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

Good afternoon Mr Mario:

 My name is Esther Gallego and I am studying a degree which is "English Education" (the Second Speciality of English Foreign Language) in a Spanish University.

I want to be an English teacher and I am learning a lot of theoretical and practical aspects in the University, but I am very interesting in "Reading skill" because I think that the world of reading is a fantastic way to motivate children to be interesting in the world of letters.

 I liked so much your article about storytelling and I have to say that It has been very useful for me because I have grasped some ideas as "multi-voice storytelling" and "sandwich story" and they are very interesting to work with children in the classroom.

So, thank you very much for your article and the rest of information that you give to us. You are a reference in our preparation as teachers and your books (and all the information that you give) is very useful for the students of a Second Language like me. 

Hello, I am a future English teacher in Primary and I found very interesting the “Mixed language telling”. I think it is very useful for beginners and they do not even need to ask the meaning of the word, they would know it through the text itself. Multi-voice story telling makes pupils participate a great deal and I like that. Sandwich stories make the student feel that the final story is their own which is very motivating.

Thank you for your article. I am sure I will put in practice your story-telling activities.

Thank you for this article. I think I will use some of these techniques in my classroom. I really think that the best way to tell a story is to make students participate in a very active way. It's more motivating for them because they can be part of the story, they don't have only to listen they have to do something more.

Another technique that I like for telling stories to young children is to ask them to do a specific movement when they hear one word I have told them before. For example, if they hear the word "dog" they have to imitate this animal. I think this is funny for them and very useful for children who are learning English as a second language because this technique focuses on vocabulary and it is connected with the total physical response teaching method.

Dear Mario,
I am now conducting a research on the influence of story telling as an ELT technique on students' reading age. your above article is of course useful for the purpose. However, do you still have other articles. especially research based ones, which you you can share? Thank you.
 
Regards,
F. Aziez

Dear Mario,
Thank you very much for your wonderful ideas, which I'm still using.

I've always love stories, since when i was a child and my grand mother used to tell me stories about Rea Silvia, the mother of the mitical founders of Rome, Romolo and Remo. They were not bedtime stories, but moments in which i was setting at her feet listening to her.
Since then, I've always read stories, evey kind of story (though i like fantasy and fairytales most). I've even invented stories sometimes.

I use stories to teach English to my little ones (3-6 yo) but also to primary students. Sometimes to adults too.
What can I say, they are fun, memorable, provide lots of repetition (usually) and are magical. You can do a lot about them, and provide a fantastic background for children, who also love to play, act them out. Even the little ones like to be the gingerbread man, or Dorothy, or any other character they found in the story. And the amazing thing is that not all of them want to be the main character.
Adults enjoy stories as well. Either the cut-into-parts short stories, where they have to predict or immagine what comes next, or Sherlock Holmes, where they have to read a part of the story and put the clues together to 'solve' the mistery, or also fairytales like the Emperor new clothes lesson plan by BC.

But I think the main reason why stories work in my class, is because I love them, don't you?
All the best
Diana

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