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Thursday, 30 April 2009

Teaching Discursive or Creative Writing

Why isn’t creative writing taught in Thailand in general?

At first glance this may seem like a silly questions, but why aren’t there that many courses that teach the basics of creative forms of expression in writing in Thailand, instead of students simply being asked to regurgitate, often with parrot-like efficiency, the input from the teacher in the lesson using continually unchanging media? Surely, it can’t just be because local educators feel that Thai students aren’t up to the task for that would be a complete cop out, right?

I did a quick search on and came up with the following schools which do or have provided ‘creative’ writing modules in Thailand in the past: Ruam Rudee International School, Thammasat University, Mahidol University International College, Lanna International School, The American School of Bangkok, Australian International School Bangkok and the International School of Bangkok.

Whilst this list is not meant to be exhaustive, if you look long enough, you’ll soon start to see a pattern develop. In other words, where it is offered, it’s usually at a high-end school such as those above, not in the Thai National Curriculum, and most definitely not at the lower end of the educational scale e.g. in the temple schools or poorer Thai schools.

The traditional model
Most teachers reading this will be familiar with the basic mainstay of EFL teaching e.g. Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. These subjects are traditionally taught using the three Ps: Presentation, Practice, Production – the standard TEFL methodology. EAL, ESOL, EAP, TPR, and other teaching methods have their own working dynamics, but often incorporate some or all of this approach, too.

Within each of these subjects is a variety of ways of developing skills to get the message across, and the learning outcome achieved, so for example, in Reading, a student learns strategies such as skimming and scanning, understanding paraphrasing, summarising, and various lexical sets of vocabulary etc., etc.

Listening too will have its own sets of approaches, such as, pre-listening activities, listening to CDs, note taking skills, and so on. Likewise, Writing has a fixed way of being taught in general which usually involves the teacher setting up an assignment with clear objectives, and the student being required to produce a completed written text of varying lengths whether as a controlled activity or a freer based one.

However, what’s noticeable about typical Writing courses, certainly where Thailand is concerned, is that they rarely ever deviate from what could be called the standard ‘norm’ or regular practice, as the output is always related to something outside of the student.

For example, if the writing task is a Geography assignment: writing about the evolution of an earthquake, or in Literature: writing about the meaning of a Shakespearean sonnet, the student is merely required to react to the media e.g. give a written opinion or evaluation of it, not be proactive – not create an original medium themselves.

In the world of EFL, the task might be to write about a story or set of facts presented using a CD or a reading text, but it would always be based on the story as listened to or read, not a story that came from the student’s own life experience. Why is this so?

Defining creative writing
By creative writing, I don’t just mean the very narrow definition of ‘storytelling’ with characters, plots, and dialogue, though in my humble opinion, these are equally valid mediums for a language-learning classroom. What I mean is a much broader definition e.g. journalism, poetry, personal narratives, short stories, family histories, indeed the whole gamut discursive writing has to offer.

A lot of my own teaching experience (certainly related to the teaching of writing) has only ever been in a middle ranking Thai university and a couple of private language schools, or when teaching business writing, although I can safely say that in my twelve years here in the Kingdom, I have rarely ever heard about any Thai schools that offer such a program, which should tell you a lot.

The fact is that the high-end schools know the value of such programs, yet it’s still not clear why they are more likely to offer them when there really isn’t that much extra to consider by way of additional cost? Given all that’s needed is to hire an industry qualified professional in accepted writing practices, someone with a reasonable amount of experience, it obviously must be for another reason, so why don’t we see more of these types of programs?

So, again, I repeat my original questions - Why isn’t creative writing taught in Thailand in general?

The advantages
There is a huge number of advantages, a few of which I’ll list a few here. When you teach a child how to write a sentence or paragraph, using input from his or her own life, there is a sudden and dramatic interest in the child’s level of interest because now, that child has something invested in his or her education.

They are not simply learning by rote e.g. a process paragraph on how to write about the dynamics of photosynthesis in a Biology class, or how to calculate the time difference between Sydney and Chiang Mai in a Geography class. Here they are invited to write about the world around them in a way that automatically necessitates that they include their own views and place within it.

It also encourages them to reflect on different techniques that strengthen their writing: the use of appropriate words to provide the required register, the targeting of sentences and meaning to reach different audiences, the use of figurative language e.g. metaphors, similes, idioms etc., etc., and the effect that has when compared to more literal forms.

One of my own earliest experiences of creative writing was in a classroom in the UK when I was about eleven. The teacher asked us all to create a story using only our imagination. I wrote a story about the God Thor from Norse Mythology who drove a truck and beat up bad guys. However, what was so memorable to me about this is it opened my eyes to the power of language and how I, a small child could create something literally out of the thoughts in my head.

One of the creative writing programs I took a look at is Lanna International School, which I have to say, looks really great. Here are a few more advantages creative writing brings courtesy of their own website:

Statement of Purpose: The course is designed to be studied by students wishing to extend their creative use of the English language. Students following this course will learn to:

ท enjoy the experience of writing without being penalised for mistakes in usage;
ท understand the structure of different types of writing;
ท demonstrate ability to communicate stories, thoughts, and experiences through writing;
ท appreciate different ways in which writers achieve their effects;
ท see writing as a means of social action in areas of human concern;
ท enjoy and appreciate variety of language;
ท understand themselves and others better through writing;
ท free themselves of writer‘s block through creative activity;
ท prepare a portfolio of publishable-quality writing;
ท originate and/or edit school paper articles.

( Reproduced here by kind permission of the Headmaster of Lanna International School, Mr. Roy Lewis.)

Success Stories
You don’t have to be a genius to see that there are a lot of advantages in encouraging students to be more creative and expressive in their writing. Lanna International School produced three recent winners out of the five awards in a Dublin based competition to find winners of the 4th Junior IMPAC Dublin Literary Awards for Thailand, Northern region.

The winners were announced in a ceremony held on January 11th, at Citylife Magazine - the regional coordinator for the contest. The essay-writing contest was open to Thai students aged 14-18, writing in English on the topic “If We Could Change the World.”

The conclusion
Instead of simply putting your kid into a regular school which will provide him or her with a sound basis in the Three Rs, step back and think a bit more about what other opportunities are open to your child to make him or her a more rounded individual.

If you want him to know what the present perfect tense is, how to score well on an IELTS test, or how to say hello to your English-speaking guests, then put him or her into a traditional school where they’ll be fine.

However, if you also want your child to be able to give his opinion about a current topic in the news, or to be able to tell a story using well-known narrative elements, then enroll your child in a school that will provide all the necessary language skills, so that child is equipped throughout his or her life to be able to communicate in a much more creative way.


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