Tag Archives: creativity

Out Now: “Creativity in the English Language Classroom” (Maley & Peachey 2015)

by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

In his foreword to this brand-new British Council publication entitled “Creativity in the Language Classroom” (Maley & Peachey 2015), Chris Kennedy argues that creativity is a concept that is in danger of being “hijacked by public bodies and private institutions which employ them as convenient but opaque policy pegs on which practitioners, including educators, are expected to hang their approaches and behaviours” (2015: 3). Correspondingly, Alan Maley views creativity “as an endangered species in the current model of education, which is increasingly subject to institutional, curricular and assessment constraints”. The publication is now available online. I was kindly invited to contribute a chapter on fostering and building upon oral creativity in the EFL classroom. For a free download of this book, please click on the image below (also available in print form).

Creativity in Language Teaching

I have been interested in creativity and improvisation to foster oral proficiency in EFL classrooms in Germany for roundabout 20 years. When I started thinking about task-driven instructional designs which offer learners more room to talk and to express their own ideas in the target language in the mid-1990s, mainstream educational philosophy and policies in Germany were only just beginning to change,  from so-called input- to standards- and competency-based, measurable outcome-orientation. The backwash effects of such reforms are still unclear.

Common sense tells us that ‘weighing the cow does not make it fatter’. I think there is a pressing need to reassess assessment and the current obsession with efficiency and measurable outcome in foreign language education. What effects and side-effects does it have on teaching and learning English as a foreign language in secondary schools? (see also the current discussion on The Steve Brown Blog).

This is one remarkable finding of a (non-representative) pilot study with 697 EFL teachers carried out in the German state of Hesse: “After nearly a decade of [..] nationwide standards-based assessment in Germany, researchers and teachers alike are still struggling with the task of implementing educational standards and system-monitoring in schools. […] The majority of teachers neither consider the test results useful in improving classroom learning nor the potential impact on school development.” (Skejic, Neumann & Mangal 2015).


Kurtz, Jürgen (2015). “Fostering and building upon oral creativity in the EFL classroom”. In: Maley, Alan & Peachey, Nik (eds.). Creativity in the English Language Classroom, London: British Council, 73-83.

Skejic, M.; Neumann, D. & Mangal, H. (2015): Vergleichsarbeiten im Fach Englisch. Einschätzungen von hessischen Lehrkräften. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung [in print]. [non-representative pilot study carried out in the German Federal State of Hesse; n = 697 EFL teachers]











Interview with Alan Maley | Liverpool Online: “The Dark Matter of Classrooms”

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Over the past 15 years, I have been interested in the question of how to balance scripted (pre-planned) and unscripted (spontaneous) communication in English as a Foreign Language classes. I started off with what H.H. Stern (1992: 199) referred to as the predictability-unpredictability continuum of instructed learning. Focusing on the notion of ‘improvisation in structured learning environments’, I created a number of prototype activities designed to give learners more room to talk and to allow for more spontaneous, creative, and flexible language use in the classroom (as documented on this blog and, in much more detail, e.g. in Kurtz 2001 and Kurtz 2011).

A few days ago, I stumbled upon the following interview with Alan Maley, who also problematizes this issue. What I like best is his distinction between preparation and preparedness. In my view, this hits it on the nail.

Interview with Alan Maley | Liverpool Online. (29.03.2014: Unfortunately, the interview is no longer available online. In order to find out more about what it means to be prepared for the unexpected, watch this:

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001): Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2011): Breaking through the Communicative Cocoon: Improvisation in Secondary School EFL Classrooms. In: Sawyer, R. Keith (ed.) (2011): Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 131-160.

Stern, H.H. (1992): Issues and Options in Language Teaching. Oxford: University Press.

New Publication: Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching

by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

This new book, edited by R. Keith Sawyer (Washington State University, St. Louis), takes a fresh look at one of the core issues in education and learning. Focusing on the predictability and unpredictability of learning (and teaching) processes in schools, it raises a number of fundamental questions concerning flexible and creative curriculum and instructional design in the 21st century, providing readers with the know-how as well as the ‘do-how’ necessary to create rich, meaningful, and encouraging learning environments in the age of outcome-orientation and testing. As Keith Sawyer points out on his blog:

“The key idea is that good teaching involves both structures and improvisation, both advance planning and adaptability. Expert teachers know how to use structures (lesson plans, activities, techniques to discipline unruly students) in an improvisational way that’s customized and targeted to each class and each student. This is what “creative teaching” really is: it’s not a flaky, New Age performance artist who mesmerizes the students. It’s an expert with a deep knowledge of the craft of teaching, and of the subject being taught, and an expert who can use that to orchestrate valuable learning activities among the students.”

The book comes at a time when education systems are under massive socio-economic and ideological pressure world-wide, and it would be fatal if all this resulted in what David C. Berliner calls creaticide in the foreword: “With a few notable exceptions, policies designed to improve schools have resulted in a diminution of those classroom activities that are more likely to promote higher levels of thought, problem solving, and creativity in academic areas. It is not that the research community can agree on how to produce higher-order thinking and creative responses among youth. Far from it! But there is remarkable agreement about how not to produce the outcomes we desire. And by constraining what teachers and students can do in classrooms we do just that” (2011: xv).

Chapter 7 of this book focuses on the significance of structure and improvisation in teaching English as a foreign language. Title: “Breaking through the Communicative Cocoon: Improvisation in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms.” (Kurtz, 2011: 133-161).

For further details, please click here.

TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (9)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Why is improvised speaking important and valuable? How can it be incorporated into foreign language classroom practice in a systematic way? Focusing on English language teaching, Davies & Pearse (2000: 82-84) point out that in order to “develop the ability to participate effectively in interactions outside the classroom”, learners need to be accustomed to “combining listening and speaking in real time”, because “in natural listening-speaking situations the listeners must be able to handle [..] shifts of topic and unpredictable language in listening, and then they must be able to improvise their responses.”

In The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (Carter & Nunan 2001), Bygate (2001: 18) underlines the importance of improvisation as well, emphasizing that “improvised speech needs practice, but around some content familiarity.”

Lack of familiarity with content is of course not the only barrier to unscripted, increasingly self-regulated improvised speaking, i.e. to developing learners’ target language participatory abilities in secondary school foreign language classrooms. There is rather a whole range of potential barriers that may impede the development of spontaneous and flexible target language production in institutional settings, for instance:

  • lack of creativity, flexibility and balance in the overall instructional design (focus on form versus focus on meaning; language as system versus language in use; scripted versus unscripted teaching; whole class, teacher-led discourse versus small-group, learner-led discourse; planned (largely predictable) versus unplanned (incidental, spontaneous, largely unpredictable) interaction in the target language;
  • overaccomodation of teacher talk (TEFLSPEAK) combined with a forced immediacy of learner contributions in traditional IRF-sequences; textbook dependency and overuse / misuse; one-sidedness of error-treatment (because learners are viewed as deficient, and not primarily as successful communicators);
  • thematic content failing to attract learners’ communicative interests (why should foreign language learners say anything, if there is nothing interesting to talk about from their perspective?);
  • high level of speaking anxiety in the classroom; lack of learners’ self-confidence; lack of social cohesion inhibiting target language negotiation of meaning and lively peer-to-peer interaction;
  • overemphasis of traditional PPP (presentation – practice – production) procedures; reduction of learners’ production to a disadvantageous minimum;
  • overadjustment of target language production activities to test requirements and standardized test items (i.e. teaching to the test); lack of distinction between language learning versus language assessment activities and tasks – which, in my view, is a shortcoming in current empirical SLA research as well, resulting in serious problems concerning the ecological validity of some of the findings);
  • uncontrolled use of the mother tongue, especially in learner-led, small group activities (see Butzkamm’s comment and his recommendations on this blog).

The “cultivation of the speaking skill”, as Rivers (1968/81: 94) put it forty years ago, takes time and patience. Next to and in combination with intercultural learning in institutional contexts, it is probably the most difficult challenge foreign language teachers are faced with in the Internet Age. Remembering what Rivers (1968/81: 246) wrote about this important aspect of learning is by no means anachronistic or inconsistent with modern foreign language education in the 21st century:

“The flowering of natural language use will come in its own time; it cannot be forced. When students begin to interact naturally, if only for a few minutes, we must be quick to recognize the change and let the natural interaction take over until its energy is spent. Being able to withdraw and leave students space and room to take over and learn through their own activity is the mark of the real teacher.”

However, qualitative research on improvised speaking indicates that EFL teachers can do a lot more to encourage learners actively to speak freely. Improvisational enactments can help to foster flexible target language production beyond incidental classroom speaking, if they are integrated into (well-balanced) classroom practice as early as possible and, above all, on a regular basis.

Bygate, Martin (2001), “Speaking.” In: Carter, Ronald & Nunan, David (2001). The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 14-20.

Davies, Paul & Pearse, Eric (2000). Success in English Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rivers, Wilga (1981). Teaching Foreign Language Skills. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (first edition 1968).

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001). Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. [Improvised Speaking in the Foreign Language Classroom]. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr. [also available at Google books].

TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (8)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Improvisations are task-driven classroom activities designed to promote spontaneous, increasingly self-regulated peer-to-peer interaction in the target language. The following example is intended to illustrate how literary texts can be used to create meaningful, stimulating and challenging opportunities for improvisational communication (in secondary schools).

The Improvisation ‘Suddenly, as if by magic’

The starting point for this communicative activity is a text passage from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (Stoker, 1897/1995: 363-365). In the novel, this is the scene where Professor Van Helsing, Arthur, Jonathan and Quincey are in the tomb where poor Lucy (who is ‘un-dead’ already) is buried (story time: September 29, night). They are equipped with all sorts of ‘useful’ things, a lantern, the Bible, a set of operating knives, a heavy hammer, and a round wooden stake sharpened to a fine point at one end. The climax is reached when Van Helsing lifts the lid off Lucy’s coffin and urges Arthur to drive the stake through Lucy’s heart to end her miserable existence as a vampire.

Before the actual improvisation can begin, teachers need to make sure that their learners fully understand the text passage in terms of vocabulary and grammar as well as setting, central characters, plot development, etc. Instead of resorting exclusively to traditional, teacher-centered and IRF-based TEFLSPEAK comprehension techniques, EFL practitioners should come up with suitable, more creative pre-, while- and post-listening and reading activities as, for instance, described in Collie & Slater’s excellent resource book ‘Literature in the Language Classroom’ (1992). This is essential in order to avoid dramatic shifts in the overall methodological design of the learning and teaching process. Since this part of the novel reads almost like a stage description, it can be used for developing traditional role-plays as well (which can also serve to prepare the ground for the subsequent target language improvisational activity).

In general, improvisations differ from traditional role-playing in that they are far less scripted, allowing learners to collaboratively and autonomously create a stretch of largely spontaneous classroom talk-in-interaction. Usually, the starting point of an improvisational activity is a selection of suitable cues which need to be finely tuned by the individual teacher to meet the learners’ target language communicative abilities and specific interests. In my experience, humorous cues which somehow alienate the original plot can help to increase the learners’ willingness to speak and act spontaneously. Here are some ideas to try out (for intermediate and upper-intermediate learners of English as a foreign language):

As Arthur took the stake and the hammer, Van Helsing opened the Bible and began to read. Arthur placed the point over Lucy’s heart.

Cue / Variation 1:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Lucy opened her eyes and said: Who are you? And what are you doing here in the middle of the night? Arthur, who didn’t want to make her suspicious, answered: …

Cue / Variation 2:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Lucy opened her eyes and said:
Arthur?! Why do you wake me up in the middle of the night?
Arthur: Well, we’re looking for your will.
Lucy: Here? In my coffin?
Arthur: …

Cue / Variation 3:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Count Dracula appeared and said:
How dare you disturb us here in the middle of the night?
Van Helsing: Well, we thought you might want to watch the beautiful sunrise with us.
Dracula: The sunrise?
Quincey: Yes. Look, we’ve brought sunglasses for Lucy and you.
Dracula: Sunglasses?
Jonathan: Yes, so the sun won’t harm you – well, only a little bit.
Dracula: Are you joking? …

As in the improvisation Bus Stop described in part three of the TEFLSPEAK-G series on this weblog, learners should be confronted with these or other communicative cues without any initial suggestions by the teacher.

After each improvisational enactment, learners ought to reflect on what they have come up with during the improvisation. There should be provision for error discussion, for enriching the learner’s vocabulary and for discussing alternative ways in which the learners might also have expressed themselves. This is of course important for more elaborated improvisational enactments based on this scene. (Repetition is highly important in the EFL classroom, but it should not be confused with or equated with memorized reproduction; for further details see Kurtz 2001, available only in German up to now).

Collie, Joanne & Slater, Stephen (1992). Literature in the Language Classroom. A resource book of ideas and activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001). Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. [Improvised Speaking in the Foreign Language Classroom]. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr.

Stoker, Bram (1897/1995). Dracula. New York: Smithmark. 

More to come. Stay tuned.

TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (7)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Improvisational enactments are communicative ‘journeys into the unknown’ (Johnstone 1999: 75), confronting secondary school learners of English as a foreign language with the complex challenges of unpredictable, meandering peer-to-peer interaction in the target language. Contrary to (ultra-)traditional teacher-centered focus on forms-instruction (which is of course a theoretical black and white construct), improvisations seek to enhance spontaneous message-oriented communication, focusing on stretching the learners’ interlanguage, rather than on teaching and adjusting it systematically in preplanned (TEFLSPEAK)-classroom discourse. A number of important and difficult questions concerning the provision of new language material, the treatment of errors, the reduction of speaking anxiety, the teacher’s role, etc. arise from this.

As research has shown, focusing on message-oriented communication in EFL classrooms alone is insufficient to achieve higher / the highest levels of accuracy in target language production. There is a substantial body of evidence in German Fremdsprachendidaktik as well as in international SLA research indicating that periodic attention to the target language system is crucial to ‘push’ learners to greater accuracy. With regard to medium-oriented learning and teaching, Michael H. Long (1997) suggests the following:

“In classroom settings, this is best achieved not by a return to discrete-point grammar teaching, or what I call focus on forms, where classes spend most of their time working on isolated linguistic structures in a sequence predetermined externally by a syllabus designer or textbook writer. Rather, during an otherwise meaning-focused lesson, and using a variety of pedagogic procedures, learners’ attention is briefly shifted to linguistic code features, in context, when students experience problems as they work on communicative tasks, i.e., in a sequence determined by their own internal syllabuses, current processing capacity, and learnability constraints. This is what I call focus on form.”

In addition, Long (1997) states that “[…] focus on form refers only to those form-focused activities that arise during, and embedded in, meaning-based lessons; they are not scheduled in advance, as is the case with focus on forms, but occur incidentally as a function of the interaction of learners with the subject matter or tasks that constitute the learners’ and their teacher’s predominant focus.”

This (strong) interpretation of the communicative approach to learning and teaching foreign/second languages is compelling – at least in theory. Nevertheless, in everyday EFL classroom practice it is highly difficult for teachers to manage the complex interplay between meaning-focused and form-focused communication and to find the right timing for form-oriented classroom discourse.

Target language ‘problems’ occurring in minimally guided, meandering learner talk-in-interaction can be anticipated by teachers to a very limited extent only. Therefore, proactive medium-oriented communication (focus on form: explicit and/or implicit, direct and/or indirect, inductive/deductive) and reactive medium-oriented communication need to be combined with message-oriented communication (focus on the negotiation of meaning) in an iterative (!!!) way. Higher levels of fluency, complexity, accuracy and contextual appropriateness in the target language cannot be achieved through improvisational activities alone, as the following (condensed) transcript shows (13-14 year-old 7th grade middle school (Realschule) learners of English as a foreign language in Germany; after about two years of traditional, predominantly frontal textbook-based instruction):

T:   So what are your favorite hobbies, Sebastian?
S1: I like to play computer games
S2: What do you play .. I mean .. which games?
S1: Yes.. I play Tetris
S3: Is the play interesting?
S4: not play .. it must be games
S3: OK .. the games .. are they interesting
S1: Tetris is funny
S4: Have you .. ähm .. do you play Doom II too?
S1: No .. I don’t know the game
S5: What do you do by this game?
S1: Do you mean Tetris?
S5: Yes, Tetris
S1: Well, I must .. I must put little .. (looking for assistance)
S6: Stones
S1: Yes I must put little stones down … in eine Reihe [in one row]
S7: Is the game easy or difficult?
S1: It’s more easy
S8: Which stage .. oder so [or so] .. do you play the game
T:   You mean level .. don’t you .. go on
S1: Yes .. level … which level? … level twelve
S3: Is the level twelve easy for you?
S1: It’s not easy .. well, it’s difficult .. because it’s too fast
S9: How many levels are in the game?
S1: fifteen
S10: It gives more levels
T: There are more levels
S1: Well, I don’t know
S11: Where do you play Tetris?
S1: In my room

Attempting to prepare learners for improvised target-language speaking through direct or indirect (grammar) instruction is paradoxical. In order for learners to act as “creative designers of meaning” (Swann & Maybin 2007; see part five of the TEFLSPEAK-series), they need to be provided with thematically relevant lexical target language material before and immediately after an improvisation (not just single words, but potentially useful phrases or lexico-grammatical chunks gathered from an appropriate corpus). In order to enhance the accuracy of speech production, they need to be given adequate feedback, including corrective feedback on substantial errors. Thus focus on form / focus on meaning is not an either-or, but a more-or-less decision, depending on the individual learner or group of learners.

More to come next week.
Johnstone, Keith (1999). Impro for storytellers. New York: Routledge.