Story telling: the language teacher's oldest technique

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  

Comments

Submitted by Amir A. Ravayee on Thu, 11/20/2008 - 06:50

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Dear Mario,

Thank you very much for your nice article. Your articles have always been very useful. I do agree with your idea.

 

Using stories in the English language classroom is an old technique but at the same time very useful in communicative approach methodology. I call it a miracle for several reasons:

 

Firstly, it is a way of entertainment. That is why all students are encouraged to take part in activities assigned by teachers.

 

Secondly, we can have a lot of pair-works and group-works which are absolutely necessary for teaching and learning English. Students don’t feel shy when they talk to each other.

 

Thirdly, storytelling helps the students a lot with their listening and speaking skills. Storytelling can be a receptive skill and can also be changed into a productive one.

 

Finally, this method is applicable to all English classes with different students and levels.

 

In conclusion, the teachers who use stories in their classes can benefit more from the work they do.

Amir Abbass Ravayee

 

Dear Ravayee,

I am writing to you from the bit of England that sticks out across the sea towards Belgium. My spatial intelligence yearns to know your whereabouts.

I agree with you about the seemingly miraculous nature of story reception among students and I would put this down to the deep structures they carry within them from childhood, structures seeded and developed from within the stories they heard from within a comforting relationship with mother, grandmother and other reference people.

When I tell a story in class, I pause before I begin, and try to think of who I am about to partly and unconsciously become for some *of my listeners. I have the cheek to don the mantle of their key reference people when they were little  whenI tell a story. Such, for me, is the power of stories.

There are few pleasures greater than giving your students linguistically useful material for them to generate their own inner version from.

What kinds of stories do you tend to tell your students?

Warmly yours, Mario

* not all kids were  told stories . Not all kids were brought up by people who loved them.

Dear Mario,

* not all kids were  told stories . Not all kids were brought up by people who loved them. Sad but true.

I've had the great fortune to be present during a couple of your story telling sessions and what a story teller you are! Thank you.

My Dad was the story teller in my family and I was lucky to have a story and songs sung to me just about every evening!

These stories and songs were passed on by me to my three kids and I've used them in my teaching over and over again. I love to hear different versions being created by my students and we have discussions on the cultural reasons for these versions. It's great fun and very interesting!

I'm from Glasgow and I don't know if you know a song called "Ye canny shove yer granny aff a bus"?  I've been living and teaching in Italy for the past 20 years and it was so funny how the Italian students reacted to the contents of the song! Why should one granny be shoved off the bus and the other one not? 

Anyway, going back to your stories, thanks again for them. Hope you're well!

Elizabeth Evans,  Ancona  Italy 

 

 

Dear Elizabeth ( Ancona, Italy)

                                            I know your city well, with its amazing cathedral on the headland! What a feeling permeates that place!

Thanks for making the point that men too can tell stories well, but I really doubt that a father, the secondary parent, can reach the same depth of communication as a story-telling Mum. The child knows her voice from far up above as vibration through the bones and tissues from womb-time. How can a man, however loving, compete  with that level of fusedness?  Have you told stories to your children?

There may be some readers thinking " this guy has a mother complex the size of a mountain!" I will use the CIA stock tactic: " we refuse to either confirm or deny this rumour!!!!"

Warmly yours,  Mario                     

Hi all,

I agree with you and to what was said but It depends on how we present the story. The teacher should know how to play the different roles of the characters in the story. Telling stories can be fun and educative for teachers and students if we are able to bring the scenes lively to the class ( I believe it is an art). It is a kind of play and even our voice tone or gestures must be very close to those of the original people involved in the play. That makes it a little difficult as all teachers may not be able to perform it. Using simple present tense to visualize the scenes as the events are exactly happening now will be very useful. Students become more interested to see what happened sometimes ago as clear as the real events in the story. Another important factor is the aim behind telling stories which, in my opinion, is the material being taught. We can choose or organize the story according to our teaching materials.

Best wishes

Ali asghar Mazinanian


 

Dear Ali Asghar,

You write that not all teachers may be able to perform stories and I fear you are right. And yet telling stories is very much part of the linguistic aspect of being a normal parent. We know from the work of Carter and McCarthy ( Cambridge Grammar of English) that brief stories  are a normal part of conversation. All this leads me to think that with a little help on training courses most teachers could become good-enough story-tellers.

I would love to see story-telling move from being a niche EFL activity to being centre stage. Were this to happen in the teaching if teenagers and adults there would be less use of third person stuff from coursebooks. Story-telling is naturally I-ye, ie from me to you. ( Clearly story telling is centre stage in any decent work with primary kids.)

Warmly yours,   Mario

Warmly yours,  Mario

Dear Tia Maruja,

                          You explain that you use comics in class. Makes loads of sense, in my view. Comics often teach the ORAL language while some text books offer dialogues that offer written language masquerading as oral speech, and this despite the fact that we now know clearly how ORAL language works. ( See the work of Carter and McCarthy)

                          Do you tell your class jokes? This is a very effective sub-area of story-telling. You will find a good collection of jokes if you go to our Pilgrims' webzine for teachers, HUMANISING LANGUAGE TEACHING at www.hltmag.co.uk  . The jokes in HLT have been collected fro many different oral traditions and go beyond some of the US dominated joke places on the Internet.

Here in Stockholm, Sweden, where I am doing a workshop for Swedish teachers, it has begun to snow , though ever so lightly.

Hejdag!  Mario

Warmly

Dear Mario,

I do not want to disappoint the teachers in telling stories but in order to bring the student's attentions to the class and what has happened in the story we are all required to equip ourselves with this art. If we narrate the story in an ordinary way of just reading the text then our story doesn't have any soul. What I wanted to mention clearly is - the task or responsibility of story teller, bringing the scene to the classroom as lively as possible. Every story has a message and culture of the time it happened and it's our duty to indicate it in the class.

I appreciate your kind attention

Best wishes

Ali asghar Mazinanian

Dear Ali Ashgar,

                        I agree heartily that you need to tell in such a way that your story had "soul". If a teacher reads the story from a book the page is often between her and the students. When she tells, she is a fountain and the words of the story gush forth from her. She and the story are one as the water is with the fountain.

I would love to see and hear you telling a tale a group you love. Do you have a video of this that we could put up on this blog?

Warmly yours,   Mario

Dear Mario,
Regretfully I don't have any videos of my classes. Your suggestion is a good hint to do that in future if the circumstances permit.
However some students especially girls do not like having their pictures be taken and viewed by others let alone taking a film or video from them. Let's be frank, we always need other people's permission for this matter, even recording their voices and I do not like to be involved in things which come from cultural differences.
Thanks for your kind concern but I hope in near future ,as it is said we are going to live in an international village, can watch and share what happens in our classes together.
Best wishes

Submitted by tia.maruca on Fri, 11/21/2008 - 02:50

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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.

Submitted by Amir A. Ravayee on Fri, 11/21/2008 - 10:31

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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

 

Submitted by Judie on Sun, 11/23/2008 - 09:24

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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

Submitted by giganick on Sun, 11/23/2008 - 14:20

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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.

Submitted by sush on Tue, 11/25/2008 - 08:15

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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

Submitted by lizziegb on Thu, 12/11/2008 - 19:12

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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

Submitted by gsg on Thu, 05/21/2009 - 11:20

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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.

Submitted by EstherMadrid on Fri, 05/22/2009 - 15:26

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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. 

Submitted by Teresa85 on Sun, 05/24/2009 - 19:23

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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.

Submitted by MoniLua on Mon, 05/25/2009 - 11:27

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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.

Submitted by f.aziez on Tue, 11/30/2010 - 05:05

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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

Submitted by dianall on Sat, 10/26/2013 - 15:14

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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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