This article draws on my experience as a writer and editor of readers. I am grateful to all the authors of published and unpublished manuscripts from whom I have learnt so much.
The ideas here, while primarily intended for teachers writing for their students, or for publication, are also applicable to student creative writing. This is particularly so when a teacher gets a class, groups or individuals to create stories for other students at a lower language level.
Key ideas in creating a reader
The importance of schemas (assumptions of facts, including ‘default facts’ which are never mentioned- usually cultural)
Guy Cook in ELT Journal 51/1 defines a schema as ‘a mental representation of a typical instance’, and goes on: ‘Schema theory suggests that people understand new experiences by activating relevant schemas in their minds’.
For learners of a language, schematic knowledge can be as important as linguistic knowledge in understanding what a text means. There are personal schemas, general ones about the world, and ones related to genre. These operate at text level and are crucial to comprehension.
Writing within a genre which is familiar to the reader
A recognition of the importance of schematic knowledge leads on to writing within a clearly-defined genre. Reading is facilitated by plot structure and character type which the learner is likely to recognise. This places learners in a familiar landscape where they are more likely to be able to predict in which direction they will go. Reading within a familiar genre reduces the load of new information which the learner is processing, increasing both speed and accuracy.
Paragraph and sentence level information control
It was John Milne in his pioneering work with the Heinemann Guided Readers who introduced this concept. He argued that lexical and grammatical controls were only half the picture. Limiting new information for the learner in each paragraph and sentence is as important as the use of simple language. Too much new information slows the learner to a halt. Careful attention to anaphora (backward reference using pronouns e.g. she, this), for example, prevents overload, avoids ambiguity and facilitates reading forward, so that readers so not have to look back to see who, or what, is referred to.
Ease and meaning
Reading creates readers (in the sense of people, not books) and easy, successful, reading creates good readers (what Christine Nuttall in Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language described as the ‘virtuous circle’ of reading). Recourse to a dictionary or glossary is a sign of unsuccessful reading. Understanding of a text is enhanced by careful contextualisation of new words (by making sure that they are met in an unambiguous context, glossed within the text, or explained by the surrounding sentences), use of illustration where appropriate, and repetition of new lexis.
The writing process
The notes that follow are offered as no more than a guide: if you have your own way of writing and it works stick to it!
As a teacher, decide on your level and think of a class you know, or have recently taught at that level. Use them as your reference point, not just for language, but also for content. Later, you may be able to try the material out with the actual class, or a similar one.
‘You never quite know where your story is until you have written the first draft of it.’ Raymond Chandler (letter: March 7, 1947)
Different writers work in different ways. While some like to map out plot and character beforehand, others prefer to discover the story by writing it. The crucial thing is that you work within a genre. Although many learners are not wide readers even in their own language, they are certainly aware of genre through exposure to TV, film and DVD. Thus they will have expectations of what will happen in, say, a thriller (a difficult situation of some kind, a protagonist who struggles against the odds to resolve the situation, a restricted time-frame, exciting incidents and a gripping conclusion) and the kind of language that will be used to tell the story. By writing within genre the author greatly facilitates comprehension and increases speed of reading and enjoyment. One reason why simplified literature is often so unsatisfactory and hard to read is that great literature often defies genre, creating its own contexts and values.
A successful way to start using genre is to move like this:
Genre – character – situation – place – event
First, identify a genre which readers will be familiar with. Then, think of a character, the kind that appears in your chosen genre. Place the character in a situation, some kind of problem or opportunity. Choose the place, the physical location. Then, think of an event that the character participates in. And let the story begin …
This way of writing is for those who want to find out what happens to the character and who write the story in order to do so. The advantage of this ‘making it up as you go along’ method is that you can, of course, go back and plant plot trails and introduce clues and characters when the need arises.
Things to think about
Write about what you know: Writing from personal experience and understanding is often clearer and more effective than a massive leap of empathy.
A strong theme: what is it about? Successful fiction is ‘about’ something. It has themes and a depth which the pot-boiler lacks. While abstract concepts are more easily handled at higher levels, the lower level reader can still treat ‘serious’ topics.
Hooks: Not confined to thrillers. By ‘hooks’ is meant end-of-chapter questions in the readers’ minds which make them want to start the next one.
Showing, not telling: The reader needs to discover the story through dialogue and action rather than be told about it. Writers report that the development of the characters’ own ‘voices’ is vital, and different writers achieve this in different ways.
Motivated action: An obvious point, but character’s actions must spring from their own motives, rather than the exigencies of the plot.
Strong opening: An opening which gets the action moving is to be preferred to elaborate scene-setting and character introduction. You may need to ‘clear the ground’ in your own mind by writing the backstory, but this does not have to be part of the finished story.
Satisfactory ending: A resolution to the problem or conflict which the book centres around is expected. It is important to make an ending happen and not let the story peter away. While research shows a majority of learners prefer a reader with a definite conclusion, a minority enjoy one which ends with a question mark.
Linear time frame: Careful attention to time is fundamental. A linear structure (particularly at the lower levels) which avoids flashbacks and time jumps makes life easier for the reader. Equally, sudden jumps in place which disorientate the reader are also to be avoided. The learner easily attributes lack of comprehension to personal linguistic deficiencies rather than complicated story-telling and this is de-motivating.
Read lots of readers: When you have chosen a level read as many readers as you can at that level. This will help you internalise appropriate lexical and grammatical controls and give you a feel for what can and cannot be achieved at that level. Many publisher’s websites offer free sample chapters, but there is no substitute for reading whole books.
Read your work aloud: While of questionable value to the learner, reading aloud is invaluable to the writer. It is a great way of checking whether dialogue is natural and characters have their own ‘voices’.
Always leave a chapter or page unfinished: Then when you start writing again you are not faced with a blank screen or piece of white paper. Leaving something unfinished gets you back into the swing of the writing quickly.
A tip from Raymond Chandler: ‘If in doubt have a man with a gun come in the door …’ (or some other dramatic event).
Writing is a craft which can be learnt – I know, I was always terrible at creative writing at school. I hope that you will find these ideas useful in creating your own readers, or in facilitating your students’ story writing.
Cook, G. (1997). ‘Key concepts in ELT: Schemas.’ ELT Journal, 51(1), 86.
MacShane, F. (1981). Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler. London: Jonathan Cape.
Milne J. (1977). Heinemann Guided Readers Handbook. London: Heinemann.
Nuttall C. (1996). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Oxford: Heinemann.
Philip Prowse is Series Editor of Cambridge English Readers (CUP), the author of a number of readers for that series and also for Macmillan Readers, and co-author of teenage course-books for Macmillan.