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Competitive creativity – How writing challenges can unlock your students’ imaginations

Matthew Gouldson considers the role that competitions and other outside initiatives can have on getting students to write in more creative and imaginative ways

Matthew Gouldson
by Matthew Gouldson
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD Top tips for teaching Secondary English

How do you start encouraging young people to write creatively in the classroom?

This can often be a challenge. After exploring various themes, ideas, and countless sentence starters, it can sometimes feel as though though their work is being written for them, with any sense of originality tamped down.

Before long, you’re again posed with that eternal question, only this time voiced by a student – ‘How do I start?’ And so the cycle repeats itself.

If you think that’s hard, try encouraging young people to write creatively in their own time. At The Mosslands School in the Wirral, we take pride in the strategies we’ve put in place to encourage our students to enjoy writing and reading – which, when you’re dealing with teenagers, is no easy task…

External opportunities

Last year, I came across a writing competition that got our students and teaching staff excited. It helped that Pearson’s ‘My Twist on a Tale’ contest offered an enticing prize – the chance for students to get their story and name published in print – but as is only right, the promise of gaining recognition and praise from school staff provided some motivation too.

The competition required entrants to demonstrate originality. Suggesting new ways of opening sentences, exploring of how to creatively fashion metaphors, looking at exceptional pieces of writing not already glued to the curriculum (including from students’ own reading) – these all helped.

Granted, these kind of external opportunities don’t run all year round, and not all will be relevant to your students, but it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled for notices in education magazines, new websites, teacher forum discussions and social media activity regarding initiatives and competitions that can aid engagement and creativity in the classroom.

Writing something different

Competitions like ‘My Twist on a Tale’ and others are great for giving students opportunities to write something different to what they’re used to, and find real joy in writing. The theme for this year’s competition was ‘Our tomorrow’. The future is a vast topic, providing a multitude of story ideas, such as the evolution of the human race, climate change or time travel.

This can be overwhelming, but it gave our students the chance to write about something important to them, and/or let their imaginations run wild, outside the confines of the curriculum.

One of our Y7 students, Larrie Marsh, was selected as the North West winner. He pushed his creativity to its limits with a weird and wacky submission which, right up to the final line, seemed outrageously bizarre – but it was a piece of writing that granted readers the privilege of wandering the inner realms of a young person’s mind.

There also are other avenues you can explore outside of formal competitions. Why not connect with your local newspaper and see if they’d be interested in taking an article from one of your students – perhaps on something happening in the local area, or a notable sporting event?

You can try exploring internal opportunities too. Are there any upcoming school events that will need content to be written, or any writing opportunities available within your school newspaper or newsletter?

Reading for pleasure

Understanding our students, identifying their interests and hobbies and exploring these further is what’s helped us so far. As educators, we’d love to say that every child will eventually go on to enjoy the act of writing without that external impetus, but we all know that in reality, it’s not that easy.

Kicking stigmas and taking names remains a tough battle for educators, in what are increasingly challenging settings. Creative writing assignments can easily seem like relics from the past, but there’s a great deal of good that we should cherish in them and fight for on our pupils’ behalf.

Matthew Gouldson is an English teacher at The Mosslands School in the Wirral; for more information, visit for follow @MosslandsSchool

You can read Larrie Marsh’s winning entry and find out more about this year’s ‘My Twist on a Tale’ competition at

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