EFL Student Story Writing: A Valuable Discovery
Educated in TESOL and Applied Linguistics in Vietnam, Australia, the US, and the UK, Dr. Phuong Le has worked as an EFL teacher educator and translator for 40 years in different contexts, which has enabled her to publish extensively on EFL issues over the years. Currently, she is lecturer of American literature at Phu Yen University, Vietnam and an independent IELTS trainer. Her professional interests include learners' creativity, intercultural communication, and language assessment. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
She would like to show great appreciation to all these students who have helped to make her teaching such a delightful experience. Without them, this article would not be possible.
Numerous efforts have been made to promote students’ creative writing skills among EFL students in various contexts (i.e. Le, 2016; Maloney, 2019; Manara, 2015; Maley, 2012; Pawliczak, 2015; Rippey, 2014; Şenel, 2018) to enhance their mental and emotional development, but this is not the case in Vietnam where creative writing is still largely neglected, especially for EFL high school students (Le, 2018). In this context, this article describes how Vietnamese school students responded to creative writing via their stories. This attempt is the author’s initial experience in trying out story writing with Vietnamese school students and the outcome has given her new and useful knowledge about the students as language learners and individual human beings.
The author was working with high school students from Year 9 to 12 as a private teacher to get them ready for IELTS (International English Language Teaching System) exams to achieve a band score of at least 6.0 for their academic purposes. Though the course focused on academic English in four skills of Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing, the teacher often spent a small amount of time in class on fun activities, using music, poems, stories or video clips, including creative writing. In this way, story writing was introduced for a change in class activities and it also served as a chance for the teacher to learn how school students responded to story writing.
To unlock the students’ creative writing ability, various six-word stories widely available on the Internet, such as ‘I awoke. The door was open’ Within about 15-20 minutes, they were asked to write stories from 100 to 150 words, integrating the given six words into their products. The students’ finished stories were handed in to the teacher who put them into a power-point presentation and shared them with the whole class in subsequent sessions where immediate language self-corrections by each author were encouraged and the samples presented in this article are their corrected versions. As observed, not many revisions were made, apart from some spelling mistakes. At the time of this activity, these students had been on the IELTS course from 3 to 6 months.
As can be witnessed, many benefits were displayed in the students’ stories and three major ones are pinpointed as valuable discoveries. They included students’ language capacity, creative ability and individual identity.
As language users, within a short time, these students were able to produce meaningful texts of a good length and this shows their capacity in using their English to convey their ideas. With a rich vocabulary stock and a diverse knowledge of grammar and structures, their language achieved effective communication quality.Their writing skills were reflected throughout the illustrated stories in this article and following were just two of such examples. While the first product was about a mysterious story with various events and actions connected with the life of a weird old man overshadowed with inexplicable secrets, the second one described a dream of the main character, which focused mainly on describing the person’s feelings and observations.
I was a postman in my town. I gave letters to every people in my town. I knew them all very well. But there was one man I couldn’t talk to. He was old man lived in an old house which have a large yard of grass cover his house in the middle of the town.
At that time, I went to his house every day and I felt a little cold when I stood before the house. And I felt something very strange. When the kids got close to the yard or stepped on it, the old man ran out of the house, yelled to make the kids stay away from his house and his face was very creepy when he did it. Sometimes, I asked some people around about him. But no one knew anything. And one day, he was ill and he was taken to hospital. I felt very creepy even when he had went the hospital.
The smoke still came from the chimney of his house and I asked myself: ‘Why?’ The lights in the house was turn on although no one came into the house since the day the old man was sick.
Two week later, the old man died. That night the wind blew very hard and cold. I recognised the smoke had stopped coming out and the lights were off. In the next morning, everyone in the town discussed about him and what the government would do with the old man’s house because since he died, no one has come to get the house.After a week, the house was destroyed and the scariest thing was the tomb of his son and daughter was in the basement of the house which wasn’t covered with anything on the surface.
I thought to myself :
(Phuong Duy, Year 11, ‘You’ll always be a question mark’.)
As the birds sang the song of life, Saturday morning was approaching gradually. I awoke at the same time as usual. I recognised that this day couldn’t be more ideal and thus I decided on my short and relaxed walk to enjoy the pristine splendour hidden under this weather.
Out of a sudden, the door, in my sub-consciousness, was open. After quite being flabbergasted, I tried to put my mind at ease and see who was out there. Unexpectedly, it was my mom and she brought along a stunning bunch of flowers. It was infeasible for me to define her coming as a dream or reality because I had been studying abroad for two years and how amazing for me to be fully aware that my mom was standing in front of me in USA, not in Vietnam.
As the day went on, I was still in my own dream, a dream of family reunion after nearly a couple of years being in the US alone.
(Lam Su Huy, Year 11, ‘I awoke. The door was open.’)
Even some younger learners whose language was not well developed managed to express the ideas very clearly. The following story illustrates this observation. As can be seen, despite various language mistakes mainly related to verbs, the author managed to tell a neat story which can be easily understood by the reader.
Today, I will tell you a story of me live in a quiet house in the middle of the forest.
A long time ago, I was still a little boy. I was very scare of the dark. At night, I was slept on the chair when I was watching TV. I remember that I lock the door when I starting to go to the living room to watched TV. But when I awoke, I saw the door was open. That time I was really scared and I was starting to think, my house is in the middle of the forest and no one live near me. I heard the TV someone said something and I went close to the TV and the TV said ‘there is a killer escape from the prison and the killer run into the forest.’
(Nguyen Chau Tan Cuong, Year 9, ‘I awoke. The door was open.’)
In their stories, the student authors succeeded in appealing to the readers’ senses and in arousing such emotions as fear, surprise, happiness or sadness. In their stories, factors such as setting, dialog, conflict, resolution were well combined to achieve the authors’ aims, which was a great achievement. Following is a sample which illustrates such attempts.
Nguyen Quang Cong set his story in the context of ‘a dark night’ to hide in ‘an old building’ where the main character could hear ‘the sound of the wind’ because he had to flee from ‘a gang of assassins’. The creepy atmosphere was further consolidated with numerous scary actions like ‘murdered, kept chasing, hear, frightened, almost dropped the mirror’. The horror and the speed of this story was built up with a series of actions (running away, quietly left, ran, hide from the assassins, to escape, fell down) Obviously, these details appealed not only to the readers’ sight and hearing but also aroused in them the feelings of fear and tension before releasing it all with humorous ending.
It was a dark night. I was running away from a gang of assassins. They had just murdered my parents and they kept chasing me. I ran into an old building. It was so old that I could hear the sound of the wind. The window suddenly closed. I quickly went upstairs and found a perfect place to hide. I was so frightened that I almost dropped the mirror on the wall behind me.
After that, I quietly left the building. I ran across a couple of blocks, then I met Tom, my friend, who also had to hide from the assassins. We were planning to escape to the harbour. Suddenly, the assassins appeared right in front of us. We tried to run but it was useless. We were taken away. Then I fell down the street. I awoke. The door was open. I closed the door and realised it was just a nightmare.
The following exemplifies a successful horror story which displayed the author’s capacity in crafting a captivating plot about a murder. The writer was able to make us feel as if we were witnessing the incident ourselves. Especially, the story is well beyond the reader’s expectation of a Grade 10 learner’s writing ability.
It was a normal day like every day when the villagers found Peter’s dead body. There was a lot of blood all over him and Peter’s face showed a terrified emotion- which seemed like he had seen something horrible before he met our beloved God.
‘It was the wolf!’ Peter’s wife was screaming like crazy. ‘That beast attacked him! I’ve told him! I’ve warned him!’
‘No one could ever know that this would happen, Red. You must calm down’. Hans, the oldest man in the village, tried to calm her.
Red, Peter’s wife, was full of tears. She didn’t want to listen, she ran away. People were too shocked to stop her, so they just let her go and decided to give her some private space. The villagers started talking about the wolf because that monster had already attacked a man. Why wouldn’t it kill one more?
That night, when the sun went down the hill, everybody was sleeping, but then out of nowhere, there was a panicking voice.
‘Wolf! Wolf! The wolf is coming! HELP!’ The people woke up and jumped out of their houses to see what was happening.
‘Where? Who was screaming? We’ve lost one and we won’t accept to lose another!’
But instead of any scary wolf, there were just Red, with a shiny knife in her hand, and Hans’ body was tearing apart.
‘Red! But why?’
‘There was no wolf like you all see, there was just Peter trying to cheat on me and a foolish old man who tried to catch me.’
The insane woman was laughing while looking at other people and she said, ‘Do all of you know what to say next? Alright, I’ll kindly give you an example. Wolf. That’s him.’
Khanh Huyen, Year 10, ‘Wolf! Where? Wolf! Where? Wolf! Wolf!’)
The students’ writing skills are also evidenced in the diverse genres of their stories, which vary from detective stories, crime or mysteries, adventures, horror fiction, romance, supernatural fiction or a combination of a few as indicated in the samples. Further samples are as below.
Imagination and creativity
With interesting stories, the young writers displayed rich imagination and creativity. For example, a very young writer of Grade 9 embroidered a science fiction that took the reader into the exciting world of sailors who ventured into the mysterious and notorious Bermuda triangle. The story had some elements of an adventure and a mystery, with the obscure disappearance of all the crew members and the inexplicable re-appearance of the captain one hundred years later.
Years ago, there was a man who was captain of a boat. One day, he and his members decided to discover Bermuda triangle. The day before the trip, they had a party and they were happy together. Many months later, the boat was in the sea but no one in that boat.
Police investigated. There was no violence, no diseases… so they didn’t understand. One of the most strange thing was that the coffee and some food on the table was hot.
One hundred years later, one old fashioned man was walking in the street and he looked around with scared. Suddenly he was hit by a car and died. The police found out that he was the captain of the boat. They didn’t know how he could come to the future.
He will always be a question mark.
Inspired by the same prompts, Tan Minh produced a detective story about the theft of a Picasso’s painting at an exhibition in London. The cunning thief, called ‘Mask’, was so insidious and tricky that he managed to steal the painting and escaped before the detective’s plan to catch him took action.
I’m John Baker, a famous detective in London. Recently, I have been in a case to catch a thief called ‘Mask’. He has made a lot of crime. The police have tried their best but it was no use so they asked me to solve this puzzle. I read some documents about this thief but there was not enough information about him. He was an orphan and he was very smart. He got into university but one year later, he dropped out.
Every time he appeared, he always wore a mask so nobody could recognise his face. In addition, he was famous for his magic tricks.
He always appeared and disappeared magically and mysteriously. I had to admit that ‘Mask’ was a very clever and he had skillful magic tricks.
One day, I got the news that he was going to appear at an exhibition as he wanted to steal a Picasso famous painting. I instantly prepared to catch him. However, by the time the exhibition opened, Picasso’s painting was not there. This ‘Mask’ is always a question mark.
(Tan Minh, Year 10, ‘You’ll always be a question mark’.)
The diverse plots in the student stories showed their ability in looking at things differently and enabled them to create new things. The novelty and freshness of their ideas were witnessed in many products. Following is a horror about crimes caused by a character with dissociative identity disorder. Set in small village in a jungle, the story related the fright that the villagers had to face when each night a villager became the victim of a wolf. In the end, the ‘wolf’ was killed but one villager was missing.
Once upon a time, there were about 20 people. They lived in a small village in the jungle. One person who lived in this village had a special ability.
Every evening, everyone in the village slept but one was transformed into a wolf! Every night, the wolf killed one person but that night, the villagers didn’t sleep, they wanted to catch that wolf. One man screamed, ‘Wolf!’ Other people were scared, ‘Where? Where?’ They all ran after the wolf. One got a gun and killed it.
The next morning, one person was missing in the village.
Truong Thinh,Year 10, ‘Wolf! Where? Wolf! Where? Wolf! Wolf!’)
The students also fabricated stories about the invisible world of souls and spirits, as well as supernatural power. Their imagined products were a combination of detective stories and ghost stories as in the one below.
I am a journalist for a newspaper in London. I have written hundreds of articles and I have met thousands of people from many areas in the world and seen many different things but I haven’t seen anything strange and frightened like this.
This was Friday 13th November, 2001, I have never forgotten that day. The sky was dark. The weather was cold and wet. My coworker Jimmy and I came to a small house in Liverpool. We heard from the neighbours that the owner of the house has done something strange at midnight. The first night, he played, ‘Sonata’. The second night, he sang, ‘Gloomy Sunday and danced. Every night, he did different things so that the neighbours thought he was crazy. We stood in front of his house. A young man came out.
He was shabby and thin, his eyes looked tired and sad. We had a short interview with him, he said that every night, when he slept, he always dreamed about a little girl. She laughed so loudly that he couldn’t sleep. She forced him to do many strange things every night. She always stood behind him and laughed.
‘How can I see her?’ I asked. ‘Hold my hand and you can see her.’ he answered. I held his hand and saw a strange girl and knocked the door. She saw me and laughed loudly. I was very scared. I jumped back and ran away. She was real. I was sympathized with him. I told him, ‘I’m so sorry about that, for the world. I hope you’re well.’
As shown in the illustrations, the stories not only reflected the authors’ cognitive abilities but also gave some hints about their personalities. The distinctive characteristics of the stories below indicate this.
One example is the story about a burglary which was told in a softening tone so the ambience was not so gloomy. Especially, the story was seasoned with a witty mark when it ended with the burglar’s humorous note ‘Thank you for everything.’
It was a tired morning. I awoke and my head hurt badly. I tried to stand up and realised that I was in my room. I couldn’t remember what happened last night but I had a feeling that something was not right. There was something missing in my memory which was very important.
Walking down the stairs, I saw that the door was open. When I looked around the room, I saw that everything was gone. There was a note on the table that said, ‘Thank you for everything.’ Then I remembered that last night, I was drunk and forgot to lock the door so a thief had come into the house and stole everything.
(Le Cao Minh Tai, Year 11, ‘I awoke. The door was open.’)
The light-hearted story by Le Quan in the following also reflected delightful thoughts and cheerful characteristics not only in its writing style, but also in its contents. The conflict and the resolution seemed to have come from the perspective of a carefree and jovial author.
There was a noise downstairs, in the kitchen. I awoke. Taking the flashlight near my bed, I got out of my bed and decided to go downstairs. The door was open. I was a bit frightened because I’m always close my door before go to bed. I turned on the light and lighted it to the stairs. Suddenly, the noise in the kitchen stopped, and I hear the footsteps to the dining room so I decided to bring a baseball bat down with me.
I got to the kitchen and I saw a lot of footprints. But I felt happy when I realised that they were a dog’s footprints. Maybe it was my neighbor’s dog got in my house by a big hole on the back door. So I brought the dog to the neighbor opposite my house. They were very pleased because it had gone for 3 days! About the opening door, I thought that it just wanted to discover my house or just simply looking for food.
(Le Quan, Year 9, ‘I awoke. The door was open.’)
Another student demonstrated the love for animals with a moving story about a dedicated and faithful wolf for his master. Told in a simple and gentle way, the story successfully highlighted the devotion and care of a wolf to his master to the last minutes of his life.
Long time ago, a hunter had a wolf. Its name was Cali. Cali was a good wolf. She helped the hunter to keep the house and hunted the animal, etc. One day, Cali and her owner, Bun came to the forest to hunted. When they had lunch after a tired morning, Cali barked a lot. She ran around Bun like wanted Bun to ran away. But Bun was still slept. Then, they saw a lot of wolfs and Bun and Cali ran away.
After a long way, Bun was tired and he couldn’t run and the wolfs attached Bun and Bun died. Cali couldn’t do anything and she had a big injured. Then Cali took Bun to a field and sometime later, Cali died near Bun. When people found them, Cali lie on Bun like Cali wanted to protect Bun.
Nguyen Nam Khanh, Year 10, ‘Wolf! Where? Wolf! Where? Wolf! Wolf!’)
One can also recognise the authors’ maturity and outlooks through the stories, as in Nguyen Tien Khanh’s product. His story not only gave some indication about the writer’s optimism, but also demonstrated his maturity in believing that one’s dreams would only be fulfilled by oneself.
If my friend asked me, ‘Did your wish ever come true?’ I would tell them a story about what I wished. When I was 8, I wished I had a robot, a tank and a helicopter toy. As I wished, my father bought me a robot toy as my birthday’s present. It was so cool with a katana in the right hand and a soldier’s helmet but when I pressed a button to control him, his right hand moved and broke his head. I shouted, ‘He killed himself.’ My father came and told me, ‘It’s fake. Sorry, my son.’
The next day, I felt so blue and tried to forget that broken toy but my cat dropped and empty box near me and I thought, ‘Oh, why not? I can create a toy for myself.’ I put a little box on that box and I paste a stick in the front of the higher box. ‘Wow. It’s nearly like a tank.’ I used the broken toy’s wheels to put under the tank. ‘Now it can move.’
That is an example, when your wish can’t come true, you can remake your wish come true again. That tank is still on my table. It reminded me just only me can make my dream come true.
(Nguyen Tien Khanh, Year 12, ‘Did your wish ever come true?’)
Another writer showed her awareness of new changes in her society and her bravery as a teenager when raising the issue of LGBT community and same sex marriages. Actually, this topic was still considered new and sensitive in her society, especially in school contexts.
Mary and Dave have been dating for about five or six years. One day, Mary talked about her intention to get married. Dave seemed not to care much about it but Mary was no in love with Dave so she didn’t mind about his manner and kept planning for their wedding.
Everything happened just like a dream to Mary. And the wedding day came, Mary was so happy and she was the most beautiful woman in the church. Some young women were jealous with her because she could marry a handsome and successful man. When the preacher asked the groom whether he wanted to marry the bride and live with her till the day he died. Suddenly, the groom said no. He apologised to the bride and everybody in the church. He took the hand of the groomsman and ran away. Mary realised. But it was too late.
(Minh Phuong, Year 11, ‘She realised. It was too late.’)
As witnessed, these student products can reinforce the benefits of creativity writing in improving imagination and self-confidence for the learners (i.e. Bergstein, 2017; Maley, 2012). As observed by the teacher, creativity writing in this case provided a good opportunity for these students to express themselves without worrying much about language mistakes. As such, they were able to produce more language than usual. Also, they seemed to enjoy the fun of immersing themselves in the world of their imagination and creativity where facts could be mingled with fabrication. Thus, these factors could help these teenage EFL learners to develop both linguistically and cognitively.
Especially, the outcome of this creative writing activity came as a great surprise to the teacher who considered this experience a big learning curve for herself in EFL teaching. First, it has helped her to see her teenage students in a new light. They have become more interesting, intelligent and creative as individuals in addition to being more abled as language users. Second, it has enabled her to strongly believe that school students can write creatively and that this ability needs further attention from the teacher to prosper. Third, she strongly recommends that creative writing activities should receive adequate emphasis in EFL school teaching to maximise their impacts.
Admittedly, the task of story writing as described in this article was simply a trial and it was still not developed further to link to other lessons due to the course constraints regarding time and aims. However, its benefits as pointed out were well worth the efforts. Therefore, it is recommended that further attempts and exploration with creative writing activities in other EFL contexts be conducted for its positive impacts on teaching and learning.
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Maley, A. 2012. Creative writing for students and teachers. Humanising language teaching, 14 (3): 1-14. Retrieved from http://www.hltmag.co.uk/jun12/
Maloney, I. 2019. The place of creative writing in an EFL university curriculum.
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Şenel, E. 2018. The integration of creative writing into academic writing skills in EFL classes. International Journal of Languages’ Education and Teaching Volume 6, Issue 2, June 2018, 115-120.
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EFL Student Story Writing: A Valuable Discovery
Phuong Le, Vietnam