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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 2; Issue 5; September 2000

Major Article

"Stories and their importance in Language Teaching"

by Andrew Wright

Page 1 of 2

This article was written for and first published by The Pan-Hellenic Federation of foreign language School Owners. Hence the Greek references in the body of the article.

Summary In this article I offer the argument that stories are central to society and should be central to language teaching for three reasons. The first reason given is that stories offer so much richness in language learning and teaching. The second reason given is that the aim of most language learning is to be able to present oneself as a whole person through the foreign language and that is done very powerfully through storytelling. The third reason given is that many language teachers accept their broad responsibilities to the students as 'student developers' not only concerned with the foreign language development of their students. Stories are fundamental to one's sense of identity and to dealing with experience.

What I mean by 'stories'

I use the word stories with an extensive meaning…any description of a series of events whether true or untrue.

Stories, for me, include: myths, legends, fairy stories and fables which originated in the oral form. But stories also include written fiction and in particular short stories: also theatre and film. Furthermore, for me the word 'story' includes our own personal anecdotes, descriptions of the development of a firm or a nation ('The Story of British Steel'), the news (The top stories today are…) and, more difficult to grasp as an idea, the story in which we live (That's the story of my life!). I believe that we are producers, directors, costume directors, make up artists and actors in our own films…but films which have to be constantly adapted to changing circumstances.

This wide range of meanings for the word story is not due to my idiosyncrasy as our language shows:

Tell me a story daddy. (the most obvious sort of story)
These trousers have shrunk! That's my story and I am sticking to it. (information asserted as fact…partly wry humour)
The story of Anglo-French relations. (selective fact)
He told me the story of his life. (selective fact)
BBC/ITV/CNN…The top stories today are…(selective fact)
BBC/ITV/CNN …Breaking story…(situation happening at the moment)
She told me a story about a tarantula spider breeding in a cactus she bought at Marks and Spencers. (probably fiction but offered as fact)
It would be interesting to hear his side of the story. (selective fact)
Its the old story…moan, moan, moan! (behaviour)
She just tells one silly story after another. (lie purporting to be the truth)

Writing and telling stories

Of course, the written story will always be important! However, the orally told story is now rampant and this will increase in the future as computers become more and more powerful and have enough memory to carry long videos and have developed voice recognition to a sophisticated level.

For a long time we have been given the feeling by our teachers that the spoken word is inferior to the written word. Now we have universities (Nottingham and Birmingham in the UK) giving respectability to the spoken word…even producing spoken grammars.

Many of the forms we have in written English did not derive from the 'natural' growth of the language but were added by influential individuals imposing concepts of quality based on the classical languages of Greek and Latin. This artificiality was regarded as a positive virtue in the past rather like the tight clipping of hedges and pruning of trees in a symmetrically planned French garden…nature dominated by man. Now more people give value to the 'natural' development of a language. Grammars are no longer written by erudite individuals crouched over their desks but based on enormous computer data banks revealing how language is actually used.

Oral storymaking and telling (in the broad way in which I define it in this article) is now and will become even more so, an immensely important form of communication and, as language teachers, we have an opportunity to contribute to the development of our students in developing their powers in this direction.

The importance of stories in language teaching

There are three broad reasons for language teachers to take the use of stories in their teaching very seriously for all kinds of student from children to adults and from beginners to advanced. The first is a short term reason: The cornflakes of the classroom
The second is longer term: What it means to be Greek when speaking English in international settings
The third is a fundamental educational reason: We are the stories we hear and make.
I would like to examine each one of these reasons

The cornflakes of the classroom

Cornflakes contain a wide range of nutritional elements. A plate of cornflakes a day provides a good basic set of the elements we need. Stories are similar. Here's why… Everybody wants to hear a story. That is why stories are so central to our society. The students walking into our classrooms are not just language students, they are people…made of stories…and wanting more stories…

We are who we are through stories.

Words are the most common medium for conceiving and communicating stories… Language teaching and stories are all about words… surely stories should be central to language teaching!

Here is a list of benefits in the classroom from the use of stories in language teaching either creating them or responding to them…

1 Some exams expect the student to be able to give an explanation or story behind a picture, etc. Preparing for the exam is a motivating factor for most students.

2 Some people are only involved and only use their full intelligence if they can be creative. Making and responding to stories is one way of being creative.

By being creative rather than imitative we sharpen our observation and encourage our curiosity. We see the possibilities of new relationships between bits of information. We learn to be able to do something about our perceptions and have the confidence in ourselves to do it. We revel in sharing it with others, confident that they will be open to it if not in agreement with it.

We learn to associate the second language with experience of feelings…not at one removed…through translation but as a first hand element in real events which matter to us.

By doing all of this in the foreign language we make it into a second language rather than a foreign language to be used for real at some time in the future.

3 Making or responding to stories is one of the best ways of developing fluency…fluency is one of the most difficult skills for the students to acquire and they need reason and opportunity to do so.

4 Stories offer an effective way of introducing new language, making it meaningful and memorable.

5 There are so many activities you can do with stories….in my book, Creating Stories with Children published by OUP, I list 94 ways of using stories…I am sure there are many more.

6 Stories have a natural role to play in cross curricular work. In a story there can be a range of geographical, historical, sociological and cultural information. Activities arising out of stories might range from a study of foods in the Hungry Caterpillar story for young learners to a study of hubris in the story of Bellerophon and Pegasus for the most advanced students.

7 Stories are a distinctive manifestation of cultural values and perceptions. Stories invite reflection on values and culture. For example there are hundreds of variations of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. In one version Little Red Riding Hood plays a trick on the wolf and gets away (traditional French country version), in another she and her grandmother are eaten and that is the end of the story (Perrault), in another a man saves the two of them (Grimm) and in another LRRH and her Grandma trick the wolf, kill it, skin it and then take it in turns to wear the wolfskin as a coat (Liverpool women's group)!

8 Making and telling stories requires the students to organise information into a cohesive and coherent whole in order to communicate to other people and develops the students' ability to sustain a monologue

9 Making and telling stories develops in the students a heightened sense and awareness of English due to familiarity with sustained texts

10 Stories invite empathy and sharing between students in class and later between the students and other users of English they meet. Indeed, anecdotes are a key part of everyday conversation…she's very kind…I remember only last week I….

11 Stories and metaphors are the classic way of explaining something. To able to use stories and metaphors fluently, appropriately and naturally is one mark of an accomplished speaker and writer. The language class offers an opportunity to develop this ability.

12 Of course we can 'teach' new words by translating them. However, we all know that translation is far from being a perfect method! Very often the associations with the two words will be different. The word 'countryside' for a Greek and an English person are likely to conjure up very different images, not only sensually different but in terms of value. Furthermore, the superficial ease of translation does not help to make the word memorable.

If we want to create the concept of 'courage' in someone's mind how better to do it than through a story? And then the word, 'courage' associated with the experience of the concept is more likely to be meaningful and memorable.

13 Making and telling stories gives the students an opportunity to reflect on their own concerns, perceptions and values. Listening to the stories of other students presents an opportunity to reflect on the perceptions of others and to respond to those reflections.

Our own anecdotes help us to give shape and meaning to our lives…other peoples anecdotes throw a new light on our own experience and become part of our own experience..

14 Making stories can give personal dignity and awareness. One student I worked with once told me, "I didn't know I had any stories in me and now I know I do."

15 Frequent listening to stories develops the students' listening skills.

16 Studying and learning stories contextualises language diversity in dialect, register, narrative description, speech.

17 Retelling stories develops awareness of language change from a written story to its spoken form

18 Storytelling develops in the teller a heightened feeling of the nature of spoken language and a feeling for the relationship between, language, voice and body and objects related to different content, contexts and listeners.

Stories link verbal language to the languages of voice and body. The voice can be used with great variety: pace, pitch, volume, rhythm, pause, timbre all used to be clear and to be expressive.

Similarly, the body can be used to help to communicate content meaning and feelings in conjunction with the words being used.


The teacher may reasonably ask, "But what proficiency level of student are you talking about?"

The whole range of students from beginner to advanced can benefit from the use of stories and in particular the making and telling of stories. Beginners can be encouraged to 'have a go' at putting together the words they have and combining these words with pictures, drama or music to become 'real' storying.

By using dramatic art beginner students can even make a story out of the two words, 'Yes' and 'No'.

More advanced students can use English to develop their general story making and storytelling skills so crucial in social intercourse.

This article is not primarily on methodology and I can only refer you to my book, Creating stories with children published by OUP in which I offer 72 activities for helping teachers to help students to make stories.

But one thing is for sure, the students may be so used to trying to avoid mistakes that they are incapable of risking mistakes through their creative. Somehow one has to strive to bring into the language classroom that joy of dancing whatever shape and size you are and whatever the level of your skill which seems to fill Greeks after dinner when the music starts to play!

Storymaking and telling in the classroom can only flower if that spirit of joy is normal and as much a part of everyday life as dancing.

What it means to be Greek when speaking English in international settings.

Some Greeks may have no wish to be seen as Greeks in international contexts. Such people might prefer to be like chameleons and to melt into the background of whatever culture they happen to be in.

But many Greeks are understandably proud of being Greek and want to offer their 'Greekness' to the world wherever they are.

But don't you show your Greek character and perceptions and values partly through the stories you tell? And remember 'stories' for me range from the current news items you decide to pass on to your personal anecdotes right through to your wonderful Greek myths!

The form and manner of the 'Greekness' you choose to manifest is your choice and your students' choice. The stories you choose to tell are thus your choice. It is not for me to say that you should be able to tell Greek myths so that you can grip company at dinner or a companion on a train journey or your hosts' children at bedtime with the passion of your Greek myths. But if you could do so your listeners would never forget you!

Why should language teachers concern themselves with this aim which must seem rather distant from the classroom and even from the examination? I believe it is worth specifically working towards because students are motivated by the sense of it…and being motivated are more likely to use the full potential of their brains and hearts…and so learn and remember better.

How can language teachers help the students to develop their ability to tell stories and not to merely describe their pets, favourite music and say how many brothers and sisters they have got?

In this part of my article I will pass on a few thoughts about stories and the craft of storytelling. For a fuller version of these ideas please look at my books, Storytelling with Children, Oxford University Press and Creating Stories with Children, Oxford University Press.

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