Creativity in English Language Teaching

The theme of the 4th ELT Malta Conference this year was creativity. Here are some of the ideas that emerged.


Creativity is for everyone

“Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought.” (Albert Einstein) 

Anyone who has managed to use up the last carrot in the fridge or got a recalcitrant child to bed on time or improvised a bookmark from a bus ticket reveals creativity. But this is creativity with a small c – the unrecognized type that isn’t sponsored or rewarded by society. The first thing most of the conference speakers in Malta recognized is that creativity isn’t just Shakespeare and Einstein and Mozart. It’s everyday people. Teachers and students. That’s us.


Creativity is about play

“The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

It’s about mental exploration. At the Malta conference, Alan Marsh asked us to write poems; Antonia Clare used 6-word life stories (my favourite: “Never really finished anything, except cake.”); and Alan Maley got us to create new and random metaphors. In all of these activities, there were no right or wrong answers, no predictable outcomes, and no qualitative judgments. The only issue was how much the activity inspires and awakens student interest.


Creative language use is inherent

“Linguistic creativity is not simply a property of exceptional people but an exceptional property of all people.” (Ronald Carter, linguist)

Creative language use is all around us. It’s in jokes. It’s all over advertising. It’s in the names of stores. It’s on public notices and graffiti. It’s even on tombstones. This is in addition to the neologisms and word blends that we invent every time a new concept or machine enters the world. Yes, that’s right: chillax, bromance, frankenfood, and screenager all count as examples of creativity.



In case of fire Indiana Bones so far so good Tequila mockingbird
























Creativity is about finding new connections

“Creativity is just connecting things.” (Steve Jobs)

Can you think of fifty uses for a cardboard tube? What’s the connection between marriage and a sailing boat? How can you bring your hobbies to the classroom to benefit students? (Think … cooking, reading magazines, playing card games.) There’s more to creativity than Steve Jobs said, but making unusual connections is a good start.


Creativity likes constraints

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” (Pablo Picasso) 

Sometimes complete freedom is unhelpful. Constraints and limitations give us frameworks. Take the haiku. The taut structure of a 17-syllable poem liberates the poet. For students, an exact word count or a theme or an opening line can guide their writing, just as a time limit can focus the mind. The task then becomes a puzzle to be solved. One group of Intermediate students, given this framework:

I’ve never …

But I’ve always wanted to.

I’ve never …

And I’ve never wanted to.


came up with this:


I’ve never eaten caviar

I’ve never travelled very far

I’ve never been on TV

I’ve never learned to ski

But I’ve always wanted to.


I’ve never worn a skirt

I’ve never eaten dirt

I’ve never seen a ghost

I’ve never eaten snake on toast

And I’ve never wanted to.


Creativity uses feeder fields

“Steal from anywhere that fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs …” (Jim Jarmusch, film director)

Science & technology, sports, advertising, literature, design – all of these provide inspiration for new ways of teaching and learning languages. Many of the exercises we use in classrooms came from elsewhere. Role plays, gap-fills, language learning apps … all of these were born of another mother and were only later adopted by educators.


Creativity is hard work

“It was a flash of inspiration. Kind of a thirty-year flash.” (Charles Eames, U.S. designer and architect)

To produce anything original and of value, one needs to give it thought and shape, refine it again and again, and throw away the parts that don’t work. This isn’t the “flashing lightbulb” image of creativity. It’s the “scientist in the lab/writer in the attic” image – working year after year in solitude and anonymity. Nothing will work unless you do. That applies to teachers and students as much as inventors and artists.

3 Comments on “Creativity in English Language Teaching”

  1. Katrina says:

    That was interesting JJ. Creativity is all around us and everyday we come across things that we haven’t thought of or seen before. I guess it just makes our world more interesting and a reason to love the surroundings. I loved the humor on the fire exit “In case of fire, exit before tweeting this”. Got me thinking that someone would start taking photos in the scene before exiting : )

    Cheers and thanks for the share.


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