Helping Students Find their Voices in Creative Writing

By Laura Kahwati 

The Lost Years

Having spent 15 years as a state school English teacher with a plethora of school productions and debating competitions under my belt, my teacher-ego might tell me that I have served a decade and a half of helping students find their voice in secondary school.

When a particularly striking piece of creative writing is produced by a quiet student, I will happily say, “I can read it out for you if you like?’ Their eyes light up, I put on my best storytelling voice and read aloud their work like I’m delivering a Shakespeare monologue; mouths and eyes draw open in admiration, there is an engaged silence (rather than an obedient one), and we all clap the quiet student who everybody underestimated. My teacher-ego is happily fed: “Look at me, I gave that child a voice!”

I wouldn’t think to reflect on the real questions: why was she too shy to read it out? In fact, why is she too shy to say anything in any of my classes … ever?

I would be ashamed to admit the number of students in my classroom over the years who have never had a voice; whether I read out their work for them or I never picked on them because they were too shy – or I insisted on silence so that we can fit in as much content and writing as possible. Moreover, I would be ashamed to admit the number of lessons over 15 years where the most predominant voice in the classroom was mine.

Talking Comes First

When I visited a revolutionary school in East London in 2018, I realised where I was going wrong: I didn’t consciously include oracy skills in lessons.

School 21[1] is a leading school in oracy practice and sees helping students communicate effectively as a moral imperative.  So why haven’t the rest of us?

Sir Ken Robinson warned us a long time ago about schools’ tendencies to “kill creativity”[2]. We also have an Education System that believes that only 30% of a Drama GCSE should be credited for spoken communication. How can students find their voices if we have neglected to teach them how to talk?

Voices Stifled by the System

The English government has brought in a number of educational reforms over the last 10 years that have arguably stifled the voices of young people. For instance, the changes to the assessment of Speaking and Listening in GCSE English.

When I was 16, I achieved a separate GCSE for Speaking and Listening. This GCSE was then moved into the English Language with a 20% weight. It was an exciting time when the way students delivered a powerful speech on a topic of their choice or debated the theme of social responsibility in J.B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls was considered markworthy. However, there is now a suspiciously separate certificate that “will not contribute to the result of the GCSE English Language Qualification.”[3] Speaking and Listening is not assessed. Therefore, it is not taught.

Read all about it

Two books have been instrumental in helping me to develop my own oracy skills, those of my colleagues and our collective understanding of how to teach oracy:

  • The Talking Revolution by Peter Osborn and Eddy Canfor-Dumas
  • Transform Teaching and Learning through Talk Amy Gaunt and Alice Stott

In The Talking Revolution by Peter Osborn and Eddy Canfor-Dumas, the life-changing focus on “creative conversation”[4] is seen as the pedagogical key to transforming peoples’ lives in their personal relationships, group relationships, societal and even international relationships between countries. One of the main principles is that “Creativity is essentially about our awareness of potential… how every conversation contains the ability to create something of value”[5] This could be a new perspective, a difficult subject matter finally broached or an idea coming to fruition.

In Transform Teaching and Learning through Talk, Amy Gaunt and Alice Stott explore the society-wide benefit to talking in the classroom: “A focus on your students’ ‘voice’, in the broadest sense of the word, also contributes toward shaping active, engaged, thoughtful and reflective citizenry.” [6]

Unequal Voices

In private education oracy has and continues to be a huge focus in terms of classroom learning, debate, critical thinking, extracurricular activities and competitions.

Gaunt and Stott notice that “it is perhaps no coincidence that teachers at fee-based schools place far greater emphasis on developing their students’ verbal communication skills than their state funded counterparts.”[7]

Cultural currency is largely obtained from beyond and before the classroom – from the resources found in more privileged households: “…children from privileged backgrounds are also taught to talk at school.”[8]

Children from backgrounds where their parents have been through higher education will have been exposed to great works of literature from a young age. They may have also enjoyed theatre trips or educational holidays. The conversations around us and even exposure to the beauty of nature are all fruits of great works of literature. Children in households where these things are not possible should not have to continue to miss out at school.

When AQA outlines the Modern Texts and Poetry[9] that students study, what voices are showcased? Generally white voices and male voices that were not objected to in a patriarchal and post-colonial Britain. Writers like Alice Walker and Harper Lee have since been taken off the list through Michael Gove’s claim that English Literary Heritage is “the best in the world”[10] This has meant that EAL[11] students miss out on being able to identify with the writers they study.

When we revere English writers above all others, we lack diverse voices being read out loud in class, immediately limiting the potential for creativity and the range of voices and perspectives that children are exposed to, making them less able to identify with writers that could influence their own voice.

When students embark on creative writing, they should be exposed to new vocabulary all the time: from the teacher, from other students and from the fiction they read. Michael Rosen points out that language is accessible and ubiquitous: it is “…non-hierarchical… (it) is everywhere, in use, affecting us…”[12] Children should hear all kinds of dialects, religious beliefs and accents that can inform their characterisations. Most importantly, they need to be able to see themselves in the writing of others. This can’t happen in a silent classroom and it can’t happen where there is a lack of representation.

Rosen realises that “At the heart of all this, is the motor of making literacy mine. One of the jobs of education is not simply to say, ‘we are endowing pupils with this chunk of literature’ but it is to find ways for the notion of literacy to be one of possession. ‘I, the pupil, have the right to own this piece of writing.’”[13]

Teaching creative writing in a classroom that welcomes the individual voices, experiences and feelings of every student is key. Rosen explains the importance of ‘Collecting Language’ before we write and how easy it is: “Out there, every day, there are millions of examples of language use… We can think of it as a resource… to pick and mix or scavenge.” [14] Rosen goes on to explain that: “The pupils’ questions, discussions and answers are themselves a resource for writing. They involve pupils’ lives, queries, matters of interest, thoughts about a range of texts from outside the classroom…”[15]

Finding a Voice for our Feelings

When I am teaching creative writing, my students begin with a task that was suggested (for people of all ages) in The Talking Revolution: Each writes three sentences that begin with “I love it when…” and “I hate it when…” Then, we match each sentence to an emotional need. For example, “I love it when I get to play the guitar for hours” would translate as a need for creativity. “I hate it when I’m stuck indoors” shows a need for ‘nature’[16]. Sharing values in this simple way (in pairs, groups or as a whole class) can be the first step to students realising their voice.

This encourages the skill of inference for the purpose of understanding ourselves and others. We can learn the most about people (real and fictional) when we infer their emotional needs. More importantly, students can infer their own emotional needs and the values that they didn’t even know they had. They can use this to build character and voice with more nuance.

All students have an idea of what they love and hate. They also have the right to be in a safe environment with the potential to share these opinions out loud. This doesn’t need to be daunting; students can do paired or group sharing. They can also make their answers as revealing as they wish. Having brief talk-based exercises in place throughout a lesson builds students to a point where speaking in class is so frequent that it becomes a natural part of the writing process.

Across a Lifetime

Sir Ken Robinson reminds us that “parents and others guide and correct young children as they learn to speak and they may encourage and applaud them. But babies don’t learn to speak by instruction. They learn by imitation and inference. We are all born with a deep, instinctive capacity for language, which is activated almost as soon as we draw breath.”[17]

Currently, it seems that we have taught children to run before they can walk; we have thrown them into a media-saturated society, without first giving them an education in which face-to-face human interaction is at the heart of their learning. We have thrown them into a politically divided world without focusing on meaningful debate, listening to our own and others’ voices and prioritising empathy. Society surrounds them with voices without giving them the critical thinking skills needed to navigate this landscape. As Osborn and Canfor Dumas point out: “We’ve had a revolution in the technology that connects us around the world… now we need a revolution in the humanware, the quality of how we actually communicate with each other.”[18]

Of course, there are merits to social media; the incredible progress made by Greta Thunberg, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Me Too movement prove that having a voice can directly translate into “changing the world”[19] – as expressed by Rachel Hennessey: “Social media can… simultaneously connect us to more and more people and, paradoxically, increasingly isolate us in a highly particular and limited worldview.”[20]

As Rosen says: “It’s great to focus children and school students on their own speech and the speech of the people they hear around them, relatives’ sayings, proverbs, aphorisms, slips of the tongue, things they hear in the institutions they go through … and what they hear on holiday and in the media… we can… collect whatever is interesting, ambiguous, odd, fantastic, muddled, funny, tragic, pithy, clever, enigmatic.”[21] We can listen and help students to listen. Hearing a range of points of view and perspectives can change minds and positively influence emotional development, confidence and clarity of thinking.

When teaching a Film Studies taster unit as part of the Media Studies GCSE, I often warn my students that they will never be able to watch a film in blissful ignorance again once we have finished the module; they will always be thinking about the camera angles, colours, costumes, facial expressions and soundtracks. We should endow students with the skills to reflect on conversations, infer the perspective of the narrator and get the most out of the human interactions and relationships that can be the key to them owning a rich voice both in the conversation and on the page.

But this is also comes back to the problem of representation:

In Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race, Edge-Loddo laments that “White people are so used to seeing a reflection of themselves in all representations of humanity at all times.”[22] And that’s why Osborn and Canfor-Dumas propose that “We need this talking revolution to happen everywhere …. We also need it to include everyone – young, old, male, female, rich, poor, straight, gay, able bodied, disabled, black, white and every other shade too.”[23]

Decolonising our curriculum would be a great start – more diverse writers with a range of voices. We can also encourage conversation inside and outside of the classroom by asking students to read their work to someone at home, write a list of funny phrases from family members or conduct an interview with a relative about what it was like when they were their age – or just as enlightening: “What was I like, when I was little?”

Basic human needs are the first things we learn to express (babies cry when hungry). When these needs and the expressions of them are not met, we can get to a point where teenagers are unable to express needs that are higher up in Maslow’s Hierarchy[24], like the need for acceptance in society. They may even be unaware that they have been ignored due to their race, gender, sexuality or social class. And yet “being understood is fundamentally about serving basic human needs.”[25]

The list of emotional needs set out in The Talking Revolution[26] includes the need to be creative, the need for humour, love, friendship and empathy.

It is important to encourage students to recognise these needs in themselves and others so that they can not only express their own feelings and subsequently the feelings of the characters in their stories but they can also recognise and celebrate the emotional needs of others, through what The Talking Revolution calls “Creative Conversation.”[27]

Using Winnie the Pooh to make Voice Playful

In the last 15 years, one task has always proved to be the most popular with all my students. I inherited it from my mentor and cherished friend, Theresa Manuel.

I show the class a short story opening written in the style of Winnie the Pooh:

It was a blustery day in the Hundred Acre Wood as Winnie the Pooh skipped through the autumn leaves on his way to see his dear friend Piglet.

We talk about the words that stand out as being that of Children’s Fiction: “blustery / skipped / dear friend.” They describe the words as “cosy”, “sweet”, “child-like”. Or sometimes the students scrunch up into a smiley, cuddly shrug and explain, “I don’t know how to describe it really – it’s just – you know – Winnie the Pooh!” At this point in the lesson, confidence is built through the premise that everyone is an expert: children are familiar with Winnie the Pooh and words that are childlike, whether they are confident with other literature or not.

I then show them an impact sentence that often commands an audible, empathetic gasp. Two ominous words: “Pooh wept.”

At this point, the students talk about the impact on the reader and why it is strangely more effective than a longer description. We discuss the word choice of “wept” instead of “cried” or “sobbed”. We consider why he might be feeling like this and the students offer ideas like “Maybe he has lost Piglet?” or more dramatically, “Maybe Piglet has died!” Their imaginations are sparked through empathy and there is a collective effort to draw together a deeper narrative.

What strikes me is how immediately engaged students are with the text; word choice, sentence structure, characterisation and genre are all topics that might have bored them in the past!

The familiarity of Winnie the Pooh encourages students to take part; they feel safe with the voice of A.A. Milne and they return to their childlike interest. The atmosphere in the classroom feels safe. This is the first step to building the foundations for a safe place where creativity can flourish and voices heard. Winnie the Pooh books have a kind, playful voice that teaches us to embrace everyday struggles and human joy.

Once this atmosphere is established, I give students a list of genres and ask them to rewrite the passage in the style of their chosen genre, choosing vocabulary carefully.

What follows is great parody and mischief at the thought of taking a children’s book and changing the voice. As children read aloud their versions Piglet as a murder victim, Pooh and Piglet as a proud gay couple or Pooh as a revered footballer in the last few moments of the match – there’s a classroom full of smiles and laughter. I’ll never forget one piece entitled “The Hundred Acre Hood” which saw Pooh embroiled in gang rivalry.

It is helpful for children to have something to imitate as their starting point; Michael Rosen proudly has “no snobbery and fears about imitation.”[28]

In creative writing, voice can be interpreted as genre style. Therefore, once students play with genres freely and with a low stakes exercise, their opening sentences can turn into paragraphs, then chapters and finally a complete piece.

This activity works wonders with children of all ages as though they have been craving the basics of childhood imagination, empathy, humour and kind human voices. It makes me wonder what has happened to the opportunities for play between the Winnie the Pooh years in a child’s life and their graduation.

Back to Basics

In Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element: How Finding your Passion Changes Everything he considers the incredible part language plays in human development: “What this really comes down to is our capacity to continue to develop our creativity and intelligence as we enter new stages of life… Consider… how we learn language. Learning to speak is one of the most miraculous achievements on a child’s life.”[29]

Sadly, this miracle is slowly phased out, the celebration and encouragement of it lost in a system that wants all students to pass standardised written tests at 16 years old. This is not the fault of parents but the fault of our education system.

And there is a greater risk: “Children with better language skills will also develop better social skills… children who struggle with verbal interaction tend to be isolated or rejected, or will find other ways of establishing themselves … research confirms that people in prison and young offenders’ institutions … have a high incidence of speech, language and communication difficulties. “[30]

Gaunt and Stott explain that, “The first way a child learns language is not out of a dictionary, glossary, or set text, but rather from the mouths of others: in speech, in context.”[31]

The mouths of others is a powerful image: we are the product of the people and voices around us. When I talk of private school education I do not wish to condemn parents for wanting the best for their children – or worse to condemn children for being born into privilege. In fact – they are missing out, too. We learn so much from the voices and life experiences of all different kinds of people. I can’t say that diversity of voice does not exist at all in a private school classroom. But I can tell you that walking into a classroom of 30 children in a state school offers a starkly different experience of diversity.

There is hope, though…

In the latest Ofsted Review for English May 2022[32] – although there is no mention of the word oracy – it is clear that the importance of talk is re-emerging. Ofsted dedicate sections of their review on “Spoken Language” and the “Importance of high-quality Spoken Language” and are even now recognising the societal issue that “the gap between those who are word-rich and those who are word-poor correlates with lasting socio-economic and health inequalities.”

Ofsted even quote the Oracy Framework[33] (designed collaboratively by School 21 and Oracy Cambridge) by outlining the 4 key aspects of a Spoken Language curriculum: “physical, linguistic, cognitive, and social and emotional” and recognising that “the discipline of rhetoric can provide pupils with insight into how spoken language is used by writers and orators.”

Ofsted have realised that “Developing spoken language, including vocabulary, is essential for the academic progress of all children” and even reference “the ‘Matthew effect’: the word-rich get richer and the word-poor get poorer.” I never thought I’d say it, but this is a welcome change to Ofsted’s focus and I am sure that teachers will capitalise on this chance to teach students to find their voice.


Schools are packed full of diverse and wonderful voices: we just don’t hear them all. In every classroom, we need to celebrate different dialects, different core values and different personalities. Our education system needs to make room for every child to own their voice in the classroom before they can truly, proudly, creatively and unapologetically own it both in their everyday social interactions, and on the page.


Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2018)

Gaunt, Alice and Scott, AmyTransform Teaching and Learning through Talk (Roman & Littlefield: 2019)

Osborn, Peter & Canfor Dumas, Eddy . The Talking Revolution: How Creative Conversation can Change the World (Port Meadow Press: 2018)

Robinson, Ken. The Element: How Finding your Passion Changes Everything (Penguin Books: 2010.

Rosen, Michael. Writing for Pleasure (Lightening Source Ltd, Milton Keynes: 2018)


AQA Modern Texts and Poetry:

AQA Non-Exam Assessment Guide: Spoken Language Endorsement 2015:

Kremer, William and Hammnd, Claudia Abraham Maslow and the Pyramid that Beguiled

Business 2013:

Michael Gove quoted in Taylor and Francis Online: 2010

Ofsted, Research Review Series: English: May 2022

Robinson, Ken, Do Schools Kill Creativity?: TED: 2006:

School 21 Our Story:

[1] School 21 Our Story:

[2] Robinson, Ken, Do Schools Kill Creativity? TED (2006)

[3]AQA Non-Exam Assessment Guide: Spoken Language Endorsement (2015)

[4] Osborn, Peter & Canfor Dumas, Eddy The Talking Revolution (Port Meadow Press: 2018) P.28

[5] Ibid P.29

[6] Gaunt, Alice and Scott, Amy Transform Teaching and Learning through Talk (Roman & Littlefield: 2019) P.6

[7] Gaunt, Alice and Scott, Amy Transform Teaching and Learning through Talk (Roman & Littlefield: 2019) P.7

[8] Gaunt, Alice and Scott, Amy Transform Teaching and Learning through Talk (Roman & Littlefield: 2019) P.7

[9] AQA Modern Texts and Poetry:

[10] Michael Gove quoted in Taylor and Francis Online: (2010)

[11] English as an Additional Language

[12] Rosen, Michael Writing for Pleasure (Lightening Source Ltd, Milton Keynes: 2018) P.14

[13] Rosen, Michael Writing for Pleasure (Lightening Source Ltd, Milton Keynes: 2018) P.14

[14] Ibid P.13

[15] Ibid P.19

[16] Osborn, Peter & Canfor Dumas, Eddy The Talking Revolution (Port Meadow Press: 2018) P.203 Appendix A

[17] Robinson, Ken The Element: How Finding your Passion Changes Everything (Penguin Books: 2010) P.199

[18] Osborn, Peter & Canfor Dumas, Eddy The Talking Revolution (Port Meadow Press: 2018) P.1

[19] Hennessy, Rachel Can Fiction Still Make a Difference? (2016)

[20] Ibid

[21] Rosen, Michael Writing for Pleasure (Lightening Source Ltd, Milton Keynes: 2018) P.13

[22] Eddo-Lodge, Reni Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2018)

[23] Osborn, Peter & Canfor Dumas, Eddy The Talking Revolution (Port Meadow Press: 2018) P.1

[24] Kremer, William and Hammnd, Claudia Abraham Maslow and the Pyramid that Beguiled Business (2013)

[25] Osborn, Peter & Canfor Dumas, Eddy The Talking Revolution (Port Meadow Press: 2018) P.129

[26] Ibid P.203 Appendix A

[27] Ibid P.28

[28] Rosen, Michael Writing for Pleasure (Lightening Source Ltd, Milton Keynes: 2018) P.21

[29] Robinson, Ken The Element: How Finding your Passion Changes Everything (Penguin Books: 2010) P.199

[30] Osborn, Peter & Canfor Dumas, Eddy The Talking Revolution (Port Meadow Press: 2018) P.20

[31] Gaunt, Alice and Scott, Amy Transform Teaching and Learning through Talk (Roman & Littlefield: 2019) P.76

[32] Ofsted, Research Review Series: English: May 2022

[33] The Oracy Framework:

1 thought on “Helping Students Find their Voices in Creative Writing”

  1. I have just discovered your article after sourcing the internet trying to find activities and pedagogy to use in order to create creative oracy tasks in form tutor groups.

    You articulate and execute my thoughts and feelings so accurately in your views; especially paragraph 25 and your conclusion which is so apt I had to share with some of my colleagues.

    I am actually shocked after twenty years of teaching in many inner city secondary schools how many young trainees are emerging into the profession without the basic ability to correct and articulate their language in the classroom in order to help their students succeed.

    Oracy needs to be an integral part of teacher training regularly but not a bolt on and expected to be delivered in English lessons. I cannot applaud you more for this accurately and brilliantly constructed opinion piece.

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