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October 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Storytelling With my Students: My Journey into Storytelling and Conversation with the Storyteller David Heathfield

Nicholas Emery holds a CELTA and teaches EFL at an adult training centre in Shanghai where he has been teaching for just less than two years. He is interested in using storytelling to engage his students and helping them to improve their speaking skills. Email:



Just over 18 months ago, I found myself in a situation which I suspect other new teachers can relate to; I was pressed for time, I had to come up with another topic for my speaking class, and I had no idea what to topic to choose.

Why not try a story telling class? After all, many students at my centre are parents – surely they’d be interested in this topic. Never mind the fact that I don’t actually know any stories, that’s what YouTube is for. I can just have the students watch a video of a professional storyteller. I don’t need to actually tell a story. I’m not a good storyteller.

Fast forward 18 months and it’s a Saturday afternoon. I’m excited because no students have booked my final grammar class. This means I get to share another story. I go out into the communal area of my school and gather all the students I can find, 17 in total plus one child, and tell the story of Mbongoro[1],a fantastic Shona folktale that requires chanting, acting, dancing and, most of all, a great deal of confidence from the storyteller.

I have no drama or arts background. I don’t know much about great literature or ancient mythology. Nor had I ever considered myself a good storyteller or even a good teller of anecdotes before. Nevertheless, in the last the 18 months oral storytelling has opened up an exciting new world for me and, I hope, for my students too.

In this article firstly I want share a little bit about my journey into storytelling, and how I’ve incorporated it into my teaching. Secondly I’d like to share a recent phone conversation I was fortunate enough to have with David Heathfield, the professional storyteller whose video I used in that first lesson 18 months ago. It was great talking with David and he gave some excellent advice and suggestions on how English teachers can use storytelling with their students.

I hope that it inspires other teachers to give storytelling a try.


How I got into storytelling and my experiences so far

Stories through the screen

The first storytelling class I ever hosted at my school was called “Telling Bedtime Stories”. The idea was that students could learn how to tell stories from a professional storyteller and then use what they learnt to tell a story familiar to them. After watching a YouTube video of David Heathfield telling “The Indian Bird” [2], the students then drew pictures of the 4 most important moments in the story and shared their pictures with each other. Next, I asked the students to write a list of things David did well when telling his story and finally they tried to apply these tips while telling their own story. Students were generally able to understand the story and enjoyed sharing their pictures with each other. However, asking students to retell a story without any prior preparation was met with mixed results.

My first live story

After the storytelling class, I looked through David’s channel for more stories and I found the old English story of “Lazy Jack”.[3]I really liked this story and decided to tell it in one of my weekly speaking classes. To prepare, I watched the story many times and I wrote down the key points of the story, which were the various jobs that Jack holds in the story. After that I rehearsed the story, rather animatedly in a glass walled classroom, and I tried to find a voice for Jack’s mother and to copy the various mimes that David uses in his retelling of the story.

When I told it to my students I made some minor mistakes and, of course, I forgot some details, but I remember feeling a rush of excitement after telling the story for the first time. With the help of repetition and mime the students were able to get the gist of the story, and create their own possible endings. After this class, I looked for excuses to tell this story again and again to as many students as I possibly could.

First contact with David and slowly expanding my repertoire

After, this first story I continued to use stories in some of my lessons and I told the fantastic “The Bridge”[4] story with my learners. At this point I contacted David on Youtube to say thank you for his videos and apologise for not buying his book when I first saw it back in London (It was too thin!). Over the course of the next few months, I tried storytelling activities based on personal anecdotes “Whose loss?” [5] And after a recommendation from David I tried most of his other activities in a book on using creativity in English teaching [6]I also retold the traditional African folktale “Akakro”[7] and asked students to adapt the story to a modern Chinese context. I sent David a video of this lesson and he gave me some good feedback. Over the rest of the year, I gradually learnt and performed more stories such as “Sand and Stone”[8],”Aldar Kose tricks the Bai”[9] ,”The Christmas Cherries”[10] and “The Snow Girl”[11]. Additionally, I had the opportunity to teach in a different city with different students which allowed me to retell all of my stories again. The more stories I told; the more confident I became in my storytelling.

Committing to a regular storytelling activity

The more I stories I told, the more I also became convinced storytelling was really something special and worthwhile for my students. I learnt that some of my regular students were retelling the stories on their own volition around the school and I could feel real improvements in the listening ability and spoken fluency of students who had actively participated in my storytelling activities. Often students who were having difficulty understanding 60 second recordings in class were able to understand the gist of 6 or 7 minute live stories. Personally, I also really enjoyed telling stories and I felt it had made me a more confident and better speaker. So I decided to commit to running a weekly storytelling activity and retelling a new story every week. I estimate that in total I’ve since learnt and retold more than 25 new stories.

Current structure of my storytelling activity

Usually I have a mixed group of 6-12 students from Elementary to Advanced level. Every week I find a short story, most stories come from David Heathfield’s channel but sometimes I choose a short story from a book, for example: Chinua Uebebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, or from online collections of folk tales .After choosing the story, I’ll design an introductory activity to build interest in the story and help my students understand the story. For instance I might pre-teach important lexis or ask students to locate the country that a story comes from on the map. Then I will tell the story without any visible notes or text – I think it’s very important not to use notes as it makes for a more personal ,exciting and immersive experience for the students. At the end of the story I’ll ask the students to do a follow up task. It could be as simple as asking them to retell the story or it could be a creative response task like drawing scenes from the story ,improvisation based on the story, asking students to give advice to the characters etc. Usually, we end the session with a general discussion of the meaning of the story and I encourage students to tell it again to someone who wasn’t present.


My conversation with the story teller David Heathfield

Reason for Phone Call with David

After running my storytelling activity for a few months two thoughts were starting to trouble me:

Is my storytelling fundamentally a selfish activity?

I enjoy telling stories but is it really ok for me to be talking uninterruptedly for up to 10 minutes of a 45 minute lesson? Is my enjoyment at the expense of my students’ learning?

How do know if I have the right to tell a story? 

Many of the stories I’ve been telling feature some kind of moral lesson or choice: about the importance of sharing, standing up for your friends in difficult times etc. If I don’t think I can measure up to the actions of my characters – should I really be telling the story? The story I had in mind in particular in relation to this question is called “The Mouse Trap”[12].

I decided to email David about these questions because his storytelling has influenced me greatly and he has many years of storytelling experience. I thought he might have experienced similar doubts before or seen them in other storytellers he’d trained. He suggested that we have a conversation and below are our notes from this conversation.


Notes from my conversation with David

Talking our about teaching Contexts

David: Can you tell me about your storytelling context?

Nick: I work at an adult training centre in Shanghai. Usually I have to follow set lesson plans but sometimes I have the opportunity to weave storytelling into my speaking lessons. Also, I have a regular storytelling activity in a communal area which usually brings 6-15 students.

David: It’s really interesting to see storytelling in different contexts. Do your colleagues also do story telling?

Nick: Not really, not oral storytelling anyway.

David: Our contexts are quite similar then. I’m also the only teacher to include this style of storytelling in my lessons but if it works then I think we should keep doing it.

Nick: Could you tell me about your storytelling context?

David: I teach English to young adults in the UK who are mostly preparing for university study and a lot of them are Chinese students. I have made storytelling an integral part of the English courses I teach. I’m mainly teaching speaking modules: Academic English and General English. I have class sizes of 3-16 students. I often tell short stories in class using activities like those in my books.

How David introduces his students to story telling

Nick: How do you use storytelling in your classes?

David: Early in the course, I will get students to learn and retell a story. Sometimes students send me an audio recording and I reformulate their words back to them in a reply audio recording. Then I get students to work on the story and improve it.

David: Later on, when students are confident, they can bring their own story and tell it in their own words. Usually, this is easier for students from cultures with a tradition of storytelling such as the Middle East and Asia and Africa.

David: First, I often get students to retell the stories to each other and I might go over the features of successful storytelling with them. Then, I make a classroom rota and every week a new storyteller tells a story to the class.

David: Usually, the most confident students go first, and I encourage the students to give lots of positive feedback: first they discuss it with a partner and then in open class they tell the storyteller directly.

Nick: I might try the rota approach – it sounds like a good way to give the students more of the spotlight as I’m worried about taking up too much of the lesson time talking.

David: This approach only works once the students have got used to the idea of oral storytelling and retold a story themselves already.

Discussing TTT and concerns about the “selfishness” of story telling

David: Well, if you’re concerned about teacher talk time you can think of it like a listening activity. I know teacher training courses like the CELTA tell you to reduce your TTT but the story is providing content. So, it’s appropriate to take up more time than in a usual lesson.

David: You mentioned in your email that you’re worried that your storytelling is selfish. I think you might be having some of these feelings because you don’t have anyone to discuss storytelling with.

David: I joined the Society for Storytelling in the UK. It provides me with a support network and I occasionally go to the annual conference. I think that being with other storytellers is very nurturing. Writing about storytelling also allowed me to meet leading EFL storytellers such as Andrew Wright.

David: These concerns aren’t a reason to stop. Do it! Follow the calling. Being a storyteller can be like being a preacher or politician in the sense that as a storyteller you do put yourself out there. Many storytellers get this feeling of imposter syndrome sometimes. It’s important to tell the story with respect for the culture the story comes from. Mistakes are inevitable but it’s very culturally enriching for the students. There is universality to these stories –they are ultimately about the human condition.

Discussing the best kind of stories to tell to our students

Nick: I find that I usually tell stories that are neatly wrapped up or have dramatic moments. Do you ever experiment with the more open-ended stories that don’t have an easy resolution?

David: Open ended stories can lead to more discussion. However students often prefer these neatly tied up stories. The right story often calls out to be told. Sometimes I will tell a story because it fits the topic of the class but often it’s just a feeling.

Nick: I agree with this. I usually have quite a few stories “in the queue” but often I’ll know about a story for months before I tell it. For example: for a long time I didn’t understand “Juan and the Magic Tree”[13] but one week I felt like I wanted to tell it and now  it’s one of my favourite stories.

David: More open stories might suit stronger learners/native speakers - at a story telling event for example.

David: It’s also important to be personally invested in a story. I think that in future you’ll move more towards finding stories from anthologies, collections of stories and stories other people tell you.

Discussing preparations for story telling

David: How do you normally prepare to tell a story?

Nick: Well, I have usually listened to the story before already and I know the basic gist. The day before I first tell the story, I listen to it and transcribe it line by line. Every few paragraphs or so I stop and then read out what I’ve transcribed so far out loud. I underline words I might need to pre-teach and also look for features like key phrases to repeat, areas to pause/ use special intonation and so on. After I’ve finished transcribing, I walk around the classroom retelling the story –using the script as a prompt but not reading it verbatim. I’m often trying to find the right voices for the characters. Then finally I try to tell it again without reference to my script. At this point I stop and don’t practice it anymore before I perform. I’m trying to be prepared but flexible enough to tell the story in a spontaneous way. The process takes between an hour and three hours.

David: This approach seems rather methodical however there are no right or wrong answers. Personally I’ve never transcribed a story before. Many new storytellers face the problem of inhibition.

Discussion over what record of the story to give to students

Nick: My students know that I transcribe the stories and they often ask me for the transcription. I never give them the transcription because I’m afraid they’ll underline a lot of words but won’t actually retell the stories or try to process the meaning. How would you persuade your students not to worry about a transcription?

David: Sometimes I do an activity where I ask the students to read a story from my book. Then I will tell the story and ask them what the differences between the experience of reading a story and the experience of listening to a story are. Oral story telling is not like a reading a novel.

Nick: That sounds interesting, I’ll try that. Another approach I’ve taken with longer stories is to give students something else they can take away and use as a visual aid for retelling the story. For example in the story:” The 3 pieces of gold”[14] I’ve created a map of the land Ali travels through. Then as I tell the story I trace Ali’s path through the land with a red pen.

David: I might want to try that idea.

Discussion over pre-teaching vocabulary and differentiation

David: Story telling can be a great leveller in a classroom. Lower levels catch the repeated phrases. Higher levels catch some of the low frequency vocabulary unique to the story. Pre-teaching vocabulary suits mixed level classes to help the lower levels follow the story.

Nick: How do you pre-teach vocabulary?

David: Well firstly I might board the key vocabulary – maybe about 5 items and ask the students to tell the story they think they are going to hear.

David: Secondly, after boarding the key vocabulary I might get students to ask me questions about the upcoming story.

Nick: I’ve tried the first one but haven’t tried the second one, maybe because I personally hate it when someone ruins the end of a story for me.

David: Well, the storyteller has a gate keeper role. He or she can choose how much information is revealed. It can be done playfully as a game.

Follow up activities

Nick: At the moment the goals of my storytelling activity are to 1) Build students confidence 2) Grow student numbers 3)Get students retelling the story.

David: Retelling the story isn’t always the most productive follow up activity. It’s suitable for shorter stories but something like the 3 pieces of gold it might be hard for students to remember. It’s better to follow up with creative tasks. I Recommend Mario Rinvolucri and John Morgan’s book: “Once upon a time”[15].

David: Telling anecdotes also works well. It doesn’t have to be folk stories.

David: I recommend “Integrating Global Issues in the Creative English Classroom”[16] on my website. There are some activities for the Indian bird available.

Nick: Yeah, I think these activities are great. What I was talking about before is the students retelling the stories outside of my activity rather than necessarily telling stories in the activity time. However, sometimes with longer stories weaker students may only understand ~30% of them and I feel like retelling would be a necessary precursor to any creative task, which is a problem considering the time constraints and the length of a longer story.

David: What could you do about that?

Nick: Well one time I had an speaking class and I retold the coat[17] and I stopped the story at different points in the story and getting students to role play imaginary father-son conversations (“Let’s kill that wise man!”).I think this helped the lower level students to follow the story.

David: That sounds similar to a technique known as Sandwich Storytelling, which I learned from Mario Rinvolucri. Students fill in scenes in a different way and create scenes within the story[18].

Discussing issues of having “the right” to tell the story

David:  So you mentioned in the email you’re worried about if you have the right to tell a story. Are you worried about cultural appropriation?

Nick: It’s more an issue of personal experience and a feeling of hypocrisy. Especially when telling a morality tale. I know that in the mouse trap story [12] I would probably be like the chicken, the pig and the cow.

David: The storyteller doesn’t have to be a paragon of virtue or Mr Perfect. Stories must be consistent with your own values but there’s no need for the storyteller to be set above others. Stories speak to how we live our lives. Stories are ideals to aim for. Story characters are archetypes. We can identify with the mouse but also the chicken and farmer. There’s someone called Bruno Bettelheim has written a good book about archetypes

Nick: Yeah, I guess I can honestly tell the mouse trap. If I tell the story I’ll tell the students that I think I’d act like the chicken, the pig and the cow.

David: The origin of this story is interesting. You noted parallels of the story to Nazi Germany but actually it appears to be derived from an African folk tale.


My takeaways from our conversation and the future

I found our discussion extremely interesting and we touched on a wide variety of topics. However, here are the 3 biggest takeaways I drew from our conversation.

The confidence to try new things

Since my conversation with David, I feel like I’ve gained more confidence in my storytelling ability and I’ve been more willing to push myself out of my storytelling comfort zone. I did tell the story of “the mouse trap” with my students and I’ve also recently told the story of “Mbongoro” – a story that I was reluctant to tell before. I’ve recently tried the warmer David suggested as well where students ask questions about the story and I found it to be very engaging and useful. In the future I will try to do things in my weekly storytelling session that I feel are on the edge my current competence.

Sourcing my stories

Another way our conversation affected me was the way that I source my stories. After our conversation I felt the urge to go outside of David’s videos to look for stories. In the month following our conversation I’ve told stories to my students that I’ve sourced myself from texts on the internet such as  “Oliver Goldsmith” and ”King John and the Abbot”. I also retold a story that I only partially recall and that was first told to me by my teacher over 20 years ago. I then invited my students to fill in the gaps in the story. In future I will continue to try to tell stories from a variety of sources.

Storytelling needn’t be a solitary activity

Humans have been telling stories long before we ever had videos or the written word. In those times stories could only be learnt through conversation and interaction with other people. Now, however, as there are so many videos and text resources online there’s no need to actually communicate with other storytellers when learning a story. My conversation with David helped me to realise that I’ve been treating storytelling as a solitary activity, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. In future I definitely intend to seek out opportunities to swap stories and experiences with other storytellers online and in my local area.



David Heathfield (Storyteller) tells Mbongoro, a Shona folk tale

David Heathfield tells The Indian Bird, a Middle Eastern wisdom tale

“David Heathfield (Storyteller) tells Lazy Jack - Guess the ending!”

David Heathfield (Storyteller) tells The Bridge to international learners of English

 David Heathfield 'Whose Loss?' with learners of English

Alan Maley and Nik Peachey ,“Creativity in the English Language Classroom”, British Council

David Heathfield (Storyteller) tells Akakro

Retelling a story in images with David Heathfield - Sand and Stone

Imagining and improvising with Storyteller David Heathfield 'Aldar Kose Tricks the Bai'

David Heathfield tells The Christmas Cherries with students from Angola

David Heathfield (Storyteller) tells The Snow Girl, a tale from the Urals

David Heathfield tells The Mousetrap with international learners of English

David Heathfield Storyteller tells Juan and the Magic Tree (Filipino)

David Heathfield tells The Three Pieces of Gold, a Middle Eastern story

John Morgan and Mario Rinvolucri  “Once Upon a Time: Using Stories in the Language Classroom” Cambridge University Press, 1994

Alan Maley and Nik Peachey ” Integrating Global Issues in the Creative English Language Classroom: With reference to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals” British Council

David Heathfield (Storyteller) tells The Coat


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

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

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Storytelling With my Students: My Journey into Storytelling and Conversation with the Storyteller David Heathfield
    Nicholas Emery, China