Creativity with Languages in Schools: bringing research into the classroom

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Joe Dale

Having already featured some of the inspiring work of the Creative Multilingualism initiative on episode 3 of the #mfltwitterati podcast, I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend one of their recent free events at SOAS in central London in person to find out more. 

The day focused on the theme of creativity in languages in schools and showcased the work that the Creative Multilingualism team of researchers have carried out with secondary and primary schools since the start of the project, encouraging students to engage more creatively with language learning.

In the first talk of the day, Martin Maiden from the University of Oxford gave some great suggestions on how language teachers can combat the feelings that some students may have about growing up in a monoglot society and feeling threatened or alienated by those who can speak more than one language.

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He proposed, for example, that young people are 'naturally endowed with a kind of linguistic flexibility which, if properly cultivated, can make them into linguistic acrobats able to jump with fluent ease from one language to another'.

Martin also emphasised the importance of showing learners how languages are related to each other and how some words, for example, are similar in different languages. He feels that guiding students to see the connections between words in different languages can help them spot patterns and resemblances, so they become more familiar and less opaque to them. He referred to this process as ‘loan translations’ or ‘calquing’, which were terms I hadn't heard before.

Kate Clanchy, author, poet, and former Writer in Residence at Oxford Spires Academy gave a moving talk about how she harnessed the creativity of multilingual immigrant pupils at her school to express themselves through poetry and unlock their unique voices. 

Kate gave a number of touching examples of student poetry from an anthology she edited and explained the individual backstories of the authors. She emphasised their desire to talk about their feelings around loss, leaving their homelands and what life was now like for them living in the UK. 

In her first example, Kate described how one of her students, Mohamed, had used Google Translate to translate from his home language to English as way of unlocking his thoughts and feelings. She would then help him to craft the results into a poem. I thought this was fantastic. Kate also said how much her children liked her tweeting their poems and receiving comments and likes which were sometimes in their thousands. She clarified that the other students wrote in English but that ‘you can hear the cadence and the rhythm of their mother tongue’ in their writing.

Her presentation seemed to very much resonate with the audience, who also shared their experiences of working with immigrant children. 

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Inma Pedregosa, a University of Roehampton doctoral researcher, talked about the short multilingual film competition 'Connecta' funded by Creative Multilingualism. Twenty schools took part and four schools were lucky enough to feature in a film festival at the end of the project. On the Creative Multilingualism website, you can find dedicated teaching packs available in English, French, Spanish, and German which walk you through the different aspects of the filmmaking process. Inma explained that schools found these packs particularly useful. The feedback from the students was that they loved making the films despite them taking a long time to do so and that they would like to make more in the future.

Eneida Garcia Villanueva from the University of Glasgow talked about her Creative Multilingualism primary school project 'All the World is Our Stage'. The project is designed to foster opportunities for children to use their home language through drama in the context of the 1+2 initiative in Scotland which entitles every primary aged child the chance to learn two foreign languages at primary and beyond.

The idea behind the project was to raise awareness about multilingualism and celebrate the heritage community of home languages and student identity in the school context. It was also to see how 'translanguaging' could support the creation of safe spaces for pupils to use their home languages at school and promote metalinguistic diversity. Eneida shared some downloadable packs of drama activities and guides aimed at primary children including some materials for Three Little Pigs, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Old MacDonald.

The keynote for the event was the fascinating Thomas Bak from the University of Edinburgh who spoke about how multilingualism is good mental exercise for the brain. He demonstrated how learning languages improves cognition and higher effective functioning, referring to his own daughter's language learning journey by way of example. Interestingly, he said that multilinguals react more slowly when presented, for example, with different images because of their slower lexical access but this makes for stronger executive functioning.

He also described how multilinguals develop perspective more quickly than monolinguals because they can see other people's points of view and can adapt to speak to their parents in different languages faster. Amazing! Thomas also pointed out that bilinguals develop dementia four years later than monolinguals.

You can see the slides from Thomas Bak’s presentation here, or find out more about his work at

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In the afternoon, Suzanne Graham from the University of Reading gave a very interesting presentation about some research she had carried out with two groups of year 9 students from eight different schools – with 300 students learning French and 300 students learning German.

She looked at what impact a creative and functional approach to language learning had on the two groups' reading, writing and vocabulary skills, as well as their creativity and general motivation. Half the group worked on factual texts and the other half on literary texts, in particular, poems. The texts followed similar themes and were designed to evoke some kind of reaction in students. The groups then swapped and tried the opposite approach in phase two of the research.

The creative approach aimed to generate personal involvement, attention to emotional content, metaphors and conceptual understanding. Learners were exposed to YouTube clips and translations and asked how the resources expressed particular emotions.The functional approach aimed to focus on facts, information processing and attention to form or grammatical understanding and not on emotion or personal response. Students were asked to say whether facts were right or wrong, for example. Following the two approaches, students were tested on their reading, writing and vocabulary aptitudes. They also completed questionnaires and took part in interviews to assess their attitudes and motivations 

Interestingly, the German group made modest gains in vocabulary compared to the French group who made very large vocabulary gains overall. Moreover, the group taught using the creative approach in the second phase made the largest gain of all, learning on average nearly 600 new words over the year, four times more than the average according to the research carried out. Researchers also found that greater gains were made in the understanding of grammatical complexity too. It was therefore concluded that a creative approach and learning vocabulary through literary texts was particularly helpful in making learning gains.

They also found that some learners benefited more from a functional approach than a creative approach and so suggested a blended approach may be the way forward to cater to the variation in students' preferences. The feedback from the learners of French was that they preferred the creative approach while the learners of German tended to prefer the functional approach.

By the end of the day, my brain was certainly full from all the input I had received, but I was delighted to have had the opportunity to attend. It was a wonderful celebration of creativity and language learning, drawing on a variety of different strands from the project and effectively connecting research with classroom practice. If you haven't heard of the Creative Multingualism initiative yet, I would thoroughly recommend checking it out! Oh, and check out the #mfltwitterati podcast too!

Joe Dale is an independent languages consultant from the UK who works with a range of organisations such as Network for Languages, ALL, The British Council, the BBC, Skype, Microsoft and The Guardian. He was host of the TES MFL forum for six years, former SSAT Languages Lead Practitioner, a regular conference speaker and recognised expert on technology and language learning. Contact Joe on Twitter @joedale and check out the MFLtwitterati podcast at

Watch the short film below to hear from some of the participants on the day:

Where next?

Browse our free creative teaching resources

Learn more about the multilingual poetry in schools project run by Kate Clanchy

We Are Children of the World: a multilingual concert