Improvised Story Telling
Peter Dyer has been involved in teaching drama and improvisation for nearly 40 years. He has a Bachelor of Education degree and certificates in English language teaching and Business English training. He has taught Drama and Improvisation and English in schools, and has had many years teaching business people from large French corporations. He assists in English but also coaches presentation skills and gives workshops in Body Language, Status and Voice work including workshops in Improvisation, in which he uses his vast experience as a professional actor and director. His work with the Pilgrims Teacher Training centre in Canterbury U.K. over the last 25 years has seen him run for the teachers all over the world. Currently, Peter is finishing his book on using Improvisation and Drama techniques for the language classroom and coaching and writes articles for various English teacher magazines. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The benefits of using improvisation in the language class are many. These include enhancing speaking and listening skills, sharing and accepting input from others, realising one’s worthy contributions, spontaneity, risk taking and developing creativity and imagination.
Story-telling plays a very important role in developing all of the skills mentioned and students will be thrilled to know that they can be very effective group story-tellers. The activity described below requires students to link ideas together to take contributions from others in the gradual development of story and linking those ideas so that students following can in turn accept those ideas and, develop them as an offer for the next story teller in line. This activity also enriches participants’ social skills and self confidence.
Objectives: Students learn the construction of story. They learn to take ideas from others and using their sense of story- telling contribute their valuable input to the story, linking ideas and developing ideas. Students enhance their skills in group co-ordination and co-operation. They learn the skills not only of storytelling but communicating effectively with an audience using the body and voice.
Participants: Suitable for Intermediate levels and above and students of all ages. The activity may have to be repeated or the teacher might like to establish two or three lines of story tellers if the class is large but a demonstration group of no more than 10 students and no less than 8 would be advisable. All students should be encouraged to participate and will more likely do so after an initial demonstration for the class.
Preparation: Begin the session by asking students if they like stories. Perhaps to think of a story they like and say why they like it. In a general discussion (in the first language if needed) we can ask students to say what makes a good story. This will certainly start the ball rolling and will be most useful introduction to the following activity. I think it is a good idea for the teacher to provide students with a few simple examples of stories from children’s books or even a short video story. The teacher helps the students to examine how a simple story starts. Questions such as, who are the main characters? What elements of the story are added? What characters are added to propel the story along? How does the story unfold? How do other characters in the story add to the ending? There is much to explore here depending on the level and age of the students but it is important for the teacher to encourage the students to talk about stories and their experiences as a lead into the activity and because most children are very fine story critics.
- The teacher begins by telling the students that they are going to tell a story in a group, preferably in a line in front of the rest of the class. If there is a large class, the teacher can ask for between 10 and 12 volunteers while the rest of the class watches and plays an important audience support role. Fewer than 10 participants will not work here.
- 10 to 12 students volunteer to take part in the activity, and they remain seated in front of the rest of the class. The very first student volunteers to stand at the far left in front of the class and of course facing the class. Another student volunteers to stand facing the class on the far right. The teacher now explains that the student on the left is responsible for starting a story, to think about it for a while and produce a sentence preferably introducing a character or characters as the protagonist of the story. The sentence should be either a past simple sentence or they might begin with a past continuous sentence. Let’s start with the former, e.g. All the class packed their picnic bags for the mountain visit.
- The teacher asks the first student to repeat the first sentence a few times to help the class and the student standing on the right. Now the student on the right must come up with a sentence which is the last of the story. Sometimes it is easier if the last sentence includes the subject again, but it is not necessary, e.g. And they (the class) never went into the mountains again. Here it is clear that between the two sentences there is a story where something happens to get us to that last sentence, and it is the rest of the team who must discover just what occurred. The other students must now build up the story in order to reach the final sentence.
- Once the sentences are repeated a few times, another student from the audience stands to the left of the first speaker and adds a carry-on sentence. The sentences must not be too long, and it helps if they are sentences with some action e.g. They left the house and started to walk through the pastures towards the mountain. We must remember to gently curb any student’s desire to want to contribute a particularly long sentence or more than one. although that student might be enthusiastic, he/she needs to understand that they are contributing to the story, not controlling it. (one important basic rule of improvisation)
- The teacher insists on repeating the sentences or asks the class to do so and not forgetting the last sentence to remind students that this is where the story must lead. Younger students will need repetition more often.
- Another student number 3 stands to the left of speaker number 2 and adds his/her sentence e.g. Soon they entered the dark forest on the way up the mountain.
- The story continues e.g. They suddenly heard someone calling them from inside the forest, “Come come, help”. It is a real bonus if a character is quoted in the story as this encourages us to interpret the voice of narrator and character.
- If we started with a group of 10 students, it is student number 9 who must somehow link the contribution of student number 8 with the last sentence. This is or can be tricky but if student number 9 is having difficulties, the teacher can step in and help, so too can the audience offer suggestions. In all the number of times I have done this activity, I have only ever had to step in once. In this case I followed student 9’s contribution and when it seemed we were a little stuck, I stepped in and completed the link in the story.
- When complete, we run through the whole story again to the delight of all the participants and the audience who will not only follow the events in the story but will be thrilled with the fact that the story was created by the group. It is important that each student’s contribution cannot be altered but must be accepted as this is yet another rule to be observed in improvisation.
- If the teacher wants to, this story telling can be done as a group writing activity.
Variation of the story created to examine the past perfect tense
- We can keep the students standing in line once the story has been completed and provided the teacher has worked with students on the Past Perfect tense we can use this line to begin our story from one point in the line up.
- Let us start the story beginning with, “They suddenly heard someone calling them from inside the forest, “Come, come, help”. What we need now is to go back to the beginning of the story to link up with that very statement. Here the students will be able to understand that we will need the Past Perfect Tense to link the story to that point. E.g. All the class had packed their picnic bags for the mountain visit. The other sentences leading up to the call in the forest can use the Past Simple.
- We have a clear visual representation of the story and telling the story out of chronological order helps the students to come to grips with why the Past Perfect is used.
Variation on the same story using body, intonation, word stress, repetition and mimicry to colour a story and bring it to life.
- This extension can be done in a following class. The teacher may use the same group or ask for another lot of students who have witnessed the story to stand in line.
- The story needs to be recalled again in line and any inconsistencies cleared up. This time, the teacher asks the first student to repeat his/her same sentence without changing it. They leave the line up and walk in front the group and repeat the first part of the story but use their bodies to show perhaps one of the students packing the picnic bag. The other students in the line must really concentrate on the first student’s movements and the way the first sentence is spoken keeping note of the intonation and word stress. Once the first student has completed the sentence and action, he/she goes to the far right of the line. I try to encourage the students to use the space in front of their group and direct their story to the audience as much as possible. I call this space, “the performance space”. Here students are learning presentation using all the skills of an effective story- teller.
- Now student number 2 steps forward and says, “No there’s more to the story”. They then repeat the first student’s sentence and exact movements using the same intonation and word stress that they heard and then they add their own sentence being careful to use their bodies and focusing on how they say their sentence. Student 2 then goes to the far right of the line. Here the teacher can encourage the students to really use their bodies to help tell the story physically. The use of, “No, there’s more to the story”, helps the students to come forward before they repeat what has been said before and adding their own contributions
- Student 3 then steps forward and repeats, “No, there’s more to the story” and repeats both student 1 and 2’s contributions, acting out as closely as possible the exact movements, intonation and word stress. Student 3 then adds his/her own part of the story not changing the sentence from the original. The teacher can coach students if needed. Student 3 then goes to the far right of the line. I remind the students to focus telling the story to the audience watching rather that to the group as this prepares students in presentation skills and they will be less likely to turn their backs on the audience. students must not try to add any other gestures or words but to try and stick as closely as possible to the previous sentences.
- Should a student need help, the others in the line or the audience will always give support. The audience is not passive but can be actively participating though not actually telling the story.
- Of course the story comes to its conclusion but the added bonus here is that the students will be delighted that they have used the rather static story telling in the first activity to really physicalize the story and use the narrator’s skills and in some cases the voice of a character or characters e.g. the voice of the person calling in the forest, to tell story. Students are encouraged to play both narrator and character roles. There is a real sense of achievement experienced by the participating students in both activities described. Each contribution is taken up and used by other students in recalling the story. This is extremely valuable.
This final activity is so beneficial in assisting students to experience the skills of effective communication and although initially some students may be a little timid, they are supported by others in the team and they begin to enjoy the exercise knowing they are not alone. By using the group’s own story, the students will be more interested in the activity as it is the original story which is being further developed. These activities do take a lot of time but they can be introduced section by section while not overtaking the demands placed on the language teacher. We must remember that taking time to pursue these activities is not just helping students with their English but it is developing their presentation skills and furthering their confidence in social skills.
Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.
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