Research update: Linguistic creativity in the language classroom

Teach image
Suzanne Graham

Over the last 18 months our classroom-based research project has been exploring the impact of using poems and authentic texts (on such themes as love, death, migration) and different teaching approaches (‘creative’ versus ‘functional’) on 14 year-old language learners’ language development and attitudes towards languages.

We have been working with approximately 600 French and German learners in year 9, and, of course, their teachers, from 16 secondary schools across England. Classes were allocated to a text type (literary or factual) and a teaching approach (creative or functional) for use in their year 9 language lessons, using materials that we designed in collaboration with teachers. Broadly speaking, the creative teaching approach involved activities that asked learners to respond imaginatively and emotionally to the texts, while in the functional approach they focused on learning grammar and vocabulary and gaining factual information from the texts.

In December 2018 we met with a group of enthusiastic project teachers to share with them some of the initial, preliminary findings from our project. Below we summarise some of the most important ones.


While Key Stage 3 language learners, on average, have been reported to learn just 170 new words a year (Milton, 2006), learners taking part in our project have seen a much bigger boost to their vocabulary levels.  This growth is especially marked for learners of French. Their vocabulary levels increased by around 400 words over the year.  Furthermore, learners made significantly greater gains when they experienced the creative teaching approach compared with the functional approach, regardless of which kind of text they read, poems or factual texts. 

Reading comprehension

Again, the most marked changes occurred in the French groups, especially for confidence in reading. Learners seem to have benefited more when they were taught using a creative approach combined with literary texts OR when they were taught using the functional approach and read factual texts.


A key finding here, for both the French and German learners, was that there was a negative relationship between making progress under the creative approach and making progress under the functional approach. In other words, learners who did well under one approach did much less well under the other, implying that different kinds of learners benefit from different kinds of instruction.

How learners reacted to the texts and activities

Our conclusion regarding writing also applies to how learners viewed the activities they experienced with our texts. For the French group as a whole, learners found the creative tasks significantly more helpful for learning and more interesting than the functional approaches.  But for the German group, the opposite was true, i.e. grammar /vocabulary activities were seen as more helpful (with little difference in how interesting they found them).


What can we conclude so far? Well, that although there seems to be some evidence of learners of French benefiting most from a creative teaching approach, no one teaching approach or text type will help all learners. At our meeting with teachers in December we did some preliminary work on producing resources that combine our creative and functional activities, which we will be continuing over the next few months. Once they are ready they will be posted here on the Creative Multilingualism website, so watch this space!

Suzanne Graham is Professor of Languages and Education at the Institute of Education, University of Reading and leads our 7th strand: Linguistic Creativity in Language Learning

Where next?

Are creative or functional teaching approaches more effective in the language classroom?

Research update: Prismatic Jane Eyre and Scriptworlds

Performing Languages: on multilingualism and language hierarchies