with my own students. The first task, I decided, was to invite my students into the essential philosophical stance of the class, and I did this by asking my students to read the opening chapter of Walden ("Economy") in which he talks about traveling "a good deal" in his small New England village as well as the second chapter and the conclusion, which reveal the author's enthusiasm (some might even say obsession ) for trying to achieve an awakened condition and which, in the end, suggest that waking up to the meaning of one's life in the world might be best accomplished by attempting the paradoxical feat of becoming "expert in home-cosmography." As I stated it among the objectives for my course titled 36 Views of Moscow Mountain: Or, Traveling a Good Deal—with Open Minds and Notebooks—in a Small Place , one of our goals together (along with practicing nonfiction writing skills and learning about the genre of travel writing) would be to "Cultivate a ‘Thoreauvian' way of appreciating the subtleties of the ordinary world."
Windy. Elms Bare.
9 For me, the elegance and heightened sensitivity of Thoreau's engagement with place is most movingly exemplified in his journal, especially in the 1850s after he's mastered the art of observation and nuanced, efficient description of specific natural phenomena and environmental conditions. His early entries in the journal are abstract mini-essays on such topics as truth, beauty, and "The Poet," but over time the journal notations become so immersed in the direct experience of the more-than-human world, in daily sensory experiences, that the pronoun "I" even drops out of many of these records. Lawrence Buell aptly describes this Thoreauvian mode of expression as "self-relinquishment" (156) in his 1995 book The Environmental Imagination , suggesting such writing "question[s] the authority of the superintending consciousness. As such, it opens up the prospect of a thoroughgoing perceptual breakthrough, suggesting the possibility of a more ecocentric state of being than most of us have dreamed of" (144-45). By the time Thoreau wrote "Windy. Elms bare" (372) as his single entry for October 6 and 7, 1853, he had entered what we might call an "ecocentric zone of consciousness" in his work, attaining the ability to channel his complex perceptions of season change (including meteorology and botany and even his own emotional state) into brief, evocative prose.
10 I certainly do not expect my students to be able to do such writing after only a brief introduction to the course and to Thoreau's own methods of journal writing, but after laying the foundation of the Thoreauvian philosophy of nearby travel and explaining to my students what I call the "building blocks of the personal essay" (description, narration, and exposition), I ask them to engage in a preliminary journal-writing exercise that involves preparing five journal entries, each "a paragraph or two in length," that offer detailed physical descriptions of ordinary phenomena from their lives (plants, birds, buildings, street signs, people, food, etc.), emphasizing shape, color, movement or change, shadow, and sometimes sound, smell, taste, and/or touch. The goal of the journal entries, I tell the students, is to begin to get them thinking about close observation, vivid descriptive language, and the potential to give their later essays in the class an effective texture by balancing more abstract information and ideas with evocative descriptive passages and storytelling.
11 I am currently teaching this class, and I am writing this article in early September, as we are entering the fourth week of the semester. The students have just completed the journal-writing exercise and are now preparing to write the first of five brief essays on different aspects of Moscow that will eventually be braided together, as discrete sections of the longer piece, into a full-scale literary essay about Moscow, Idaho, from the perspective of a traveler. For the journal exercise, my students wrote some rather remarkable descriptive statements, which I think bodes well for their upcoming work. One student, Elizabeth Isakson, wrote stunning journal descriptions of a cup of coffee, her own feet, a lemon, a basil leaf, and a patch of grass. For instance, she wrote:
Steaming hot liquid poured into a mug. No cream, just black. Yet it appears the same brown as excretion. The texture tells another story with meniscus that fades from clear to gold and again brown. The smell is intoxicating for those who are addicted. Sweetness fills the nostrils; bitterness rushes over the tongue. The contrast somehow complements itself. Earthy undertones flower up, yet this beverage is much more satisfying than dirt. When the mug runs dry, specks of dark grounds remain swimming in the sunken meniscus. Steam no longer rises because energy has found a new home.
12 For the grassy lawn, she wrote:
Calico with shades of green, the grass is yellowing. Once vibrant, it's now speckled with straw. Sticking out are tall, seeding dandelions. Still some dips in the ground have maintained thick, soft patches of green. The light dances along falling down from the trees above, creating a stained-glass appearance made from various green shades. The individual blades are stiff enough to stand erect, but they will yield to even slight forces of wind or pressure. Made from several long strands seemingly fused together, some blades fray at the end, appearing brittle. But they do not simply break off; they hold fast to the blade to which they belong.
13 The point of this journal writing is for the students to look closely enough at ordinary reality to feel estranged from it, as if they have never before encountered (or attempted to describe) a cup of coffee or a field of grass—or a lemon or a basil leaf or their own body. Thus, the Thoreauvian objective of practicing home-cosmography begins to take shape. The familiar becomes exotic, note-worthy, and strangely beautiful, just as it often does for the geographical travel writer, whose adventures occur far away from where she or he normally lives. Travel, in a sense, is an antidote to complacency, to over-familiarity. But the premise of my class in Thoreauvian travel writing is that a slight shift of perspective can overcome the complacency we might naturally feel in our home surroundings. To accomplish this we need a certain degree of disorientation. This is the next challenge for our class.
The Blessing of Being Lost
14 Most of us take great pains to "get oriented" and "know where we're going," whether this is while running our daily errands or when thinking about the essential trajectories of our lives. We're often instructed by anxious parents to develop a sense of purpose and a sense of direction, if only for the sake of basic safety. But the traveler operates according to a somewhat different set of priorities, perhaps, elevating adventure and insight above basic comfort and security, at least to some degree. This certainly seems to be the case for the Thoreauvian traveler, or for Thoreau himself. In Walden , he writes:
…not until we are completely lost, or turned round,--for a man needs only be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost,--do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. (171)
15 I could explicate this passage at length, but that's not really my purpose here. I read this as a celebration of salutary disorientation, of the potential to be lost in such a way as to deepen one's ability to pay attention to oneself and one's surroundings, natural and otherwise. If travel is to a great degree an experience uniquely capable of triggering attentiveness to our own physical and psychological condition, to other cultures and the minds and needs of other people, and to a million small details of our environment that we might take for granted at home but that accrue special significance when we're away, I would argue that much of this attentiveness is owed to the sense of being lost, even the fear of being lost, that often happens when we leave our normal habitat.
16 So in my class I try to help my students "get lost" in a positive way. Here in Moscow, the major local landmark is a place called Moscow Mountain, a forested ridge of land just north of town, running approximately twenty kilometers to the east of the city. Moscow "Mountain" does not really have a single, distinctive peak like a typical mountain—it is, as I say, more of a ridge than a pinnacle. When I began contemplating this class on Thoreauvian travel writing, the central concepts I had in mind were Thoreau's notion of traveling a good deal in Concord and also the idea of looking at a specific place from many different angles. The latter idea is not only Thoreauvian, but perhaps well captured in the eighteen-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai's series of woodblock prints known as 36 Views of Mt. Fuji , which offers an array of different angles on the mountain itself and on other landscape features (lakes, the sea, forests, clouds, trees, wind) and human behavior which is represented in many of the prints, often with Mt. Fuji in the distant background or off to the side. In fact, I imagine Hokusai's approach to representing Mt. Fuji as so important to the concept of this travel writing class that I call the class "36 Views of Moscow Mountain," symbolizing the multiple approaches I'll be asking my students to take in contemplating and describing not only Moscow Mountain itself, but the culture and landscape and the essential experience of Moscow the town. The idea of using Hokusai's series of prints as a focal point of this class came to me, in part, from reading American studies scholar Cathy Davidson's 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan , a memoir that offers sixteen short essays about different facets of her life as a visiting professor in that island nation.
17 The first of five brief essays my students will prepare for the class is what I'm calling a "Moscow Mountain descriptive essay," building upon the small descriptive journal entries they've written recently. In this case, though, I am asking the students to describe the shapes and colors of the Moscow Mountain ridge, while also telling a brief story or two about their observations of the mountain, either by visiting the mountain itself to take a walk or a bike ride or by explaining how they glimpse portions of the darkly forested ridge in the distance while walking around the University of Idaho campus or doing things in town. In preparation for the Moscow Mountain essays, we read several essays or book chapters that emphasize "organizing principles" in writing, often the use of particular landscape features, such as trees or mountains, as a literary focal point. For instance, in David Gessner's "Soaring with Castro," from his 2007 book Soaring with Fidel: An Osprey Odyssey from Cape Cod to Cuba and Beyond , he not only refers to La Gran Piedra (a small mountain in southeastern Cuba) as a narrative focal point, but to the osprey, or fish eagle, itself and its migratory journey as an organizing principle for his literary project (203). Likewise, in his essay "I Climb a Tree and Become Dissatisfied with My Lot," Chicago author Leonard Dubkin writes about his decision, as a newly fired journalist, to climb up a tree in Chicago's Lincoln Park to observe and listen to the birds that gather in the green branches in the evening, despite the fact that most adults would consider this a strange and inappropriate activity. We also looked at several of Hokusai's woodblock prints and analyzed these together in class, trying to determine how the mountain served as an organizing principle for each print or whether there were other key features of the prints—clouds, ocean waves, hats and pieces of paper floating in the wind, humans bent over in labor—that dominate the images, with Fuji looking on in the distance.
18 I asked my students to think of Hokusai's representations of Mt. Fuji as aesthetic models, or metaphors, for what they might try to do in their brief (2-3 pages) literary essays about Moscow Mountain. What I soon discovered was that many of my students, even students who have spent their entire lives in Moscow, either were not aware of Moscow Mountain at all or had never actually set foot on the mountain. So we spent half an hour during one class session, walking to a vantage point on the university campus, where I could point out where the mountain is and we could discuss how one might begin to write about such a landscape feature in a literary essay. Although I had thought of the essay describing the mountain as a way of encouraging the students to think about a familiar landscape as an orienting device, I quickly learned that this will be a rather challenging exercise for many of the students, as it will force them to think about an object or a place that is easily visible during their ordinary lives, but that they typically ignore. Paying attention to the mountain, the ridge, will compel them to reorient themselves in this city and think about a background landscape feature that they've been taking for granted until now. I think of this as an act of disorientation or being lost—a process of rethinking their own presence in this town that has a nearby mountain that most of them seldom think about. I believe Thoreau would consider this a good, healthy experience, a way of being present anew in a familiar place.
36 Views—Or, When You Invert Your Head
19 Another key aspect of Hokusai's visual project and Thoreau's literary project is the idea of changing perspective. One can view Mt. Fuji from 36 different points of views, or from thousands of different perspectives, and it is never quite the same place—every perspective is original, fresh, mind-expanding. The impulse to shift perspective in pursuit of mindfulness is also ever-present in Thoreau's work, particularly in his personal journal and in Walden . This idea is particularly evident, to me, in the chapter of Walden titled "The Ponds," where he writes:
Standing on the smooth sandy beach at the east end of the pond, in a calm September afternoon, when a slight haze makes the opposite shore line indistinct, I have seen whence came the expression, "the glassy surface of a lake." When you invert your head, it looks like a thread of finest gossamer stretched across the valley, and gleaming against the distinct pine woods, separating one stratum of the atmosphere from another. (186)
20 Elsewhere in the chapter, Thoreau describes the view of the pond from the top of nearby hills and the shapes and colors of pebbles in the water when viewed from close up. He chances physical perspective again and again throughout the chapter, but it is in the act of looking upside down, actually suggesting that one might invert one's head, that he most vividly conveys the idea of looking at the world in different ways in order to be lost and awakened, just as the traveler to a distant land might feel lost and invigorated by such exposure to an unknown place.
21 After asking students to write their first essay about Moscow Mountain, I give them four additional short essays to write, each two to four pages long. We read short examples of place-based essays, some of them explicitly related to travel, and then the students work on their own essays on similar topics. The second short essay is about food—I call this the "Moscow Meal" essay. We read the final chapter of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), "The Perfect Meal," and Anthony Bourdain's chapter "Where Cooks Come From" in the book A Cook's Tour (2001) are two of the works we study in preparation for the food essay. The three remaining short essays including a "Moscow People" essay (exploring local characters are important facets of the place), a more philosophical essay about "the concept of Moscow," and a final "Moscow Encounter" essay that tells the story of a dramatic moment of interaction with a person, an animal, a memorable thing to eat or drink, a sunset, or something else. Along the way, we read the work of Wendell Berry, Joan Didion, Barbara Kingsolver, Kim Stafford, Paul Theroux, and other authors. Before each small essay is due, we spend a class session holding small-group workshops, allowing the students to discuss their essays-in-progress with each other and share portions of their manuscripts. The idea is that they will learn about writing even by talking with each other about their essays. In addition to writing about Moscow from various angles, they will learn about additional points of view by considering the angles of insight developed by their fellow students. All of this is the writerly equivalent of "inverting [their] heads."
Beneath the Smooth Skin of Place
22 Aside from Thoreau's writing and Hokusai's images, perhaps the most important writer to provide inspiration for this class is Indiana-based essayist Scott Russell Sanders. Shortly after introducing the students to Thoreau's key ideas in Walden and to the richness of his descriptive writing in the journal, I ask them to read his essay "Buckeye," which first appeared in Sanders's Writing from the Center (1995). "Buckeye" demonstrates the elegant braiding together of descriptive, narrative, and expository/reflective prose, and it also offers a strong argument about the importance of creating literature and art about place—what he refers to as "shared lore" (5)—as a way of articulating the meaning of a place and potentially saving places that would otherwise be exploited for resources, flooded behind dams, or otherwise neglected or damaged. The essay uses many of the essential literary devices, ranging from dialogue to narrative scenes, that I hope my students will practice in their own essays, while also offering a vivid argument in support of the kind of place-based writing the students are working on.
23 Another vital aspect of our work together in this class is the effort to capture the wonderful idiosyncrasies of this place, akin to the idiosyncrasies of any place that we examine closely enough to reveal its unique personality. Sanders's essay "Beneath the Smooth Skin of America," which we study together in Week 9 of the course, addresses this topic poignantly. The author challenges readers to learn the "durable realities" of the places where they live, the details of "watershed, biome, habitat, food-chain, climate, topography, ecosystem and the areas defined by these natural features they call bioregions" (17). "The earth," he writes, "needs fewer tourists and more inhabitants" (16). By Week 9 of the semester, the students have written about Moscow Mountain, about local food, and about local characters, and they are ready at this point to reflect on some of the more philosophical dimensions of living in a small academic village surrounded by farmland and beyond that surrounded by the Cascade mountain range to the West and the Rockies to the East. "We need a richer vocabulary of place" (18), urges Sanders. By this point in the semester, by reading various examples of place-based writing and by practicing their own powers of observation and expression, my students will, I hope, have developed a somewhat richer vocabulary to describe their own experiences in this specific place, a place they've been trying to explore with "open minds and notebooks." Sanders argues that
if we pay attention, we begin to notice patterns in the local landscape. Perceiving those patterns, acquiring names and theories and stories for them, we cease to be tourists and become inhabitants. The bioregional consciousness I am talking about means bearing your place in mind, keeping track of its condition and needs, committing yourself to its care. (18)
24 Many of my students will spend only four or five years in Moscow, long enough to earn a degree before moving back to their hometowns or journeying out into the world in pursuit of jobs or further education. Moscow will be a waystation for some of these student writers, not a permanent home. Yet I am hoping that this semester-long experiment in Thoreauvian attentiveness and place-based writing will infect these young people with both the bioregional consciousness Sanders describes and a broader fascination with place, including the cultural (yes, the human ) dimensions of this and any other place. I feel such a mindfulness will enrich the lives of my students, whether they remain here or move to any other location on the planet or many such locations in succession.
25 Toward the end of "Beneath the Smooth Skin of America," Sanders tells the story of encountering a father with two young daughters near a city park in Bloomington, Indiana, where he lives. Sanders is "grazing" on wild mulberries from a neighborhood tree, and the girls are keen to join him in savoring the local fruit. But their father pulls them away, stating, "Thank you very much, but we never eat anything that grows wild. Never ever." To this Sanders responds: "If you hold by that rule, you will not get sick from eating poison berries, but neither will you be nourished from eating sweet ones. Why not learn to distinguish one from the other? Why feed belly and mind only from packages?" (19-20). By looking at Moscow Mountain—and at Moscow, Idaho, more broadly—from numerous points of view, my students, I hope, will nourish their own bellies and minds with the wild fruit and ideas of this place. I say this while chewing a tart, juicy, and, yes, slightly sweet plum that I pulled from a feral tree in my own Moscow neighborhood yesterday, an emblem of engagement, of being here.
BUELL, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture , Harvard University Press, 1995.
DAVIDSON, Cathy, 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan , Duke University Press, 2006.
DUBKIN, Leonard, "I Climb a Tree and Become Dissatisfied with My Lot." Enchanted Streets: The Unlikely Adventures of an Urban Nature Lover , Little, Brown and Company, 1947, 34-42.
GESSNER, David, Soaring with Fidel: An Osprey Odyssey from Cape Cod to Cuba and Beyond , Beacon, 2007.
ISAKSON, Elizabeth, "Journals." Assignment for 36 Views of Moscow Mountain (English 208), University of Idaho, Fall 2018.
SANDERS, Scott Russell, "Buckeye" and "Beneath the Smooth Skin of America." Writing from the Center , Indiana University Press, 1995, pp. 1-8, 9-21.
SLOVIC, Scott, "Teaching with Wolves", Western American Literature 52.3 (Fall 2017): 323-31.
THOREAU, Henry David, "October 1-20, 1853", Being in the World: An Environmental Reader for Writers , edited by Scott H. Slovic and Terrell F. Dixon, Macmillan, 1993, 371-75.
THOREAU, Henry David, Walden . 1854. Princeton University Press, 1971.
Scott Slovic , “ 36 Views of Moscow Mountain: Teaching Travel Writing and Mindfulness in the Tradition of Hokusai and Thoreau ” , Caliban , 59 | 2018, 41-54.
Scott Slovic , “ 36 Views of Moscow Mountain: Teaching Travel Writing and Mindfulness in the Tradition of Hokusai and Thoreau ” , Caliban [Online], 59 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2018 , connection on 03 November 2023 . URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/3688; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.3688
About the author
University of Idaho Scott Slovic is University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Humanities at the University of Idaho, USA. The author and editor of many books and articles, he edited the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment from 1995 to 2020. His latest coedited book is The Routledge Handbook of Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication (2019).
By this author
- Introduction (version en français) [Full text] Introduction [Full text | translation | en] Published in Caliban , 64 | 2020
- To Collapse or Not to Collapse? A Joint Interview [Full text] Published in Caliban , 63 | 2020
- Furrowed Brows, Questioning Earth: Minding the Loess Soil of the Palouse [Full text] Published in Caliban , 61 | 2019
- Foreword: Thinking of “Earth Island” on Earth Day 2016 [Full text] Published in Caliban , 55 | 2016
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WPIX New York City, NY
‘Willful ignorance’: Mom says bullying, ignored by school, led to daughter’s death
Posted: November 2, 2023 | Last updated: November 3, 2023
BURLINGTON COUNTY, N.J. (PIX11) — Elaina LoAlbo offers a simple description of what she said was the Mount Holly School District’s response to her on-the-record complaints about her daughter being bullied.
“Willful ignorance. She would come home crying on a regular basis. We had gone to the school several times. My daughter was notorious for writing her own emails,” said LoAlbo.
A student found Felicia unconscious in a school bathroom stall in February.
Her mother, speaking Thursday at her attorney’s offices–now the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the district with school Superintendent Robert Mungo, Middle school Principal Daniel Finn, and Guidance Counselor Terry Convery all specifically named among the defendants.
“She was relentlessly verbally abused by obscene and crude references targeting her gender, her ethnicity, and her perceived sexual orientation – age 11. She was told multiple times by multiple classmates to ‘go unlive yourself,’” said LoAlbo family attorney Diane Sammons.
Mount Holly resident Anna Moore said her son was also bullied at school years ago in another district before she pulled him out and home-schooled him.
She describes an experience that left her feeling helpless to help her child.
“My condolences to the family that lost their child over bullying. This is serious. They need to really take care of this situation,” said Moore.
The school district website features an extensive anti-bullying policy, but our email to the Mount Holly District’s Anti-Bullying Specialist went unreturned in time for this report.
Mungo did not return our email, so we paid him a visit to his office. He told us the district’s attorney has LoAlbo’s civil lawsuit, which seeks monetary damages.
Mungo went on to say he had not yet seen the suit and then politely offered a no comment to all of PIX11 News’ questions – including those about allegations of a district-wide culture of bullying that still exists to this day.
For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to PIX11.
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