Creative Writing Through Letters (Secondary Education)

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  • 8/13/2019 Creative Writing Through Letters (Secondary Education)

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    Dario Luis Banegas

    Using Letters to Tell Stories

    in the EFL Classroom

    Writing letters, or any writ-

    ing process, may be met-

    aphorically compared to

    weaving (Broukal 2002). When we

    weave stories, one thread may be our

    personal life, another thread may beour imagination, and other threads

    may come from our social experiences

    and how they affect us in some way or

    another. In addition, writing as weav-

    ing may be realised when we develop

    a story within another story or piece

    of writing. In this sense, our students

    can weave stories through letters, forexample. In this article I share two

    ways in which letters can be used to

    tell stories with different groups of

    learners, beginners and advanced, and

    in so doing develop their English lan-

    guage learning.

    Based on some theoretical concepts

    that connect English as a Foreign Lan-guage (EFL) learning with authentic-

    ity and communicative competence,

    I will describe two activities I have

    explored with secondary school learn-

    ers. The first activity is part of a lesson

    that involves writing letters to intro-

    duce oneself to a group of beginning

    learners. The second activity, targeted

    at advanced teenage learners, dem-

    onstrates how an epistolary storya

    story told by a series of diary entries,

    letters, or other types of writingcan

    encourage creative writing and lan-guage improvement. This activity may

    be carried out during a long period of

    time, and its end product is the collec-

    tion of epistolary stories.

    Letters as authentic

    language use

    Why letters? Letters are power-

    ful vehicles that support authentic

    and purposeful writing development

    in our lessons and courses (Wood-

    ward 2001). Letters with authors and

    addressees who are real people in the

    real world help teachers and learners

    understand the full meaning of what

    communication for interactional pur-

    poses (Adamson 2004) and commu-

    nicative competence entail (Nunan

    2004; Savignon 2007).

    Let me unpack some of the con-

    cepts introduced above. By communica-

    tive competence, I mean the ability to use

    a language socially in a given context for

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    meaningful purposes, regardless of whether itis our first, second, or foreign language. Weuse the language to communicate something,such as our ideas, our feelings, our identities.Because this competence assumes that we use

    the language for socialisation, this means thatwe use the language to interact with others.We engage in conversation. We create oral orwritten texts to position ourselves. Throughspoken or written language, we construct ourvoice and identity (Silva and Brice 2004).

    When we use the language for interactionalpurposesthat is, to talk with othersthe useof language becomes not only meaningful butalso authentic. The dialogues or written textswe produce when we interact with others areexamples of language authenticity in the sensethat the products of our communications havenot been specifically developed to teach, forexample, EFL (Gilmore 2007). The use ofauthentic texts does not mean that they havenative speakers involved; their nature is notpedagogical in principle. The use of authen-tic sources in teaching provides our learnerswith meaningful examples of language use.Real authentic materials are those texts thatgenerate an authentic response from learnersmotivated to engage in interaction with oth-ers (Cunningsworth 1995; Peacock 1997).Judged by these concepts, letters represent an

    authentic and meaningful use of the language,and therefore our learners benefit from theirincorporation into our classroom practices.

    Based on these concepts, I will now exploretwo activities in connection with letters.

    Introducing myself through a letter

    Most EFL teachers are well acquaintedwith the reading/writing activity in whichbeginning students read a letter from a char-acter their age who introduces himself orherself, and then the students answer some

    comprehension questions and reply to thatletter following an introducing myself out-line included in their textbook. Even thoughthis activity is helpful as a warm-up, it lacksauthenticity and meaning, as learners write aletter to a fictitious character. They see littlevalue, if any, in writing a letter when theyknow in advance that nobody will read sucha letter, except for the teacher for assessmentpurposes. Because I was interested in add-ing an authentic meaningful dimension to

    this activity, I decided to write a letter to mylearners myself as an introduction. Based onmy initial letter, I started a letter exchange ina class of beginning learners aged 1112 in astate secondary school. Such an activity mayprove significant in those classrooms wherelearners meet their EFL teacher for the firsttime. Because it may be time consuming, Isuggest exploring this activity with one classper term. This letter-writing activity may becarried out as part of a lesson as follows.

    Activity: A Letter from Me

    Class:Beginning EFL learnersMaterials:Copies of a letter found in an EFLtextbook, a small box, paper, and envelopesTime required:One to two weeks, dependingon class size

    A. Before the lesson:1. Write a letter to each learner of your

    chosen class. Use simple language inwhich you introduce yourself. Try touse neat handwriting. Address each let-ter personally by using Dear (learnersname). If you think this will taketoo much time, you can photocopythis letter and then add your learnersnames. There is no need to worry aboutauthenticity loss due to photocopying.

    You wrote the letter yourself to get toknow your students, and it will producean authentic response anyway.

    2. In the letter, tell them who you are,where you come from, where you stud-ied, some information about your fam-ily, and your likes and dislikes as regardsmusic, films, food, sports, and hobbies.You may attach a picture of yourself.

    3. Put each letter in an envelope. Writeyour name in the upper left-hand cor-ner and the addressees name in thecentre of the envelope. Take the lettersto the class in a small box, which youmay decorate by making it look as if itis from the post office.

    B. During the lesson:1. In pairs, ask students to think about

    the use of letters in the modern world.What are letters for? Who writes letters?Why do some people prefer letters overemails or vice versa?

    2. Hand out copies of the letter taken

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    from a textbook. Read the letter aloud.Then, ask learners to read it silently.Nominate some learners to read italoud to practise pronunciation.

    3. Ask some comprehension questions.You can invite learners to come to theboard to write your questions and theiranswers.

    4. Lead students to notice the structureof the letter. Where is the date? Whowrites the letter? Who is it for? Howmany paragraphs are there? What iseach paragraph about?

    5. Now, help students become aware oflanguage use. What verbs does the writeruse? What pronouns? What linkers doesthe writer use? Are there any words orphrases the students do not understand?

    6. Announce that you have received let-ters addressed to your learners. Youcan either ask them to come to the boxand find theirs, or deliver each letteryourself.

    7. For homework, ask students to reply toyour letter. When they are happy withtheir reply, they can drop it in the boxyou leave in the classroom.

    C. After the lesson:

    Depending on your learners permission

    and confidence, once you collect their let-ters, you can read them aloud in class. Youcan turn this follow-up activity into a gameby reading a letter and asking the class toguess who the author is.

    Possible variations

    If you do not have access to a let-ter from a textbook, you can write ashort letter where an imaginary studentaddresses a student in another country.You can hand out this letter instead ofone from a textbook.

    If your learners are true beginners, youmay provide them with a template sothat they complete sentences or followa more guided letter-writing task.

    If the learners do not know one anoth-er, you can ask them to write theirnames on a slip of paper. Then eachstudent can pick a name and write aletter to that peer.

    You may want to discourage the use ofemails. It is difficult to monitor and it

    may be sensitive from a personal or pri-vate viewpoint. We are their teachers,not their friends.

    By engaging learners in this activity, teach-ers will help them activate their foreign lan-

    guage repertoire and, above all, the learners willvalue the act of writing a letter. First, teachersbecome a model by writing personalised lettersand fully involving themselves in the activity.Second, learners will be able to use the text-book letter and the teachers letter as modelsfor their own letter. Third, language revisionand learning appear in context, making iteasier to engage learners in language awarenessstrategies. Instead of telling them how languageworks, teachers can lead them in such a waythat learners discover grammar rules, vocabu-

    lary meaning, and letter discourse features bythemselves (Mohamed 2004). Fourth, learnerscan weave stories in their letters. In this case,letters become an open door to tell their ownstory, their autobiography. However, it is theirright to decide how much they want to discloseto others. Still, the way learners write their let-ters will help teachers to see how they constructtheir identities as learners.

    Teachers may be surprised at how theirlearners English improves, not because ofdrilling or focused grammar practice, butmainly because of their enhanced motivation:the letters they write are going to be read bysomeone real, someone who is their teacher orpeer. In addition, giving learners the chance toedit their own letters and use them to noticehow language works involves them in theprocess and supports autonomous learning. Ihave even noticed that some learners transferwhat they learn about letters in the EFL class-room to their first language.

    While writing letters to introduce oneselfmay actually be explored with all levels of learn-ers, using letters to tell a storythat is, letters

    as ways to express our creative writing poten-tialmay work better with advanced learners.

    In the next section, I will explain howletters can be used to create epistolary storieswritten through letter exchanges. This activityis also grounded in language authenticity andcommunicative competence, and the storiesare written by learners themselves with thepurpose of sharing their creative writing andimagination with their peers and teacher.Language learning is peripheral in a way,

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    since learners will primarily engage in writingstories through exchanging letters. This is thefocus of the following activityto use thelanguage meaningfully.

    Epistolary creative writing

    I first explored this activity with a groupof advanced seventeen-year-old learners in asecondary school mainstream EFL class. Mychallenge as a teacher was to exploit theirknowledge of English by providing them withmore opportunities for language improve-ment. Therefore, I decided to enrich theirlearning experience by adding a Literaturesection focusing on the epistolary technique atthe end of each unit in the syllabus.

    Before students begin this activity, it isimportant to illustrate how authors use theepistolary technique to write letters that makeup a short story or novel. The plot of a novel,for example, is developed as the reader goesthrough the letters that shape the novel. Epis-tolary novels do not usually have chapters.Instead, they are divided into sections thatcontain letters arranged chronologically. Whilesome epistolary novels show the letters of onlyone character writing, others are a collectionof letters exchanged between two or morecharacters. Some famous epistolary novels areThe Color Purpleby Alice Walker (1982); The

    Perks of Being a Wallflowerby Stephen Chbosky(1999); The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot(2002); and We Need to Talk about Kevin byLionel Shriver (2004). In addition, I have alsocome across Whos Cribbing?, a short epistolaryscience fiction tale by Jack Lewis (1992).

    In my teaching, I have used The ColorPurpleto generate fruitful discussions aroundthorny issues. I have adapted some of theletters to suit my learners language level bysimplifying vocabulary and sentence structurewithout changing the message the author

    sought to convey. Because this novel may raisecontroversial issues, teachers may use othernovels instead. Together with reading excerptsfrom an epistolary novel, learners may alsobe encouraged to develop their creative writ-ing skills by resorting to weaving their ownstories together. One of the topics added tomy Literature section was Letters, whichdemonstrated the use of writing of a shortstory through letters. I will explain now howthis activity may be carried out.

    Activity: Epistolary Stories

    Class:Advanced learnersMaterials:PaperTime required:About one month

    A. During the lesson:1. Each learner writes a letter to Dear

    you. Included in the letter is the begin-ning of a true, fictionalised, or imagi-nary story. The learners begin by settingtheir story in time and place and pre-senting what the problem or situation is,but they do not offer much information;this way, they can be asked for moredetails in the next letter. Each learnersigns the letter with his or her real name.

    2. Collect the letters and distribute them,making sure nobody receives his or her

    own letter.3. Ask learners to reply to the letter.

    In their response they need to ask,And then what happened? so that thethread of the story develops, thus main-taining interest in the letter exchange.When the original authors continue thestory in subsequent letters, they will doit from the point of view of their owncharacter, and what started as facts maybecome fiction.

    4. Now that each learner has a letter

    relationship with another peer, ask theclass to continue for a month or for acertain number of exchanges. In mycase, learners were able to write threeletters each. Each learner will alwaysexchange back and forth with the samepeer until the stories are wrapped up.Learners may find it more useful if theywrite the letters at home and ask youfor support now and then.

    B. After the lesson:1. While learners develop their stories

    through the letter exchanges, organisesome feedback sessions to provide lan-guage support.

    2. Once they reach the second exchange,organise a brainstorming session insmall groups in which learners discussways of keeping the readers inter-est and ways of motivating the writ-er to continue developing his or herstory. You can give suggestions, such asMake use of foreshadowin...

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