Creative Writing in a Second Language

Many of us spend our time teaching writing for academic purposes, preparing students for high-stakes exams or for admission to a higher level of academic study. We focus on elements of writing that will show students know how to organize a text and develop an argument, how to cite sources and indicate a stance on an issue. Too much of this, however, and both we and our students will start to resent writing and wish we could do anything but draft or grade another 5-paragraph essay. (For a series of TESOL Blog posts arguing both for and against the notorious “5-paragraph essay,” click here.)

Today, I want to explore ways that we can have more fun in the L2 writing class. I am not arguing that we stop teaching academic writing entirely, but instead want to share a few ways that we can help students find joy in writing. In doing so, I hope that they can also realize they have a voice and something to say.

Creative Writing Defined

Creative writing is a broad concept encompassing many genres and types of text. Wikipedia defines it as “any writing that goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, or technical forms of literature,” while Donovan (2015) points out that even some forms of journalism count as creative writing if they tell a story or go beyond simply reporting facts. Donovan lists 14 types of writing, including the expected poetry and stories, but also song lyrics, memoirs, and scripts. Understanding this diversity of text forms allows us to start thinking about opportunities we can give our students to express their feelings and express their ideas in potentially less constricted formats than the traditional academic essay allows.

Types of Creative Writing

The following ideas can be adapted depending on your students’ interests and language proficiency. Keep in mind, however, that if your goal is to give students a chance to play with language and come to love writing, it is important not to place too much (if any) emphasis on grammatical accuracy or meeting any particular standards. Instead, encourage them to try new ways with words and to share their work with real audiences.

Found Poems

Found poetry can be created by learners at all levels of language proficiency and can even be written multilingually should the poet so choose. At its core, a found poem is one created entirely from words and phrases taken from (found in) another textual source. The website Facing History and Ourselves provides some guidelines:

  • Determine which text(s) students should be using as a base. (I have used the campus newspaper—students can all have a copy to mark up—but you could also have students review core texts from the unit you are teaching.)
  • Direct students to compile a list of 20–30 words and phrases from the text(s) that appeal to them for any reason. As they are making their lists, they should think about what themes seem to be common to their lists. (The themes may be very different from those in the original texts.)
  • Next, students should rearrange the words and phrases in their lists to make a poem that conveys a message. They can repeat words or phrases for effect, and they are not required to use all the words from their lists. Found poetry does not usually allow adding any extra words, so if they feel like something is missing, they should go back to the source text(s) to search for a phrase that could fill in the gap. (You can also decide as a class to allow for a certain amount of adding original words.)

Identity Texts: “I Am From” Poems and “Things I’ve Lost” Lists

This is another form of creative writing that encourages students to draw on their life experiences and explore what makes them unique individuals. Ivanova (2018) points out that students benefit from writing assignments where they can share elements of their home cultures and show the value of practices that may be denigrated by their host society. Two texts provide valuable models for students’ own identity writing: a poem written by George Ella Lyon called “Where I’m From” and an essay by Brian Arundel called “The Things I’ve Lost.” These two texts are deeply personal and express complex emotions using relatively simple language that students can replicate to tell about their own lives. Note that Lyon’s original poem does include a lot of references to mid-20th century Southern U.S. culture that may not be familiar to students—but Ivanova (2018) suggests that even international students understand the underlying message and can respond with their own texts.

Here are some recommendations for supporting your students to write their own identity texts:

  • Start with students’ own cultures. Ivanova (2018) recommends having students bring in personally meaningful artifacts and sharing them with the class. This “show and tell” activity allows them to start thinking about how that artifact represents something important in their lives.
  • Scaffold students’ brainstorming of meaningful items. Many teachers have created worksheets to help students list different categories of things that they can include in their poems.
  • Encourage students to use “I” when writing about their own lives, often in contradiction to messages they have heard in other classes (Rubenstein, 2018).
  • Share examples of the lists and poems that other students have written (Ivanova, 2018, includes many examples from her own students, and Lyon’s own website also has many examples by diverse writers). Write your own and share it with the students!
  • Have students create a multimodal text, using VoiceThread or screencapture video recording with a PowerPoint slideshow. This way, they can include pictures and even videos or music that show more of what is meaningful to them.

Benefits of Creative Writing

In addition to giving students something a bit more fun than yet another TOEFL practice essay, creative writing has so many other benefits. For one, it allows students to stretch their vocabulary and try using words that they may not know how to fit in an academic text. As the preceding poetry activities show, students also can experiment with words without as much concern about grammatical accuracy.

Identity texts give students an opportunity to be experts, writing about something they know better than anyone else—their own lives. When they write from the heart, they also gain confidence in their own abilities as writers, possibly reducing their anxiety in ways that can transfer into their academic writing as well. Rubenstein (2018) suggests that writing creatively also allows students to explore and find their individual voices, which are much harder to express through the stricter boundaries of academic writing (and yet are just as important).

There are so many other ways that we can encourage our students to let loose and write creatively. What have you done in your teaching? Share some examples in the comments section!


Donovan, M. (2015, October 15). Types of creative writing. Writing Forward. Retrieved from

Ivanova, R. (2018). Using “where I’m from” poems to welcome international ESL students into U.S. academic culture. TESOL Journal. Advance online publication: e399. DOI:

Rubenstein, S. (2018). Speak for yourself: Writing with voice. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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2 Responses to
Creative Writing in a Second Language

  1. DrCCJones says:

    The controlled academic writing approach is a definitive guidelines for the NNS to move onto the next writing level which is usually the academic/college writing plus stages – there are numerous classes/workshops offer for the NS as well as the NNS to move into the “creative” writing field – all must control the English Language in full before moving onto the next level – DrCCJones – AS, BS, MED, EDD -*I know of what I speak since I have taught within the English writing fields re: NS as well as NNS

  2. Patricia says:

    Good article.
    I encourage free writing, nonsense poems and simple narratives the students are comfortable with. In the process, we do a lot of editing and “what if’s’ and before you know it, we have lovely write ups with themes individuals can relate with.

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