Monday, March 3, 2014

The Benefit of "Play" in the Composition Classroom

A giant hamburger leads sleepwalking students off the edge of a cliff.
That Third Grade Graphic Organizer is Leading Students Astray!

When students stop writing, they stop learning how to write. Students oftentimes stop writing because they are not learning anything new. Make it new!

The most effective way for any student to learn to write is for that student to practice writing. As faculty, we must find ways to inspire and encourage both writing and learning.

The Failure to Learn to Write is the Failure to Write

One reason students fail to learn to write in the college composition classroom is that oftentimes they are not “learning,” in the truest sense, but merely reviewing methods, formulas and structures they have been taught in the past. One ramification of that review process is that students do not become engaged with the assignments or the lecture material, and therefore they either do not complete writing assignments, or they take shortcuts and skip steps in the writing process. They stop writing effectively, writing instead to merely fill in the five-paragraph essay model. Uninspired, they stop thinking about their writing. Eventually, they stop writing.  When they stop writing, they stop learning. They stop writing because they are not learning.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Writing Creatively Addresses the Failure to Write

To address this problem, faculty can present ideas about writing that are new to composition students: writing that goes beyond the basic five paragraph essay. Granted, students must know the rules before they can break them. However, at some point, they should not only be allowed, but encouraged to explore methods outside and beyond the five paragraph essay format they have been taught since grade school.

In order to prevent a stagnation of writing in college composition classes, faculty must open the door for students to play with language and ideas just as students play with these ideas in creative writing workshops.

Franz Andres Morrissey, an English professor at the University of Berne, states in an article published in Teaching English that although creative writing is playful writing, it is also “rigorous work with language” (2002). Yet, as “rigorous” as it may be, the sense of play that accompanies creative writing instills in the student an innate desire to write.

Proven Results when Students Write Creatively

Although the idea of teaching concepts related to creative writing in the composition classroom may send up red flags for those unaccustomed to what creative writing entails, it is an idea that’s been tested and proven effective.

Danita Feinberg studied the effects of using creative writing lessons in one of her composition courses.  She wrote an article detailing the results of her study entitled How Creative Writing and Composition Pedagogical Approaches Can Benefit A Writing Classroom: The Ethnographical Study of an Upper-Level Expository Writing Class. In this report she mentions giving students “room to ‘play’ with their writing” as a way to help the students come to conclusions about their audience’s needs (2006). “I would give them room to 'play' with their writing,” she says, “to take it in different directions without form, before offering different types of genres in which they could decide to ultimately shape their writing, based on what an audience would need and expect” (para. 7).

Allowing the students to play with language while, in Morrissey's words, “rigorously working with language,” paid off. She proudly reports seeing her students smile while working and is even prouder to quote positive reviews of her class by her students.  In short, the students enjoyed the process and were more encouraged to practice writing. . . 

thereby breaking the vicious cycle.

In summary, the most effective way for any student to learn to write is for that student to practice writing. This means, however, that faculty must teach beyond the basic five-paragraph essay. Students must be encouraged to play with language, test the limits of their writing ability, and remain active and engaged in their composition class. The results of such teaching strategies. combining elements of creative writing with composition, have proven effective.


  • Feinberg, D. (2006). How creative writing and composition pedagogical approaches can benefit a writing classroom. Writing Macao, 4, Retrieved August 24, 2011, from
  • Morrissey, F. A. (2002, November 25). Write on! Creative writing as language practice. Teaching English, Retrieved August 25, 2011 from

Want to read more about pedagogy or playful classroom activities?  Try
Sentence Diagramming for Visual and Kinesthetic Learning
Motivate the WIIFM Student with a Learning Audit Assignment
Paranormal Reality Television: A Lesson in Critical Thinking
A Playful Lesson for the Composition Classroom

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.  Originally published Aug 25, 2011.

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