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August 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Review of Harmer and Puchta Story Telling Book

Mario Rinvolucri is a Pilgrims Associate and has worked on more than one resource book with Herbert Puchta.  I feel the tissue of our collaboration was richest when we wrote MULTIPLE  INTELLIGENCES and its German language twin, (enriched by Wilfried Krenn)

STORY-BASED LANGUAGE TEACHING by Jeremy Harmer and Herbert Puchta,  Helbling, 2018


I know Jeremy Harmer through his sister-in-law on a friendly basis and I have sometimes crossed swords with him over professional matters.

Why tell you this?  As readers I feel you have a right to know what my relationship with these two authors so you can to some extent weigh what I have to say about their book. I can, of course, only describe my relationship to the two authors from my side, as I see it and feel it.


I am searching my memory to try and think of any teacher resource `book that is more teacher friendly than this one.  At one end of the scale of teacher-friendliness is a Pilgrims colleague, Saxon Menne, (obit 2006), who produced a brilliant coursebook for Spain but adamantly refused to write a Teacher’s Book to suggest how colleagues might want to use the textbook. His panel of 8 technical advisers  (including Puchta and me) unanimously and on bended knee begged him to offer teachers help with using this very novel book. Is granite the hardest rock? Saxon point -blank refused with something like these words:

“ Teachers are imaginative adults. That is enough”

Sadly, the course sold very few copies.

At the other end of the “teacher-friendliness” spectrum is this book on using stories with EFL students. Herbert and Jeremy have searched for as many ways as possible of smoothing the way for the colleague new to the idea of using oral stories with their classes.

For the teacher who feels their language is not up to the job (a large number of these across the globe) the book offers them access, via the publisher’s website, to professional story tellers working with groups of students. The presence of a real audience is vital, as the listeners in many ways “ direct” a sensitive tale-teller. These videos certainly make the price of the beautifully produced book less pocket-painful for the reader/purchaser.!

For the teacher who feels that telling a story to her class is so much more difficult than reading them the same story, Jeremy and Herbert suggest a number of ways of internalising what happens in the tale:

The authors suggest mind-mapping the tale and thus making it their own.

They suggest storyboarding the narrative as if you were going to film it.

They propose learning certain bits of dialogue by heart e.g.: “What big teeth you’ve got, Granny!”  

“All the better to eat you with, my Dear”  ( Little Red Riding Hood)

They point out that you can use personal stories where you have already got the story established in your mind. The memorising problem does not arise but you might want to rehearse it through in English to avoid language stumbles.                     

If only I had had the Jeremy-Herbert book available to me back in the 1970’s when I was a fledgling EFL teacher.


Herbert and Jeremy offer neat ways of allowing the audience into the landscapes of the story,the soundscapes of the story and the belief systems of the story.

Pick out a place name from the story and talk a little bit about it before starting the story proper, eg:

“ Trofaiach...well ,yes, there’s bridge over a pretty noisy stream and a placid lake a bit further along the road out of the village... seems like there are high mountains all around  Trofaiach. Anybody been there? It’s in Austria...You should go.. .a  pretty place…

“ So.... in days of yore there was girl who lived in Trofaiach........”

If your story has an arresting title tell the students the title, pause, and then ask them to spend 15 seconds deciding what they think the story will be like. Tell them to turn to a neighbour and ask them what they imagine... (1 minute)

Tell the students that in some cultures story-listeners are encouraged to shout out two or three bits they like (a word, a phrase, as short sentence... Ask them to do this all the way through your telling, (good technique when a long morning is moving towards lunch...)



Here the authors describe some of what a Mum/Dad story teller does unconsciously in terms of voice variation, and what a classroom story teller might omit do in class:

Voice pitch (high/low)

Volume (loud/quiet)

Slow speech versus rapid speech

Stopping and pausing

Stressing certain words for dramatic effect

Repetition to stress a point...

For people reading this review who are very auditorily sensitive this section of the book is a delight to read. (I have been purring like a well-fed cat while writing the words above.)


As you have by now realised I cannot contain my joy at large sweeps of this book. I think it is a real eye-opener to people who study oral literature, those who were alerted to orality by the work of Parry and Lord (in the 1930’s) as well as to practicing EFL teachers of young kids, of teenagers, of middle aged students who maybe tell their own children stories, to pensioners and to Business English students (yes, to them too, as too often they are treated with false respect and not accepted as regular humans.

However there are also some critical questions that I need to put to Herbert and Jeremy:

Dear Both,

  1. Might it have been worth making the point maybe more strongly than you do that the teacher who tells her/his class stories takes on a new role/s that is/are more powerful than that of the teacher. The story-teller automatically dons the mantel of that immensely kind Granny or that tired-out mother who, despite her fatigue, pulls a bedtime story out of the bag, the strange, slightly wicked uncle who only comes once in a while (a whiff of adventure) yes, and my elder sister.
    Telling stories to her class the teacher takes on a variety of family roles. Story-listeners do all this associating work unconsciously in the mental areas in which we are 10 times more intelligent and sensitive than in the small area of our lives which we call full consciousness.
    What is the linguistic result of telling a story in “foreign”? Bit by bit the alien feeling of being in an over- there place melts and I can begin to sense the foreign lingo as MINE.
    This kind of story-telling, if well done, deeply domesticates the strange sounds and forms of the target language. Read the work of Bernard Dufeu if you want to discover more about the alienation of facing a foreign tongue and ways to make it lift like mist in morning sunshine.
  2. If I tell a story to a group of 20 students it is beyond doubt that there are now 21 stories in the room, unless blessed sleep has overtaken a couple of people! Each student will have seen different pictures from the others:
    Some will have seen framed pictures and others unbounded pictures, some will have seen mental pictures right close-up and others images far away. Does it make a difference if your picture memories are black and white, colour or something else again?
    Above I have tried to look at the visual memories of the story. Each student may have auditory memories that are very different from her neighbours. The same goes for kinaesthetic perceptions and ones to do with the taste organs.
    The shape the story has taken morally will vary according to individual person’s set of inner beliefs. My “good” and my neighbour’s “good” may be chalk and cheese.This may mean that Student A’s interpretation of the story will not coincide at all with Student B’s.
    If, Jeremy and Herbert, you accept the patent truth of what I have outlined above, then nearly all sensible, realistic story follow-up will be to do with exploration of the differences between the individual student’s inner creation of the story and those of his classmates.. You maybe have to drop absurd, traditional follow-up exercises like “story re-telling”.This exercise is based on the absurdity of thinking that listeners are capable of NOT deleting and embellishing as their own gestalt of the story creatively unfolds in their minds.OK, yes, you can demand that they try to remember the words and phrases you used in your telling and try to re-use them. Odd that your should decide to reduce a thrilling awareness-raising experience to a mechanicallanguage-aping one.
  3. I guess you will know the VIVLIO Dear Doosie GRAMENO APO Werner von Lansberg and sold all over the GERMANIKES speaking areas of EVROPI.  The VIVLIO is not expensive, in fact it is POLI  FTHINO. The PEDAGOCHIKO aim of the text is to get A2 level speakers of English to quickly learn more L2 using the part of the text in L1 as their crutch.
    Mixed language stories are particularly powerful with learners who are total beginners in the target language. The most powerful version of the mixed language technique is in oral story-telling. It is very useful for teachers with weak English. How come? The first time they tell the story it is 95% in their mother tongue and 5 % in English. When they tell the story in a later lesson it will be 90% in their MT and 10% in English, etc..... As they teach the students English they gradually improve their own. So here you have a pretty painless language improvement exercise for in-service teachers doing a language upgrade course.
  4. I happen to know that Jeremy, you are a very active musician both publicly and privately.
    So when I saw your name on the book coverI looked forward to exploring areas where story and music lend their strengths to each other.An example would be traditional folksongs or more recent music and storytelling blendings... Joan Baez’ work, for example? My ignorance of music is a deep I hoped that Herbert and you would drag me screaming into this powerful and for me almost pristine area.It was not to be.


I wish this wide-ranging and very teacher- loving book an active life of at least a quarter of a century. I can imagine dog-eared copies in staff rooms around the globe, the tattier they are the better. It may well be the sort of book teachers will filch from the staffroom/school library. In such criminality lies authorial success!

I am also convinced that STORY-BASED LANGUAGE TEACHING will promptand provoke other people, now jostling in primary school playgrounds, to write their own creative contributions to the vast thinking and feeling area of oral story telling.

Gute Reise! Bon Voyage! Kalo Taxithi!

Read another review of the book here.


Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

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