In this article Mario Rinvolucri explores a range of story telling techniques that he uses in the classroom and gives some insights into why these techniques are effective.

Story telling: the language teacher's oldest technique - methodology article - guest writers

You can read the whole text or click on the links below to find out about an individual technique:


Why story telling
Can I open this article by asking you about listening to stories in your own experience? When you were small:

  • Where did you tend to listen to stories?
  • What time of day was it, typically?
  • Who told you or read you stories?
  • How did you react to the stories?

Now you are older:

  • Have you read or told stories as a parent?
  • What are your feelings in the parental role?

The point of these questions and the answers you have given them in your mind is for you to realise how you yourself relate to stories. My impression is that most people relate pretty strongly to stories experienced in early childhood. Let me tell you an anecdote that illustrates this:

I was teaching a micro-group of three or four business men. They were all at elementary level. My boss at the time was quite firm with me 'none of those childish stories of yours with this group… we don’t want them all going home in disgust.'

For a couple of weeks I heeded his words and then decided that the best possible way to teach the past tense was the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

I was well into the story, at the point where the wolf is about to eat the little girl up, [ What big teeth you’ve got granny!] when the Italian marketing manager, a man in his early 30s, shouted: 'Fermati!' ( 'Stop!')
I asked why he’d interrupted me and he said that this was the point at which his three year old daughter always begged him to stop the story. She could not bear the next bit!


Can you think of a more powerful way of teaching this guy English than with a text that had him living two roles, that of himself as a child and that of himself as a parent? The power of the story lies, of course, in the text but also, and centrally, in the relationship between the teller and the students.

My claim is that story telling is a uniquely powerful linguistic and psychological technique in the hands of a language teacher which s/he can use with people of any culture (though the story needs to be culturally appropriate) and with people of virtually any age.

The power of story telling lies in the fact that the teacher is in direct communication with the class, she is not dealing with 'third person' text, by telling a story she makes it her own. The Italian marketing manager was reacting to the girl and wolf story as told by Mario and, simultaneously, to his own telling to his little daughter.

Mixed language telling
There are, of course, many different ways of telling a story to a group. One of the most powerful ways with a group of beginners is to tell the story in the way that follows: (In this case the target language is Modern Greek):

There was this man and he seemed very agitated. This andras, this guy, he went round and round the kipo behind his house (kipo is a garden) looking for something. The andras got down on his hands and knees and started scrabbling around in the border underneath the traiandafila, the roses.

Now the wife of the andra, his yineka, happened to be in one of the upstairs rooms of the house. The yineka looked out through the bedroom parathiro and saw her andra searching for something in the border under the traiandafila.

She asked him what he was doing. 'I’m looking for my house keys' her andras shouted.
back.

'Did you lose your house klidia down there in the kipo, in the border under the traiandafila?'

'No' said her andras, 'I didn’t lose my klidia here under the traiandafila, but the light is so much better here!'

I hope the text construction was logical enough for you to understand all the Greek words without having to strain too much. Bi-lingual stories of this sort are magic with small kids and people at this stage of linguistic brilliance (3-8) lap up and ‘interiorize’ the new language without realizing what is happening in their minds. When the story has been told half a dozen times with more and more target language words being used in each telling the whole story is told in the target language and the learners have the giddying sensation that they have understood everything.

Multi-voice storytelling
A technique I really enjoy is telling a story with the help of the listeners. Let me show you how this goes:

  • I ask a couple of learners to sit either side of me and a bit back from me, all three of us facing the class group. I then start the telling like this:

This story is about three people who lived in a village in Vietnam. It was a small village and it had a big river... I simply don’t remember what the river was like and where it ran… [turning to one of the helpers] Do you have a better memory than me? Can you describe it?

  • Both helpers have a go at positioning the river in the village.
  • I then carry on telling the story. Five or six times I stop and get the helpers to enrich the telling with their descriptions. I am careful to retain the plot in my own hands until very near the end. I then ask all the students to write down the ending that they imagine.
  • They read their endings to each other and I will finally also give them my ending. Told in this way, the story belongs much more securely to the group than if I tell the tale on my own.


Sandwich story creative writing technique

Let me now offer you a creative writing version of the above technique that uses a story from Papua New Guinea. (I learnt this story from the Exeter story-teller, David Heathfield.)

Example:

  • Dictate to your class these first lines of a story: 

'Do you know why dogs in Papua New Guinea always sniff each other’s tails when they meet? Well, you’ll soon find out. Long long ago all the dogs on the island came to the hilltop for a meeting.'

  • Then ask them to please describe all the different kinds of dogs which came to the meeting place. Give the students time to write about the dogs. Then ask them to please write what you dictate and say the next sentence:

'The meeting place was a huge hall at the top of a hill.'

  • Then ask them to describe the sort of building they imagine and give them a few moments to write their description. Then once again dictate the next part of the story:

'Before the dogs arrived the place had been very, very quiet.'

  • Ask the students to describe what it sounded like with more than 1000 dogs all moving around. Give them time to write and then continue dictating the story.

'Before they went into the great hall all the dogs had to go and hang their tails up in a special tail-house.'

  • Ask the students to explain why the dogs could not enter the great hall with their tails on. Give them time to write the explanation and then continue dictating.

'Halfway through the meeting the dogs smelt something burning. They rushed for the doors of the great hall and saw smoke billowing out of  the tail-house.'

  • Lastly, ask the students to finish the story in any way they like.
  • Group the students in threes and tell them to read their text to their classmates. They read both the dictated parts and the parts they have written.

The Papua New Guinea ending is that the dogs rushed into the tail house and grabbed any tail they could find in the smoke. From that day to this all dogs have wanted to find their own tail, lost on the day of the great meeting!

This sandwich story creative writing technique is, I think, an outstanding one for the following reasons:

  • Half of the final text is in fully correct English, the parts dictated by the teacher
  • Half the text is the students’ own free invention
  • Psychologically the student appropriates the teacher’s part and feels it to be his own because of his own creative input
  • All of this boosts the student’s linguistic confidence


Two history, one fiction

Think of two incidents from your life that you are happy to tell the class and mentally prepare to tell these as brief anecdotes. Also dream up something that might have happened to you but which did not. Prepare to tell the made-up anecdote with the same conviction as the two real life stories.

  • Come into class and simply invite the students to listen to three different things that happened to you some time ago.
  • After the telling explain that two of the anecdotes were real-life happenings while one was fiction.
  • Group the students into fives to decide which was the ‘imaginary’ story. Tell them they will have to justify their choice.
  • After a few minutes in the small groups ask students to give their views to the whole class.
  • Take a vote on which the made-up story was.

Students tend to really love lie-detecting especially when the  teacher is the 'liar'.

Your story-telling techniques?
Over the next few weeks we have a chance to find out a lot more about how we teach our vary varied groups of learners from Greenland to South Africa and from Vladivostok to Madeira by way of Harbin, Hanoi, Auckland and Singapore. I would love to know how you use stories, who with and, of course, what stories. Hopefully we will see a real coming together of story-teller language teachers from across the globe, a very large and very small place at one and the same magical time.


Mario Rinvolucri, Pilgrims, UK  

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Comments

I think that to tell stories is always stimulating, no matter the age of our students. The most important think is to motivate them to learn and stories can become our ally in this amazing task.

I would like to tell you that I personally believe that learning through comics is also a good tool for students.

Of course, I do not think you can only use cartoons, but as an extra curriculum task would be good for them.

If the students laugh, they usually remember these situations. I would like to hear from you what you think about this. 

 I thank you for your attention.

Dear Mario

 

Thank you very much for your reply.

 

The stories I choose depend on the level of my students, but in fact, Iranian students are in love with classical stories.

Amir Abbass Ravayee

 

Dear Amir Abbass,

                      Your way of picking the stories you tell seems to be admirably student-focused. To achieve power as a story teller I have to be much more egoistical.

I choose to tell stories that have really moved me and very often for reasons that I cannot consciously explain. When I tell such stories I know I will hook a large part of my student audience and I know that I will connect adequately to  most of the others. How my story repertoire has built up is largely a mystery to me, though sometimes I know I am seduced by the personality of the person I first hear the story from.

I wonder if any other  story-tellers select stories using very different criteria to mine or those Amir Abbas. Write and tell us.

Warmly yours,   Mario

Dear Mario,

 

Giving advice about story selection is difficult. We aren’t all interested in the same stories.

 

The story we choose must attract all students and should also have the quality that makes it worth sharing. When you work with different audiences and pay attention to what worked well and what didn’t, you will develop some guidelines for your story selection.

 

Best wishes,

Amir  

Amir Abbass Ravayee

 

I've just joined the site and am delighted at its content.

Telling stories has always been high on my list of any teacher training I've done over the past decades. I was interested in Mario's comments about hoping that story telling would be included more on training courses. I find that telling my teachers little "stories" about my successes and failures as a teacher involves my teachers and provides a memorable peg for them to hold onto.

Context setting before reading or listening tasks could come under other stories we tell in the classroom - OK, they're sometimes not so long, but we encourage learners to join in, add comments, adjust parts, predict the outcome etc.

As for the pure enjoyment of listening to a story, it can provide a personal picture for each learner, a fact that can lead to quite an exchange of ideas.

I have to own up at this stage that I also use Cuisenaire Rods to help me tell some stories; I also use pictures - mine and the learners' - as well as buttons, pencils, paper clips or anything in the classroom which might be suitable.

I loved your tail tale for the sandwich story - have used the technique often with great engagement. A well-known Melbourne cartoonist, Michael Leunig put out a book with that very same story - in case you haven't seen it, I'll bring it to Cardiff in April 2009 in the hopes of finding you at IATEFL.

Judie in Melbourne

I can't wait to try out multiple story telling.

Meanwhile two stories about story telling experiments.

One: simply I recounted two tales from my perspective of the school trip we went on, and had the students write some notes on what they understood in their mother tongue. The results were interesting on many counts. The level of understanding varied as widely as I had suspected. It was generally better than their English levels, thanks to illustrations and mimes. More interesting was their interpretation of what they couldn't understand (or in some cases their misunderstandings). As a teacher, I was impressed by their desire to fill in the blanks; especially their use of imagination and empathy, which are traits sadly underestimated by many foreign language teachers of Japanese students. And individually, I was really touched that they portrayed me in a much better light than I had myself. I think Mario pointed out in an earlier posting that even when supposedly passively receiving information, we are actively changing that information. Each reader reads the story differently.

Story two: on from that success I played with another idea from the British Council. I invented a story with pirates, volcanos, treasure, sharks, three islands, a waterfall and a dinosaur: vocabulary that a native speaker has mastered age six or seven, but would challenge many adults in their second languages. I told the story over a few times, with many variants and plenty of extra visual and oral explanation, then bade them first sketch the story, and after five minutes of this, to write the story in their own words. I tried it with two classes. The first was an absolute disaster. The language was too difficult and the subject - for all the Johnnie Depps in the world - not entertaining enough or too patronising for the 17 year olds. The more despondent students switched me off. The most enthusiastic students sketched fairly well, but were unable to write the story. It wasn't the vocabulary. I wrote that on the board. It was the sentences. Against all my previous experience, I had anticipated the students could simplify and mimic my language. I should have known this class couldn't. Unflagging - and a little underprepared for my top stream class - I gave them the same task. They took twenty minutes on some masterpiece illustrations, before consenting to write the story. There were a few misunderstandings- in particular, my private was hiding his treasure, while theirs were almost unanimously searching for more - but the majority of changes were adaptions. The dinosaurs multiplied, the volcanoe erupted, the pirate fled in terror. It was the most intensive creative work, this class has done.

What I have learnt from these two events is first, there is a lot to be learnt by teachers and students in these activities, about the students, about their understanding, and in their use of English; and second, that the classes within the school are different in far more than their motivation to study.

Thank you for the new perspectives on the old art of story-telling, and for giving me the conviction to try it again in my teaching.

Dear Mario,

I agree with you. All the learners irrespective of their age groups love listening to stories. Be it children or young adults their faces glow when I say 'Story time'. "Mixed Language Telling" is an interesting thought. It is a novel idea and I feel it does wonders in a elementary level classes. Beginners may find it difficult to understand if we narrate using only the target language. After a while they may loose interest. The method you suggested is both interesting and practical. It is like a guessing game, it will hold the learner's interest for a long time.

Sush

I found Mario Rinvolucri's article very useful. Some years ago I had the opportunity to attend to one of his conference in Lima organized by Catholic University and I enjoyed very much all his activities.

Story telling is an activity that constitutes oral tradition from different countries but nowadays parents don't have time to tell stories to their children when they go to bed so teachers must become the story tellers of this century.

When you tell a story students pay attention and they always want to know more, they enjoy personal anecdotes especially if they are about the teacher's life. You can also bring some stories from the traditions of your country. For example, in Peru we have many legends about the Inca Empire that could be translated into English or we can ask our students to write a story and present them in front of the class.

Mario, thank you very much for your contribution and for all your books that I always enjoy them. Congratulations for your last book with Herbert Puchta about Multiple Intelligences. There are many interesting activities.

Ligia Elizabeth Garrido, Lima, Peru

I do agree with you, I think all people like stories no matter the age.
I think they are useful to disconnect your mind from the real world. Also
I would like to thank you for the ideas about telling stories, I like
it so much and I will do some of them.

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