Teaching Language through Creative Writing

by limebirdkate

Children of all cultures know story. Whether they’ve been read to, read on their own, or listened to a storyteller – people connect and learn through the familiar tool of story.

In 2010, the US Census reported the United States had over 40 million foreign-born people. The National Center for Education Statistics cited an increase in students speaking a language other than English at home, from 4.7 million in 1980 to 11.2 million in 2009. Needless to say, English as a Second Language (ESL) programs are offered in most public school systems.

Typically, foreign-born students come straight to school barely knowing much more than a few necessary words to get them through the day. They learn the language and culture of their new country through various methods taught at school.

We have a small percentage of foreign-born students in our school system. George was born in Vietnam. His parents, also native Vietnamese, came to America knowing only a few English words. How they ended up in my small town in New Hampshire is anyone’s guess. George’s parents signed him up for my after-school enrichment creative writing program, with the intent of helping him learn English.

I was nervous. I don’t know a lick of Vietnamese. I can’t even pronounce the menu items at a Vietnamese restaurant, and here I was, expected to teach this little boy how to write a story? In English?

On George’s first day of class, he was quiet. He doodled a lot. When I sat down with him and asked if he understood the lesson, he nodded. But, when I asked him to explain it to me in pictures, he couldn’t. Admittedly, I was stuck. He went through the first class having written nothing.

Not only was he challenged, but so was I. The chance he would write a story that made sense from beginning to end was not exactly in the realm of possibility. So, I focused instead on making him want to write. Even if he never completed a story by the end of the session, I would consider it a success if he enjoyed himself and learned at least a few English words.

The next week, I asked George his favorite movie. He knew the words to this one: Star Wars. I asked him to draw pictures of his favorite scenes. I wrote the words that applied to each picture (i.e., Main Character, Problem, Place, Bad Guy) to help him grasp the concept of what goes into a story.

He started his own Star Wars story, which was pretty much like the original. But, that’s expected from kids learning to write. They’ll imitate something they love first, even copying it scene by scene. This isn’t anything to worry about. They’re getting the feel of story into their veins. When they’re ready, they’ll move on to writing their own stuff.

He got frustrated easily, because he had to struggle to write words he didn’t know. He was happiest when he could tell his stories by pictures, so we did a lot of captioning instead of narrative. When I wouldn’t let him goof off, he made faces and sighed loudly.

Despite the obstacles, he came to and left class with a smile on his face. He never forgot his notebook or pencil, and he never refused to write.

By the end of the session, he’d written half a story, drew lots of pictures, and played all the writing games. I feared it wasn’t enough because most kids accomplish more than that. But, I had to remember my original goal. Even if he didn’t complete a story, he did learn and write new words. He knew the difference between ‘hero’ and ‘villain’, he knew what a ‘problem’ and a ‘solution’ meant. Through coloring his pictures, he learned ‘blue’, ‘green’, ‘black’. Through games, he learned all kinds of directions and rules.

Plus, he had fun, because he asked to take the next class. And, he asked in English.

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15 Comments to “Teaching Language through Creative Writing”

  1. We’re experiencing something similar in Singapore – about 40% of residents are foreign born and with such charming cultures. You name it and we have them – whether from some African country we’ve not heard of, or some former Yugoslav principality, or —

    One in four marriages are across cultural divides.

    And Singapore is smaller than NYC!

    • Hi Eric,

      I have never been to Singapore, but I hear it’s lovely! :)

      It isn’t surprising to see the world blending so much these days, when we consider travel and social media. I read somewhere that Spanish may become the number-one language in the US, or certainly will be tied first with English. What does surprise me is that many public elementary and secondary schools don’t offer a foreign language class. Companies (Disney is an example) lean toward applicants who are fluent in more than one language. We really need to prep our kids for this kind of future!

      Thanks so much for swinging by and commenting.

  2. Kate, I would say that George’s progress was an unqualified success! If you think of how humans first learn language. We understand more than we can speak. Once the brain reaches a tipping point, everything that has been put inside begins to flow out. I think you did a fabulous job of filling him up with words and making him want to keep writing!

    Congrats from the polyglot town of San Francisco!

    • Thanks, Jilanne! I have to admit I had a mini panic attack when I first realized what I needed to do. The parents really need a round of applause because they obviously thought extra exposure to any form of speaking, writing, reading would help George learn English faster. Some parents don’t think about that, and many foreign students struggle to catch up. Even when they’re in school with a paraprofessional 5 days a week. It’s not enough for some kids.

  3. This is AWESOME, Kate! Your approach to this dilemma is so friendly, open, and realistic all at once, it’s an inspiration. :)

    Really like your idea of creating a picture story: sequential art (which this sounds like it was, if a simplified version) is an intuitive way for kids to learn, since they embrace the language in a form that’s not overwhelming, e.g., a mass of symbols on a page. After all, when we learn a new language, we start with association. We pick up an apple, show it to a child, and do the sounds and letters. What’s also great is how George embraced the idea of telling a story, and using those skills to grow. Learning’s always more effective when it’s fun. :D

    • Thanks, Mayumi. I lucked out with George. I have had other students in my class who aren’t fluent in English, and they all respond well to the pictures. However, some resist making the transition from pictures to words, so there have been a few tough nuts to crack, so to speak!

      I agree that learning is much more effective when it’s fun. What’s tough about after-school enrichment programs is that some kids don’t necessarily want to sit down for yet another hour of learning after school. So, I do a lot of games and activities to make it a little more hands-on and interactive for them.

      I also offer candy as an incentive, but don’t tell anyone. ;)

  4. I would say both you and George were successful. Teaching is never easy in the first place, and when you’re facing a linguistic and cultural barrier, it’s all the more difficult for both student and instructor. You did a great job of finding a way to breach that divide to help George.

    American schools should be offering at least one foreign language in grade school—not waiting for high school. We learn languages best at younger ages, and despite what some folks fear, children do not get confused or have a poorer grasp of either language when they learn two. After all, children of bilingual parents figure out the differences quickly. And once a second language has been learned, it’s usually easier to learn the third, and the fourth….

    And kudos to George’s parents for their creativity in finding ways to help him learn English!

    • I wish public schools would offer foreign languages at the elementary level, too. I’m sure some do, somewhere. But none that I’m aware of. I’ll never forget the first time I learned French. It was an incentive program taught at my middle school. It was for only 6 weeks, and we learned the basics: numbers, letters, colors, common words. Then, I didn’t take another French class for 4 years, in high school. Would you believe that I remembered everything I’d learned from that incentive program in 5th grade? I sailed through my first year of French all because I’d already had a basic foundation.

      I think we would benefit from requiring foreign languages in schools. Not just because our country is so diverse, but because this whole world is interconnected and it’s nothing nowadays to communicate with someone across the globe.

  5. It sounds like you and George did a great job there together! I’m actually surprised there isn’t more cross-language cross-culture mixing around the world than there is, there are still many regional areas around the world, even different areas in parts of England, where it’s mostly all people born and raised there for several generations. The more there is a mix, the more everyone will learn to adapt, but it certainly does make teachers’ jobs more difficult!

    • It is strange that we don’t do more to introduce different languages and cultures to children at a younger age. Other than sitting in the same classroom or watching television shows where kids see other kids of different races, there isn’t a lot of education that centers around learning about another culture or language. Certainly not before most kids turn 12 or 13.

  6. How I wish my education had included Spanish as a second language. I took a year of French in high school and hated it. I live in the south now, and knowing Spanish would be such a help to me now. Learning a foreign language should be mandatory from at least middle school on up.
    Kate you are an engaging and creative teacher, I wish you had been mine! I think you must be that teacher we all remember years later – you loved going to their class. :)

    • Thanks, Neeks. I’m definitely learning as I go, as I kind of threw myself into this situation. But, I think I’m better off that way as I have a tendency to talk myself out of challenges. I took French in high school, but I did love it, and I was an exchange student in Avignon for a semester. The downside to this was that the French wanted to practice their English with me, so I got out of having to really hone my skills. As a teen, I liked this benefit. As an adult, I regret being lazy.

  7. What an awesome story! You did a phenomenal job with George.

    I was teaching ballroom classes in the city schools for a couple of years in Milwaukee. These kids had very little in life, came from rough homes, some did not speak much English, and they certainly did not have the luxury of any previous dance lessons. Some of the schools we worked with had more money and support for the program, so they often did the “best” at the competition we did at the end of the year. The students from the underdog schools worked hard to learn the steps and even worked harder in school because of the program, and that was where the true magic was. Those important steps in the right direction.

    • Hey Britt,

      Teaching ballroom dance must have been such fun — especially with kids. I love that you gave them this gift, because that isn’t something they would automatically think about wanting to learn. I bet they had a “ball.” ;)

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