Using Stories with Primary Learners

Using Stories with Primary Learners

The Hook

Once upon a time… and there you have it, you’ve immediately entered a world where dragons soar above the clouds, kings and queens reign over rival kingdoms and dastardly deeds are plotted (indeed, much like a House of the Dragon episode). Those four simple words paired with and they lived happily ever after, have left an indelible impression on the imaginations of many a child the world over. Fairy tales, and stories in general, are a wondrous part of humanity’s shared ability to create and convey a message – one that often illuminates and entertains. No matter what part of the world you are in, there is always a story to be found. But how exactly to bring them into a language lesson? This blogpost will take on you a journey of how stories can fit into the classroom, ways to inspire their creation and why they are so important to include.

Benefits

First of all, the reasons to include stories are numerous and hopefully you don’t need much encouraging to do so, but just in case, here are some of the benefits (of an obviously non-exhaustive list!) that stories bring. They can:

  • allow you to get to know your students better – if you share a part of your life, they’ll often feel equally comfortable letting you in on theirs
  • integrate different skills and encourage development of higher-level thinking skills
  • provide exposure to rich and authentic language which promotes vocabulary growth
  • make abstract ideas more understandable and address universal themes
  • offer opportunities to participate and for students to enjoy a shared experience
  • exercise the imagination and are loved by children!

Planning

Alright, so you’re keen to include or have more stories in the classroom but how to accommodate them into the rigours of daily planning? What you may not realise is just how prevalent stories actually are. Sharing what happened over the weekend. Story. Showing a photo from your phone. Story. A picture from the coursebook reminding someone of something. Story. All that personalising grammar. Story. Stories exist everywhere you look – the crucial element is maximising them for all their emergent language and communication worth. This is especially true of stories that appear unexpectedly, a student should never be dissuaded just because it doesn’t appear on the plan, those moments are like striking gold and need to be mined. Questions and comments are to stories what cliff-hangers are to TV shows; they maintain the interest, generate talk and keep students engaged.

The Students

Of course, it’s also important to be aware of students’ needs and interests, as well as any other impositions such as the curriculum or coursebook as these will invariably influence the time available and type of story to be told. Is the class more likely to enjoy listening to a romantic happily-ever-after fairy tale or writing multiple 2-sentence horror stories? Choose genre wisely. The same goes for level when telling a story – ideally aiming for Kushner’s comprehensible input theory (i+1), whereby the language input is pitched just above students’ current proficiency level so that they are sufficiently challenged but still able to follow what’s going on.

Time

As already mentioned, time is also of the essence, so deciding whether the story is the main event and focussing on reading/writing skills or simply used as a warmer/filler will affect the type of work done in class. I personally enjoy ending lessons with a quick inventing-a-story-type game like where each student adds a sentence (or word) to build up a (usually crazy!) story that typically sees students leave in high spirits. Conversely, I know some teachers who settle their students at the start of class by reading a few pages of a previously voted-on book each lesson and gradually finish it over the term. In short, there is no limit to where a story can go or how it can be used in class, only that they are a natural fit in a language lesson.

Inspiration

Yet given all that, when declaring that the next activity is coming up with a story, someone will inevitably cry out, “Help! I have no imagination!”. This means that as teachers we need ways and means of motivating students of all ages to invent a story, and for this I highly recommend images. Not only do images provide the perfect launchpad for generating ideas but thanks to the internet (and now AI) any type of picture imaginable is at your fingertips. One particularly effective task is the beginning-middle-end storytelling routine, which was initially developed as a visual thinking strategy by Harvard University to help students understand works of art. The given image is explored from a specific moment in time; it can represent the start, middle or the end of a story and students need to expand on what they think happened before and after as appropriate. This method will also benefit those taking a young learners’ Cambridge exam, specifically Flyers and A2 Key, since one of the tasks is developing a story around several images.

Retelling

Another factor that can greatly influence the learning that takes place, not to mention the quality of students’ stories, is the role of retelling. Repetition has long been known to help language acquisition, so by repeating a story (or elements of it) students are reinforcing the language and if speaking, helping improve their fluency. This also adds a powerful purpose to listening/reading to a story because when the original is no longer available, students will have to rely on the language that they have at their disposal rather than reproducing it verbatim. Moreover, by working on both receptive and productive skills students are able to engage with a story in different ways – typically shifting from lower order thinking skills to higher order ones to their overall language benefit.

The Coursebook

For teachers who have a coursebook there is a readymade supply of images to call upon that can be used without any preparation. A nice idea by Teresa Bestwick from the recent TESOL Spain conference (see March’s blogpost for other takeaways https://london-school-online.com/en/article/conference-takeaways-2023 ) is to build up a world with stories around the often bland, stock character photos. One such activity is by discussing questions similar to the speaking part of exam about a person in an image. This takes the pressure off having to respond personally with the same, perhaps tired answers and lets students be creative with their answers, especially when questions include recent grammar or vocabulary like “What is she fed up with?”, “If she were a superhero, what would her special powers be?” and “Has she ever met anyone famous?” to show but a few. Then, keep asking follow-up questions to encourage students to expand on their answers, growing their stories and not let them off the hook so easily. Along the same lines, students can step into the shoes of one of the people and answer questions that tap into the multiple intelligences theory where the questions relate to the following areas: people, feelings, words, numbers, sounds, sights, nature and actions. This allows students to choose the questions that they feel most comfortable with and hopefully have fun answering – silliness encouraged! This is because the more memorable the stories, the more likely students are to form or strengthen language connections in the brain. And most importantly, don’t forget the follow-up questions!

The Grand Finale

While writing this blog, I couldn’t help but find my eyes wandering to the Van Gogh calendar on the wall and wondering what he might have been thinking about between brushstrokes. Then I noticed the change on my desk from buying a coffee this morning, what had those coins gone through to get here? At that point, students began walking through the door, including one panting hard in an effort not to arrive late (appreciated!) – what had happened? The world we experience is saturated in potential stories and the classroom is the perfect place to invent and freely express them (within reason of course, interrupting a listening exam might not go down so well). So, I hope you’re able to take advantage of the opportunity that teaching provides and encourage and support students on their storytelling journey. Enjoy!

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