Using Creativity as a Catalyst: Boosting Creative Skills in the ESL Classroom

(Articles for ESL/EFL Teachers)

by Hall Houston


For the past year, I've been teaching English at National Dong Hua University in Shou Feng, Taiwan. The university has a beautiful campus with a lake, mountains and clear blue skies. It was in this idyllic setting that I became inspired to teach thinking skills (creativity and critical thinking) in my freshman English classes.

In a book called Cracking Creativity by Michael Michalko, I came across a series of exercises with intriguing names such as fishbone diagrams, lotus blossom, and clustering. These exercises are used by businesspeople to generate more ideas. I found similar books by Roger von Oech and Arthur van Gundy.

As I used these exercises in my classes, I noticed students were motivated to say more and write more. Students enjoyed expressing their ideas and sharing them in groups. They were no longer passively waiting for the bell, but actively involved in the lesson. I witnessed that creativity can act as a catalyst to increase participation and aid fluency.

This article summarizes what I've learned about creativity. It also contains some practical ideas that you can use your classroom today.


Creativity has become a major buzzword in recent years. Scholars in the arts, psychology, business, education, and science are all working to gain a deeper understanding of this abstract concept. The purpose of this paper is to explain how an emphasis on creativity can motivate our students to develop fluency in English. I will give some definitions of creativity, list some basic creative skills that can be taught, give do's and don'ts of cultivating creativity, and list some practical ideas for the classroom.

Robert J. Sternberg, a creativity expert and Yale professor of psychology, defines creativity as "the ability to produce work that is both novel (original) and appropriate (applicable to the situation)". This definition is useful, as we aim for our students to use language in a unique way, but in a way that is recognized as grammatically correct and communicatively competent.

Most scholars say there are two types of creativity: big "C" creativity (genius level thinking that results in artistic masterpieces and scientific breakthroughs) and little "C" creativity (everyday creativity that can be used in any situation). Our emphasis here is on the latter. While it goes without saying that any of our students could go on to be the next Picasso or Pavarotti, the aim here is to help students produce more ideas and use language in new ways.

Creative Skills

There are four major creative skills that can be taught to students:

Fluency - the ability to produce a large number of ideas
Flexibility - the ability to make connections between unrelated concepts
Originality - the ability to make unique ideas
Elaboration - the ability to manipulate and idea and work on it until it is well-formed

(Fredericks 2005)

Let's examine these four skills in the context of the language classroom. The first skill is important in the early stages of writing an essay or a speech. Students need to be able to conjure up a wide range of ideas that they can choose from when doing creative work. The second skill allows students to produce impressive metaphors and analogies that expand thinking. The third skill is important for anyone who wants to bring something new into the world. Students must learn how to think independently, and not simply parrot what others have said. The fourth skill is the most practical. Students need to be able to take their ideas and develop them into a finished product that their peers would recognize as complete.

Hindrances to Creativity

When teaching, it is important to realize certain behaviors can prevent students from developing creatively. These include:

Too much interference - when we hover over students and try to control every aspect of the lesson, it stifles creativity. It's better to give students some freedom to figure things out themselves.
Competition - while language learning games are useful and fun, competition has a negative effect on creative development.
Evaluation and rewards - students are less likely to do creative work in the atmosphere of being evaluated and rewarded for their own behavior. Give them some activities without rewards or evaluation.

(Amabile 1996)

Creativity Boosters

There are many things a teacher can do to help creativity flourish:

Seek out new texts, realia, songs, music, and other things that might stimulate students' imagination.

Get out of a rut. You might try putting practice before presentation, or testing students before you begin the lesson. Plan a surprise or two. Look for activities you have never tried before.

Encourage students to produce more than one answer to questions. Don't let them settle one one solution to a problem. It's better to get them thinking of alternatives.

Ask lots of questions and get students producing questions as well. The best kinds of questions are open questions, as well as questions you don't know the answer to.

Try techniques used in creativity training such as Six Thinking Hats, PMI, and SCAMPER. A good place to start is the list of creativity activities at Mycoted or the Creativity Web.

Obviously, some of the ideas in the last two sections might run counter to your teaching style. They are intended as suggestions for developing creativity, not absolute rules on how to teach in every situation.

10 Practical Ideas

The following are suggestions for activities that can develop creativity. These are based on the suggestions of several creativity experts. Read them over and use them to generate ideas for your next lesson.

Input - Bring interesting and unusual things to class to keep students involved. Examples include pictures, realia, artwork, music, fragrances, etc.

Humor - One great resource of linguistic ingenuity is humor. Comedians are some of the most creative people around.

Random Input - Here the emphasis is on choosing something randomly and responding to it. A page from a magazine, dictionary, encyclopedia, classic novel, etc.

Metaphors and similes - Thinking in metaphors and similes is great for improving thinking skills. Metaphors encourage making connections between two very different things.

Opposites - Challenge students to think of the opposite of a word, a thing, or a situation.

Different perspectives - Tell students to think about things from several different points of view.

Imagine - Students can close their eyes and enter a fantasy world.

Maps and diagrams - Mind mapping, Venn diagrams, and fishbone diagrams are just a few examples of how students can organize their thoughts on paper.

Combinations - Students can combine ideas, images, or words to produce new creations.

Brainstorming - This well-known activity has students working in a group thinking of ideas or solutions based on a problem statement.

Before you move on to the next paragraph, I'd like you to turn to your current teaching materials and find a page you plan to teach soon. Go over these 10 ideas and look for ways to implement these suggestions. Can you find a way to integrate them into your lesson plans?

Now I will show you some examples of how these 10 suggestions could be used along with a sample textbook unit. (Keep in mind these are only suggestions. You might have even better ideas.) Let's say that Monday morning you have a unit about a man who has a job interview.

Input - Bring in a short film clip of someone having a job interview. Ask students to respond to the film clip, either orally or in writing.

Humor - Put students in groups and ask them to create a humorous skit about a job interview.

Random input - Call a student to the front of the class. Student opens up a dictionary at random and points at a word. Ask the class to make some connection between this word and the subject of job interviews.

Metaphors and similes - Write the following up on the board:

A JOB INTERVIEW IS LIKE ___________________________________.

Call on a student to say the first noun he or she thinks of. Ask another student to explain the simile.

Opposites - Read out a sentence from the book. Ask students to write down the opposite of the sentence. (They will most likely come up with very different ideas of what the opposite of the sentence is.)

Different perspectives - After studying the chapter, get students to write about the interview from 2 different perspectives, the interviewer and the job applicant.

Imagine - Turn off the lights. Tell students to be quiet and close their eyes. Narrate the story of a job interview that has some similarities to the interview in the textbook. Don't describe everything, but give them a chance to speculate how the interviewer is dressed, how the room looks, the job applicant's facial expressions, etc. Turn the lights on and ask students some of the interesting details they remember.

Maps and diagrams - Have students create their own mind maps on the subject of job interviews. Have them compare their mind maps in groups of 4. Ask each group to send the student with the best mind map to draw it on the board.

Combinations - Choose 2 pictures from the book, show them to the class, and invite students to combine them mentally, and describe this combination.

Brainstorming - Put students in small groups and ask them to brainstorm 10 things everyone should do before a job interview.


In conclusion, I feel that thinking skills, such as creative and critical thinking, are often overlooked in the ESL classroom. Creativity is a practical skill that can be used outside of school, in one's own personal and professional life. I would encourage readers of this article to consider promoting development of thinking skills in their own lessons.


Amabile, T.M. (1996). Creativity in Context. Boulder, CO. Westview Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1997). Creativity. New York, NY. Harper Collins.
Fredericks, Anthony D., Ph.D. (2005). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Success as a Teacher. New York, N.Y. Alpha.
Houston, Hall. (2007). The Creative Classroom: Teaching Languages Outside the Box. Vancouver. Lynx Publishing.
Michalko, Michael. (1998). "Thinking Like a Genius: Eight Strategies Used by the Supercreative". The Futurist.
Michalko, Michael. (2001). Cracking Creativity. Berkeley, CA. Ten Speed Press.
Sternberg, Robert J.(1984). Beyond IQ. Cambridge University Press.
Sternberg, Robert J., and Wendy Williams. (1996). How to Develop Student Creativity. Alexandria, VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Torrance, E. Paul. (1977). Creativity in the Classroom. National Education Association.
Von Oech, Roger (1998). A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York, NY. Warner Books.

This book was originally published in ESL Magazine.
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