How Storytelling Can Transform Your Teaching
Why stories are the key to better student learning outcomes.
People have used stories to communicate knowledge and ideas since the start of humanity.
Stories are the oldest form of education, with millions told daily. Stories help us learn, entertain us and give us comfort. Stories help us make sense of our world and our place in it.
They can also make your lessons more engaging, effective and fun.
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How stories change teaching
When I started teaching in 2003, in a school in the middle of China, no one used stories.
At the end of each coursebook unit, there was a story students could cut out and fold into a booklet. Most teachers ignored this story to spend more time teaching the unit's vocabulary and grammar.
In my second term, I had a strong class that finished a unit faster than expected. I tried using the story as a time filler.
It was revolutionary.
We sat in a circle, looked at the cover and discussed what they thought the story would be about. We read the story, laughed at the characters, and discussed the ending. They discussed characters in pairs and created alternate endings for homework.
These students had been starved of stories and imagination, and it showed.
How stories affect learning outcomes
There are many benefits to using stories for you and your students.
Improve understanding and grades.
Increase motivation and engagement.
Improve listening skills.
Improve focus and attention span.
Improve memory and recall.
Encourage creativity and imagination.
Give students a way to understand the world.
Have a calming effect and reduce anxiety.
Build rapport with students.
There are so many benefits the question becomes, why wouldn’t you use stories?
How to integrate stories into lessons
There are two main ways to use stories in the classroom.
The first is you, the teacher, telling a story and students are listening and doing related tasks.
The second is the students telling stories and doing story-related activities.
Each has a different role and aim. Let's look at each.
1. Teachers telling stories
This is what you'd imagine - you as the teacher telling your students a story.
The first thing to ask is, what is your teaching objective for telling a story? Depending on when in the lesson you tell a story, it can be used to achieve different aims.
If you tell a story at the beginning of the class, it can:
Set the lesson context.
Raise awareness of the target language.
Build enthusiasm for the coming activities.
Act as a model of correct language to refer to.
Set expectations of the quality of work you expect from them.
If you tell a story in the middle of the class, it can:
Remind them of key principles
Act as a model for them the self-correct errors that are occurring.
Remind them of work quality expectations
If you tell a story at the end of class, it can
Help to review the target language.
Show them how much they’ve learned (a bit like the test-teach-test methodology).
2. Students using stories
Once the students have engaged with the story, you can use it as a springboard to practice the target language.
When choosing an activity, run your choice through these three filters:
Which language point do you want to focus on (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation)?
Which skill do you want them to practice (listening, speaking, reading or writing)?
Which group structure do you want them to work in?
You can then choose an activity that fits these criteria.
For example, let’s say you want the students to practice the past continuous tense (point 1 above), you’d like the students to practice their speaking (point 2), and you feel that pairwork will give each student the most amount of speaking time (point 3).
This will give you the structure of your activity.
You can now choose an appropriate task or activity from the list of example student activities below (or create your own!). A good fit might be activities #5 (students ask each other questions), #12, #15
Another example: You want students to practice adjectives; they need to work on their writing, so you want a task they can do by themselves.
Good choices from the list below would be #7 or #14.
Example student activities
Remember to apply the filter above to these activities to make them a better fit for your lesson aims.
You can make any of these activities fit your target language point (grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation), target skill (listening, speaking, reading or writing) and your preferred group size (individual, pairwork, small or large group or whole class).
Create an alternate ending for the story.
Create a version of the story from a different character's viewpoint.
Create a mad-libs version of the story for another student.
Create a choose-your-own-adventure story.
Answer comprehension questions for the story (can be given post, pre-listening, or reading the story).
Create comprehension questions for the story (or their own version of the story).
Draw and describe a character in the story.
Draw a map for the characters and give them directions.
Create a list of questions for a character.
Create a presentation about the story.
Create a play of the story.
Debate the actions of a character.
Use pictures to create a story (take turns to pick from a pile)
Re-write the story and change the grammar or vocabulary.
Tell a story, one sentence at a time (students take turns).
Re-tell the story in their own words (after a break or in a later lesson).
Write words from the story on paper, cut them out and put them in a bag. Take turns to pick them out and make a sentence. Make a story one sentence at a time.
Create a story with students' favourite cartoon or superhero characters.
Do you know any other good story activities? If so, please leave a comment using the button below!
Where can you find good stories?
So far, we’ve talked about using stories, but how do we find stories, and what makes a good story to use in class?
Generally, a good story will be one you think is interesting to your students and uses the target language (or can be adapted to do so). Humour never hurts, either.
Stories are everywhere, but good stories must be curated and ready for your lessons.
To find stories, here are some suggestions:
Fairytales and children’s books
Great for young learners, these stories are easy to find and usually already have many supplementary materials created by other teachers, which you can find with a quick online search.
Another advantage is that very young learner will have usually encountered these stories, and familiarity will help them with initial understanding.
Children’s books have a much more extensive range of styles, meaning they're more interesting for slightly older learners.
Books, movies, TV shows, YouTube
So many to choose from! A good idea is to note when you hear a story you think will be interesting for your learners.
Your own experience
This is up to you - some teachers feel comfortable sharing their personal experiences, others don't. If you do, your experience becomes a goldmine of funny incidents, anecdotes and stories you can share with your learners. It'll also help build rapport as you reveal your human side to your students.
Borrow from friends and colleagues
Borrowing stories from your colleagues and friends can be excellent, as long as you anonymise the story. Especially if you're using another teacher's story, you don't want to use their name.
Final Storytelling Tips
Adding drama (you are the drama!) - lighting, music, costumes, puppets, realia, props.
Involve the students.
A story you tell is more powerful than a story played on a screen or speaker.
Keep stories short - the longer they are, the more information students will have to understand. Be aware of your student’s cognitive load (tk link). This is even truer for weaker students.
Create a scene - use descriptive words to help with imagination.
I hope you’re inspired to use more stories in class!
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Lucarevschi, Claudio Rezende. ‘The Role of Storytelling on Language Learning: A Literature Review’. Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle 26, no. 1 (2 September 2016): 24–44.