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April 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Making Stories

Andrew Wright is an author, published by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Helbling Languages. His stories have been on the BBC TV, ITV and WDR. As a teacher, teacher trainer, storyteller and book maker he has worked  in schools in 55 countries.  His current interests are writing his own stories and poetry.  




From the Author

The suggestions in this article are based on my experience.


An overview

I worked as a travelling story maker and teller for many years very often working with 5 or 6 classes every day.  And every day in a different school: working in 5 schools, each week.  My longest tour was 16 weeks long:  80 different schools in 4 countries. About 16,000 children aged 5 to 18, mainly 10 to 16). I began that particular tour in Northern Denmark and finished in Tuscany, Italy four months later.

I only remember living in stories made with deep involvement with the children.  

In these short pages I will concentrate on describing some of my experience in story making with children which seemed to me to be very satisrfying...and I hope the ideas will be successful for you.


Stories are fundamental to human life not only TEFL Techniques!

Fish need water.  People need stories.  I believe naming and making and sharing stories is the fundamental way in which people can make understandable sense out of the infinite complexity of what is around us and in us. 

There are more stars in the Cosmos than grains of sand on every beach and every desert in the world.  My mother taught me how to recognise, ‘The Plough’ when I was 8.  It is called, ‘The Big Dipper by people in America’.  Some groups of stars have been given longer stories than those!  If we can name we think we know.  Making stories is an extension of our wish to name things and to feel we understand what is around us.


Stories help TEFL

Without exception people need stories and a key way of sharing stories is through words.  Stories are central to language learning. Stories can provide a reason for trying to understand and trying to make and share: listening, reading, speaking, writing:  the teacher’s paradigm.  Stories are like the Golden Goose for language teachers:  they can offer such powerful motivation for students.

In the traditional story of the ‘Golden Goose’ the farmer and his wife wanted to know how their goose managed to lay a golden egg everyday, so they killed it and opened it up.  And they never had another golden egg after that. Testing the four skills with stories can kill the Golden Goose of Stories. My son, as a child, told me he always wrote the shortest possible story at school because, ‘the less words you write the less mistakes you can make.’  He added, ‘The teacher seems to be obsessed by finding mistakes.

(Some suggestions for helping teachers to test but not kill off motivation are later in this article.)


What a story is, what I understand ‘stories’ to be

The word, ‘story’, is used in a wide variety of ways. The way I use the word, ‘stories’,  related to their role in the language classroom is sketched out here. Recently, I was asked to be a judge of stories written by teachers from one large country.  I felt highly complimented.  When the stories arrived I began to realise that I did not share the same concept of what a story is.  The majority of stories, submitted to me, seemed to be more like ‘articles’ than ‘stories’.  Here is my working description of what I mean by, ‘story’.   I have selected the key points only.  I hope you will agree that it is a commonly agreed understanding!


Key elements in stories

1 Protagonist(s) 

One or more people or animals or even objects!

2 Protagonist’s problem

Protagonist wants something: car, some peace, his/her team to win etc.

Something (fate) or somebody (one or many people or him/herself) makes it difficult to have what the protagonist wants to have.

(He/she wanted a car so he/she bought one:  No story.)

(He/she bought a car but it was no good: Story!)

3 Protagonist’s struggles

The protagonist struggles to overcome the problem, and antagonist, fate, etc.

Several or many mini problems/struggles on the way.

(Struggles are a key way of keeping interest in the reader/listener)

The word ‘struggle’ may mean a huge physical fight or gentle and repeated oral persuasion!

4 Result (end of story)

Protagonist does or doesn’t get what he/she wanted.

How does the end connect with the beginning?

How is the protagonist affected?

5 Secondary elements in stories

The place and the weather…may affect the story.

Neutral people.  Contribution to the story: support the protagonist, create problems for the protagonist, help to ‘set the scene’.

Antagonists. Main and secondary creating the main problem and/or mini problems.

Objects. Part of protagonist’s wants or part of the problems or part of the setting.






How to get and keep the reader’s/listener’s interest in the story: Two ideas

1 The drama of want, problem, struggle, result

The drama of wanting to find out if the protagonist will get what he/she wants

and will he/she survive each of the mini problems on the way to the end?

And the drama of how people feel and how they make other people feel.


2 The author’s details helping the reader/listener see, feel, hear, taste, smell, touch and understand.

go (general ideas)

walk (better but still rather general)

walk slowly (more specific)

walking slowly, dragging his left foot (much more specific)

amble, stroll, wander, stride, march, etc.(even greater precision)


3 A well known example of an author giving memorable details 

Treasure Island.   Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of "buccaneers and buried gold". 

I remember, 75 years ago, reading, chapter 3 of Treasure Island and the evil pirate, Blind Pew, arriving at the remote pub one bitter, foggy afternoon,  I read this story when I was a child of eleven and I can still hear the sound of his walking stick tapping on the road.  I have seen and heard him for 75 years!


Making a story as a class: Making a story as a class working together or students working on their own?  Why not both? 

1 My main class story making technique

I was introduced to this technique by a company called, Word and Action.

Question and Answer Stories

It takes 30 to 60 minutes and needs no preparation and no materials.

Students get from it:

  • Learning to tell stories better.

  • Experience of working with others.

  • Using their English.

  • All four skills (if they write it down later)

I do hope it goes well for you.


2 Overview for you plus key tips!

You ask questions of the students.  You use their answers to make their story.  

YOU do NOT try to improve their answers or ask questions which make some story idea YOU may have.

You keep re-telling the story as it grows from the moment they begin to create the key protagonist.

YOU re-tell their story, not them. You must keep the dynamic of the story growing OR risk losing their involvement.

Your repeated re-telling helps the less able students to understand and feel involved! 

I ask questions for the basic things which can make good stories (protagonists, wants, problems, etc. but I usually don’t suggest things.  IF I suggest things I try to suggest 4 or 5 things so they still feel it is THEIR story!

Teacher: Who do you want in your story?

Class: (Silent)

Teacher:  Do you want a girl or a boy or a woman or a man or perhaps an animal?

They answer.  I take the first answer I hear.  I do not choose.  It’s their story. I explain that it is my rule to take the first one I hear.

If I hear several answers I might try to include them all in my re-telling.

Teacher: What’s her name?

Student 1: Barbara!

Student 2: Anne!

Teacher:  She’s called Barbara-Anne.

I don’t try to improve their answers…I accept the English in their contribution and add their idea in correct English. (I don’t give them a lecture on the grammar but get on with the story).

The dynamic of creating is more important than specific language teaching, at this moment!!!

I ask more follow up questions related to their answers to get more specific details.

I want them to use all the language they have got.

I want them to experience the need for detail so we can see, hear and sense the situation.


By the way:

- I try NOT to praise anyone for a brilliant answer!  I don’t want them to feel that I prefer one 

  contribution rather than another.

- I collect the story ideas using the present tense. I re-tell the story in a past tense!

  What a natural way of experiencing BOTH sets of tenses!


3 Here is a condensed version of the way this technique might go:

Here are my basic questions and some supportive basic questions.  I make NO statements of my own.  I use my questions to find out THEIR story.  

If I feel their answers are not good, even unpleasant, I still put their contributions into their story!  After the storymaking I might question some particularly unpleasant idea: when I re-tell the story if there is something I disagree with then I sometimes say to them, ‘I’m going to re-tell your story.  You are responsible for everything in the story: good, not so good and bad.   YOU can change the story to make things better!

Below: my basic questions in bold. T = teacher as questioner 

T: Who do you want in your story?

What is his/her name?

How old is he/she?

T: At the beginning of the story where is xxxx?

London is a big city!  Where is he/she in London?

Is it a big town/house?

Where in the town/house?

What’s it like?  Dark? Light? Hot? Cold? etc.

What’s the weather like?

3 What is xxxx doing in the yyyy?

Sleeping?  Hiding? Running? Singing?

Are there other people there?

What other people?

What does xxxx feel, think, hear, see, etc.?

What does xxxx want?

What does xxxx do at this moment in the story?

And then? What does he/she do/think/feel/say?


4 NOW! At this point in the story making...

You have got the story going!  You have got the protagonist(s) and where the protagonist is at the beginning of the story and hopefully the main problem of the protagonist but at least a mini problem.

YOU continually ask questions and re-tell!’ You are wanting to know what happens next and in detail so you can imagine the scene, 

You must use your questions to drive the protagonist forward trying to overcome problems big but also small.

I always keep an eye on the end of the lesson coming.  About 10 minutes before the end of the lesson I usually say, ‘Gosh!  What a story!  There are only 8 minutes left!  How are you going to finish your story.  (Once more you are emphasising the story is their responsibility.)

If they don’t bring the story to an end then two options are ahead of you:

1 You re-tell the story until the point where they got to and then say, ‘Oh, the story stopped!’

What a pity!  Perhaps one day….’

2 You tell the class that the next homework is for everyone to write how the story finished.


5 Follow-up activities

1 If a visitor comes into the classroom I might get the class to re-tell the story to them.  Or in the next lesson if there is a student who was absent then I get the class to tell the class story to him or her.

2 They try to retell the story in the next lesson.

3 They try to retell the story by writing it in two homeworks, see below


6 First homework

Tell them to re-write the story as well as they can BUT you won’t mark it for errors of English.

You will only lightly underline bits which could be in better English.

Perhaps give marks for accuracy of the re-telling of the content.


7 Second homework

They re-write the story in correct English which you will mark and give points for it in your usual way.


They make a book

1 Preparation

Time needed about one hour.

The simplest book for you and them is an A4 plastic soft folder with prongs to fasten through the pages.

For other books to make: see my notes on bookmaking.


2 Action

Divide the students into groups of 4 or 5. eg 30 students about 6 or 7 groups (get the folders and A4 paper ready)

Tell them their group’s book will be ten pages long.  

Page one will be for the front cover.

Nine pages for the story.

On the board divide the story into nine sections: one section for each page.  Which the class must do and agree on.

Work out which part of the story goes on to each page.

.Each group decides what each student does, for example, each student does one or two pages.

I always ask the class to show the teacher their individual pages for the teacher to check the English before it is clipped into their group book.


3 Cooperation with the school Art Department 

My suggestion: combine work on the book with the art department in the school: writing in English from your English Department and illustrations by the student in their art lessons.

4 Soap opera as an on-going, class story making

Class invent and agree on protagonists and places for their class soap opera.  Drawing pictures of them or use magazine pictures.  Use them for practising ‘new’ and previously learned language and build up stories about them as a class and/or as individual students.  Include writing letters as characters in the class soap opera community.  Have a community newspaper or website.

They use all the English they have to launch and continue their class story.  The class must agree on the ideas to be used in the soap opera.  A soap girl can’t suddenly have a different age!  If the class want her to get older they must e.g.  have a birthday party and the party can be the next story in their living soap opera!

This soap opera community can live for years to come!  Anything is possible…and a lot of language is used and experienced and remembered.


5 Making a story as an individual imagination story making

Speak slowly and quietly, particularly when the children have their eyes shut and they are imagining what they can see and hear.

  1. Teacher: the teacher must find an old key.

  2. Teacher:  Show the class.  Discuss a bit.

  3. Teacher:  Tell them you will ask them to close their eyes and answer your questions to themselves.  No spoken aloud answers.

  4. Teacher:   Close your eyes.  This key is for a door.  You are holding the key. Stand in front of the door.   Is it an old door or is it a new door? Is it a big door or a small door?

  5. Teacher:  Now look at the door.  What can you can see?  Is the door painted or just wood or steel?  Is something written on it?  Anything else?

  6. Teacher:  Now you are going to open the door.  Put your key in the door.  Is it easy or difficult?

  7. Teacher:  Open the door.  Is it easy or difficult?

  8. Teacher:  Go through the door.  What can you see?  What can you hear?  Perhaps smell?  Feel?

  9. Teacher:  Stay there for a few moments.  What can you see? Keep looking.

  10. Teacher:  Now, you must go.  Come out. Come back through the door.

  11. Teacher:  Wait for a moment.  Open your eyes when you are ready.

  12. Teacher:  Pairs.  Tell each other about the door and the wall and then what you saw, heard, felt, smelt, etc.

  13. Teacher:  Put up your hand if you looked outside when you opened the door.  There is no right or wrong.  Interesting that some looked out of a room and some looked into a room.

  14. Teacher:  For homework…Write down your story of the key.  

  15. Collect all the stories.   Make a class book.


6 Real life problems: individual story making

Individual story making can be based on student’s experience of difficult situations he or she has experienced. It can be minor or major.  privacy respected.

  1. Teacher:  Tell the students that problems and the struggles to overcome them are the secret of story making.    

  2. Teacher:  Brainstorm one word or phrase of 6 problems you have today, small and/or big.

  3. The students then take one or several of these jottings and do a full A4 of detailed brainstorming of each problem.

  4. Include anything and everything which comes to mind…your dog wagging its tail, what you said to the neighbour, the weather, emotions, ideas said/thought

  5. Pairs.  Look at and go through each brainstorming sheet.  Decide which will make the best story.  Plan the story: protagonist wants something difficult to have.  Struggle and incidents

First rough draft.

  1. Pairs read each other’s first draft (explain idea of first draft)

  2. Can your reader understand the story?  Can your reader see, hear, feel, etc. the story? Does it hold the reader’s interest?

  3. New draft including improvements designed to help the reader understand it more easily.

  4. Publish.  Make the final story ready for everyone to read.  Author’s name AND editor’s name included.


7 Writing your partner’s story

1 Individuals:   brainstorm their problem summaries 

2 Pairs:   Each student takes one of their partner’s problems and interviews  their partner about it to collect the information he/she needs in order to write their partner’s story.

3 Individuals:   Big pile of magazine photos.  Each students select 5:  protagonist/place/event which could contain ‘want’ and difficulty/ a struggle.  Write story with the pictures as illustrations.

4 Pairs: read their partner’s story.  Comment on it as a story rather than as ‘correct’ representation of the brainstormed memories it is based on.

Marking stories

Most teachers are expected to keep records of the points students have been given for their work. The points are ususally related to the correct and incorrect use of English.

My son, at the age of 14 told me that he had learned to write and to say as little as possible in his foreign language lesson, ’because the more you do the more mistakes you can make’.

To develop our feel for the new language we must experience using it for purposes which matter to us: writing stories may be one of them!

I respect the need for most teachers to record students’ achievements in this respect.

Perhaps experienced teachers have found a way around the need to give a mark for the language level achieved AND the need to help the student develop as a thinking and communicative person. 

Here are some suggestions which you might be useful:

1 To test formal correct use of English why not mark their English achievement used in formal tests which do not pretend to be important in themselves?

2 If story writing must be marked then consider marking the story in two stages?

Stage 1;  The student writes the story and at any length over eg 1 page.  He or she is told that it will be exhibited on the classroom walls or in a collection of stories so they will want to write it as well as they can.  No marks for language correctness only comments for story writing.

Stage 2;  They must re-write the first page of their story in as correct a form of English as they can and you will give them marks for the language quality in their one page (or first 100 words, etc.) in the ’normal’ way.


Summary:  Stories in language learning

Learning is bigger than remembering.  Learning needs experiencing.

Stories are fundamental to us as human beings.  Stories are paths of understanding in this infinitely complex world.  Language is a way ot making paths through complexity.

Of course, the better we can use the language the better made our ’story paths’ will be but I believe that our language and our new, potentially, alternative language can only become ours if we use it as well as remembering it for tests.

The twin aims for our work are to help students to develop their knowledge of and skill in using English AND to help our students develop as characterful and socially aware individuals. Stories are great for both!



Wright, A, (2008 ) Storytelling with Children,   Oxford University Press.

Wright, A. (1997) Creating Stories with Children.  Oxford University Press.

Wright, A. and  Hill D.A. (2008) Wrting Stories.  Helbling Languages.

Wright, A. (2014) Beggar in Bogota.  ILI Internatonal Languages Institute, Hungary.

Wright, A. (2028) Larger than Life. ILI Internatonal Languages Institute, Hungary.


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