Changing Lives through Writing

Dave Windass from writing charity First Story tells us all about their fabulous projects that transform the writing experience for young EAL writers. He also tells about National Writing Day, which is next week, and urges us all to get involved.


Dave Windass

First Story’s mission is clear: We change lives through writing. We believe that writing can transform lives, and that there is dignity and power in every young person’s story. And this is clearly as important to EAL learners as any other participant on First Story’s creative writing programmes.

Our national literacy charity brings talented, professional writers into secondary schools serving low income communities to work with teachers and students to foster creativity and communication skills. By helping students find their voices through intensive, fun programmes, First Story raises aspirations and gives students the skills and confidence to achieve them.


Our core Year Long programme model – a sixteen-week cycle of 90-minute workshops that take place outside of the school day with a cohort of 21 students led by one writer-in-residence – provides a sense of personal challenge, growth and depth.

During this period of regular contact, where a playful relationship with language is encouraged, a safe and supportive environment for risk-taking is established and no idea is ever deemed ‘wrong’, our writers give all learners explicit permission to make their own choices with their writing, to use their imaginations and, simply, to make things up. In doing so, writers witness a dramatic increase in the self-confidence and self-esteem among participants.

First Story writers are, of course, free from the constraints of the curriculum. They are not in school to teach English, nor even to teach students howto write. Rather, they are granting permission to students to start the writing process of very personal stories and sharing their craft with a group of young people they very quickly regard as fellow writers. A successful First Story workshop session is as much, if not more, about the work that students produce, and share with their peers, as the exercises that prompt those creative outpourings.

For EAL learners this element of creativity can inject a lot of fun when learning a language, kickstart this learning process, and encourage playing with that language. In sessions where rhyme, rhythm, lexical choice, word games and jokes are regularly encountered, language is acquired and this acquisition can be a rapid process. The development of grammar and vocabulary is a significant by-product of creative writing sessions with a focus on exploring language; the phrasing of sentences, the repetition of phrases and choice of words.

EAL learners participating in the programme soon realise that they can write something in English that has never been written by anyone else and that others can and do find that writing interesting and entertaining.

While not a multi-lingual creative writing programme by design, there is no barrier to students writing in their mother tongue or crafting pieces of work that mix languages.

The poem Man is Made of Stone (below) is a wonderful example. It was written by Aisha Alsam, a student at Feversham College, Bradford, and was published in a First Story anthology following time spent on an intensive week-long First Story Arvon Residential.

Man is Made of Stone

Click to read Aisha’s poem in full (pdf)

Another student, Azfa Ali, took part in the First Story programme at Oxford Spires Academy in 2011-2012, working with poet Kate Clanchy. In 2012, she opened our second Young Writers’ Festival, inspiring hundreds of new young writers, and went on to win the prestigious Christopher Tower Poetry Prize in 2013. She went on to study English and Creative Writing at Warwick University.

Azfa said: “When I joined First Story in 2011, our writer-in-residence Kate Clanchy had found the key to my past, and was willing to travel with me all the way to an unknown land to unlock my box of memories. Until this day, I have never been so grateful for anything in my life, as I am for First Story. To you, this organisation may just be a writing charity, but to me it is so much more. First Story has changed my life. It has transformed me from an insecure, lost, quiet, sixteen-year-old refugee, completely embarrassed about every aspect of her identity, to a confident, defiant, ambitious, proud Scottish-African Muslim woman, who is determined to shape her future, and make life better for those around her. It has made me realise that I am significant, and that my voice is important in this world.”

In 2016-17, First Story writers worked across 65 residencies and 1,242 students crafted nearly 30,000 pieces of creative writing, resulting in 62 published anthologies. Inevitably, the schools we work with and the communities we work in results in a diverse group of young people across the country exploring language and cultures.

The expert guidance from our talented writers-in-residence help young people to discover the pleasure and power that writing gives. They realise that their voices, their language – and their lives – matter.

In our most recent survey of First Story, teachers and writers reported very high levels of satisfaction with the programme. They believed that the programme boosted their students’ self esteem and confidence, and strengthened their imaginative and creative faculties. They also said that their students produced writing of a higher quality than usual.


Schools that have taken part in First Story programmes this academic year are now preparing to launch their new anthologies of student writing. These launch events are a celebration of a year of creative writing in schools and the achievement of their young writers, who are now also published authors and poets.

Those schools, and others across the country, will also be participating in National Writing Day.

Building on our core work, National Writing Day is an annual celebration of writing designed to inspire people across the UK to get writing. Our message is simple: everyone has a story to tell and sharing it can be a source of pleasure and power.

On 27th June 2018, we will aim to inspire creative writing on a grand scale—young people are more inclined to write creatively if they see adults around them doing so and writing can benefit people of all ages. A programme of public, educational and online activities, including large-scale events in London, Leeds and Leicester, will promote all forms of writing and encourage communities to participate.

National Writing Day is coordinated by First Story and delivered in partnership with over thirty-five national literacy partners. It is made possible with support from Arts Council England and Old Possums Practical Trust.

NWD Website.pngSchools can join in using the creative resources that are available for free at the National Writing Day website here.

Read more about First Story here.

na_logo-naldic is a publication of NALDIC, the subject association for EAL. Visit to become a member.