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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Stories: Their Importance In and Out of the Classroom

‘Homo Sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions.  We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them.  As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.’

Yuval Noah Harari. (2018)  21 Lessons for the 21st Century. (P 233)

London. Jonathen Cape.

This is an overview of the importance of stories.  I will give some very practical examples.  At the same time I am sure you will appreciate that each section could be a book!


What are stories?

Stories are descriptions of events in which protagonists are struggling to achieve something.

Fact: social media, anecdotes, media news, history

Fiction: myths, fairy stories and legends.  Canterbury Tales, James Bond, Paddington Bear.

Everyday life: all the world is a stage! We live out our stories in our daily lives! Shakespeare. As you like it. Jacque’ Seven Ages of Man. 2.27-139-40.


Why are stories important in our daily life?

It is estimated, based on recent research, that 9 million bits of information assail our five senses ever second. 

We need a path to walk on through this infinite complexity.

Stories tell us what is important in the opinion of the story maker and teller.  Stories give us values, perceptions and ways of behaving.  Stories help us to make ‘story maps’ which guide us in our daily lives and help us to cope with complexity.

Our guiding story maps are put in to us by: our parents, teachers, priests, politicians, business companies and military.  (Story maps can also be called ‘narratives’ or ‘life narratives’.)

The food we eat makes our bodies and the stories we hear and read and experience make our minds.

If an individual has a ‘story map’ which fits the circumstances he or she is in then it is a good story map.

If individuals in a society have compatible story maps then the society is able to cooperate and live together.

If societies have conflicting story maps there may be ‘story wars’.  (The many wars over the centuries between Catholics and Protestants)


Why are stories important in language teaching?

Stories are central to human thinking for adults as much as for children.  Donald Trump said he is going to make the United States great again.  The British have voted to, ‘make Britain free and great again’.  The news is told as stories, ‘The top stories today are…’.

If stories are so central to the life of individuals and societies how can they not be central in language teaching and learning…and at all levels and ages?


Some of the benefits of stories in language learning

  1. Motivation.  We need stories and stories can be mainly based on words.
  2. Experience.  Stories engage our emotions and so we can experience language through stories instead of merely studying it.
  3. Sharing. Stories offer shared experiences and bonding between students and students and the teacher.
  4. Learning language.  Krashen’s research shows overwhelmingly that all aspects of language learning are improved through listening to and reading texts which are engaging and not ‘damaged’ by heartless exercises.
  5. Springboard activities.  Very often stories can naturally give rise to responding in various ways.
  6. Given the centrality of stories in daily life it follows that one of the main things we need to do with our target language is to listen to and to tell stories!  Why not develop this skill in the language lesson?

If you are learning to drive a car you drive a car and don’t spend all your time studying the engine.


The goose that laid the golden eggs

A farmer and his wife were very lucky because their goose laid golden eggs.  One evening they decided they might get even more gold if they found out how the goose laid golden eggs.  So they killed it, opened it up and found nothing but a dead goose.

Stories offer you and the students the golden eggs of involvement, caring and experience of language.  Kill the story with language practice and testing and you will finish up with withdrawal by most of the class.

My son at the age of eleven wrote a story for his English class entitled, ‘The End of the World’.  His story was five lines long.  He told me, ‘There is something you learn at school.  The less you do the less mistakes you can make.’


Andrew!  We need to test their comprehension and give them marks!

To test their comprehension of the language why not test them with texts which do not invite them to care with their hearts and feelings?

Of course, you might want to know if they have understood the story but if you have chosen the story well and then presented it as helpfully as possible, they WILL have understood enough to enjoy it and to benefit from it. (See the suggestions below.)

Furthermore, some activities they might enjoy doing will show if they have understood.

See below for examples of activities.


Helping the students: listening and reading

To remind you: Krashen’s conclusions are that a lot of listening and reading done willingly, by choice and untrammelled with follow up exercises is one of the very best ways of learning a language.


Should you tell stories or read stories aloud to the students?

Both have their advantages:



1 You can use the language which the students know.

2 When we tell a story it is quite natural to repeat a phrase or a line.

3 You can mime and act out the parts.  You can draw or show pictures.

4 The students feel it is your story and you are giving it to them.


Reading the story

1 You are confident with the language.

2 But written language is condensed and it may be too much for them.

3 The students see and hear good ideas coming from books.


How do you choose a story for language teaching?

Some questions to ask yourself.

1 Is it likely to engage the learners?

2 Does it contain values which you feel are OK?

3 Can it be understood by the learners through its language and/or through supporting actions and pictures which you can provide fairly easily, etc.?

4 Is the story the right length OR can it be divided into sections of the right length (5 minutes?)?

5 Will you feel comfortable telling it or reading it?

6 Does it offer a lot of possible spring board activities?


Your preparation before the lesson

1 Understanding new important words

Decide on the language new to the students which they will need to understand in order to understand and enjoy the story.  Not all the new words…just the key ones!


2 Helping comprehension

Decide whether to teach new, key language before the story or during the story. 

2.1 The flow of the story can make the meaning of some new words clear.  And try acting out the meaning as much as you can.

2.2 You might decide to tell the story in the mother tongue before you tell it in English.

2.3 You may give the new key words to the student to learn for homework before hearing the story.

2.4 I often write the new key words on the board and draw a picture to give them meaning. I leave them on the board during the story telling.

2.5 You may decide to find simple alternative words to the ones which are difficult to understand.

2.6 If you are fluent in both languages then you can use the mother tongue word and then re-tell that bit of the story using the new word in English.

But the students do NOT have to understand all the language…they must learn not to be put off if they don’t understand a bit of the story!


3 Story length 

Decide if you want to tell or read the whole story at one go or to divide it into parts eg 5 minute episodes.


4 Learn it 

If you are going to tell the story…learn it.


5 Props

Prepare pictures, objects, clothes, make-up, sound recordings which might be helpful in creating interest, teaching meaning, adding depth, leading to springboard activities.


6 Rehearse it 

If you are going to read the story…practice reading it aloud.


7 Rehearse the whole presentation 

Practice telling or reading and showing pictures, miming, etc.


8 Story readiness 

Creating story readiness at the beginning is the single most important thing you can do for maximising engagement.   Decide how you want to focus the students’ minds on receiving the story. Decide on how to focus the students minds on the topic, ideas, feelings, etc of the story so that they get their ‘meanings’ ready, a) chatting (telling/questioning) about the topic b) showing the book cover and illustrations c) drawing on the board d) miming, etc.  I have a story coat and a story bag; so they know a story is coming!


9 Prediction 

The above idea is closely related to arousing their predictive skills.  You might want to specifically activate their predictive skills…what might happen…what might be said…etc.


In class: possible student activities

Here are lots of activities you can use: before, during or after the story.

Note: Different tellings.  You can tell or the read the story many times.  Each time you might involve a different activity for the students to do.  Normally , during the first telling, it is enough for them to try to understand AND to find their own meanings and not do another activity.


Most importantly you don’t HAVE to have activities except the students listening to your story or reading their own.  The good will is then undamaged and the experience of finding meanings which are engaging is development enough.  However, sometimes there is a good reason for activities and here are some activities for you to consider.


Before you tell the story

You don’t HAVE to have an activity.  What is your purpose?


1 No activity at all

Straight into the story.


2 Create story readiness

Show the book, show pictures, play music, wear special story clothes, show objects and/or pictures, discuss relevant topics, special place to sit, etc.


3 Teach

Teach new language important for an understanding of the story: translation, pictures. games.


4 Encourage prediction

Prepare to encourage the children to predict what the story might be about: show the book… What do you think the story is about?


5 Set a task 

Prepare a task for them to do during or after the story: I am going to tell the story.  If I make a mistake tell me!


While you tell the story

Why do you want to do an activity while reading or telling the story?


1 Listen and enjoy it!

Don’t ask the students to do anything except listen and enjoy the story.


2 Comprehension

Finding out if they are understanding the story is OK but ‘testing their comprehension’ is potentially destructive of their pleasure in just listening to you and to English.  Ask questions in L2 or L1 but with an aura of the concern of a fellow listener NOT the concern of the language teacher as tester.

Other techniques for checking comprehension: arranging pictures or texts in sequence, miming, completing a gapped text, filling in a flowchart,  drawing a map, miming, acting out, etc.


3  Prediction

Arousing predictive skills through guessing and discussing.  What is going to happen now?


4 Analysis

Heightening objective response.  Why is he doing that?


5 Expression

Heightening subjective response.  Drawing.  Miming. Acting. Chanting.  Imagining particular things re the fives senses and telling partners about what the student can imagine beyond what is given in the story.


6 Task

Carrying out a task which you set before starting the story.


After you have told the story

Why do you want to do an activity after reading or telling the story?

Perhaps just let the students enjoy the story with no follow up tasks at all!  They won’t believe their luck!


1 Comprehension

Minimise teacher testing and maximise interpersonal sharing and enquiring.  Let them show their comprehension through their response to the story in the ideas below.  OK some traditional exercises BUT imagine being asked to do traditional comprehension activities after a highly personal exchange with someone you love (that is what story sharing can be!).  Be careful!  Don’t kill their openness to the story!

Re-telling a week later is reasonable…re-telling immediately afterwards is just testing which kills goodwill.  Some ways of showing comprehension: re-telling, sequencing texts or pictures, acting out, writing the story, discussing the story, analysing the story, flowcharting the story, relationship diagram, drawing on a map, drawing a picture or picture strip, questions and answers)


2 Analysis and reflection 

Developing the students feeling and understanding for the world of experience is a huge potential offered by the world of stories.  A balance must be found between analysis and reflection.  Analysis means examining, identifying and explaining.  Reflection means thinking deeply and widely and without necessarily doing anything as a consequence but letting the concepts seep into and saturate the mind as they will.  A butterfly with a pin through its thorax and its Latin name below is not a butterfly anymore. It’s dead!  Don’t try to ‘teach’ some intellectual analysis and kill the story. You might ask them to evaluate the story through a choice of rating.  You might ask them to comment on aspects of the story.


3 Expression 

Give the students the opportunity to respond creatively to the experience of the story through any of the arts. 

Drama, book making, painting, singing, writing a poem or a chant, writing letters between the protagonists, writing a journal, writing a story within the story, interviewing a protagonist eg the wolf, re-telling from a different point of view, re-telling set in a different time or place, re-telling in a different medium.


4 Topic and concept linked activities 

Example of a topic.  The Hungry Caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  You might like to link this to an exploration of the idea of ‘change’.  The students might begin the project with the story of ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’ and then go on to explore other examples of change, for example, animals and people growing up.  This would link very naturally with, ‘can’ and ‘can’t’.  Activities might include: researching aspects of the content of the story e.g. geographical, historical, cultural, mathematical, food, clothes, animals, etc.


5 Publishing and performing

For the class only or for other people: books, website, leaflets, postcards, posters, plays, audio tapes, video tapes, mask plays, shadow plays, puppets, mime, song and chant, etc.


A summary larder of activities

  1. Choose and talk about the key moments in the story.  No right or wrong moments!
  2. Add detail to a key moment not given in the telling.
  3. Write 2 above with you as the protagonist (or object!)
  4. Continue the story: write a sequel.
  5. Learn to tell the story.
  6. Make the story into a shadow play/sound recording play/video play.
  7. Make a book out of the story.
  8. Pairs write the story in 10 sentences on strips of paper and ask other pairs to put them in the right order.
  9. Pairs write 10 questions about the story for other pairs to answer.
  10. Gapped text.  Jumbled text.
  11. Condense the story into five lines.
  12. For and against debate eg the case for the wolf.
  13. Write letters between the protagonists.
  14. Draw a likes and dislikes diagram.
  15. What would you like to ask the protagonist/antagonist. (Writing, hot seating, drama)
  16. Experiment with improving the story…maybe just the beginning.
  17. Write a poem or a song.  Perform.
  18. Draw pictures to illustrate the whole story to be displayed in a frieze.
  19. Draw a storyboard for the story.
  20. Divide the story into five parts and the class into five groups.  Each group acts out one part of the story.
  21. Re-tell the story: in a different place or time; from one protagonists point of view.
  22. Divide the story into five parts and the class into five groups.  Each group acts out one part of the story.
  23. Re-tell the story: in a different place or time; from one protagonists point of view.

But, if any of the activities above are not enjoyable for the students don’t do them.  Above all, help the students to enjoy the stories!  And you too!


Further reading

David Heathfield (2014) Storytelling with our Students. London. Delta

Andrew Wright (Sec Ed 2004) Storytelling with Children Oxford University Press.

This book contains 32 stories and lesson plans and 92 different activities you can do with any story. Children and teenagers.

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

Lots of ways of helping children to make stories and story books. Children and teenagers.

Andrew Wright and David A. Hill. (2008)  Writing Stories. Helbling Languages.

More suitable for teenagers


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

Please check the Methodology and Language for Kindergarten course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Methodology and Language for Primary course at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Various Articles 
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    Aleksandra Zaparucha, Poland

  • Stories: Their Importance In and Out of the Classroom
    Andrew Wright, Hungary

  • You Are Never Too Old to Learn But You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks… Some Reflections on Teaching
    Malgorzata Szwaj, Poland