5 Activities to Encourage Creative Thinking in Secondary ELA

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Creativity is one of those enigmas that can’t really be “taught.” However, there are ways we can encourage creative thinking in the classroom and challenge students to “stretch” their minds beyond traditional thinking. In today’s challenging work climate, it is imperative that students be able to “think outside the box” and be innovative in order to separate themselves from the masses. Creativity is, after all, what leads to innovation in our world.

Here are five ways to encourage creative thinking in secondary ELA while also targeting essential reading and writing skills. Some of these activities are collaborative while others are for independent work. All of these activities can be integrated into the curriculum for any literary unit of study.

1.  The “What if?” Game

The “What if?” Game is a game that students play in groups in order to generate unique story ideas for creative writing. There are several ways to play this game, but here’s a basic setup:

  • Students get into groups of 4-5 peers.

  • Each group receives three cups and strips of paper. They will be generating ideas and writing them onto the strips of paper, folding them up, and placing them into the appropriate cups. The three cups are labeled “Characters,” “Settings,” and “Actions.”

  • Students take turns first generating various characters. Each of these slips should begin with “A ________” (i.e. “A waiter,” “A barber,” “A spy,” etc.). They can get as specific and descriptive as they’d like. Once they have brainstormed at least ten characters, they can move onto actions.

  • Next, students generate various settings for the characters. Each of these slips should begin with “In ________” or “From ________” (i.e. “In Medieval Europe, “From the local movie theater,” “In a small town in Texas,” etc.).

  • Students then generate various actions for the characters. Each of these slips should begin with a present tense verb (i.e. “Runs out of the grocery store,” “Robs a bank,” “Turns down a dark street,” etc.). Students should aim to be as creative as possible with these actions.

  • After students have generated their ideas and placed them into the appropriate cups, they then begin drawing ideas at random to generate new story premises. When they come across an idea they like, they can write it down and use it to inspire a new piece of writing.

  • Students should draw a character first, then select a setting, followed by an action. Selecting items in this order should create a complete statement. The whole statement should begin with “What if?” such as: “What if a baker from Medieval Europe robs a bank?”

  • After students have generated some ideas from their own cups, have them switch cups with other groups to really mix up the ideas. They can then share as a whole class and have fun creating new, unique ideas for stories!


2.  The “Definition” Game

The “Definition” Game encourages vocabulary growth and creativity. For this game, students get into groups and make up definitions for words they do not know. It’s a fun way to learn new vocabulary terms in an interactive format. Here’s how to play:

  • Students get into groups of 5-6 peers. Each student should tear up a piece of paper into slips. They will be writing their “definitions” onto these slips of paper. Each group should also have either a dictionary or access to dictionary.com.

  • Moving in a clockwise direction, each student takes a turn with the dictionary. They are to select a word from the dictionary that they think NO ONE KNOWS. So, this word should be challenging and new. The student with the dictionary writes the word and definition down on their own slip of paper. Then, this student tells the word to the group— but only the word and NOT the definition. The definition must be kept secret and will be revealed at the end of the round.

  • Students then make up their own definitions for the word and write their definitions down onto their own slips of paper. They should aim to make their definitions sound as realistic and as accurate as possible! They will want other group members to vote for their made-up definitions because this is how they will earn points in the game. Once they’ve finished with their definitions, they pass them to the student who has the dictionary. This student mixes them up into a pile and begins to read each definition out loud to the group.

  • As the person with the dictionary reads each definition out loud, students vote on which definition they think is the real definition of the word. Remember that the real definition is mixed up into the group’s made-up definitions. Points are earned when a student votes for “your” definition. This means that if someone votes for my fake definition, I get a point because I tricked them. If a person votes for the actual definition of the word, that person receives TWO points (double) because they were able to decipher which definition was the real one! Once the round is over, the real definition of the word is revealed, and students can write down any new words from the game to integrate into writing or other vocabulary activities. I usually have my students make a list in their writer’s notebooks to come back to when completing vocabulary pages or when looking for higher-level vocabulary for writing.

  • Play then rotates clockwise to the next player in the group. This person receives the dictionary and selects a new word. The person with the most points at the end of the game, WINS! Students really have fun playing this game, and I’ve even played it with my family on holiday breaks! Give it a try!

3.  101 Uses for a Dried-up Pen


This game isn’t strictly an activity for secondary ELA, but it encourages students to rethink the uses of a common object: a pen! For this game, students get into groups and take out a pen. Their task is to brainstorm as many uses for a dried-up pen as they possibly can. Someone in the group needs to record their answers because the group with the longest list wins the game! Some usages for the pen can range from hair rollers to drink stirrers. Students need to think “outside the box” to win this game. It’s important to then apply the concepts of this game to writing and challenge students to “see” a work of literature in a different light, to brainstorm various lenses or angles through which to analyze something. It’s a great analogy for encouraging analysis in a creative and collaborative way!

After completing this activity, have students transfer the concept to a piece of literature by having them brainstorm “101 Ways to See ________” (they should fill in the blank with a work of literature, character, theme, element, i.e. “101 Ways to See Macbeth,” etc.). They can then use this list to inspire a new thesis for analytical writing.

4. First Line of the Book

This activity can either be completed in groups or individually. The purpose of this activity is to target the hooks at the beginning of a piece of writing and to consciously practice strategies for pulling the reader into a piece of writing.

For this activity, students are to brainstorm captivating first lines of a book. There are different ways they can do this. I typically have students brainstorm a character, setting, and thematic idea first and then draft first sentences using those concepts. I also like to challenge students to use subtext to imply a situation rather than state it out right. The power of what is suggested is oftentimes more intriguing to us because it creates mystery and tension that we want to see resolved as readers. Students can brainstorm more than one first line and then share them with small groups or with the entire class. I like to have students share in small groups and then select the best first line. Then, each group shares the one line, and the class votes on the first line that they find most intriguing.

We then dissect what makes this line so intriguing. Student responses vary depending upon the first line but might include that the line is startling, mysterious, or contains vivid details. Students can use this activity to revise the first line of another piece of writing with the goal of hooking the reader at the beginning. It also makes for an interesting segue into studying the opening line of a piece of literature that the whole class will be reading.


For example, the first line of Homer’s Odyssey reads:

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.”

This first line pulls the reader in by beginning in medias res and by also using alliteration with “twists and turns” and “hallowed heights.” It also introduces an intriguing setting by alluding to Troy and creates mystery with hinting at the conflict of the main character who has somehow been “driven time and again off course.” Focusing on first lines can teach students how to captivate a reader and makes for an interesting literary analysis angle.

5. Tomorrow's Headline

For this creative writing activity, students are to generate outrageous headlines for tomorrow’s news stories. This is another activity that can be used along with the first line of the book activity to focus on how writer’s grab attention— except this time looking more at the non-fiction element of headlines in news stories.

I like to begin this activity by showing students outrageous headlines from current tabloids to give them the idea of how the activity works. They can then get into groups or work individually to create a list of their own outrageous headlines for tomorrow’s news. It is important to have students analyze how their headlines capture attention by purposefully employing tactics such as literary techniques, vivid vocabulary, and a sensationalizing tone.


Similar to the first line of the book activity, students can share their headlines in groups and then with the entire class who can then discuss what makes each headline captivating.

How do you encourage creative thinking in your classes? What specific activities do you use? Leave us a comment below! We’d love to hear from you!

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About the Author

Meredith is the founder and creator of TeachWriting.org and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  An avid tea drinker and anglophile, Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.