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February 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Some Teachers Story-tell, Some Sing - the World of Teaching Can do With More of Both!

Jayakaran Mukundan, PhD, retired as Professor in Education (ELT) at Universiti Putra Malaysia. He then was appointed Senior Research Fellow and Professor at Taylors University Malaysia.He was winner of the National Award for Academic Excellence, 2013. He is an established researcher in ELT Materials and has won Gold Medals (at the British Invention Show London, and at IENA, Nuremberg, Germany) in the area (development of software for Materials Evaluation). He has gone back to creative writing and recently wrote several Children’s Picture Books which have been accepted for publication in the UK.



The text was originally published at


Being different

As a little sickly child (someone the Rubber Estate dispenser teased as ‘pale-faced monkey’) and being challenged, mentally and physically, it was always the case of differentiating between good and evil. Survival seemed everything. All the time. Sensing bad situations and bad people quickly was a mechanism for me to keep away from danger. And as a child I learnt to quickly figure out the good and the evil and define them within the complexities of my unique operating system. Very few people knew about or bothered to find out about it. But some understood the differences between normal kids and myself and chose to either understand or tolerate – and these were the first people who I defined as good. All others – some uncles and aunts and cousins, and a lot of teachers, I classified as evil.

The first person who figured out something was wrong with me was my mother, who was married off at fourteen, brought into Malaya from India to become wife and mother (to eleven children). Despite the challenges she faced, she found time to lead me through the Oxford English Textbook for Primary One and her first instincts were to make me understand words (of course nothing made sense to me). But there were other things she was better at. She consistently showed patience when faced with the bed-wetting that I had no control over. And despite having to look after my three younger siblings (numbers nine, ten and eleven) her desperation to find me when I frequently went missing seemed a more pressing task.  I would often retreat to the back of the house, among the rubber trees, where I sat almost all day (if I wasn’t caught) sucking my thumb till it bled. Even pacifiers do bleed.

I am dyslexic. And wired differently.


Lessons from Primary School

Primary One was a new test of my survival instincts – I was finally away from the comfort of home. The most unlikely of things happened. An angel appeared in the form of Ong Siok Lay, Primary One teacher assigned to my class. She played the piano. The school piano was in my classroom (when the sliding walls dividing the classrooms were open, it was used as a hall for special functions).

There was a textbook for English but Ms Ong never used it. She knew something intuitively about methodologies and materials. One C, the bottom class after A and B, was a class of kids who never had pre-schooling, kids like me from the Rubber Estates. She used Big Books to tell us stories, my favourite being the Three Little Pigs and sang songs together with us, my favourite being The Grand Old Duke of York. Her songs were special. She sang well and played the piano with an enthusiasm which makes me feel sometimes that some of the greatest teachers have a particular DNA, and are not mere followers of SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) which teacher training institutions instil in them.

The wonderful input, the stories she told, the songs sung together never exposed errors of the learners in One C. Instead, the correct forms of usage were reinforced through repetition, and errors were drowned in the collective sounds of 43 young and eager learners. Ms Ong’s greatest challenge however would come soon after lavatory break. We were led two-by-two and in a long row, girls in front, boys behind them, to visit the lavatories. This was never easy. I took a long while to get used to standing in a row to urinate against the tall walls of the urinals – I kept particularly looking at the words Jackson Stoke-on- Trent, trying to figure out if that was the word used to call this big beautiful white porcelain thing. Lavatory break was approximately three minutes and most kids never managed to finish in time. One particular girl, would sit on her chair ten minutes after lavatory break and release a river of urine across the floor. It proves one thing – you can get kids to a lavatory but they can never be forced to pee. Teaching agendas and timescales and a child’s own may differ.

The post-lavatory class was writing. A dyslexic’s nightmare. The lines in the exercise book for writing were blue with a set of red ones at the top and bottom of the page. The blue lines in the middle were for writing, the reds at the top and bottom were for art. The person who invented this must have been a genius. ‘If you can’t write, draw!’ Or like football, you do your stretching and warm up by the sides before you get into the real game. Brilliant! So I usually started by the sides and then made my way to the blue lines. The teacher had written the target letter on the board and the other kids were seriously copying it. I would look around and there was nobody to write with unlike with the singing. I was alone. So I attempted a B and this was the B with my personality. It looked the other way. A shy B. The Ds were the same, both capital and small letters. My S was a tired snake finding a new route, going the other way round.

Help would not be long in arriving, and Ms Ong would come by to crouch next to me, hold my hand and work on doing the conventional B. This she did after cleaning the page using the eraser at the tip of the pencil. Another discovery! As soon as Ms Ong left to another student’s desk I would pick up courage and write on my own, now aware of the antidote for errors which was attached to the pencil tip. My new-found enthusiasm had led me to not only continue writing backwards but outside the blue lines as well. The letters seem to want to fall off. The eraser sorted many out, but some were stubborn and I had to resort to a trick I learnt at home when at the end of the month Papa had to do the check roll to sort out the salaries of the rubber tappers.  For the stubborn errors he spat on the eraser and somehow when he erased it cleared. Obviously the paper was different. Mine started developing black holes. I soon started using coloured pencils and drawing patterns at the top and bottom of the page, inspired mostly by the embroidery of Mum’s saris.  Ms Ong would return. Looking at my page her face never showed a trace of despair. She would pick up my book, cover the centre with her palm, revealing just the top and bottom, and delightfully declare that mine were the best patterns she had seen.

My Standard One adventures in Ms Ong’s class still linger in my head. Some shaped my personal philosophies about teaching and learning. There are many things that also influenced me as a teacher in the early years of my teaching. I started resisting the textbook, especially in the weaker classes, obviously taking the cue from my early immersion into the school of fantasy as envisioned by Ms Ong. Most other good teachers also scarcely used textbooks. Mr. Koe (my Science teacher), who rarely used the textbook, told us stories about Archimedes and how he discovered the theory of water displacement while having his bath; how he ran through the streets naked yelling Eureka! This teacher inspired us through stories – and King Hiero, the Second King of Syracuse, also featured alongside Archimedes in our Science lessons! This same teacher taught us English in Form Three and some of his unorthodox ways included encouraging us to create our own comic books. While no other English language teacher featured in my Top Five list, having just two was a miracle – I always felt the rest were there to make us hate the language. I, like Ms. Ong and Mr. Koe, have a fascination for using the performing arts in my teaching. This is how my early exposure to these two teachers helped shape my views on best practices in teaching.


Goodbye textbooks

 Abandoning textbooks was not always an easy thing. First textbooks are artefacts as powerful as religious texts. They are untouchable and immutable. Also, schools are embodiments of government and bureaucracy: the levels of scrutiny and checks were so high that English language teachers, already heavily suffocated by numerous non-academic duties, had to find ways to stifle their own intuitions and follow the script provided by the Ministry. The Ministry of course had their own Gestapo Unit (affectionately called the Inspectorate) and inspectors were despatched to schools frequently to check on teachers and teaching. I was later visited by one, who within the course of the 40 minutes of my teaching that he observed sought to advise me on how important it was to use the textbook and why my deviations from the weekly syllabus would derail the examination preparations of the students. I rarely rebutted the comments of the inspectors. They were impossible to argue with.

Sometimes, as a teacher, logic precedes everything, especially if you believe in doing the best for your students. I disliked most textbooks – they could not engage my learners, and I slowly began to be influenced by the Dogme movement (Meddings and Thornbury, 2009) which seemed like a hippie movement in education and which advocated the discarding if textbooks. Personally I was also convinced that textbooks were simply unsuitable most times because:

1. Malaysian students were never streamed based on the proficiency levels in the English Language, so using the textbook was ridiculously silly as the weaker students (who were automatically promoted from level to level) could not cope with textbooks (which followed the structural syllabus), that taught too much and too soon.

2. School textbooks were boring and the topics were not meant for young adults (my teaching was in secondary schools). The book was filled with grammar exercises, pages and pages of them, and the natural instincts of teachers led them into drills.

So I decided to create unique environments in my classrooms. No class was the same. I used a lot of songs, role-play and drama in classrooms and the introduction of the reading programmes allowed me more opportunity to do unconventional teaching. It was at this time (in the 1970s and 1980s) when new methodologies were also surfacing and I spent a lot of time reading about them. Then USIS (United States Information Services (through the US Embassy) began sending out the teaching tapes on Methodology (featuring Dianne Larsen-Freeman) which changed the way I taught English. It was neither structural nor communicative but eclectic. 

There are two major things I would like to focus on that have emerged from my analysis of Ms Ong’s classes: Songs and stories.

Songs. While songs are natural to humans (they sing to celebrate), the use of songs in learning- teaching had other amazing effects:

1. Most humans love songs but teachers who know about Jazz Chants and Carolyn Graham, the creator of Jazz Chants (1978) know that language and song have rhythms that are similar so it’s natural to complement language learning with songs. Obviously they are better than mundane repetitive drills.

2. In Ms Ong’s class, none of whom had pre-schooling, choral singing of songs was an opportunity to be involved – kids who didn’t know the whole song sang the parts they could, those who made mistakes with the lyrics had no fear (the voices of the others made up for those who couldn’t contribute and Ms Ong made sure choral singing drowned those errors!). Obviously this was one wonderful way to raise awareness of errors and of course positive reinforcement. Those who committed errors were never threatened and this contributed to what is described in the literature as ‘non-threatening learning environments’.

3. Songs are strange in so many ways, so strange that the scientific basis of their impact on learners’ lives which should come from research have been either ignored or not considered serious enough for documentation in academic journals. Some ideas on involuntary playback and ‘dinning’, as proposed by Stevick (1996) began to influence me. Stevick spoke about learning new languages and how intense learning activity in a language can lead to a ‘din in the head’. This suggests the activation of the so-called LAD (Language Acquisition Device). The dinning usually leads to ‘involuntary playback’. Krashen (1983) explains verbal dinning by saying that it happens when we are experiencing something new and attempting to integrate it into the ‘networks of the files’. Stevick and Krashen suggest that most people working on drills (especially basic-level learners in a foreign language class) experience dinning and involuntary playback. I believe that songs learnt by young learners (non-native speakers) probably have similar effects. They sing (and there’s a lot of interesting auditory input) and the words swim in the head, sometimes leading to involuntary recall. This partly explains, I believe, the experiences I went through – the LAD must have activated the song in my head which led me into singing it out even in the school bus!

4.  In my later years as teacher, I can remember how I incorporated songs in my class while teaching adverbs. I used the Ly song from Electric Company (that was meant to teach adverbs; of course this was not made known to my learners). But this came after I had done some TPR (Total Physical Response) routines with my students. I selected a theme (Cleaning the house) and I acted out some cleaning routines in the house, verbalizing my actions. The focus was on introducing the verbs first.  I got the students to physically respond to my commands (sweep the floor, dust the curtains, etc.). From this we moved to adverbs (sweep the floor carefully, quickly, etc.). I remember this one class where they had just got back from Physical Education and were sweating in the humid afternoon and so were very restless. Getting up to do physical actions seemed to be the best strategy. The students were engaged throughout. After we finished the TPR activity we went on to watch (notice how it has moved from non-teacher dominated teaching to even more of the same) the Ly song. I did not even have to tell them to focus on anything – they were singing their hearts out. This Electric Company cartoon worked so well because there was a huge element of humour in it! When it was time to check on lesson outcomes I gave them a worksheet which had all the adverbs within the lyrics removed. Everyone scored full marks. I gave them the exercise 60 days after that lesson and they still scored full marks. I was convinced that the balance of right and left brain activity had helped with recall. It was magic.

What made me so happy was that last part of the lesson which led to ‘noticing’. Tomlinson (2011) claims that, while direct approaches to grammar may not lead to anything fruitful (because they are not meaningful), an eventual, gradual focus on grammar would still be necessary. This is precisely what happened for me, without the bullying intrusion of grammar.

Stories. Stories are just as amazing as songs. And the magic of Ms Ong lay in the way her intuitions led her into telling stories rather than asking her students to read. Some other classes had a set of storybooks laid out at the back of the class and the other teachers got the students to read silently. The teacher then read the book aloud. Questions on the story followed. Nothing like that in Ms Ong’s class.

Ms Ong would ask the entire class to huddle-up around her. She would sit on her chair and we’d all sit on the floor, encircling her. Ms Ong’s stories were really good, engaging tales. There were no exercises during or after the stories. She was always animated and we were drawn into her stories. Sometimes she would sit at her piano and retell the stories with musical accompaniment! Stories depend very much on the story-telling skills of the teacher, so it would be very useful for teachers to immerse themselves in the techniques of story-telling. A story-teller teacher is such an asset, especially in SL and FL classrooms, where it is so difficult to engage students. Stories and music combined are like natural steroids! But that gift (the power of stories and music) that helped teachers like Ms Ong so effectively does not come on a platter. In Ms Ong’s case she studied the piano, then songs led to stories and vice-versa. My induction to story-telling was somewhat different from hers.


My story-telling baptism of fire

My introduction to story-telling (performance story-telling) started in a strange way. I was forcefully kicked into it. The official story-teller for Penguin Books fell ill. The General Manager of Penguin Books called to say that he’d lost a story-teller and he was depending on me. I immediately tried to get out of it. He assured me I was an experienced Professor who could do this with my eyes closed, hands tied and a mouth wide open for the story to flow, profusely (these were his exact words!). I finally said Yes (the gun pointed at my head). I was to tell Roald Dahl stories at MPH bookstore in Mid-Valley Megamall (I thought this would be the Valley of Death, like the ones in cowboy movies of the past!). It was September and Roald Dahl month.  I loved his stories - but telling them live (and to kids!) would be the equivalent of self-immolation. I spent the 3 weeks before the event stressed and preparing. I called Penguin’s marketing manager and asked about audience type and numbers and all she could say was that it was open to the public! No hope there! I finally shortlisted just two stories – James and the Giant Peach and The Enormous Crocodile.

On the day, I arrived one hour early. The kidzone in MPH bookstore looked like a mini-amphitheatre (I sometimes have little mind games of my own and I comforted myself saying maybe it would be a lion that I saved in a previous life!). The kids were not there yet so I went for a coffee and rehearsed mentally the target story – James and the Giant Peach. Nothing could go wrong with that story, I reassured myself. I was wrong.  I greeted the Penguin marketing crew who introduced me to the store manager and briefed me on the logistics. The amphitheatre was full. I got a rundown on the kids (they told me that many were from an orphanage nearby, with hardly any English, all within the ages of 3 and 4). Then I saw about ten Caucasian kids (around the age of 4-5 years) and my heart sank. Trouble! Well, eventually the event went well but there are lessons I learnt from this first venture into storytelling that had a huge impact on my own re-education:

1.  First, individual differences really matter. The little boys from the orphanage were behind in more ways than one. Their proficiency levels in English were low. The Caucasian kids were not just native speakers of English, I presume they were read to or did a lot of reading on their own. I thought I could pick one of the 8 or 9 Roald Dahl books I was familiar with and these Caucasian kids would know it already. James and the Giant Peach had to be dropped. The three to four-year olds would not cope with that. I had to go to Plan B. The Enormous Crocodile – I felt I could be extra-animated with this nice little story – and hopefully we’d all laugh along – until this 60 minutes of my life was over!

2. There were rewards for kids from Penguin Books but not enough to go round! There were close to 25 kids and only about 10 gifts (this I pointed out to the people in Penguin Books, who had no idea of realistic charity – in kid’s terms). I paused in the middle of the story several times for a prediction activity (this was a disaster, poor strategy) and all the questions were clinically and correctly responded to by the Caucasian kids. The younger kids from the orphanage stared in bewilderment and so I started activating that part of the brain which you don’t access until in deep trouble. I changed questioning strategies and this time I pointed to individuals to respond to me. One of the nicest was this one: As soon as the kids saw the enormous crocodile what did they do? The orphanage kids responded wonderfully with a scream befitting a celebration. That non-Caucasian sector of my audience finally started living. And the gifts flowed to the less able, less fortunate.

3.  I keep telling my undergraduate students that when they grow older and feel they have taken on all challenges and overcome them, they should turn to storytelling to kids. It’s definitely an ego-buster! Soon after realizing that we need an army of story tellers for ELT, I worked on getting a reserve team of story-tellers (a younger group). I enlisted two more story-tellers, both teachers and former students of mine. The following September they were despatched to Malls to tell stories. Their stories were well-liked but they confirmed that it was one of the most challenging things they had done as teachers!

The thing about teachers who are good story-tellers is that their classrooms are always exciting. Even if they are not formally telling stories, they were picking even the smallest of incidents in class (like someone coming late to class) as an opportunity to develop a story. I am convinced that story-telling workshops should be  part of every teachers’ professional development.

There are constantly emerging stories in the lives of educators. Some of these teachers have untold stories; little stories that add up and eventually sum up things, like the joining of dots - and sometimes these patterned joined dots gel within them and create personal philosophies that transcend space and time and create new selves, new teachers. My very first engagement with Ms Ong led me into believing all things are possible. That ‘no child left behind’ that politicians often unashamedly use for their own convenience, is there in some teachers. In these honest teachers it grows within and they respond spontaneously to the call to do good, all the time.


Conferences with a difference

 From 1996 I started a series of bi-annual, international conferences called MICELT (Malaysia International Conferences on ELT).  After my 2008 MICELT conference I realized that a deep fatigue for ELT was gathering within me. I was bored. I was surrounded by Linguists and Applied Linguists (most of whom don’t need to try very hard to put a conference of teachers into a coma). I was aware that teachers were staying away from conferences organized by university academics (who by this time had infiltrated teacher organizations as well). These people were dumping data from their research on teachers, all of whom were much more interested in ‘best practices’ in teaching.

In 2009, I decided on an alternative conference, the sibling to MICELT. I called it ICELT and this would be my attempt at finally giving teachers what they deserved. I needed a conference full of teachers to be inspired by story-tellers, musicians, poets, comedians, artists … you name it. I constantly asked myself whether this was going to work. Then the website and the first call went out and the hate mail started pouring in. The academics called this my Waterloo. The rivals to MICELT were celebrating thinking, this would be the Pepsi moment (when they forced Coke to derail the Classic and follow Pepsi into sweetness). Someone even said, look, the war is over, he finally blinked. He has now moved into the Circus business!

I never looked back. At the second ICELT conference (just to spite the detractors) there was a clown who featured alongside all the other performing arts people. Teachers registered in droves. The first ICELT had close to 1500 teachers. In order to appease the academics, I sponsored up to 100 of them as a way of telling the larger population of academics that if I couldn’t convince them immediately, I was still going to try. Along the way (from 2009-2015) I’d managed to even convince the newspapers, including the biggest English daily, The Star (which of course had a huge interest in ELT) that ICELT was what teachers wanted. The Star gave us the coverage we needed.

Throughout those years of ICELT, I saw the ‘circus’ grow to include more entertainers, people from the streets (those who even performed in pubs and piano bars and the list is huge). We had Jan Blake, and many other story-tellers, musicians (including Carolyn Graham), clowns (including Vivien Gladwell), the Two Steves (who entertain kids), poets, Valerie Bloom, the performance poet and so many others, people who wrote children’s story books, like Janeen Brian and so many others – entire casts of fun-loving people who advocated enjoyment in learning! Then I moved ICELT from being just a conference to something resembling a festival! I started having ‘performances’ – plays, stories, etc. within the ICELT conferences. I wanted teachers to just enjoy these performances by professionals (who were not teachers) and perhaps take a pointer to two from these people and diversify their own teaching strategies accordingly.

Looking back, I recall that two personalities supported my unconventional ways of thinking – Brian Tomlinson and Alan Maley. Brian was a Materials person who knew I was working on alternatives in Materials evaluation – he made me Visiting Research Fellow at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK. This widened my horizons in the field as I was also contributing to the MATSDA conferences. Brian himself has views on methodology which offer alternatives to textbook-based teaching. Working with him inspired me to work on teacher-friendly alternatives to Materials Evaluation instruments some of which won Gold Medals at the British Invention Show and at IENA, Nuremberg, Germany.

Alan Maley and I had worked on the Creative Writing Workshops for Asian teacher-writers. I offered to start a big one in Melaka in 2004, immediately after his Bangkok event. About 25 teachers were writing in the Presidential Suite (the size of 20 regular hotel rooms put together) of the Riviera Bay Hotel in Melaka. All these Creative Writers then went on to present at an International Conference, immediately after their writing workshops. We anticipated a 200-odd teacher participation. More than 600 teachers attended and we made a huge profit, which of course went into getting more internationally-renowned speakers for my other conferences. The biggest contribution to this was of course in teacher professional development. All these teacher participants also developed personally – their work was later published by publishers such as Pearson-Longman. The earliest of these was Asian Stories for Young Readers (Vol. 1) (Maley and Mukundan, 2005)

We had developed teachers capable of making their writing classrooms non-threatening environments. Some even confessed that they had moved their students away from exam-based essays into creative writing. Some of these teachers (mainly from the MRSM (MARA) schools, who participated in another series of workshops on creative writing) even published their students’ work!

On looking back, I feel that it was my instincts rather than most learning in formal education that has moved me to do things. I took in the schooling aspects of it all and when it was performance time, the other things that floated outside the thoughts about schooling took over. I was like a singer inspired by audience needs and fitting the script accordingly, reacting spontaneously, sometimes even recklessly.  But it was memories of Miss Ong’s loving care in my Primary school days that gave me my direction and my impetus.



Graham, C. (1978) Jazz Chants.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Krashen, S. (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Krashen. S. (1983)  The Din in the Head, Input and the Second Language Acquisition Device. Foreign language Annals, 16, 41-44.

Maley, A. and J. Mukundan, (eds) (2005) Asian Stories for Young Readers, Vol.1.  Petaling Jaya: Pearson Longman.

Meddings, L. and S. Thornbury, (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake, UK: Delta.

Schmidt, R.W. (1990)  The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics. 11, 129-58.

Stevick, E. (1996) Memory, Meaning and Method. Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Thornbury, S. (2005) Dogme: Dancing in the Dark? Folio 20.

Tomlinson. B, (ed.) (2011) Materials Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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