In this set of lesson ideas to accompany the Teaching creatively series, students practise writing with Proust, speak about a hobby and look for common ground.


1. Write like Proust!

  • Aims: To use a great writer’s creativity as the basis for a writing exercise.
  • Level: Upper intermediate and above.
  • Time: 20–30 minutes.
  • Preparation: None, apart from Proust’s letter, which is provided below.

Marcel Proust was a French writer best known for his monumental novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). He was born in Auteuil, near Paris, in 1871. His father was a doctor, and his mother came from a cultured Jewish family. Proust began to write when he was in school, his talent being evident even at an early age. He is considered the greatest writer in the French language. He died in 1922.


1. Ask the students what they know about Marcel Proust. (They usually know quite a lot about him in France, where I live.)

2. If you have the facilities, go on Wikipedia and have the students read a bit about him, his life, his art.

3. Now tell them you want to dictate a short letter he once wrote, but that you will start from its Post Scriptum.

4. Dictate the following to your students: Please forgive me. I’ve just found it.

5. Put your students in pairs and ask them to write the letter. Obviously, the students will have to take a few decisions, namely:

  • Who is the recipient? Friend? Relative? Lover? Consequently: what register should they use?
  • What does ‘it’ refer to? How important is ‘it’ to Proust?

6. Leave the students some time to write.

7. Have the students share their work with the class. Don’t make any comments on the language, but you can make mental notes to go back to imperfections later if you wish.

8. Now dictate Proust’s original letter to your students:

Dear Madam,

I left my cane at your house last night. Kindly give it to the bearer of this note.

Kind regards,

Marcel Proust.

PS: Please forgive me. I’ve just found my cane.

9. Ask the students why they think Proust sent the letter even after finding his cane. Would they?

Comment: This exercise both amuses and intrigues the students. It’s rather surprising that Proust decided to send his note in the end. What’s even more surprising, however, is the brevity of the text – very un-Proustian!

2. I can talk about that!

  • Aims: To encourage the students to speak about something they feel competent in.
  • Level: Pre-intermediate and above.
  • Time: 15–20 minutes.
  • Preparation: None.


1. Start by telling your students about something you know how to do reasonably well. For me: playing the guitar.

2. Tell them about something that is bound to surprise them (I usually tell them I own 13 guitars, and so far no one has remained indifferent to that!), and see if you can elicit questions.

3. With low levels/if the questions don’t come up easily, you might decide to put up on the board the following prompts:

  • How long?
  • Style/play?
  • Band?
  • Where/play?


How long have you been playing?

What style of music do you play?

Have you ever played / do you play in a band?

Where do you usually play?

4. Answer the questions, but keep it brisk.

5. Next, ask the students to think of three things they know how to do well and to write them down on a piece of paper.

6. Next, ask them to choose one item from their list they would feel most comfortable speaking about.

7. Now dictate the following questions:

  • a) On a scale from 0 (beginner) to 5 (expert), how good are you at this activity?
  • b) How does it make you feel when you’re doing it?
  • c) How important is it for you?
  • d) What is an important skill to have?
  • e) What’s an important skill but not so essential?
  • f) Imagine you couldn’t do this any more: how would you feel?

8. Put the students in pairs and tell them to interview each other, asking the questions above.

9. When the students have finished, encourage them to ask additional questions.

10. Wrap up by asking the students how they felt talking about something they’re good at doing.

Comment: When I arrived in France twenty years ago I didn’t speak a word of French. One of the strategies I used was reading a magazine about jazz music in French every other week. I didn’t understand the language, but since I’m an amateur musician, I was operating within a familiar universe (the same would not have happened if I had bought a magazine on gardening, or on hedge funds, say). I didn’t know then, but I know now, that what I was doing was placing myself in a situation of perceived competence. Which is what this simple exercise tries to do. The idea is that a student’s motivation and their interest to engage in a speaking exercise will increase if the student is encouraged to talk about something s/he feels confident about. Consequently, there will be a greater need to bring the task to an achievement. In practice it works like this: if the topic is within my sphere of expertise, I am motivated to talk about it because 1) I have a genuine interest in the topic, and 2) I feel more confident, therefore I’m more willing to take risks with the language and engage more thoroughly with the task. So, going back to my example above: I’m a musician, I know about jazz, I’m interested in it. As a consequence, I want to talk about it, and I’ll make an effort to do so in a foreign language.

3. That’s me!

  • Aims: To help the students find common ground and get the group to ‘gel’.
  • Level: Elementary and above.
  • Time: 10–12 minutes.
  • Preparation: None.


1. Ask the students to draw three columns on a sheet of paper (see grid below).

2. Explain that you’ll read out a list of statements (see examples below). If what you say describes who they are, they should write it in column 1. If it doesn’t, they should write it in column 2. If it does describe them, but only occasionally, it goes in column 3.

3. When you’ve finished reading the list out, ask the students to exchange information in pairs. Ideally, ask them to work with several partners.

This describes who I amThis does not describe who I amThis describes who I am, but only occasionally

Sample list

  • I don’t like packing.
  • I love sports.
  • I don’t like being late.
  • I don’t mind when other people are late.
  • I don’t like cooking.
  • I don’t mind ironing.
  • I hate long queues.
  • I’m a coffee person.
  • I never get up after six a.m.
  • I like big parties.
  • I can live quite well without my mobile phone.
  • I prefer the beach to the mountains.