Did you know that the grape press and the coin punch were combined to form the printing press? Back in the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg blended the flexibility of a coin punch with the power of a mechanized wine press to invent mechanized printing and the printing press which, as many historians have argued, led to the birth of the modern world. This is a clear example of blending existing ideas to form new ones and is one of the seven steps in the process of creative thinking. These were ideas shared in a fascinating seminar at the recent NATECLA online conference 2021 led by the language teacher, trainer and education consultant Nick Peachey.

In the ESL classroom our aim is to get learners to produce language. We need to be creative and so do our learners. Peachey’s recent publication ‘Hacking Creativity’ contains reflections and suggestions on how to be creative in the ESL classroom. In the book he also talks about techniques and practices that you can use to help develop your students’ creative skills and potential.

Peachey explains how several companies invited him to observe and train their employees. He found that during ‘brainstorming’ sessions what was taking place was not in fact brainstorming. Expanding on this he refers to two different ways of thinking: divergent and convergent. Divergent thinking refers to the quantity of ideas and is what brainstorming is all about. Convergent thinking is the quality of ideas and the place at which they meet. At this meeting point there is more focus, analysis and specific research. Peachey notes that employees often seem to do this, concentrating too quickly on one single point.
When it comes to the classroom activity of brainstorming, however, we want ideas to come quickly and profusely, being open to any ideas (even the most ridiculous) as long as they come in swift succession. In this way, convergent thinking follows on from divergent thinking.

Ideas for brainstorming in the ESL classroom (Divergent thinking activity)

Below are some ideas for rapid thinking (divergent) activities which you could use in the classrooms as warmers or to introduce new topics. Adapt the idea for your level of learners.

  • Give a word to your learners, e.g. ‘Politics’
    Aim high and ask for 30 words related to politics as quickly as you can. Write them up on the board or get learners to do it.
  • How many ways can you think of to collect water?
    In a bucket / dish / cloth / cup / hands etc.
  • How to cook an egg without a cooker?
    How many ideas can your learners think of?
  • How to fix the world
    End to pollution/corruption…take all possibilities from the learners
  • Finish this quote…/ Finish this sentence…
    Give your learners part of a quote/sentence to complete however they choose, e.g. ‘Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about…’ or ‘Without music, life would be…’ or ‘Whoever is happy will make…’
  • Show an interesting picture/photo e.g. of a person on a tightrope/bungee jumping or swimming with sharks. Ask learners the question ‘Would you do it if…?’

Convergent thinking activities

To follow on from these activities to include grammar points, deeper discussion or wider vocabulary you could take one of the ideas from the brainstorming session above and focus in on one aspect of English.

Grouping and combining

  • Odd word out
    Give learners 3 words, one of them being an ‘odd’ one that doesn’t relate to the others. Learners decide which is the odd word.
  • Grouping words
    Make ‘Word Buckets’. Learners are given 30 words and 4 buckets. They decide on the labels for each bucket e.g. ‘happy words’, ‘words I like’, etc. and categorise the words into the relevant bucket. This is good for helping to learn new vocabulary.
  • Make a mash-up
    Show a couple of pictures/objects and ask learners in pairs or small groups to invent something new using these items. e.g. cheese and a razor. There are many ideas online for creative inventions. Learners can then be asked to talk about their invention.


Visualisation guides learners slowly and methodically through the activity and gives them more ideas to talk about.

  • A meal
    Learners close their eyes and you get them to visualise their last meal or their favourite meal. Ask them questions about it and they listen and imagine the answers in the picture in their heads. e.g. What was it? What did it smell like? What colours were on the plate? Where were you? Then in pairs learners take turns talking about their meal. The visualisation will have created more ideas.
  • A Film
    Learners close their eyes and you get them to visualise the last film they saw. Where did they see it? What was the plot? Was there music in it? Who did you go with? In pairs learners share their film information.
  • A Text as a pre-reading task
    Get the learners to close their eyes and the teacher reads the text they will look at together afterwards. They try to imagine what they are hearing. When they come to read it for themselves they will understand more.

Taste & Smell

  • ‘Images that smell’
    Show a picture of a Thai market on boats or an Indian spice market. Tell the learners they are there. Ask questions. What can you see? What can you smell?
  • Tasty words
    Attach a taste to a word. This is especially good for higher learners. e.g. ‘laughter’. What does laughter taste like?
  • Categorise words
    Use a random word generator or give a list of some vocabulary and then some specific adjectives e.g. sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Learners must put the chosen words in the columns under the adjective they think best applies, if the word had a taste.


Do you have learners that doodle during class? If so this is for them! Doodling increases comprehension for some students.

  • Sentence sketch
    Give learners pictures to make up sentences.
  • Sketching comprehension
    Learners could draw the text instead of answering questions in writing/speaking.
  • Storyboarding success
    Tell learners to divide a page into three sections. They must ‘stickman’ draw their life now in one section, then their life 10 years ago and then in 10 years’ time. Then they explain the drawing to a partner or the partner tries to understand it. This is good for recapping a variety of tenses.

Sound & Music

  • Song sentence revision
    Sing any sentence to the tune of a song you know.
  • Sound collection
    Choose five times (or any other number) of the day and get learners to record the sounds they hear at that time. Learners can talk about what they hear with a partner. They can guess where it was, when it was, what was happening, what specific sounds they recognise etc.

Photos & Images

  • Random images
    Take a photo at 5 random times of the day and talk to a partner about them or get your partner to ask you questions about what they see.
  • Image research
    Take 5 pictures of objects e.g. leaves, sweet wrappers, and ask the class where and when you saw them.

Peachey believes that a creative classroom requires the teacher to be an equal in the process of creativity. The teacher needs to be made vulnerable and encourage their learners. So get more creative in your classroom, and please do let us know how these ideas worked in your classroom or with your learners!’

Written by
Marina Swainston-Harrison
ESL Lead Specialist
July 2021