Stories for Explaining and Understanding
Simon Mumford, Turkey
‘Just So’ type stories
A story as context for sentence level exercises
Stories have long been used in education; Fisher (1998) states that ‘stories provide the means to understand the world and understand ourselves’ and explains their role in education as a vehicle to help students ‘develop thinking, learning and language skills’.
Stories have been exploited in Language Teaching because they provide a source of very motivating listening and reading practise, as well as creating possibilities for oral production. Some stories, because of their repetitive nature, are suitable for focus on specific grammar structures (Morgan and Rinvolucri, 1990).
I would like to suggest three further roles of stories in Language Teaching: helping students understand and remember the differences between certain structures such as irregular and regular forms, as a vehicle for problem-solving activities, and as a context for sentence level activities.
Firstly, stories can serve as mnemonics for particular grammar points, inspired by Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’, which ‘explain’ the human, animal and natural world. Teachers could use a similar technique to ‘explain’ aspects of the grammatical world. Another approach is to use stories for problem-solving. Students can combine thinking skills and language knowledge to solve problems in the form of fictional narratives, either focusing on a particular grammar point, or drawing on general grammar knowledge.
Finally, stories can act as contexts for more traditional exercises. Often we ask our students to work on sentences in isolation. However, using a very short story as a context can increase motivation, providing a meaning focus for grammar exercises.
Note that story outlines are given here. You can, of course, embellish these as much as you like.
The origin of irregular adverbs
This story ‘explains’ why the adverbs fast, hard, well are irregular.
A long time ago, there was a bad boy called Lee.
He was slow and lazy and bad.
‘You work very slow, Lee’ said his mother. ‘You’ll never be any good’.
‘You work very lazy, Lee’.
‘You work very bad, Lee’.
The words ‘slow, Lee’ became ‘slowly’.
The words ‘lazy, Lee’ became ‘lazily’.
The words ‘bad, Lee’ became ‘badly’.
But Lee’s work was never hard, or fast or good. So, to remind us of what a bad worker he was, to this day we never add ‘Lee’ (or ‘ly’) to these words to make the adverb form!
The origin of modal verbs
A simple play on words could help students to remember how modal verbs are different from other verbs.
A long time ago it was difficult to be a verb, you had to fill in lots of forms before you could be accepted. A group of words wanted to be verbs, they were: can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, and would.
They filled in all the forms at the verb office, one for past tense, one for future and one for present, one for infinitive and one for gerund. When they went back the next week to inquire about their application, they were told there was a problem.
‘There’s been a muddle*, all the forms have been lost. Sorry, I’m afraid you cannot be verbs’ said the chief verb-maker.
The words were very unhappy, but at last one form for each verb was found. So it was decided that because they only had one form each they could be not full verbs, but a kind of assistant verb that could be used with other verbs.
Because of this muddle, they were known as ‘muddle verbs’, pronounced ‘modal verbs’ today, with only one form.
Will and Al
Another play on words can help students remember the differences between will and the contracted form ‘ll in speech.
There were two princes, William and Albert, called Will and Al for short. Will was older and more formal. He became king. He was very strict, and said, ‘I will be obeyed. I will make a new law. Everyone will pay more taxes.’ Then he died, and his younger brother Al came to the throne. He said, ‘I’ll (pronounced Al) be a good king. I’ll make fair laws. I’ll help the poor’. He was popular and friendly, and was known as good king Al.
Moral: I’ll (often pronounced Al) sounds less threatening and strict, and more natural than I will.
Logic story 1
In this activity there is no story, only questions! These, however, tell the story. Each question is answered by another question, but the order is mixed up. Go to the question that contains the answer to the previous question to create the story.
Note: Some questions need careful thought and students need to understand key vocabulary: judge, offence, leave someone (money, etc.) in a will, butler, give someone time (in prison), (prison) sentence, to sack someone, former.
Put the questions in the correct order to make a story. The answer to the final question is Nothing!
Start At the beginning of the story which hotel was I working in?
When had I last seen John, the prison guard?
According to the judge, how many times had I done this before?
What did I say I had been doing for the last three years?
As it was my third offence, how many months did he give me?
Who recognised me in prison on the first day of my year’s sentence?
What job did I have in Paris?
Why had I lost my job as a butler to a millionaire?
How much had my former boss left me in his will?
Which country did I say I had been working in?
Why did the manager of the Palace Hotel sack me me?
Why did the police think it was me who had stolen the jewellery from the bedroom?
At the beginning of the story which hotel was I working in? (Palace hotel)
Why did the manager of the Palace Hotel sack me? (for stealing jewelery)
Why did the police think it was me who had stolen the jewellery from the bedroom? (I had done this before)
According to the judge, how many times had I done this before? (twice)
As it was my third offence, how many months did he give me? (12 months/1 year)
Who recognised me in prison on the first day of my year’s sentence? (John, the prison guard)
When had I last seen John, the prison guard? (three years ago)
What did I say I had been doing in the last three years? (working)
Which country did I say I had been working in? (France)
What job did I have in Paris? (butler to a milionaire)
Why had I lost my job as a butler to a millionaire? (boss died)
How much had my former boss left me in his will? Nothing!
Logic story 2
This starts with a sentence which describes a change of state.
‘John and Jim used to play tennis every Saturday afternoon, but now John goes to the cinema with Mary on Saturday afternoons and they watch silly romantic films’, said John’s mother sadly.
Are the following likely (L), unlikely (U), or possible (P), according to this sentence? (Suggested answers are given. Students are free to disagree, of course.)
- John is getting better at tennis. U
- He got bored of tennis. P
- He likes cinema more than tennis. L
- Tennis has become too expensive for John. P
- John is not as fit as he used to be. P
- John is not very good at tennis now. P
- Mary likes John. L
- John would rather play tennis on Saturday than go to the cinema. U
- Jim found a new tennis partner. P
- Mary likes tennis as much as Jim. U
- If John stops going to the cinema, he’ll start playing tennis again. P
- John told Jim that he never wanted to play tennis again. P
- John’s mother thinks romantic films a bad influence on John. P
- If John had never met Mary, he would still play tennis on Saturday afternoon. L
- John will be watching a film next Saturday afternoon. L
- John’s mother thinks tennis is better than the cinema. L
- John had stopped playing tennis before he met Mary. U
- John is getting fatter. P
- Mary is a bad inflence on John. P
- John’s mother likes Jim better than Mary. L
Students decide if each statement is possible, likely or unlikely, and then create their own version of what happened. The statements should help them build up a story, but they are free to add any details they like. Note the wide range of grammatical structures used in the statements, which can be adapted to your students’ level.
John used to play tennis with Jim, his best friend at school, every Saturday. They used to go to John’s house after the game and John’s mother liked Jim. One day John met Mary at school. John liked her and suggested they play tennis, but she didn’t like sports, she said she prefered the cinema. So they started going to the cinema to watch romantic films. John gave up tennis, and didn’t study so hard after he met Mary. John’s mother thought they spent too much time at the cinema and that Mary was a bit silly, although not a bad person. She misses Jim’s visits on Saturday and she hopes John will get bored of going to the cinema.
Logic story 3
Read the following text. How many people were at the party?
I went to the office party last night. There were lots of people there, including the Managing Director and his wife. She was talking to a man from Accounts, who told jokes all evening. The Head of Sales was there, and his P.A. There was a very tall man I had never seen before. He was nearly two metres! He was talking to a young girl with blond hair. The blond was a friend of Mary from Sales, also there. Oh yes, the Assistant Manager was there, too. She was listening to the funny man all evening. In the corner, a shy man sat all by himself. I felt sorry and went to talk to him. He was really interesting, he keeps snakes! But he was very quiet. Who else? A woman from Catering, who’s only been with the firm a few weeks. She has just moved from London, and another woman from advertising. The new woman was friendly, but the woman from Advertising was a bit strange, I think. Then there was Carl, who you remember, and the man who is always with him. He was trying to make a good impression on the Managing Director. Me? I spent most of the evening chatting to a lady, Sue her name was, you know, who writes the reports.
To solve this problem, students need to understand the following: the indefinite article (a, an, and another) denotes the first time someone is mentioned, e.g. a woman from catering who’s only been with the company for a few weeks. The definite article, the is used for subsequent mentions of the same person, although the description may be paraphrased, in this case, the new woman.
However, when the person being introduced is unique, or known to both speaker and listener, the is used for the first as well as subsequent mentions, e.g. the Managing Director, the Head of Sales, the man who is always with him.
To work out how many people are at the party, therefore, students must understand the different ways in which the definite article is used, whether the represents the first or subsequent mention, and should be careful not to count the same person twice. Note that some people are mentioned by name only (Carl), or indefinite article+noun+name (a lady, Sue her name was).
Solution: There are 15 people including the speaker. The first mentions are underlined.
I went to the office party last night. There were lots of people there, including the Managing Director and his wife. She was talking to a man from Accounts, who told jokes all evening. The Head of Sales was there, and his P.A. There was a very tall man I had never seen before. He was nearly two metres! He was talking to a young girl with blond hair. The blond was a friend of Mary from Sales, also there. Oh yes, the Assistant Manager was there, too. She was listening to the funny man all evening. In the corner, a shy man sat all by himself. I felt sorry and went to talk to him. He was really interesting, he keeps snakes! But he was very quiet. Who else? A woman from Catering, who’s only been with the firm a few weeks. She has just moved from London, and another woman from Advertising. The new woman was friendly, but the advertising woman was a bit strange, I think. Then there was Carl, who you remember, and the man who is always with him. He was trying to make a good impression on the Managing Director. Me? I spent most of the evening chatting to a lady, Sue her name was, you know, who writes the reports.
Decontextualised sentence-level exercises such as putting words in the correct order are common in language teaching, however, if the sentence is the end of a story, these activities are much more motivating. There is just one story below, but each different sentence activity contains a different ending. Many very short stories of 50 words can be found on the web, but you can easily write your own.
‘Jane, I love you so much!’ He practised saying it in the mirror. He took a deep breath, and said it again. What would she say? Laugh, perhaps? One last time he said it. Suddenly, a voice from behind said ‘I know you do!’
1. Put the last sentence of the story in order.
come he even had not in heard her
(Solution: He had not even heard her come in)
2 Fill in the blanks to make the last sentence of the story.
Then _______ woke up! He _____ only been _________!
(Solution: Then he woke up. He had only been dreaming!)
3 Delete four words to create the last sentence of the story.
‘If I were here you, I would be close the red door handle!’, said his mother.
Solution: ‘If I were you, I would close the door!,’ said his mother.
4. Swap one letter from one word with a letter from the other word in each pair to produce the final sentence of the story.
yad then /livdi heapply /feer vater.
Solution: And they (y-n)/ lived happily (e-i) / ever after (f-v)
The letters exchanged are shown in brackets. Note that letters are not replaced in the position the other letter was taken from. The order of words remains unchanged.
5. The sentence has been divided into blocks of ten letters, with one block of five. The blocks have been mixed up. Put the blocks in the right order to make the final sentence of the story. Clue: the block of five must be last, since there are not enough letters to make up the full block.
ionwasclea hertounder renoughfor HisEnglish stand! pronunciat
Solution: His English pronunciation was clear enough for her to understand! (i.e. He was practising his pronunciation in front of the mirror.)
Stories do not have to be long or complex, neither do activities have to be limited to comprehension questions or retelling. Stories can be used in many ways, and because they are extremely motivating, they are worth experimenting with. In particular, the link between stories and grammar seems to hold a great deal of potential.
Collins, B. 50 Words Stories. Retrieved 11 October 2008 from http://members.ozemail.com.au/~collinsb/bc/fw/50words.htm
Fisher, R. (1988) Teaching Thinking: Philosphical Enquiry in the Classroom. London. Cassell
Kipling, R. Just So Stories. Retrieved 11 October 2008 from www.candlelightstories.com/Stories/JustSoStories.php
Morgan, J. and M. Rinvolucri (1990) Once Upon a Time. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.