Explore More

Unleashing the Power of Creative Thinking in the ESL Classroom

a collage of three photos: three teens building with strings and other materials, adults leaning around multiple papers with graphs, and young learners all holding a craft together

The role of an English language teacher is multifaceted. Of the many responsibilities that fall to you as an instructor are to keep education fun, fresh, and encouraging and to incorporate important transferable skills in your lessons so students succeed beyond the classroom. One way to do all of this is to find methods that inspire creativity and imagination within your students, regardless of their age or experience level. It’s time to hit the refresh button and build confidence in your students. Here’s how to light that spark and promote creative thinking in the ESL classroom.

What is creative thinking in English language learning?

Creative thinking is the ability to devise innovative, inventive approaches and solutions to problems. Creative thinking overlaps in some crucial respects with critical thinking. They both engage new and preexisting knowledge. They are also both often involved with problem-solving and decision-making. Finally, both creativity and critical thinking can be triggered by the individual’s curiosity about a specific topic. A 21st-century skill, or “soft skill,” creative thinking is now considered an important feature in education, valued by employers, and necessary to prepare students to enter the workforce. These 21st-century skills are sometimes referred to as the Four C’s: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. But, what does it mean to promote creative thinking in ESL, specifically?  

Both inside and outside the classroom, creative thinking requires open-mindedness, the ability to think outside the box, enough imagination to consider alternative solutions, and combining new and preexisting knowledge in original ways. These are all skills that teachers can foster in the English class. If creative thinking means responding creatively and imaginatively to a challenge, whatever its nature, then it can certainly be taught in EL classes.

Explore more 21st-century skills in these Micro-credential courses that will modernize your teaching and prepare your learners for the future.

a teacher sitting at a round table with four young teen students who are listening and smiling as she talks and gestures.
Small group work and a positive attitude toward corrective instruction will help students focus on their successes rather than their failures.

How do you promote creative thinking in the classroom?

Implementing creative thinking in English language learning requires teachers to move away from the standard modality of instruction with its right vs. wrong polarity and be willing to relinquish some control in favor of a more learner-centered model. There are several ways teachers can bolster creative thinking in the ESL classroom and create the right environment to integrate creative thinking into their lessons.

Use open-ended questions

Often, students are expected to respond to questions either with a correct or a wrong answer. Instead, teachers can use open-ended questions that foster independent thinking and learning. Allow for conversations to flow and the lesson to develop organically whenever you can. This will help give your students a sense of ownership and responsibility over their learning process. Try to promote in-depth thinking with these questions. When students ask questions, encourage them to think more deeply and arrive at their own conclusions instead of giving them a single, straightforward answer. Some examples you can use are:

  • How would you recap our last lesson in your own words?
  • If you could have a conversation with anyone in history, who would you talk to and what would you talk about?
  • You notice your classmate is struggling with a grammar concept. How would you approach them and how would you help?

Encourage collaboration

Collaborative learning is another effective way to set up your classroom environment for creative thinking. Collaborative activities like think/pair/share, peer review, and group problem-solving are great places to start! These activities require students to share their knowledge, compare notes, and bounce ideas off each other. If set up correctly, collaborative activities provide space for independent thinking while providing opportunities to solve problems creatively. Whenever possible, allow students to resolve disagreements among themselves by having them verbally identify their frustrations. At the root of all problem-solving is critical thinking!

Curiosity and a sense of wonder are often at the base of creative thinking. You can encourage curiosity and inquiry by selecting interesting and engaging activities that make your students want to know more.

Four adult students stand and sit around a male young adult student, discussing the assignment he holds in his hands.
No one is too old for a fun and immersive creative activity. Adult learners especially need hands-on ways to find their creativity.

Embrace cultural and personal differences

Because ESL classes are often made up of students with diverse cultural backgrounds, it is essential to first create an environment of mutual respect where cultural differences can safely emerge and be mediated through conversation. When students can express their opinions without fear of being sanctioned by the teacher or their peers, cultural diversity can become a powerful tool to fuel creative thinking. Students will develop different solutions/responses depending on their backgrounds and feed on each other’s ideas.

Consider learners’ personal interests if you want to stimulate your students’ creative thinking. Students will be much more motivated to think creatively about a topic if it resonates with them. Encourage students to bring in a favorite book, toy, or cultural item to share with the class. A show-and-share experience will benefit conversation and public speaking skills and build confidence through a less structured approach. Another idea is to let the students plan a class party from start to finish. They can choose what to celebrate and what activities to include, and they can engage in healthy debate. The end result is a fun and tangible experience for all of their hard work.

Here are 8 strategies for fostering good relationships with your students!

How do you teach creative thinking to ESL students?

You can test the following activities to promote creative thinking in the ESL classroom. Some of them are more suitable for beginners, others for intermediate-level students, and others for advanced students. Use these ideas for inspiration, but get creative with them and feel free to tweak them!

For even more ideas, take a Micro-credential course in Promoting Creative and Innovative Thinking in the ESL Classroom.

Creative thinking activities for beginners

  • Practice storytelling or story reading with a twist. Tell or read a story to your students, but in the process, stop periodically and ask them to make predictions about the direction the story will take. Urge them to use their imaginations to envision original or improbable scenarios. A variation in this activity is to ask students to write a different ending to the story.
  • Train your students to think outside the box by asking them to imagine as many uses as possible for an object, for example, a bottle (to hold water, to send a message, as a rolling pin, as a hot water bottle in bed when it’s cold, etc.). To scale this up for intermediate students, ask them to create a selling pitch for an ordinary object in the classroom, for example, a pen or a notebook.

Creative thinking activities for intermediate learners

  • Engage students in role-playing. This is a collaborative activity in which students write a script, peer review it, and act it out. The teacher’s role is limited to preliminary activities such as setting a topic suitable to the learning objectives, scaffolding vocabulary, and reviewing the scripts after the initial peer review. In selecting the topic, the teacher should keep the students’ interests in mind and, if possible, choose the topic accordingly.
  • Have students create sentences or create a story. In this activity, students sit in a circle and decide on a direction (left to right or right to left). One student says a word, e.g., I, Mom, John, etc. The following student continues the sentence by adding a grammatically appropriate word, e.g., wanted, said, was, etc. The following student continues the sentence until completion. In a variation of this activity, student one says a sentence, e.g., “Mary went to the doctor.” Student two supplies the following sentence, e.g., “It was raining outside.” Student three continues the story, e.g., “Mary forgot her umbrella,” and so on, until a story has been created. Allow students to be as silly and creative as they wish within the limits of propriety.

Creative thinking activities for advanced learners

  • Play the alibi game. One activity that can help encourage creativity is this popular ESL game in which you pair students up and tell them that a crime has happened. Give them some details (when, what, where, etc.), and then let them work with their partners to come up with an alibi. Afterward, take turns questioning each partner on their own to find out if the pair of students’ stories match. This encourages students to come up with all kinds of possibilities as to what they could be asked and to get specific with details. It’s also a lot of fun!
  • Employ reverse brainstorming. Instead of looking for solutions to a challenge, in reverse brainstorming, students are prompted first to identify possible impediments to achieving a goal. “What could go wrong?” is the key question here – identifying problems before solutions helps eliminate ideas that are impractical or not applicable to the situation. You can use reverse brainstorming in the ESL classroom to generate original ideas from an unusual perspective.

Creative thinking is a valuable life skill, with applications that go far beyond the ESL classroom. Adopting creative thinking activities can increase students’ interest and engagement during lessons. By embracing creative thinking and establishing teaching practices that promote it, teachers can cultivate this skill in their students and give them a competitive edge in their lives and careers. 

Ready to grow your expertise in teaching the 21st-century skill of creative thinking? Take Bride’s Promoting Creative and Innovative Thinking in Your Classroom Micro-credential course.

Linda D'Argenio is a native of Naples, Italy. She is a world language teacher (English, Italian, and Mandarin Chinese,) translator, and writer. She has studied and worked in Italy, Germany, China, and the U.S. In 2003, Linda earned her doctoral degree in Classical Chinese Literature from Columbia University. She has taught students at both the school and college levels. Linda lives in Brooklyn, NY.