Want to boost language learning? Be creative

Could the recent slump in modern languages entries be down to students being put off by boring texts? Researchers Suzanne Graham and Linda Fisher put this idea to the test, and found that a broader range of literature and more creative teaching reaped rewards
27th September 2019, 12:03am
Want To Boost Language Learning? Be Creative


Want to boost language learning? Be creative


Describe your living room. Tell me about your local town. What is in your pencil case?

These requests are not the most inspiring starters for a conversation. They certainly would not inspire you to overcome the struggles of learning a new language in order to communicate your ideas and opinions: who wants to wax lyrical about the number of hairdressers and bakers in their home town?

And yet such functional questions are frequently used in language learning in the UK. We suspect that this is driving potential learners to boredom and leading them to ditch languages altogether. Are we right? Our research project, Linguistic Creativity in Language Learning, should tell us. It is exploring the impact of using poems (about such themes as love, death and migration) and different teaching approaches (“creative” versus “functional”) on 14-year-old language learners’ motivation and creativity levels.

Before beginning our classroom-based research, we wanted to understand why pupils weren’t choosing to continue with language study to GCSE level and beyond. We asked around 550 French and German learners (14-year-olds) whether they planned to continue studying languages in the future and what they thought of language learning. We also used a metaphor elicitation task to gain a greater understanding of how they viewed language learning, asking the pupils to finish the following sentence: “Learning a language is like …”

The results showed that, contrary to popular belief, most thought that it was important to learn a language, but this did not have an impact on whether they intended to continue with language study. What did impact on their decisions was instead whether they could imagine themselves using the languages in their future lives, and how confident they were in being able to express their thoughts and feelings in the language.

The metaphors revealed the learners’ lack of efficacy or self-belief in being able to achieve in language learning: “Learning a language is like trying to ice skate - I keep falling over and can’t get the hang of it”; “Learning a language is like trying to fly … I just can’t do it”.

We wanted to see whether we could alter this negative self-perception regarding language learning by using creative teaching methods and texts. Could putting the emphasis on feelings and emotions (through the exploration of creative texts), rather than just on grammar and vocabulary, have an impact on a language learners’ efficacy? And what would be the effects on other aspects of language learning, such as vocabulary development?

We devised an intervention where we compared text types (literary versus factual) and teaching methodologies (creative versus functional). Briefly, in the creative approach, learners engage with the text primarily on the level of personal, emotional and imaginative response. In the functional approach, the focus is on the text as a vehicle for teaching language, vocabulary and grammar, and for developing the skill of identifying key information in a text on a factual level.

The first step was to find poems suitable for use with Year 9 learners. We chose six for French and six for German, in consultation with the teachers involved in the project.

We then modified another 12 authentic texts so that they contained the same core vocabulary and grammar structures as the other chosen poems and were of a comparable difficulty level.

Love, death and war

Next, we conducted baseline tests so that we could track the impact of the teaching materials and methodologies.

Then, in collaboration with language teachers, we developed around 50 PowerPoint presentations and lesson plans in French and German for the intervention phase. The themes we covered included some not often featured in language-teaching materials - for example, love, death and war. In the creative approach, we addressed them in some unusual ways.

Taking the poem Demain dès l’aube [Tomorrow, at dawn] by Victor Hugo as an example, instead of using the journey it outlines as a vehicle to teach and practise the future tense (the way the poem is often used), we drew learners’ attention to how the verbs used contribute to the poem’s mood, meaning and symbolism.

Other activities were designed to encourage openness to the poet’s perspective and a readiness to engage with the ambiguities of the poem, and to arouse a sense of empathy. Teaching materials used music and images alongside the spoken word to enhance the impact on learners, to not only heighten their engagement with the poem but also aid their understanding of its theme, stimulating their imagination and potentially leading to deeper processing of its language.

Half the classes we worked with used the literary texts, and half the usual factual texts. But each class was exposed to both teaching approaches in different phases.

We conducted tests with the pupils to track their performance. The research team also visited the participating schools often for lesson observations and to interview the teachers and learners on their thoughts.

The impact of the teaching materials and approaches was measured in four key areas: vocabulary, reading comprehension, writing and learners’ feedback. Overall, the results have been encouraging, although we are still in the process of finalising them.

Initial results suggest the following:

  • Both German and French learners saw a boost to their vocabulary acquisition during the project, far exceeding the average of 170 new words a year at key stage 3 level that has been recorded by research (Milton, 2006).
  • French learners, in particular, benefited from the new approaches, achieving an impressive increase of 400 words over the year.
  • Furthermore, learners of French made significantly greater gains when they experienced the creative teaching approach compared with the functional approach, regardless of which kind of text they read, poems or factual texts.
  • For reading comprehension, learners seem to have done best when the teaching approach matched the text type - ie, when they were taught using a creative approach combined with literary texts or when they were taught using the functional approach and read factual texts.
  • The key finding from the writing tests, for both the French and German learners, was that there was a negative relationship between making progress under the creative approach and making progress under the functional approach. In other words, learners who did well under one approach did much less well under the other, implying that different kinds of learners benefit from different kinds of instruction.
  • Interestingly, pupil feedback showed that, on average, French learners were more satisfied with the creative-teaching methodologies, whereas German learners reported that they found the more functional grammar and vocabulary activities as more helpful for learning.

Overall, the project has shown that no single type of teaching style or text type (creative or functional) suits all pupils.

However, there is a clear indication that vocabulary levels benefit from the more creative approach, for the learners of French in our project at least. The qualitative feedback from those pupils has also shown that using creative texts can lead to greater engagement with the texts and enjoyment from having the opportunity to learn how to express their feelings in another language. Teachers also reported that the project has “given me the courage to try out more ambitious things in my classroom”.

We are continuing to analyse our data, looking, for example, at whether the teaching approaches and texts had any impact on learners’ overall levels of more general creativity - for example, how likely they were to come up with more unusual ideas and ways of expressing themselves. In addition, we are analysing whether learners’ levels of overall academic attainment had any influence on how they reacted to our materials.

We are also putting together teaching materials that combine both a creative and a functional approach, in line with our findings that suggest that no single approach will help all learners (these will be freely available at bit.ly/CreativeMulti).

Suzanne Graham is a professor of language and education at the University of Reading and leads the Linguistic Creativity in Language Learning research strand. Linda Fisher is reader in languages education at the University of Cambridge, and is co-investigator on this research. This study was undertaken as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-supported Creative Multilingualism interdisciplinary research project

This article originally appeared in the 27 September 2019 issue under the headline “Get creative to halt the decline in languages”

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