Master a Foreign Language by Writing: 4 Ideas for Writing with a Purpose

Written drills don’t improve communication skills. Creative writing does. To master a foreign language, shift the focus of writing from accuracy to creating contents and communicating them.


Stefano Lodola


We all want to master a foreign language, and we can master a foreign language by writing. You don’t need full control of a language to be creative. Control is achieved by having a wide vocabulary and a full understanding of the mechanics of a language’s grammar. A learner can be creative with their language when they only have a little to play with. If they do that at the start, when they know more they will also make better use of that. We only have to think of how a child plays more imaginatively with a cardboard box than they do with the latest computer toy to realise this.

In order to master a foreign language by writing, let’s understand the nature of this skill before we look into some ideas to hone it up in a foreign language.

The nature and purpose of writing

Writing is a productive skill because the writer creates new language and does not only interpret existing information.

Here are some aspects that determine what and how we write:

  • Letters, computers, cellphone texting, etc. require different styles of writing and communicative conventions
  • Poetry, short story, lecture notes, etc.
  • Subject-verb-agreement, tense, aspect markers, references, etc.
  • Ways to greet in a letter, appropriate ways of phrasing ideas, etc.

We use writing for a variety of everyday communicative purposes, from making a shopping list to writing essays for school or creating reports for a presentation at work. Common uses of writing include:

  • Shopping Lists
  • Essays & Term Papers
  • Poetry & Song Lyrics
  • Prose, Short Stories, Novels
  • Notes
  • E-mail & Text Messages
  • Letters & Postcards
  • Personal Journals & Blogs

Accordingly, there are several design principles to consider when planning for writing in a foreign language:

  • Language activities should reflect plausible, real-life communication
  • Writing in a foreign language can have the same wide range of purposes as writing in your native language
  • Writing in a foreign language should be taught systematically, not as a random thing used here and there only as a support task

To master a foreign language by writing, these points are important to consider in order to design more effective writing tasks that:

  • Fulfill the pedagogical purposes of the assignment (e.g., do not say that the task practices narration when all it does is drill the past tense)
  • Can be successfully completed by the students
  • Students learn something they can actually use to communicate in authentic situations

The benefits of creative writing for learners

Creative writing aids language development at all levels: grammar, vocabulary, phonology and discourse. It requires learners to manipulate the language in interesting and demanding ways in attempting to express uniquely personal meanings. In doing so, they necessarily engage with the language at a deeper level of processing than with most expository texts. The gains in grammatical accuracy and range, in the appropriacy and originality of lexical choice, in sensitivity to rhyme, rhythm, stress and intonation, and in the way texts hang together are significant and let you gradually master a foreign language.

Much of the teaching we do tends to focus on the left side of the brain, where our logical faculties are said to reside. Creative writing puts the emphasis on the right side of the brain, with a focus on feelings, physical sensations, intuition and musicality. This is a healthy restoration of the balance between logical and intuitive faculties. It also affords scope for learners whose hemisphere dominance or learning-style preferences may not be intellectual or left brain dominant, and who, in the normal process of teaching are therefore at a disadvantage.

Here are some benefits of creative writing for learners who want to master a foreign language by writing:

  • Creative writing enables a writer to manipulate the language in unusual ways, in order to express something. This engages you on a much deeper level of processing a language, which gives you better results in return.
  • It also enables you to break away from monotony. When students or learners are trying to tackle a new language, it’s easy to get frustrated and bored with the same old curriculum.
  • Creative writing enables you to work on your cognitive strategies as well, and improve through analysing and trying out new ways to formulate meanings. That is, once you’re able to let go, and accept the fact that language learning is a process that entails lots of mistakes.

Take the habit of reading and writing

In order to reap all these benefits and master a foreign language by writing, you must be able and willing to learn consistently. No matter what method you may use, every learner reaches a point when they are satisfied or simply bored with the same method of learning. Creative writing, as any other instrument used for acquiring a language needs to be done consistently.

Release your creativity. Think of a language as a game. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. A part of being able to be creative and play around with a language actually means you’re going to make mistakes along the way. Push your boundaries. Kids love playing around with words, but once you become an adult you should be able to play around even more effectively, because your vocabulary expands and you can write extensively.

Writing is a complex process that demands of authors to have clear ideas they wish to communicate

Become an avid reader. Reading widely in a foreign language is one of the best ways to grow your vocabulary, strengthen your writing skills, and absorb the language’s grammar. In each language I study, I try to read everything I can get my hands on: novels, newspaper articles, poetry, comics, instruction manuals, and the list goes on.

Ask a native speaker to edit your writing. Post your writings on Italki. Your journal entry will appear to native speakers of that language who will leave you helpful feedback and point out any errors. In return, you can help edit other user’s entries that are written in your native language. By receiving feedback, you can master a foreign language.

4 Ideas for creative writing in a foreign language

1 Pre-writing

Pre-writing tasks review and build students’ knowledge of relevant vocabulary, relevant grammar points and, most importantly, students’ background knowledge, since that is what really generates thoughtful and interesting written work. Pre-writing tasks are a crucial element of successful writing instruction.

Pre-writing activities may take many different forms. Here we review a few effective ways to get the writing process started: associograms, prompts, interviews, and reading/listening activities.

  • An associogram is a collection of lexical items and/or ideas that relate to a topic.
  • A well chosen picture or song can foster the learner’s creativity. A few questions in addition to the picture can really help ideas flow. Written prompts can help students hypothesize what is going on in the picture and generate interesting content.
  • Interviews can serve to generate ideas for writing and move learners beyond their own experiences. It usually works best when some of the questions are unexpected or “hook” students’ interests.
  • Responding to texts. When language learners respond to texts, whether written or oral, they can learn new vocabulary, expressions, grammatical structures, and valuable pragmatic information (e.g., how to structure an e-mail, a movie review, etc.).

2 Alternate endings

Alternate ending activities can be used with any text (from stories, music, or film). For known texts, students can simply come up with a different ending. Or they can predict an ending of a story from a reading. Similarly, students write a sequel to the story that takes place five years later. Or have students re-write the story (or parts of the story) from the perspective of one of the minor characters.

3 Short stories

Short stories can include a modern fairy tale or a parable, a moment-in-life description, or even a mystery. Ideally, the students read a mystery story beforehand, to learn relevant vocabulary, grammar, and narrative structure before they write.

4 Production tasks

For example, Wiki entries, blogs, a brochure advertising study abroad programs. These activities might be better suited for intermediate or more advanced learners.

Writing is useful and fun if it serves the purpose of communication

Writing deserves systematic and continued attention in the foreign language classroom in its own right, not merely as a support skill for listening, reading or speaking. Writing is a complex process that demands of authors to have clear ideas they wish to communicate, to take note of their audience, to be aware of the purpose of the texts they produce, and to use the linguistic aspects of language necessary for conveying meaning effectively. Writing tasks should reflect a variety of purposes for writing in real life.

Writing is essential for developing literacy and can help language learners connect the foreign language to meaningful expression of ideas. By incorporating creative writing into your study schedule, you can gain a sense of autonomy over the language. You can master a foreign language by writing and have fun doing that.

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