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June 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Getting Your Splinters Out …

Alan Maley is well-known as a trainer and materials writer.  He has been involved in ELT for 55 years.  Now in retirement, he continues to write and give presentations and workshops.  His main areas of interest are in innovative methodology, spontaneity in teaching and in literature and creative writing. Email:


What is a Splinter?

So what do I mean by ‘Splinters’?  Quite simply, I am referring to graphic memories which are lodged deep in the mind – very often of people, incidents and impressions from early childhood, though not exclusively so.  Everyone has a rich store of such memories.  In this brief article I would like to suggest at least one way we can call on this resource in language learning.

From these sharp images from our past, we can write prose poems which may surprise even ourselves by their clarity of expression and their ability to move us – and others who read them.  In doing this we become actively engaged in retrieving and re-constructing, not only the memories, but also the language we use to pin them down.

Let me give you an example of one such Splinter:


Visiting the Ancient Mariner by Alan Maley

He lay propped up by pillows,

beached on the old brass bedstead,

all in white –

white hair, white beard, white nightshirt,

white bolster.


Around the walls,

pictures of the sailing ships

of his youth –

tea-clippers, windjammers…


His eyes looked

not at us but through us, distant,

as he surveyed

the frozen ocean of his sheets

from the bridge of his pillows,

the crisp white crests

and the darker troughs.


In his inward ear,

the creak of spars,

the crack and slap of sails

as the wind filled them,

the rattle of chains

as he weighed anchor

and headed out to sea.


I was 8 years old

and I had never seen

anyone dying before.


What can we notice about this piece of writing?

~  It is full of concrete, physical images.  Some of these are what I, as a child, actually saw.  Some are what that child imagines the dying man is seeing and hearing. 

~ There is no attempt at rhyme or other formal poetic devices. 

~ It ends with a ‘turn’: that is, a surprise which shocks the reader into a reaction.  This ‘twist in the tail/tale’ is an important element in the Splinter because it sends the reader away thinking about the implications of the event described.


How do I write my Splinters?

So how do I go about writing a Splinter?

~ First, obviously, I have to retrieve a memory.  Or more often, a memory forces itself on me.  Frequently, a memory is triggered by something I see or experience in the now.  Sometimes too I have only to start thinking about how things were when I was growing up for images to start to pop up.

For example, I see a fox crossing my neighbour’s garden.  Suddenly I am back in my Dad’s field working with other farm workers.  I am 10 years old.  We have spotted a fox and decide to dig it out and kill it.  My memories then come thick and fast as I re-constitute the whole experience of that late afternoon spring day all those years ago.

~  I then jot down as quickly as I can all the impressions of the experience.  I want to capture what I saw, smelt, heard and felt as clearly as possible.  I just note everything as fast as I can, in no particular order.

~ These notes are then my writing resource and I come back to them, selecting, adding to and re-ordering them, trying to make them more graphic and to capture as accurately as I can the salient features of the Splinter experience.

~ I try out a number of ‘twists in the tale/tail’ so as to jog the reader into reflecting on the Splinter.  In this case, the last lines will be:

‘We sling him quickly

into a shallow grave,

shovel earth on top of him.

His bones must be there still

In the corner of that field.’

~ I then put the Splinter aside for a few days or even longer.  When I come back to it, I inevitably notice things that can be improved.  So I revise it.

~ Then I show it to friends whose critical judgement I can trust, in case they have comments or suggestions.  They can be relied upon to spot things that I have missed.  We always notice faults in others more readily than in ourselves!  I make changes if I think they are necessary – and bingo, my Splinter is out.


Using Splinters in Teaching

I want to suggest that writing Splinters could be a creative way for our learners to write in English.  Here are just a few observations and suggestions:

~ It’s a good idea to introduce the idea of deep memories by sharing some of your own with the learners.  The best way to do this could be to offer them a Splinter you yourself have written.  They can then discuss that and ask you questions before you ask them to think back and decide on a Splinter they would like to write about themselves.

~ You can suggest the process I have outlined above in ‘How do I write my Splinters’. 

~ It may be better to ask them to write their Splinter outside class so that they have plenty of time to think about it.  Tell them not to worry too much about the language they use: there will be time to revise it.

~ It may be advisable at the start to suggest a theme for their Splinter.  For example, by asking them to focus on an object they recall, or a place, or a person, or an item of food, etc.

~ In class, they should share their Splinters in pairs – and offer constructive comments to each other.  It may be a good idea to share with a number of others.

~ Ask them to revise their Splinters outside class.  In the next session, invite those who are willing to read their work out to the rest of the class.  This usually leads to lively questioning and discussion.

~ If possible, arrange for their Splinters to be published in some way – on a class website or display board – or even as a simple stapled booklet.


Some final remarks

~ You may be surprised at the enthusiasm and energy this activity releases.  I have always found it to be a very effective way to engage learners’ interest and arouse their motivation.  After all, we are all intensely interested in ourselves – as well as being curious about other people…

~  However, you will need to deal sensitively with any very personal issues that arise.  We are not psycho-therapists after all.  ‘Handle with care’ as they say on fragile parcels.

~ If you want to see more examples of Splinters, they can be found in my recent book:

Alan Maley. (2020) Splinters.  Our Glass Publishing.  (Email:


And here, to end is one closing Splinter:


My dog Toby. Alan Maley

My dog’s name was Toby.

We inherited him from my Nan,

who ‘couldn’t cope with him no more’.

A car had run over him once

and he’d lost one back leg –

but he could run as fast as

any dog we’d ever had.


Every day he would sit

outside the school gates,

waiting to run home with me.

Then, one day, he wasn’t there.

And he was never there again.


My baby brother

had poked him in the eye,

and Toby had bitten his cheek.

My father took him to the vet

and had him put to sleep.


I liked to think

that in his sleep

he sometimes dreamed

of meeting me at the school gates –

the way I did in my dreams -

and still do…


More on Splinters in HLT to be found here




Please check the Enhancing Language Learning through Creativity course at Pilgrims website. 

Tagged  Creativity Group