The greatest creative writing activity ever

UPDATE: This post was awarded the British Council’s Teaching English blog award for February, 2013. Thanks to all those who voted for my work, you’re awesome.


This post is a response to a question posed on the British Council’s Teaching English page on Facebook: ‘Have you got a favourite lesson plan or class activity that you come back to and use again and again? What does it consist of? What makes it work?

Ok, let me dive straight into it. This is an activity that I’ve used probably with every class I’ve taught in the last twelve years.

First, I’ll describe the activity, and then I’ll tell you why it’s great.

1. Write the following questions on the board

  • How long have you been on the planet?
  • Why did you go there?
  • Describe the two people who are with you.
  • Why is your spaceship damaged?
  • When you decided to leave your ship, how far did you walk?
  • What were you looking for?
  • When did you realise that someone was following you?
  • Describe the creature.
  • While you were running away, you tripped and fell. What happened?
  • What was the big surprise at the end of your story?

2. Explain what the learners are going to do

  • You are going to write a paragraph that tells a story.
  • Your paragraph will be a response to these questions.
  • Any sentence you write is OK, but you must follow the sequence of questions.
  • You can ask me for help while you are writing.

3. Go through one or two questions with the group

What kind of language might we use to answer the first question?

  • ‘We have been on the planet for two weeks / since last month’
  • ‘We arrived here yesterday’

How would we describe the people who are with us?

4. Assign a period of time for learners to write

Twenty minutes is long enough for most to finish.

5. As learners finish, get them to swap their stories with each other and let them read.

This keeps the early finishers busy, while the slower writers aren’t disturbed and can get on with their writing.

Why does this work so well?

1. You can adapt this to the level of your class.

For instance, you can phrase the questions so that they are all in the simple past, if that’s what you wish to practice.

‘When did you arrive on the planet?’
‘Why did you leave your friends?’

You can equally make it more complex:

Parallel past continuous

‘While you were escaping, what was chasing you?’

Passive structures

‘Describe the creature you were being followed by.’

Look, it's really quite simple...
Look, it’s really quite simple…

2. It is structured and yet very creative

The format, in which the progression of the paragraph follows the questions, creates a comfortable framework to work in. Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of freedom for each learner to express themselves when answering each individual question. You are guaranteed to be bombarded with questions about the adjectives they want to use for description and verbs they need for specific actions. The questions are designed so that they always lead on from the previous, regardless of how that question has been answered.

3. It’s adaptable

I use the above model with my teenage university students. I’ve changed the setting to a car that’s broken down near a scary haunted house for adult learners, and even a car breaking down on the way to a business meeting in a business English class.

This method can also be applied when teaching it to students with disabilities and learning impairments.

The series of questions doesn’t only help to get the concept of English grammar, but it also helps to see how students react when facing a specific situation. Similar techniques have been added to online programs that give future teachers the right tools to take care of special need students. If you wish to learn more about advance training in special education, you can visit this page. It will give you all the information needed to become a teacher and open the door to many career opportunities.

Have fun and let me know if you use this

As I said, this is an old favourite, not just of mine but of every learner I’ve used it with. I should mention that I can’t take credit for this; it’s an adaptation of a similar activity in an ancient – i.e. from the 1990s – resource book called ‘Recipes for Tired Teachers.’

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76 thoughts on “The greatest creative writing activity ever”

  1. Adam,

    Wonderful to see this – can easily see why you use it so often (and with so many different groups). I’m gonna show my “age” and tell you that I also remember the original version of this lesson – your upgrade is way cooler 🙂

    Cheers, my man 🙂


    1. Thanks, Tony.

      Like I said, this is an old classic and it really has stood the test of time. For me, it’s one of those rare activities that has the perfect blend of scaffolding and freedom for creative thought.

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    1. As far as I recall (I consigned this entire lesson to memory years ago), this is fundamentally the same as it the plan that was originally described to me by a colleague back in the day. As far as I know, ‘Recipes for Tired Teachers’ is still available, although there’s a fairly good chance that even that book’s activity was inspired by another source further back in time.

      Let me know if you try this out and/or adapt it, Leo.

  3. Hi Adam,

    Thanks so much for responding with this great blog post to my question on TeachingEnglish Facebook.
    Really like that your activity is so adaptable and allows scope for the strengths and weaknesses of all learners with natural follow on work available for fast finishers.
    All in all, a very complete and well integrated class activity. Will definitely earmark it for the shortlist of next month’s TeachingEnglish blog award as well as trying it out in my classes!


    1. Thanks, Ann. Your work on the Teaching English is very much appreciated. While this is something that has been kicking around in my head for ages, it hadn’t occurred to me to write it up as a blog post until I saw the question on the page.

      The Teaching English page is such a valuable resource. Blogging can be an incredibly lonely business and the opportunities you present for us to share our work as well as learn from others shouldn’t be underestimated.

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  5. Hi Adam,

    This is such a brilliant activity, isn’t it? Flips the standard ‘reading comprehension question’-type questions on their heads and turns them into stimuli for hopefully quite creative writing. And really it’s a technique you could use for almost any text-type, all you need to do is tweak the questions. Because, I guess it’s really just a way of conferencing between student and teacher during the writing process, just that no interaction in terms of teachers and students talking together is necessary (although you do provide opportunity for students to ask questions if they want to).

    My personal adap is to make it a bit more collaborative at the final writing stage, encouraging students to put their answers together and edit them into a (nonsense) story:

    I also make a bit of play of pretending to have forgotten the reading text 😉



    1. Thanks for the link to your post, Mike. I think that’s one of your I might have missed.

      This really is an incredibly adaptable activity, all you need to do is make sure that one question leads on naturally from the previous (I learned this the hard way). As far as student-teacher interaction goes, I have to say that you’ll find yourself monitoring like crazy during this activity, as there will be questions galore.

      I like your idea of collaboration, that’s something I’ll consider during future ‘renditions’.

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  8. Hi Adam,

    I guess this is the very best way to make use of any lesson idea we may have stumbled upon, right?! I haven’t really seen the original activity – which may also be a good thing re. my age – but I honestly don’t feel the need to see it. I’ll certainly share this one and let’s see what will come of it when I have the chance to try it out.


    1. Thanks, Henrick. Like I said, I’^m not trying to claim that this is one of my own original ideas (I wonder if there is anything original left for us to contribute?), this is just a way that I’ve found to make this consistently effective and yet fun at the same time.

    1. Strangely enough, I’ve always found this to be a good activity for the end of the day, when they’re looking bored and/or are lacking energy. It seems to inspire a surge of creativity from somewhere.

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  12. I like this activity. Thanks. I’m wondering though what difference it would make if you laid out the questions one at a time? That is, rather than put them all up ask the class the first question and only when they’ve answered it give them the next one. It might make for some interesting responses. I’ll have to try it out!

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  21. I tried this Activity today with my High School Special Education ELA students as a guided writing, and they loved it! I am definitely going to have to borrow this to help them model and do other types of writing for me! I have always had a hard time getting them to get creative without me being right there. We did a think side and then a sentence side on my white board while I did the draft on a huge post-it note! I have posted our draft on my blog and I shared your post with my colleges. I found you through my Zite!

    1. Thanks, Angela. Whatever the time of day, whatever the stage of the course, whatever the profile of the learners, this activity has never let either me or the learners down.

      I’m really pleased to have been able to share this and am equally glad it’s working we’ll for you.

  22. Hi Adam,
    This is really helpful for a teacher like me who’s struggling to make a class more engaging and meaningful. I’m definitely going to try this in my class.

    Congrats on being selected for the teaching English post of the month.


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  24. Hi Adam,
    As already mentioned, it is always great to have reminders and upgrades of traditional things. I will use it next time the way you created it. Well done!

  25. Hi, I am an English teacher and rapper. I like this activity very much and think the prompts might work interestingly when teaching pacing in writing.
    Also, I think I am going to try this activity today, but I would like to give one prompt at a time so there is an element of surprise along the way.

  26. My students love this lesson! They want me to do it once a week and they are 18-24 years old! Awesome! Thanks for sharing!

  27. Have you ever used this with elementary aged children? I like the suggestion someone had of only putting one question up at a time. I wonder if this might work better for younger students; however, having them all up at one time might be good to account for the variety in speed the kids might be capable of.

  28. Thanks for this! Used it in a creative writing class I taught today with my mental health clients, and it worked pretty well (I work in an unlocked board and care facility assisting those diagnosed with schizophrenia). Now I’m looking into the “Recipes” book for more ideas- do you have any other similar resources/writing approaches?

  29. Thanks, my class enjoyed doing this. I added a couple of followup activities to allow students to look at each others work, and practice some gist and detailed reading. First I stuck all the finished paragraphs around the class, and students walked around and choose the scariest/stupidest/most beautiful/etc story (gist reading task). Then as a fun finishing activity, I redistributed the paragraphs and students drew a 3 panel comic strip based on the story (to get them to read in detail).

    1. Fantastic stuff, Kyle. Great to hear that you took this idea in such a great new direction; I may well try that myself!

  30. I’m using this with 7th graders for A Wrinkle in Time. We do a lot of descriptive writing for this unit and this is perfect! We’re doing the activity with the questions going up one at a time and then the next day we’re looking through our word choice to talk about specific verbs and adjectives, and elaboration. Thanks for this!

  31. Hello. I’m pretty sure I came across an explanation of your adult version (breaking down outside a haunted house) some time ago. I thought this was brilliant and wanted to use it in my own workshop but, since then, I’ve never been able to find it! Is there any chance you could refresh my memory?

    I’d be massively grateful!

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