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Diversity in Creative Writing Workshops: the Case of Undergraduates studying English as a Foreign Language

La diversité : un atout dans des ateliers d’écriture à destination des étudiants spécialistes d’autres disciplines en deuxième année de licence.
Alison Bouhmid


Dans le contexte d’une pédagogie émergente de l’écriture créative, cet article vise à établir un état des lieux des ateliers d’écriture créative pratiqués au sein des enseignements d’anglais Lansad (langues pour spécialistes d’autres disciplines) en deuxième année de licence, tels que nous les avons expérimentés dans nos pratiques à l’université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier. Nous regarderons comment la diversité des parcours, des besoins, des niveaux et des expériences de nos étudiants peut être mobilisée afin de leur permettre de s’exprimer à l’écrit, d’une manière personnelle voire originale. Nous présenterons de plus près notre travail sur les collocations, le traitement des erreurs et le feedback donné aux étudiants lors des ateliers et verrons dans quelle mesure l’adoption d’un positionnement réflexif de la part des étudiants peut redynamiser leur apprentissage de l’anglais.

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  • 1 As defined by Ken Hyland “a method suited to practitioners involving a cycle which refines methods (...)

1Within the context of an emergent pedagogy of creative writing for learning English as a Foreign Language (EFL), this paper, using an action research model1, focuses on how diversity, a characteristic of second-year human science undergraduate students studying English as a non-specialist subject, has creative potential for language learning. Rather than an obstacle, to be evacuated from the classroom, diversity is taken as a source of inspiration from which individual and meaningful writing may emerge. Recognised and nurtured, it may disinhibit students to explore the foreign language, in our case English, as a means of expressing personal experience, identity and voice. The possibilities that participation in creative writing has for motivating non-specialist students and facilitating language learning in an action-orientated approach are explored. Language, relying as it does on the power of recursion is essentially creative and “linguistic creativity is not simply a property of exceptional people but an exceptional property of all people” (Carter 13). As language teachers, our desire to tap into this creativity, stems from our firm belief that to do so will aid language learning. Creativity is taken in the wide sense “of using language in creative ways to solve problems, to establish or maintain relationships, and to get people to act, think or feel in certain ways” (Jones and Richards 5).

2After a brief recall of EFL creative writing in higher education in France this paper will present a study of an EFL creative writing course in English for students specialised in other fields of study (Langues pour spécialistes d’autres disciplines, Lansad, ie. LANSOD in English for “Languages for Specialists of Other Domains”) at Paul-Valéry University in Montpellier. The theoretical basis for the construction of the course will be examined and examples of students’ work produced both in the in-class workshops and in online forums taken from a parallel LANSOD creative writing distance learning course, will be analysed.

1. EFL creative writing for specialist students and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) courses

  • 2 Greaves, Sarah. Personal interview. 21 Mar 2018.
  • 3 Tredy, Dennis. Personal interview. 23 Mar 2018.

3Creative writing for native French speakers appeared in the French university system from 1969 onwards (Houdart-Merot par.1) but foreign language creative writing workshops, fuelled by the growing interest in creative writing for language acquisition and multilingual didactics, are a much more recent development. The bilingual creative writing workshops, led by Sarah Greaves and Marie-Laure Schultze at the University of Aix-Provence, inspired by Anne Roche’s work (as of 1969) with native language (French) writing were, to the best of my knowledge, the first to appear in France. According to Sarah Greaves2, the introduction of bilingual creative writing workshops was motivated by a desire to introduce a more hands-on approach to English literature that would help motivate first-year students and encourage them to get to grips and engage with the English language. Since their introduction in 2008 these workshops have become a compulsory part of the syllabus in Aix-Provence for undergraduate and graduate students reading English. At the University Paris Sorbonne 3 Dennis Tredy3 has explained how, since 2012, optional vocational and applied modules in creative writing (film reviews, screenplays and composition), have been opened not only to first-year English majors but also first-year students of other domains of study. This approach of engaging not only in theoretical but practical terms with the language through the lens of creative writing, seems to us relevant for all language learners, including LANSOD students. Nevertheless, despite these examples, accredited courses in creative writing for second language learners in the arts and human sciences still tend to be the exception rather than the rule in French universities.

4Within LANSOD classes, which were introduced on a large-scale in French higher education form the 1970s onwards (Van der Yeught, par. 66) EFL creative writing workshops have notably been developed for ESP curricula which became popular in France in the 1980s (Van der Yeught, par. 25) and have developed into courses such as experimental poetry writing for second-year preclinical medical students at Bordeaux University, introduced in 2015 and run by the poet and teacher Thibault Marthouret (Marthouret, par.12). The relatively few EFL creative writing workshops in French universities of arts and humanities, can partially be explained by the fact that LANSOD courses have been slower to develop in these institutions, as opposed to within scientific and technological universities and medical and law schools (Terrier and Maury). Perhaps this relative dearth is also the result of the complex relationship between English as a specialised subject and English as a non-specialised subject within arts and humanities universities, where English is divided into separate courses for separate publics and course content often jealously guarded by separate teaching teams.

2. EFL creative writing for LANSOD students : A case study

5In this text, we present the creative writing course for second-year English LANSOD students at Paul-Valéry University, Montpellier that has existed in its present form since 2015. Our aim is to explain why creative writing workshops were chosen for the course and how they have been implemented in order to tackle the attendant issues caused by large-scale language learning and teaching. Depending on the year, between ten and seventeen teachers teach the course, including permanent members of staff and teachers on temporary contracts as well as graduate students with diverse teaching experience. There are 32 second-year groups taking the course, with class sizes of 45 students of different levels of English (from A2+ to C2) specializing in diverse subjects and with a dazzling array of different needs, centres of interest and experiences. Particular attention will be paid to the question of motivation and work on lexis and collocations, as well as the treatment of errors and feedback.

2.1. The transdisciplinarity of creative writing

6At Paul-Valéry, the arts and human sciences university in Montpellier, approximately 1,500 second-year students study English as a LANSOD subject. Figure 1 shows information about enrolment for second-year students:

Figure 1. Second-year English LANSOD students enrolled in 2015 according to their main domain of study

Figure 1. Second-year English LANSOD students enrolled in 2015 according to their main domain of study

7The sheer number and diversity of the domains of study of our LANSOD students mean that a multitude of ESP courses is not a workable option. This is partly because of cost and timetabling issues as well as the quantity of teaching material to be produced. It is also due to the reluctance of teachers to venture into realms that they may feel unqualified to teach. Whilst teachers may be highly specialised as English teachers/researchers they are not necessarily qualified in the specialised subject fields of our LANSOD students.

8Nevertheless, we firmly believe that in order to provide relevance to the English classes and re-dynamise the language learning process, it is necessary to provide a space for learners to activate their personal knowledge concerning their different subject discipline. Taking as given that all human science undergraduates share a sensibility, not only regarding creativity in its widest sense but also to story-telling and narrative in their different forms, we decided to base our course on creative writing carried out in writing workshops.

9In 2017, in order to continue course development, an online survey was introduced gathering feedback as to whether or not this diverse group of students felt that creativity was indeed important to them. However, only 163 students out of 1508 (10.8%) registered students chose to participate. In 2018, the 2 bonus points that students could earn for active participation in the course (to be added to the mark obtained in their final exam) were made partly dependent upon answering a similar online survey. This led to a considerable increase in participation with 981 replies for 1864 enrolled students (52.6%). 81% of respondents (42.6% of all enrolled students) indicated that creativity was important to their studies and 90% (47.3% of all enrolled students) to their future professional career (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Online feedback from Moodle concerning student perception of the importance of creativity for their studies

Figure 2. Online feedback from Moodle concerning student perception of the importance of creativity for their studies

10Of the 722 students (38.7 % of all enrolled students) that said they came regularly to class (defined as not more than 3 absences) 456 (63%) of these stated that creative writing in English helped them develop transdisciplinary skills: imagination (21%), creativity (19%), narrative skills (16%), articulating ideas (15%), expressing different points of view (13%), expressing personal voice (9%) and general culture (7%). These results would seem to confirm our broadly sociocultural view that “all writing is creative writing” (Morley and Neilsen 2) stance. In other words, a creative approach to writing is not limited to one genre of writing in particular, rather skills acquired in its practice may be transferred across different genres of writing that LANSOD students may encounter. We understand writing to be a cognitive and interactive process, whereby writers are not only continually “interacting with ideas” (Runco 184) but also choose “their words to engage with others and to present their ideas in ways that make most sense to their readers” (Hyland 22). This means that both fiction and non-fiction writing are creative in the sense that they require the writer to partake in “interpretive and constructive processes” (Runco 188) that are meaning-orientated.

11It was decided to work on different genres of fictional creative writing in the first semester (reading and writing extracts from short stories, flash fiction, listicles and 6-word stories) and different genres of non-fictional creative writing (argumentative essays, necrologies, blogs, book blurbs) in the second semester. The coursebooks were designed to include answer keys/suggestions to the different in-class exercises and activities so that students of different abilities could work more or less autonomously at different speeds in the classroom, leaving teachers free to circulate and accompany students as needed.

12The aim was to transfer storytelling skills learnt in the first semester to different genres of writing in the second semester. Empirical studies have shown how skills developed through reading and writing fictional narratives, including the ability to pay close attention to detail and understand narrative structure and implicit information, as well as the creation of empathy and suspense, may be transferred and help improve reading and writing skills in other genres, including that of academic reading and writing (Beaupoil-Hourdel et al. 126; Spiro and Dymoke 85; Tickoo “The Challenge” 209).

13Our second-year creative language course alternates classes and writing workshops on a fortnightly basis and uses the online learning platform Moodle both as preparation and follow-up for classes. The course is organised to facilitate the emergence of public, professional and personal stories, developing, in the words of Yan Zhao “individual thinking, authorial stance and artistic engagement with the language” (5). An example of this can be seen in the distinctive work of a student studying musicology who after the first semester fiction writing course felt sufficiently confident to apply his particular sensibility regarding the music and rhythm of words to a text he produced in the second semester non-fiction writing course. Required to discuss the Wittgenstein quotation “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” his text thrilled with its idiosyncratic approach, both in philosophical and textual terms, to sound:

Words produce thoughts. Thoughts produce worlds. Wor(l)ds, as communicating vessels, create everything that can exist: nothing outside the supremacy of words, nothing outside the universe of thoughts, nothing outside the babelian babbling which is essentially the obliteration of time.

Worlds are vehement waves crashing into the cliffs of our thoughts. Eventually, the cliffs are eroded, — but at what cost? The idea of nothingness annihilate itself as soon as it exists.

Would a tree falling in the
forest of my mind where there is no one to hear it, make a sound? The question is an illusion. For there is no tree. No forest. No mind. And sound is nothing more than a yackety-yakking yabby blending itself with a yammering yahoo, yada yada...

14In order to impress upon students that different genres of writing may benefit from a creative approach, the first activity of the year requires them to reflect upon how creativity, creative writing and storytelling are relevant to their disparate subject fields. In small groups comprising students from different specialities, varied definitions of creativity are discussed, and students consider how different academic fields conceptualise and call upon creativity and storytelling. Once the multi-faceted, transdisciplinary nature of the two terms is established, students exchange ideas concerning the professional skills nurtured by storytelling, such as the development of empathy, the honing of observational and listening skills and the art of interpreting and analysing other people’s narratives. Making the link explicit between creativity, narrative and professional skills also empowers students to use different genres to express their thoughts concerning their fields of study. For example, content instruction explaining the genre listicles is provided on Moodle and students are asked to write a listicle without any constraints concerning the content but adopting a mode such as irony, humour or outrage. Some students, as the example taken from the listicle written by a philosophy student shows, playfully explored the form to explain why they enjoyed studying their specialised subject:

Why philosophy is the best subject?
Because Socrates’ dialogues look like Sherlock Holmes’ inquiries.
Because you will become more intelligent than your big brother or sister!
Because people think you’re crazy and never ask you about your studies.
Because you will learn impressive and pretentious vocabulary in order to say obvious things….

2.2. Motivation

15Lack of motivation is often cited as a major factor hindering language learning and the LANSOD classroom is no exception to this. On the contrary, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that students in most French universities are currently obliged to study a foreign language as part of their degree course. As Crosnier suggests the answer to this might be to link course content more closely to students’ professional projects (par. 12). Beginning our course by focusing on the reasons why students are learning English is an attempt to address this issue and enhance intrinsic motivation for the learning process. However, it seems to us that another major cause of lack of motivation is that our LANSOD students, after ten years of learning English at school, with three or four hours a week of classes, in a pedagogical approach that Lightbrown and Spada tellingly call “the drip-feed approach” (187), have the impression, that they are involved in a futile, never-ending task. Many of them still arrive at university lacking confidence in their English language skills, fixated upon what they do not know or cannot do. This is despite the fact that language learning and teaching in French secondary schools has been greatly influenced by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and the more recent CEFR Companion Volume which recommends a ‘can do’ approach to language proficiency (25) as shown in its creative writing illustrative grid for creative writing (see appendix 1).

16One of the aims of creative writing is to enable students to reconceptualize the gap between what they would like to express and can in fact express in the foreign language, in terms of creativity rather than in terms of lack, facilitating the emergence of stories and texts that are too often stillborn due to learners’ ingrained anxiety concerning error and lack of language mastery. The eternal plea of ‘What’s the word for?’ can be metamorphosed into narrative, as students develop ‘metacognitive knowledge and control of writing strategy’ (Wang 523). This metamorphosis may take different forms. One student, majoring in literature, faced with a photo prompt including objects for which she didn’t know the precise English vocabulary, including a lawnmower, compensated by putting herself in the shoes of a character and transforming the writer’s lack of specialised vocabulary into an integral part of the story:

He turned his face and looked at me. I saw a smile on his face, he was happy. When I looked at him I saw the man I fell in love with 40 years ago. Suddenly I heard a scream. I realised that Paul cut himself with the engine you use to cut the grass. I forgot the name of it. Alzheimer's fault….

17Reversing the usual insistence on normative expression in the foreign language encourages learners to progress at their own rhythm and write to their strengths out of their own disparate creative resources.

18Over the twelve-week semester students have 7 classes and 5 writing workshops. Once they themselves have reflected upon what makes a good story, they are ready to follow the course, structured so as to accompany them in developing the necessary skills that will enable them to catch a reader’s attention and make him/her want to read on. Whilst recognising that second language writers do not function in exactly the same manner as native language writers, they do however share “broad similarities” (Hyland 237) and so we adapted ideas taken from creative writing courses for native language writers (Bell and Magrs 98, 158; Hammer 65) and developed exercises destined to develop learners “literary understanding” (Widdowson 86; ch. 6) as well as including exercises tailored to second language writers’ needs (Cameron 15; Lewis 86). Through study of very short extracts from fictional texts, students analyse the techniques used by writers to visualise and describe settings and characters (both in physical and psychological terms) as well as exploring interaction between the two that leads to the creation of atmosphere and suspense. The old adage of “show don’t tell” is deconstructed by encouraging students to read between the lines and nuance their personal expression.

2.3. Nuancing expression

19Central to our approach is the desire to enable students to move beyond usage of what Carter calls “core” vocabulary (Carter 115) so that they can enrich their vocabulary in order to modulate their message, for as Smith points out “where the emotional impact (rather than simple semantic message) becomes important, so does the nuance in word choice” (14). Our course includes, not only a study of precise vocabulary in context, but also matching exercises on the same vocabulary, for example the different tones and volumes of voices (shout, cry out, groan, whisper, snap at, gasp, giggle, sob…) or different ways of looking at an object or a person (stare at, gaze at, glare at…). Students are then invited to re-use this vocabulary in their own texts. Lexis is taken to be as important as grammar reflecting Lewis’ lexical approach to language learning based on the idea that:

(...) fluency is based on the acquisition of a large store of fixed and semi-fixed prefabricated items, which are available as the foundation for any linguistic novelty or creativity. Grammatical knowledge permits the creative re-combination of lexis in novel and imaginative ways, but it cannot begin to be useful in that role until the learner has a sufficiently large mental lexicon to which grammatical knowledge can be applied. (Lewis 15)

20Mis-use of collocations is often taken as an indicator of foreignness both by native speakers and learners themselves, and as Schmitt points out “mastery of collocations seems to be robustly related to general language proficiency, which is strongly suggestive of its relationship to vocabulary size” (937). In our creative writing course students study collocations in order to increase awareness of typical/atypical combinations and to experiment with atypical combinations creatively. Several brief extracts from novels, short stories and flash fiction are analysed. After locating relevant passages such as the following description “My wife is beautiful. She has a smooth, flawless complexion, subtle, curiously expressive eyebrows and a slender figure” (Swift 3) students have a collocational exercise to do. This exercise has been constructed by taking collocations from the different texts previously studied and inserting them into a list of collocations taken from the British National Corpus (BYU-BNC) with the filter ‘fiction’ applied. Students are asked to circle the adjective that is not usually used to qualify the noun, as shown below. In each case, the expected response (i.e., the less common word combination) is bolded.

Dark, raised, black, bushy, arched, subtle, thick, plucked EYEBROWS

High, pale, placid, broad, wide, smooth, damp, hot FOREHEAD

Tanned, pretty, pale, sallow, flawless, florid, ruddy COMPLEXION

Strong, handsome, regular, hawklike, harsh, heroic FEATURES

Tall, slender, immature, dark, small, slight, slim FIGURE

Puzzled, sharp, knowing, thoughtful, faraway, brown LOOK

Elegantly, casually, immaculately, interestingly, well DRESSED

21This exercise, focusing on collocations, rather than individual words, is an attempt to help learners’ own English writing to become more idiomatic. The choice of words to be studied more closely depended upon the analysis of common errors in the previous year’s final exam texts. The exercise is doubtless difficult for EFL learners but what is interesting is not so much the question of the right or wrong answer but the ensuing discussion, which also raises the question of false friends (“figure” in this case). During the following writing workshop student writers will be invited to refer back to the word combinations studied previously and to use some of them in their own writing. At the same time, the exercise draws attention to what is common or creative use of language, something that is notoriously difficult for foreign language learners to appreciate. To go back to our example, Swift’s skill depends upon his artful mix of banal and personal language use. To a greater or lesser extent this is a technique used by all writers and there is no sound pedagogical reason why the second language writer should not be encouraged to do the same. By comparing common and less common collocations the foreign language learner is led to understand that these lexical blocks whilst useful in their own right, can also be modified “to match their own personal message and communication needs” (Edmonds 152).

2.4. Errors

22Accepting that the second language writer can use language in a creative manner, requires a change of perspective not only on behalf of learners but also of teachers. Too many teachers still feel obliged to comprehensively correct errors in student texts, despite the fact that extensive research has proven that this approach can be counter-productive. Ferris et al., in an overview of current research into this field, sum up recent findings concerning the three most useful types of error correction:  “focused” correction, provided only for specific errors, “indirect” correction with the error called to the learner’s attention but not corrected and “explicit” correction which uses specific terms and codes that may re-activate learners’ previous grammatical knowledge (309). Nevertheless, whilst error correction is generally recognised as necessary for progression, language learning cannot simply, as it all too often is, be reduced to a question of right or wrong utilisation. Correction in grammar does not guarantee meaning as Chomsky’s famous phrase ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ (15) illustrates, neither does incorrect grammar or unusual word combinations prevent comprehension, as specified in the CEFR illustrative scales concerning the range of vocabulary knowledge, and the ability to control that knowledge (112). On the contrary, correction in grammar is often sacrificed to the aesthetic needs of a text. In addition, study of unidiomatic language as used by learners can be fruitful pedagogically. By discussing and unpacking unidiomatic expressions (such as *‘my hairdryer passed away’, *‘the night was falling down’ and *‘it was raining buckets on the windows of my bedroom’) found in student texts, as well as comparing them with idiomatic expressions in the foreign language and similar expressions in the writers’ native language, a reflexive approach concerning learner interlanguage can be developed. Studying texts where different languages are explicitly compared and explored may also prove a useful starting point to think about interlanguage and may imply dropping what Greaves and Schultze refer to as “our monolingual mindset” and redefining error as “valid variations” that are evidence of “an ongoing-if precarious-love story with language” (9) and this, in their opinion, whether the surprising word combinations be accidental or deliberate. Other teachers/researchers may be more circumspect and recommend striking “a balance between creativity and conformity” (Ellis 45) but wherever teachers/researchers place themselves on the spectrum (depending on learners’ needs and different writing contexts) the benefits of learners adopting a metalinguistic attitude to language acquisition is universally recognised and maybe one means of developing a sensitivity to language which:

enables new experience to be assimilated into an ordered framework and welcomed as an enrichment. The associated new language may then be more readily learnt and used, rather than resisted as a threat to the learner’s already established linguistic system, which is often believed to be normal and ‘natural’. (Council of Europe “CEFR” 107)

23The notion of correct and incorrect is linked to the question of creative use of language in that unusual collocations, when found in learners’ texts are often considered as simply wrong and teachers sometimes find themselves giving an explanation along the lines of, ‘Well, you just wouldn’t say that’. Take the collocation ‘navy-blue eyes’ encountered in a student text. My first reaction to this was that it sounded strange. To check my native-speaker intuition, I turned to the British National Corpus (see Figure 3):

Figure 3. Screen shot of collocational search in the British National Corpus

Figure 3. Screen shot of collocational search in the British National Corpus

24I found some of the many shades of blue listed that have been used to describe eyes in fiction including ‘ice blue’, ‘liquid blue’, ‘cornflower blue’, ‘forget-me-not blue’ and ‘pellucid blue’. To my surprise, the list included one example of ‘navy-blue eyes’, showing that my immediate analysis of this collocation as an example of foreignness in a second language writer text was wholly dependent upon context. It was not wrong, merely unusual. Greaves and Shultze advocate actively embracing and exploring this foreignness in second language writer texts produced in their bilingual creative writing workshops in an attempt to re-dynamise language learning.

2.5. Feedback

  • 4 Our translation for : « L’expression écrite n’est de fait plus, ne peut plus être, une accumulation (...)

25Creating a supportive learning environment, whether it be in the classroom or online, in which students feel confident and at ease to imagine, experiment and play around with language and ideas, is imperative to the success of any creative writing course. As we have already pointed out, it is vital that learners should not feel stymied or hampered by their fear of error. Students, expressing themselves in a personal manner, must feel secure enough to take risks in their writing, make mistakes and adjust their work accordingly. The creative writing teacher’s role is to guide and accompany students in this process. In order to map the students’ progress throughout the semester and after each writing workshop, peer feedback and teacher feedback are essential. This feedback involves students alternating between reading and writing. As Sorlin reminds us written expression is not neutral but belongs to a genre with a specific style that addresses an ideal reader. By alternating between the two skills, apprentice writers are made aware of similar underlying processes, the realisation of which enables them to distance themselves from the process of constructing meaning (Sorlin 4)4. During the first hour of our writing workshops, students collaborate on their writing task. Writing as part of a group of three or four, encourages learners to get to know each other, to recognise the different interests and skills of each individual and to negotiate the production of the written collaborative text. From a social constructive perspective, this participation in collaborative writing “can enhance learning through joint scaffolding and discussion” (Wigglesworth and Storch 365). The last half hour is spent with groups exchanging and reading their peers’ texts, with each student providing written feedback using the grids that we have elaborated for this purpose and that we introduced for the first time in 2017. The student feedback grid used is presented in appendix B.

26The student feedback grid identifies the different skills that have been studied, requiring students to give an opinion and advice concerning the work of their peers. At the end of the session the texts are handed in to the teacher who fills in the teacher feedback grid on the verso of the student grid (see appendix C).

27These grids are an attempt to fine-tune feedback so that it is ‘relevant’, ‘clear’ and “motivating because it actually gives students practical insights about their own writing challenges and knowledge that might help them solve those problems” (Ferris et al. 323). Our hypothesis was that the combination of co-assessment and peer assessment, would reinforce self-assessment. Whilst perfectible, it would seem that this continual see-sawing back and forth between reading and writing does exactly what Sorlin advocates concerning the development of creative reflexiveness. The creative writing workshop thus opens up a space where language and writing become part of a fluid process, open to negotiation and subject to various forms of interaction between writers/texts, readers/texts, readers/writers, writers/, learners/learners and teachers/learners.

28According to the 2018 survey, students were less convinced of the usefulness of the student grids (whether it be reading or filling them in) than receiving feedback from teachers (see figure 4). Further analysis is needed concerning how the grids were implemented in the classroom, particularly since many students and teachers were not used to working with this sort of tool. In the 2018 student survey 216 (30%) of the 722 students who came regularly to class stated that their teachers had not used the grids to provide teacher feedback and 163 (22.5%) that they had not used the student feedback grids in class. Further research is required to investigate the reasons for this. One possible development to the use of the grids would be to have, time-allowing, students collectively construct the grids themselves, which would possibly increase their engagement with the learning process and positively affect perceptions of progress, an important factor in motivation.

Figure 4. Online feedback from Moodle of student conception concerning the usefulness of feedback grids

Figure 4. Online feedback from Moodle of student conception concerning the usefulness of feedback grids

29Clearly one of the major weaknesses of the course in its present form is that after reading, writing, reading, commenting and reading, there is insufficient time left over for re-writing, which means that students do not always sufficiently engage with the feedback provided. In our opinion, future course development should focus more on the process of writing with the possible introduction of writing portfolios, including first and final drafts of texts which would “help integrate instruction with assessment representing a coherent model of organising writing processes and products for ongoing reflection, dialogue and evaluation” (Hyland 221). At present, students change English groups and teachers in first and second semester, according to the time-tabling demands of their specialist subject. Annual writing portfolios rather than two final semester timed exams might be a way of increasing coherence in the learning process. This would however require closer coordination and teamwork from the twenty odd teachers who teach the second-year course over the two semesters and would risk, if not properly implemented, being staggeringly time-consuming for teachers.

2.6. Distance learning

  • 5 Our translation of: “Nous déclinons la présence en e-learning en trois grandes dimensions : cogniti (...)

30Our creative writing course requires students to use the online learning platform Moodle in order to participate in activities, before and after classes and writing workshops, including tasks such as watching videos, completing comprehension quizzes, interactive grammar exercises and crosswords. The course also exists in a distance learning format, in which there is no classroom contact between students and teachers and all teaching takes place online via virtual interaction. To recreate the various interactions upon which learning depends, the distance learning course must find a way of creating presence in distance, according to the three axes defined by Jézégou of “cognitive, socio-affective and pedagogical presence”5 (Jézégou 264). The main tool used to do this was the forum, collaborative space par excellence, where students were invited to post their texts and react to their peers’ texts and the teacher responded to students’ work. Figure 5 shows an example of student/student interaction in one of the forums (Writing, Reading and Commenting) in which students were invited to write a short text inspired by a photo, read other students’ texts and comment on them.

Figure 5: Student/student interaction on forum

Figure 5: Student/student interaction on forum

31In the first post student A (studying cinema) wrote “he wore a dark suit that was so convenient for him”. Student B (studying philosophy) reacts in an encouraging manner and corrects the error, “he was wearing a dark coat and it suited him”. She then goes on to integrate the correct use of the first structure – “to be convenient” - into her own text, “my coat has quite large pockets compared to regular coats, it’s pretty convenient”. The asynchronous nature of this exchange leaves students the time to read, digest, reflect and write and this is one advantage the online course has over the classroom situation, where peer interaction is presently limited to a quarter of an hour in a session that lasts an hour and a half. In order not to interrupt the interaction between online learners the teacher posts a separate file commenting and correcting the most frequent errors. At the end of each forum (there are seven in the online course) a new text is posted (see figure 6 for an example) on a separate forum by the teacher. This post, consisting of creative feedback, is generated by re-fashioning the various student texts so that individual work becomes part of a poetic, virtual whole, belonging simultaneously to all the writers, teacher and students alike.

Figure 6. Teacher/student creative feedback on forum

Figure 6. Teacher/student creative feedback on forum

32As well as forums, online interaction between students is created via the workshop tool. Students have to submit a text and then receive two texts in return to comment on with the help of a grid (adapted from the grids used in the classroom). In workshop 1 the Moodle plugin ‘Participation credit’ has been added so that students are not required to grade their peers’ papers in order to receive credit for participation.

33For the first time in 2017-2018, the online course replaced the final one-hour exam with a system of continuous assessment. Marks were calculated by adding automatically generated participation credits from the workshop, seven forums and final questionnaire, to grades given for homework by the teacher. Figure 7 shows that regular overall participation in the course more than doubled with the introduction of continuous assessment. In 2018-2019 workshop 2 was introduced in which the 59% of students who chose to participate in this activity, had not only to provide written feedback via the grids, but also a grade for their peers’ work. Each piece of work was graded by two peers and the average grade contributed to the final grade for the course.

Figure 7. Online student participation in the creative writing distance course (2016-2017 Summative assessment only, 2017-2018 Continuous assessment, 2018-2019 Continuous and peer assessment).

Figure 7. Online student participation in the creative writing distance course (2016-2017 Summative assessment only, 2017-2018 Continuous assessment, 2018-2019 Continuous and peer assessment).

34The major pedagogical issue that remains unsolved is the fact that there is little opportunity for students to re-write their texts in light of comments and annotations made. This experience may advance our reflexion on future course development, particularly concerning the possibility of increasingly blended learning environments that combine the advantages of distance and classroom teaching, providing the flexibility that is increasingly demanded by institutions and learners. If an increasing part of course content is put online, precious classroom time may be liberated for writing activities during which teachers accompany students placed at the centre of their learning process.

Conclusion: Not the end of the story at all

35Once upon a time there was a second-year creative writing course whose teachers believed that because learning a language is an inherently creative process, requiring as it does learners to think and re-enact “the speech, thought and lexis of another foreign culture” (Clarke 5), a LANSOD course, could be re-created as an interactive creative space par excellence, straddling specialist and non-specialist categories, with students, playing with language, writing and exchanging their stories. This space would be fashioned out of the myriad of student aims and needs, experiences, voices and languages with learners free to experiment with foreign language(s) in a manner that was meaningful to them. And it was hoped that by doing so, chaos would be avoided and tolerance would reign, with learners, if not growing up bilingual and living happily ever after, then at least, having some eye-widening, thought-provoking, cultural and linguistic fun along the way as, in the process of becoming authors of their own stories, they gradually became authors of their own learning process, learning the skills needed in order to tell the story that they wished to tell.

As well as the English LANSOD team and Marie-Noëlle Diochon in digital services (Paul Valéry University), Sara Greaves (University Aix-Provence), Dennis Tredy (University Paris Sorbonne 3), I would like particularly to thank Amanda Edmonds, Pascale Leclerq and Maylis Rospide (Paul Valéry University) and Melanie White (Bordeaux University) for their precious encouragement, input and feedback.

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Appendix A: Illustrative Scale for Creative Writing (CEFR Companion Volume 76).

Appendix B: Student Feedback Grid (WW refers to Writing Workshop)

Appendix C: Teacher Feedback Grid (WW refers to Writing Workshop)

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1 As defined by Ken Hyland “a method suited to practitioners involving a cycle which refines methods and understandings of a situation by action followed by reflection and further action” (265).

2 Greaves, Sarah. Personal interview. 21 Mar 2018.

3 Tredy, Dennis. Personal interview. 23 Mar 2018.

4 Our translation for : « L’expression écrite n’est de fait plus, ne peut plus être, une accumulation de phrases neutres ; elle rend compte d’une appartenance à un genre, se dote d’un style et d’un lecteur idéal particulier. En passant d’un rôle à l’autre, le lecteur/auteur prend inexorablement une distance par rapport au processus de construction et d’organisation du sens dont il découvre la similarité dans les actes de lire et d’écrire. » (Sorlin 4).

5 Our translation of: “Nous déclinons la présence en e-learning en trois grandes dimensions : cognitive, socio-affective et pédagogique” (Jézégou 264).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Second-year English LANSOD students enrolled in 2015 according to their main domain of study
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Titre Figure 2. Online feedback from Moodle concerning student perception of the importance of creativity for their studies
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Titre Figure 3. Screen shot of collocational search in the British National Corpus
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Titre Figure 4. Online feedback from Moodle of student conception concerning the usefulness of feedback grids
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Titre Figure 5: Student/student interaction on forum
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Titre Figure 6. Teacher/student creative feedback on forum
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Titre Figure 7. Online student participation in the creative writing distance course (2016-2017 Summative assessment only, 2017-2018 Continuous assessment, 2018-2019 Continuous and peer assessment).
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Fichier image/png, 79k
Fichier image/png, 167k
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Alison Bouhmid, « Diversity in Creative Writing Workshops: the Case of Undergraduates studying English as a Foreign Language »Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues [En ligne], Vol. 38 N°1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2019, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Alison Bouhmid

Alison Bouhmid est agrégée d'anglais et membre du centre de recherche EMMA (EA741) à l'université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 où elle enseigne depuis 2013 en anglais Lansad, après quatorze années passées dans l’enseignement secondaire. Dans une démarche de recherche-action, elle s’intéresse à l’écriture créative, particulièrement dans le contexte de l’apprentissage de l’anglais comme langue étrangère.

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