Storytelling has become the new buzz in ELT, which is logical when you consider that it’s one of the few wholly authentic activities that we do in the classroom.

Author: 
Rachael Harris

Whether you have children or not, who has never read a story to someone or had one read to them? Our lives are full of stories, but think about your favourite children’s story. When do you remember reading it for the last time alone? That’s the magic of storytelling; it’s all about connection between the reader and the story and shared experience between the readers.

The difficulty is how to be sure of using a range of different skills that will involve all students, whatever their language or cognitive developmental level. The Teachers’ Standards produced by the UK’s Department for Education in 2012 urge teachers to challenge all students and develop activities for an inclusive classroom. How can we do this with storytelling?

This is where our hero comes in: Benjamin Bloom (what a fantastic name for a hero!) was an educational psychologist who first created a classification of learning skills in 1953. Originally he used nouns – knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation – and the list (or taxonomy as it is known) was designed to sort various learning skills into different levels that he called low-order thinking skills (LOTS) and high-order thinking skills (HOTS).

The revised version of this list uses verbs, and is very similar to the original except in one important area – the highest skill is now considered to be creativity, an important 21st-century skill.

This taxonomy isn’t perfect; it is a very simplified way of categorising learning skills, and some verbs such as ‘predict’ can be found in multiple categories. Also, there doesn’t seem to be one definitive version; every internet search brings up something slightly different. However, it is a useful base for teachers to use in order to be sure to vary activities and call on different learning skills – all of which are essential in an inclusive environment.

The skills are listed in the following order: remembering, understanding, applying (the LOTS mentioned earlier), analysing, evaluating, creating (the HOTS). Each skill has a variety of sub-skills, which we will look at now along with some examples.

Remembering

Although it is the first skill on the list, it is sometimes one of the most challenging for learners with special educational needs, who may have difficulties with short-term (or working) memory. These activities provide overlearning and repetition that learners need when encountering new words. Avoid putting learners on the spot, and work in groups or whole class to make this more about collective success than individual failure. The sub-skills in this category include:

  • Recall – After reading the story, ask the class what they remember. Which animals did the mouse and the gruffalo meet? What fruit did the hungry caterpillar eat? Put flashcards in order on the board or on the floor in groups. Use puppets to have learners re-enact the story. It’s quite easy to make finger puppets with an image attached to a loop of paper to put your finger into.
  • Label – Make word cards to match the flashcards, or use them with the book itself to label the various images, the animals in Room on the Broom, family words in Paddington, or the furniture in the dwarfs’ home in Snow White.

Understanding

It’s fine to have learners label images, but understanding is the key to real learning. It is also one of the most difficult skills to apply in another language, so if you allow some use of L1 in your class then it may be the time to use it when developing these sub-skills:

  • Explain – Why are the animals scared of the mouse in The Gruffalo?
  • Organise – clothes, house objects and body words from Winnie the Witch. Separate the different foods the hungry caterpillar eats during the week and on Saturday.
  • Sort – animals according to habitat. Draw the animals’ homes from The Gruffalo and ask learners to put the animal in the right house. As with most of these activities, this can be done on the board or floor, or on individual worksheets. For learners who need more scaffolding, do both; complete a version on the board that they can refer to when working individually.

Applying

This is considered to be the last lower-order skill and involves putting into practice what has been learned previously, using the following sub-skills for example:

  • Classify – The vegetarian Tyrannosaurus Drip invites his meat-eating adoptive parents for lunch. Draw up a menu for each.
  • Illustrate – Draw a house plan for the three little pigs’ final home.

Analysing

As we move towards the higher-order thinking skills, there is a more complex variety of learning options and we move towards a more autonomous learning environment. This enables every learner to be challenged and allows the teacher to work with those who need more support, while developing sub-skills such as:

  • Discover – a butterfly project following the hungry caterpillar’s life.
  • Contrast and Infer – Tell the story from the point of view of another animal in The Gruffalo. Guess which object belongs to whom in Goldilocks’ house by comparing size, softness, etc.
  • Analyse emotions – Not always easy for young learners, but it can be made easier by using emojis to illustrate how characters are feeling during the stories.

Evaluating

It can be difficult for young learners to evaluate and assess events in a story, but asking them to improve on the original is a good way to develop these skills:

  • Recommend – Help the little girl write a shopping list before the tiger comes to tea.
  • Design – a new house for the three pigs.

Creating

It is important to work through other skills before arriving here to ensure a varied learning experience, although creativity is perhaps the skill most easily developed in the young learner classroom, using the sub-skills below:

  • Build – your own broom.
  • Design and build – a model of a new house for A Squash and a Squeeze.
  • Create – a sequel, such as The Very Hungry _________ (animal of your choice).

How to use the taxonomy

It is not necessary to use each skill when working with a particular story, nor to go through them in order. You can keep a list nearby when planning a story sequence, or in a more autonomous classroom why not write the skills in the form of a menu and make a poster? Learners are encouraged to choose activities from the different ‘dishes’ on offer, noted on the poster, or keep the poster simple (and always up on the wall) and provide a box containing a variety of activities for learners to choose from. If you produce a poster with each skill in a different colour, you can then go on to produce activity cards in the same colour. These activities can be general – ‘Write a dinner menu for the characters’ or ‘Add a new character to the story’ – or specifically aimed at different stories as our examples above were.

References:

  • UK Teachers’ Standards https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teachers-standards
  • The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson
  • Paddington by Michael Bond
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  • Hansel and Gretel
  • Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas
  • Tyrannosaurus Drip by Julia Donaldson
  • The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
  • A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson

Find out more about promoting thinking skills with your learners in our teacher development module Engaging with thinking skills in the classroom.

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