How can I celebrate diversity through storytelling?

Read this article from Emily Bryson, which explores how to celebrate diversity in the English language classroom using storytelling.

Emily Bryson


Emily Bryson is an ELT author, materials writer, ESOL lecturer, teacher trainer and graphic facilitator. She has over 20 years' experience in English Language Teaching.

As language teachers, we are lucky to teach diverse learners from all over the world. Each learner is unique and brings different experiences, beliefs and knowledge to the classroom.

In class, it’s essential that we find ways to embrace this diversity and create a respectful environment where every learner has a voice and can feel comfortable being themselves.

Storytelling is an excellent way to do this. Here are some ideas.

Graphic Novels

There’s something about comic art which makes stories understandable and captivating. The combination of text and images is perfect for reducing processing load and encouraging learners to read. It’s also a great way to introduce challenging global topics.

Graphic novels can be used in many ways. Here are some ideas:

  • Read a section in class
  • Answer comprehension questions
  • Discuss the themes
  • Predict what happens next
  • Rewrite the story using reported speech
  • Role play
  • Retell the story in students’ own words
  • Give opinions and advice

Here are some of my favourite graphic novels which have a variety of diversity and inclusion themes:

The Roles We Play: Sabba Khan

A graphic memoir exploring identity, belonging and the diverse roles. An excellent way to discuss diversity of gender, religion, migration, race, family background and heritage.

Fine: Rhea Ewing 

A graphic exploration of gender. Rhea interviews people people from different cultures, races and religions to explore what gender and gender identity mean to them. Perfect for starting discussions on adolescence, hormones, gender recognition, non-binary matters, transgender rights, pronouns and social constructs.

When Stars are Scattered: Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed 

The true story of two young boys and their experiences of living in a refugee camp in Kenya. This graphic novel is a great way to introduce topics such as refugee matters, human rights, education, privilege, equality, equity, war, childhood and family life.

DIY: Draw It Yourself

Drawing is a great way to introduce storytelling and support students to tell their own stories.

You could draw out a story before class, or draw it ‘live’ on the whiteboard during class. The drawings don’t need to be works of art. In fact, quick, rough, sketches are more likely to make students feel confident about their own visual storytelling.  

Here’s some quick doodles I use to describe myself in webinars and teacher training sessions. You could create something similar for yourself, or use emojis, icons or pictures which represent you. Use the images as prompts to tell the story. Then ask students to do the same for themselves.

Graphic illustrator

Choose a theme which encourages them to share something unique about their lives.

For example:

  • A special celebration
  • Their life story
  • Future goals
  • Their family & friends

Throughout this activity, encourage students to ask questions about anything they’d like to know more about.

Emoji stories

If drawings really aren’t for you (or your students) you could use emojis to tell a story.

Demonstrate the activity first by creating your own story. For example:


Every day, I wake up at 5.30am. I pray then I have a bath, eat breakfast and do my homework. At 8.30, I walk to work. I work until 12. Before lunch, I pray. I usually have a salad for lunch then I work again until 3. At break time, I pray and have a cup of coffee. After work, I walk home, watch TV, eat dinner and go to bed. I pray before dinner and before I go to bed. 

You could tell the story. Students can then retell it, then create their own. After they’ve told their stories, they could discuss differences and similarities between theirs and those of other learners.

The Noun Project also has a collection of icons with creative commons licenses. You could ask students to search through these when creating their stories.

Language Experience

The language experience approach is a powerful technique for creating and using student generated texts. Traditionally aimed at learners developing literacy skills, it’s an excellent, zero preparation, way to make lessons personal.

This approach generally starts with a shared experience, such as a class trip or everyday occurrence in class. This is a good opportunity to incorporate a diversity theme.

For example:

  • visit a place of worship (e.g. Mosque, Church, Synagogue or Temple)
  • attend an event (e.g. a play with an LGBT+ theme)
  • watch a film on different ways of life or diversity topics (e.g. Life in a Day, Sound of Metal)

However, this technique works equally well with students collaborating on an imagined story.

First, the teacher elicits reflections of the shared experience, or students’ ideas and writes them on the whiteboard. Once the text is complete, the teacher reads the story aloud. Students then read the story aloud chorally, then in pairs, then alone. This gives learners a chance to interact with the text multiple times.

When students are confident with the text, the teacher can then use extension tasks. These could be circling certain words (e.g. words with ‘ch’, nouns, etc), erasing words or punctuation and students adding them back in, re-ordering the story or personalising the story.

By its very nature, the language experience approach invites discussions around diversity. As the text is created collaboratively, students can talk about their own preferences while the story is being created. They can also rewrite the text about themselves and discuss any global themes which occur naturally in the process.

Story graphs

A simple line can tell many stories. This graph shows my fitness over time. I like to give it to students and ask them to discuss what might have caused the highs and lows. Then I’ll share the real story with them.

As a child, I was pretty fit. I’d spend a lot of time out on my bike, or at the park. When I went to high school, I got a bit lazy. At university, I did a bit of exercise, but probably not enough. When I was teaching in South Korea, I practised Tae Kwon Do everyday, so I got fitter. Then I went travelling around South America and I spent a lot of time sitting on buses, or chatting to people. When I returned and started working for the college, I got more settled and I took my fitness more seriously.  

Fitness time graph

The beauty of this technique is that every story line will be totally different. This means that when students come to share their own, lots of rich discussions are generated. It can also be adapted to pretty much any topic.

Here are some ideas. You may wish to have multiple colour-coded lines:

  • Musical preferences
  • Time spent doing different activities
  • Beliefs over time
  • Confidence in English
  • Energy levels in a day

Final thoughts

Storytelling is a versatile technique which can be used to support students to reflect on their own lives and those of others. These are just some ways to use storytelling to embrace diversity in class.

How do you use storytelling in class? Have you tried any of these ideas? We’d love to know.

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight