This is an activity which works at pretty much any level from Pre-Intermediate upwards. It works with classes you know well, and with classes you’ve only just met. In fact, I often use it if I have to do a last minute cover with no time to prepare anything.
I can’t remember where the idea first came from, but I think it’s far from original. As such, I hesitated about offering it as my contribution, but it really is such a good and flexible idea for a lesson, that I thought it was worth describing it, with my flourishes and variations, for those who don’t know it, or as a reminder for those who have done something similar.
The first stage is to tell students an anecdote from your life. Tell the students that the story may be true, partly true, or completely false and their job is to listen and decide which it is, and which bits are true or false. I often use a story about a time when I lived in Brazil.
It was the summer holidays and I was travelling round the north-eastern states of the country on a ‘roteiro’ ticket, allowing me to stop in every state on my way back to Brasilia. On a flight from Joao Pessoa to Recife, a woman got onto the plane with a large cardboard box. She tried to put it in the luggage rack, but it was too big, so she sat with it on her lap, in the row of seats directly behind me and my boyfriend.
About halfway through the flight, there was a scrabbling sound and before we knew what was happening, a parrot landed on my boyfriend’s head. It had escaped from the cardboard box, and it was determined to be free. The cabin crew chased the parrot around the cabin, but it was not easy to catch. Eventually, it was caught and put back into the cardboard box.
When we arrived in Recife, the police came aboard the plane and took the woman, and the parrot away.
Once you have finished telling the story, ask students to discuss together whether they think the story is true, false or partly true and partly false. Elicit some ideas and opinions, making sure that you ask students to explain why they think something must be true, or false.
Then tell them the truth. (Students generally think that I have invented all or most of this story, but in fact, it is all completely true.)
Put up on the board the following structure:
1. Saying that a story is about to start.
2. Providing background information
3. Introducing a problem or turning point in the main sequence of events
4. Showing the speaker’s attitude to the events
5. Telling what finally happened
6. Returning to the present.
This is taken from Labov’s Western Narrative Structure, showing the stages we usually use in telling a story. With lower level learners, you might miss out stages 1,4 and 6.
Ask students to talk together about your story and write down anything they can remember that you said which fits at any of the stages. E.g. The parrot landing on my boyfriend’s head is an example of a problem or turning point (!).
If necessary, tell them the story again.
Elicit some ideas from the class, and fill in any gaps. Incidentally, you might not have included stages 1 and 6 in your story, as these are optional.
Then ask the students if they can remember any of the language you used at each stage. What tenses did you use? Were there any set phrases they can remember? For example:
1. Let me tell you about a time when…./That reminds me of when I ….
2. I was living in Brazil/I was travelling around the north-eastern states (we often use past continuous here)
3. Before we know what was happening, a parrot landed…/Suddenly…
4. It was really funny/I couldn’t believe what was happening.
5. When we arrived in Recife../Finally, the plane landed..
6. I’ll never forget that trip! / I’ve never flown with that airline again!
Once students are clear about how to structure the narrative and have some language they can use, ask them to think about their own anecdote. Remind them that it can be completely false, so they don’t have to have had a particularly strange or funny experience themselves. Give them time to think about what they’re going to say, and maybe make a few notes, but don’t let them write out the story to read aloud.
Then ask students to work in pairs and tell each other their stories. The listener has to, once again, decide if the story is true, false or a bit of both. While they are speaking, monitor carefully and note down examples of good language used, and errors that they will be able to self correct.
Write these examples up on the board, and elicit corrections for the errors.
Then ask students to find a new partner and tell their story again. Research shows that repeating a speaking task like this is likely to lead to increased accuracy and a greater range of vocabulary and structures. We all have our favourite anecdotes that get better each time we tell them provided we don’t keep telling them to the same people!)
Next, ask students to write down their anecdote as a story, using the same structure. This will enable them to focus further on accuracy. You could also add in a peer correction stage here.
Finally, put the stories up on the wall and ask students to go round and read some of the stories and write at the bottom if they think they are true, false or a bit of each, and why they think this.
Feedback as a class, discussing favourite stories and finding out if they were true or not.
Rachael Roberts is a teacher and teacher trainer based in the UK. She began teaching over twenty years ago and has lived and worked in Egypt, Portugal, Brazil and Poland. She holds a Masters in ELT and blogs regularly at http://elt-resourceful.com/