Story Telling Today: Part 1
Bink Venery has been a TEFL teacher for more than 25 years; he has also been a Cambridge SE (from YL to C2), and teacher trainer for 20 of those years. He works online with international students of all ages, needs, and levels; he also teaches face to face to teens, tertiary-level students, professionals, and works on teacher training projects, runs photography courses and workshops, as well as being an assistant tutor on biochemistry CLIL courses in Italy where he currently lives and wanders. Email: email@example.com
From the author
This article is, first and foremost, a celebration of the ancient art of storytelling; it is also intended as a reminder of just how integral stories are in our psychological development, at guiding us through our everyday lives, and, of course, as an unlimited and precious resource for both the teacher and learners in our classrooms. Also, it’s a nod to the pioneers that came before us and that wherever we all stand today, it is always on the shoulders of those giants and the stories they sought to teach us to tell.
Many of the points laid out below are my responses to comments made by colleagues who, over the years, have tended to veer away from storytelling in, especially, secondary school classes (but also private language schools) for several usually negative and sometimes valid reasons – most of which are represented by the numbered points/statements below. I apologise if the tone is a little tetchy on my part – I am neither a diplomat nor a writer; perhaps my replies may come over as overly passionate in some of the points – and yet I have tried to be reflective, proactive and, hopefully, understanding – while also being aware of the annoying limitations of my own subjective preconceptions and experience, not to mention that tricky confirmation bias raising its ugly head, as well as my own noticeable ignorance in the enormous fields of folklore, storytelling, sociology, psychology – and, uh, diplomacy – and so on; although, truth is, I am neither skilled enough nor schooled enough to truly know if that is just pseudo-humility talking – but I really hope it isn’t.
The often prescriptive style of the responses to the points below is heavily based on/inspired by Valahu and Buckmaster’s nifty 2016 book, Teaching English: Being the Best and may not be to everyone’s liking (just like that book title) – but I’m sure we’ll all get over it eventually.
Some initial concerns and questions about stories and storytelling in the TESOL classroom
How can stories become a fixed component of a humanistic classroom – and do they even have to be? Are comprehension questions and gap-fills really the only way to engage with stories? Are stories, in all their myriad forms, erroneously seen as puerile, as timewasting, and too teacher-centred? How can we possibly find time to adapt complex authentic English stories into a workable comprehensible text – usable and engaging material – that will effectively facilitate learning to thirty-five disenfranchised and muddled-up teenagers at 8.00am on a Monday morning? Are stories simply the substitute teacher’s secret weapon that only he/she knows how to wield effectively to gain some sort of flippant (and, perhaps, unearned) momentary respect more akin to a survival strategy than to any sound beneficial pedagogy? Should we just trust the coursebook writers and let them do the work for us? Are we guilty of only viewing stories as a means of getting students to notice past simple irregularities or how cleft sentences work? Is storytelling – in its many forms – sometimes overlooked and perhaps even misunderstood as an immediate and highly flexible resource in our classrooms – especially when they can so easily be fruitful, instructive, fun, and perhaps more importantly, created by the students themselves?
“Why did God create the world? To avoid his own madness.”
(Slavoj Žižek, 2023)
“Why did God create storytelling? To make sense of the madness.”
(Bink Venery, 2023)
But what even are stories? And what exactly do we mean by storytelling in TESOL? And is it enough to be content with the carefully adapted short stories or excerpts from literature (or articles) used in our shiny coursebooks? Or do stories simply form part of our testing strategies and as a way to obtain samples of learner language to be red-inked with glee? Can a language course happily exist without stories and storytelling? Do we really need them? Why? Why should stories be taken as so important anyway?
As mentioned above, most of these numbered and seemingly axiomatic statements below have been collected over the last ten years or so of my teaching experience, through (mostly) rich and stimulating conversations and collaborations with many different teachers, trainers, colleagues, schools, and from the invaluable insights of the language learners themselves. The responses are a heartfelt culmination of gut reaction (hopefully encased within some common sense and relevance), discussions and/or arguments, and a fair amount of reading/podcasting and are certainly not meant to be definitive – who could claim such a thing? – but are reflections, mildly dogmatic justifications, and possible responses to the opinions, observations, statements, and (often disappointingly negative) criticisms of using stories in our classrooms. They are not meant to be seen as a list of amazing activities either – that can then be used in the non-existent utopian classroom that such lists presume is a real thing (although some ideas have inevitably worked their way into the responses).
To those confident few out there who already wield stories so majestically, I beg forgiveness for stating the obvious in the points below and by what may appear to be preaching to the choir that I’m not really a part of; mine is merely a passionate and hopefully sincere reflection on those points with the added hope of challenging and questioning my own beliefs as well as developing my own thoughts – and those of my peers as well – about the use and validity of stories and storytelling in our classrooms. Unsurprisingly, there are no real groundbreaking surprises in the following paragraphs, it has all been said before – but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be said again. After all, who only tells a story once anyway, right?
In the beginning
There has never been a civilization, indigenous tribe, or nomadic wandering manifestation of human culture that hasn’t had storytelling intimately and profoundly woven into almost all facets of its existence. From the quite fabulous enigma of the Nazca lines, cave paintings and our need to carve and decorate symbols and stories on to surfaces, or the mesmerising dancing tales of African tribes or the revealing heel prints preserved in clay of Ice Age dancing rites in the Tuc d’Audubert cave, to the incredible oral stories of now-sunken mountains still described by Aborigines today – as well as the lavishly sensual Indian goddesses, proud Chinese deities, Adam Kadmon, and the often slightly disturbing yet magnificent Greek pantheistic Gods – clearly, stories are what we are all made of. From Gilgamesh, Genesis, Homer, the Torah, the tales of wily Anansi, to the shocking stories of the Grimm brothers, fantastical Chinese folktales of Monkey, the Japanese epic The Tale of Genji, the attraction of Hogwarts, or the indomitable will of Offred, and not to mention our curious need for gossip, tabloids, or the psychological marvels that are key in children’s pretend play, and it seems that this need for narrative is never far away from us. Clearly, it is ingrained into the very essence of our psychology; it is so deeply embedded within the neurophysiological core of what it means to be human that we would surely not only be lost without it, but we simply wouldn’t be us.
“It is memory that solders together the processes, scattered across time, of which we are made.” (Rovelli, 2018 p91)
Indeed, stories form part of the very architecture of the brain itself; we are hardwired to see the world through the structure of story. Our neural circuitry has evolved through our ability to express previous wisdom, imagine the future, and to then present all of that in the form of a poignant, dopamine-releasing memorable story in the now – at the time of telling – and that is useful to everyone involved. It is no exaggeration to say that stories have kept us alive. As Lisa Cron has smartly put it: “Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.” Even our dreams, whether spectacularly bizarre or downright terrifying, still adhere to a storytelling structure albeit a juxtaposed and seemingly nonsensical one (although, that may just be our inability to correctly interpret or recognise the ancient and vast psychological inheritance of humanity held within the psyche – what Jung called “the collective unconscious”).
Stories are our spiritual field guides, our “moral agents” as Sontag once called them, or our “dress rehearsals for the future” as Antonio Damasio has also called them. In a recent podcast, the (quite brilliant) liturgical artist Johnathan Pageau refers to stories as our “tuning forks for civilization”. They are the keepers of old-fashioned – but still relevant – wisdom and warning; full of iconography, symbolism, and (almost always) the moral yardsticks that all need to be interpreted and passed down to those who will come after us, to those that will continue to bear the weight of Prometheus’s – or Marduk’s – or possibly Agni’s flame.
“The brain cuts, pauses, and pastes the reel of reality before feeding the mind a convenient narrative of the events unfolding in the world around us.”
(Buonomano, 2018, p.152)
Where are all these stories then?
Where exactly are all these poignant, life-changing-dress-rehearsal-field-guide stories in our classrooms today then? Do many teachers only see storytelling as a skill that has to be acquired through extensive teacher training programmes? Do only mother-tongue teachers have the right (and ability) to tell stories? [They don’t!] Do stories really frighten us so much? Why? Are they viewed as an over-elaborate text-heavy classroom tool requiring too much prep time? Are they just the stuff of the gregarious, the show-offs, and the gifted fortunate few? The answers to many of the above questions will, of course, depend very much on cultural relevance, the learners themselves and their personalities, the teacher’s individual teaching context and experience – not to mention the college, institution, or school’s own pedagogic philosophy, its demographic, and its business-minded objectives.
As difficult to believe as it is, it might be that the story-wary teacher had missed out on the wonder of storytelling when they were a child, and they now have no deep-seated emotional connection to stories that allows them to feel comfortable using them in their classes today (just as an obsessive overuse of stories might well be an over-compensatory reaction). Could it also be that a school’s clients’ pervasive and – let’s call it for what it is – often ignorant (but well-intentioned) understanding and mistaken expectations of what they think language learning actually is might have also contributed to the negative view of stories and storytelling within a school?
Subsequently, the teacher inherits that non-productive viewpoint (or is stigmatised and even fired for rebelling against such a thing), and the classroom then becomes imbued with it. And if we look at how all of that is quite gloriously nestled cosily within these dark days of business-minded practices that unfortunately trump actual proper and meaningful teaching and learning for the sake of a number, a result, a mark, a piece of paper, or centre accreditation – not to mention the unnerving censoring of past literature with often quite ridiculous trigger warnings poking at us from all sides – well, then, it’s no surprise that we shy away from using stories. Stories are scary even when they are not scary stories, it would seem.
So, although stories certainly haven’t been banned from the modern teacher’s repertoire, they can, however, often be seen as childish and “too much hard work” to set up, tell, or generate. Have we all become a little too sceptical and untrustworthy of stories and the apparently hidden meanings and biases buried deep within them? Have we lost faith in storytelling as an essential teacher’s tool – once again, especially in the secondary school English class? Did Nietzsche kill off our love of stories too when he foretold the death of God and our fall into nihilism? There’s a real (and evident) tragedy in that kind of story.
Thirteen considerations of what stories and storytelling can do in a classroom
Stories and storytelling, taken from the contemporary TEFL teacher’s perspective and when used effectively (whatever that may mean to the many teachers and teaching roles out there in TEFL-land), are generally seen as useful platforms for presenting, observing, and as bona fide and sound ways of traditionally studying new language, lexical chunks, and engaging with stimulating content. They can be the perfect opportunity for revision and exposure to co-text and collocation, pragmatics, grammar, elision, the art of inferring, challenging our viewpoints and so on. They can be magnificently produced by the learners themselves – even in the sense of a conversation being seen as an instantaneous unfolding narrative between people in class. For sure, these are familiar aspects to many a modern (communicative) language teacher’s methodology when using stories, although, such aspects are hardly as ubiquitous as one would imagine, as one would hope. So, let’s look at the first batch of thirteen statements – and the responses – in the first part of this article (another thirteen points – unlucky for some – to come in the February 2024 edition of HLT).
1. Stories stimulate on every level
They can be enjoyed while someone reads – or tells – them out loud, just as they can be seen and digested silently, meditatively. They can even be sung aloud in wonderful company, or they could be read or seen alone within the immense beauty of solitude (surprising how many of us needed those lockdowns to remind us of that). Stories engage people’s minds, their experiences, and trigger the deeply ancient and emotional centres of the brain (the only kind of triggering that stories should be doing). Stories help us to push outside of the envelope, to usefully peer away from the self, and to caress our imaginations and our creativity in such a way that they should be seen as a staple part of any humanistic/communicative language teacher’s toolkit (if not any learning environment). So, how come that isn’t always the case? Why do many of us not use stories then?
Stories are a beneficial and positive as well as a challenging way to review, present, and interact with language. Stories can be used (although not exclusively) to present language in an engaging and non-threatening way. However inherently threatening a new course can be at first, it is surely a good idea to allow stories to take precedence, to set the standard, and then be used regularly in class, to allow learners to feel comfortable with them, to let the stories become a healthy habit, to let the stories form and not just inform the minds present in the classroom (although there’s a case for letting stories do both). Thus, when using storytelling in class, the storyteller or story maker needs to weaponize the hormonal releases that happen in the brains of our listeners to guarantee motivation, provoke genuine and useful memory retention (and acquisition), and establish a connection to – and a meaningful relationship with – the beauty and idiosyncrasies of language itself.
2. Coursebooks are untouchable
Coursebooks can often be lifesavers for the busy teacher, and many teacher’s books are well designed and full of great ideas that can be applied elsewhere in their teaching. But these books are not the be-all and end-all of how stories can be used in class. A teacher – with the help of his or her learners, careful peer input, a tad of forced synaesthesia, and background reading – can easily take a course book story to the next level instead of just gleefully following the book’s presentation without a critical eye, without questioning the presumably tried-and-trusted procedure therein.
When stories are used, it often feels like there is an almost seemingly blind and automatic (if not limiting) way of conducting a lesson with them. Perhaps, once again, this might depend on the individual teacher’s particular training, preferences, personality, prejudices (and other PPPs), and the role given to them by their employers, as well as the effect that testing has had on our relationship with stories (especially in the written form). Add to that the overreliance on just thoughtlessly using and accepting the textbook as sacrosanct, as perfectly created and balanced (they often are – just as they sometimes aren’t) and up-to-date course content (usually not the case seeing the long waiting time to go to print), and we have what sounds like a recipe for blandness. Although certainly not life-threatening in any way, this underlying feeling of a mechanical and detached approach to incorporating stories into our lessons might actually be detrimental to our learners. Such an approach may condition the learners and offer up a simplistic one-dimensional expectation of what the role of stories can be in a classroom. We should remember that stories can also transcend this dependence on such a head-down learning bias and can be (and, undeniably, are) so much more than that.
This unchallenging familiarity, while certainly being a safe and trustworthy option regarding such material (see point 17 to be published in HLT, February 2024), is too disconnected and vague to facilitate a deeper emotional connection to the language and the complicated process of language learning. That, most certainly, shouldn’t be the only classroom story we are willing to tell.
3. Stories are not prospective yummy grammar tests in waiting
Stories shouldn’t be seen as potential language tests that are simply waiting to be unearthed by overly keen TEFL teachers. We teachers can often be found guilty of convincing ourselves that we know what we are doing as we excitedly wave our grammar wands around and cherry-pick Thompson & Martinet, or (the seminal) Swan while having a less than adequate grasp of, say, why we actually prefer the illogical sounding on the bus and not the more sensible sounding in the bus when someone is travelling by one. Interesting, though, that we certainly seem to know our way around task-based tests and the perversities of Cambridge Assessment sample papers well enough.
Grammar is a gorgeous thing and, quite literally, at the very heart of any language; but we should be careful of offering up prescriptive (usually pointless and unhelpful) rules of thumb or just-add-water explanations that don’t reveal the inner mechanisms or offer any real insights into the beauty and workings of a living language and its use. Whereas, guiding the learners to feel comfortable about making their own observations, to enable them to construct their own analytical spirit based on criteria, might be a more beneficial and productive way to work with stories and language.
Although certainly not a crime, having no idea whatsoever how almost identical in its prototypical meaning the adverbial particle up is (and thus more teachable for us and more accessible for them) in both “I woke up late yesterday”, and “She’s totally fed up with you.” – above and beyond what the answer key in the teacher’s book tells us – is not really a good sign, and definitely not good enough for a so-called certified professional. Brushing such language off as “idiomatic” or just another one of those “idiosyncratic English thingies” or, everyone’s favourite panacea – or cop-out: “That’s just how we say it.” is not an ideal situation for a teacher to be in and certainly doesn’t satisfy a learner’s curiosity or doubts with, say, those pesky problematic prepositions or such alarmingly powerful adverbial particles that dominate English – let alone build any trust between them and us about our language competence (or instil any faith in the often non-insubstantial financial investment they’ve made in a private language school). But being adept at keyword transformations, cross-text multiple matching, and word formation exercises, (and reading the key when we can find it!) is just fine. So, that is indicative of a professional language teacher nowadays, is it? Well, if that’s the case, perhaps the onset of the AI tutors is not such a bad thing after all.
“The badly re-written and painfully contrived text highlighting the present perfect for the sake of testing the present perfect, should not be the ignominious destiny of any story.”
While it is true that valuable lessons can (and do) quite easily take place without an extensive understanding of applied linguistics, the derivation of metaphoric usage and grammar, dismissing the potential benefits of a deeper language awareness for language teachers seems disingenuous at best and potentially disastrous at worst – especially if considered secondary to knowing our way around the current prevalent exam and its ideology – er, I meant format. Silly me.
It goes without saying that with being a language teacher there are many responsibilities that come with the job – and, yes, one of them being a familiarity with any exams our learners will be doing and strategies for coping with such exams, for sure; but having a more-than-superficial understanding of a language and its workings should not play second fiddle to testing, or be surreptitiously covered over by pretty methodology and nomenclature, cutesy activities, dazzling diction, or a fascinating and sparkling personality – however important those things can be. But just as Oscar Wilde said in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Those who go beneath the surface, do so at their peril.” Sometimes, I guess, we just have to decide on which hell we really want to dwell in.
Just like our grammatical and lexical competence, we also need to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of what stories are and how they can be used; we must admit to ourselves that we need to know more – and that it is OK to admit such a thing. Being humble enough to see that we are not at the apex of the teaching-awareness hierarchy or at the sensei level of storytelling should not be seen as a limitation – but rather as potential. It can truly help us to see the vastness of what lies before (and all around us) and to revel in our ignorance as a motivational nudge to always want to know more. There’s a liberation in such acceptance – and certainly more welcome, valuable, and constructive than a presumptuous and blinkered omniscient ivory-tower approach to knowledge and teaching. Or did I miss a meeting here? Or wait, was it a therapy session?
A story is not an a priori dormant and embryonic lexicogrammatical test crying out to be tragically (and often brutally) transformed into something else – into some kind of shiny aren’t-I-clever kudos badge to be paraded around the staffroom. The badly re-written and painfully contrived text highlighting the present perfect for the sake of testing the present perfect, should not be the ignominious destiny of any story (or, for that matter, any text!) and such a fate sounds like we are simply missing the point of what stories can be. It feels like a misguided application, an abuse, if not the absolute death of stories on various levels. And just for the record, I absolutely did not do any of that when using stories for the first 5 years of my teaching experience. No, no. Not me; I did it – to my shame – for at least fifteen. Maybe sixteen.
Still, at the same time, it is interesting to ask what exactly the benefits are to a class and its learners in using texts that will then be dissected and “thoroughly understood” grammatically, stylistically, socio-culturally, and so on, rather than on a holistic or even a teleological level. In his 1939 essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien quoted Webbe-Dasent as saying, “We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.” OK, Dasent was originally talking about comparative philology, but Tolkien used soup to mean story and bones to mean its sources in his essay. Which is a fair comment. And just as a good Jungian would say: “…a dream interpreter should never feel as though the dream is now completely understood, because that would kill its resonance.” – we could just as easily apply the same logic to using stories, couldn’t we?
That said, careful critical lexicogrammatical analysis and useful observations can most certainly be done with stories – and such analysis does have a place in language learning – we just don’t need to murder the living daylights out of these stories simply in the name of teaching the form and structure of the six progressive aspects, or whatever, to our totally enraptured and eternally grateful learners (unless, of course, those same learners request to see the bones that made the soup – and assuming we even know the recipe!). There’s no denying that a teacher has the responsibility to know a little more than just what the soup tastes like.
Conversely, we might also ask if it is really worth killing the heart and soul of a story by reducing it and its language to just its constituent parts, even if there can also be beneficial gains in analysing those parts. It is up to the teacher to decide which approach would be valuable to his or her learners in the particular teaching context they happen to be in. However, it is paramount that the beauty and nuance of language (and stories) is not extinguished or forgotten when we analyse and use a text in class; such a story is no longer a story but just a cold lifeless collection of letters and words, a series of events – a list of verbs essentially; a morphosyntactic skeleton – if not a nightmare to haunt our learners with.
A text (meaning stories or narrative fiction) is so much more than a springboard for inflection or conjugation – although that is what they can sometimes be used for, of course. Stories must not be viewed as simply prospective tests in stasis – nor as an opportunity for the confidence-boosting-ego trip of the newly-qualified TEFL grammar champion on the block to then parade itself before our entranced disciples.
Stories are much more than that. We would do well to remember such a thing before our own souls all bleed away forever into the stuff of myth and legend with the onset of the looming AI Superintelligence that, in the not-too-distant future, will recount our own brief but beautiful story (assuming, of course, our stories will even be worth retelling) to lifeforms 250,000 light-years away. Who knows how it will remember its creators in the stories it will tell; we might also wonder if entropy will even care in the slightest about hearing such tiny stardust stories. But that’s a story for another millennium.
4. Comprehension questions aren’t the sole reason why stories exist.
Elaborate comprehension questions aren’t the sole reason why stories exist – although carefully crafted questions are certainly an art unto themselves and not as easy to produce as one might think – they can often spoil and smother the engagement with a story and even “destroy the story” itself as pointed out in the early 80s by Morgan and Rinvolucri (c1983).
There is something a little disturbing in that seemingly normal and unquestioned abuse of a text and our blind uncaring fixation with gazillions of banal comprehension questions, isn’t there? If you passionately believe that comprehension questions are necessary for processing the text, checking the learners’ receptive skills and knowledge, a sure-fire way to get students to bond (um, what?), or simply a way of consolidating the pre-selected target language that your lesson (for whatever reason) is based upon, then it might be time to consider some alternatives.
Letting the learners create their own questions (without a doubt, a sure-fire way to get them to bond…or fight) is not a bad place to start; just as getting them via prompts to retell to each other the general gist – or main points/events – of the text might also be a little more productive (especially in terms of memory reinstatement), as well as more engaging, better for rapport-building, and much more stimulating than the usual twenty-seven bland questions from the coursebook tend to be. Of course, even selecting just two or three key questions (or making your own) from those provided would also be an interesting alternative. Unfortunately, maybe even shockingly for some of us, that would require the additional work of having to read through the questions before the lesson (come on, we’ve all been guilty of not doing that on occasion!) but we can all agree that proper preparing – as well as being properly prepared – almost always thoroughly benefits everyone involved.
5. What’s so special about gap-fills anyway?
The only useful gap-fill in a classroom is the unknown information one between us and the unfolding story (or the ZPD one between the student’s current learning and the need for the teacher’s guidance just beyond that learning). The oppressiveness of gap-fills must surely come to an end in our classes – or at the very least, become an occasional event. In their defence, such that it is, they may be more useful if they were to evolve (or adapted by the teacher) into a more chunk-oriented focus and, as mentioned above, certainly move away from the perversity of the Cambridge style of “selective deletion” cloze with its synonymous-esque options (at C1 and above) whose unnaturalness can befuddle even the brashest and most learned native speaker. Do we need to simply get learners to view and interpret any text as a way to climb the CEFR? Amazing. Such a great motivational target (as, granted, it may well be for some). There’s the proper reason to really want to understand and learn another language. There, see? What’s all the fuss about? There’s proof of an inspirational story being used in our classrooms right there; a prevalent sad one, but a story, nonetheless. Great. And yet, that is not the pedagogic hell – erm, sorry that should be hill – we should all want to die on.
“Stories shouldn’t be seen as a gap-fill just silently waiting to happen.”
No. Stories are bright and beautiful and bursting with persuasive insight, new words, transmissible feelings and memories (both good and bad), mystery and ambiguity! Stories shouldn’t be seen as a gap-fill just silently waiting to happen; neither should they be smothered by conformity by those governing bodies that (for whatever reason) have the God-given monopoly to then crush and disguise the real beauty of stories and language for the sake of a piece of arbitrary paper that we have all blindly and recklessly convinced ourselves is something people need the stress of obtaining. So why do so many teachers seem to kowtow to such a thing – as we have all done at one time or another? Is it the fear of losing our jobs – or the unnecessary hassle of rocking the boat? If yes, then that is disappointing. But understandable too, I guess.
To reduce the insatiable power of language itself to something that can then be coldly analysed, decontextualised, and standardised for the sake of money, quite frankly, feels counterintuitive, fundamentally wrong, and downright shameful. This outdated and flailing educational system with its underlying production-line philosophy that reeks of an antiquated and deep-rooted irrelevance is, perhaps, indicative of a much deeper philosophical, spiritual, and ideological malignancy running throughout the West’s predominantly ossified educational hierarchies. Such digressions… Well, that is certainly another story for another day – even if such a story needs to be rewritten sooner rather than later. And good luck with that.
6. Stories can fit in anywhere
Stories can be springboards for discussion, critical analysis, and used as templates for creative exercises – just as they can be material to prompt follow-up reviews, interpretations, and intriguing opportunities to create alternative endings and even to continue the tale; they can be an ongoing re-edited adventure, with new TL constantly woven in (or language they “need to know” for a particular goal/exam) or words and expressions that the learners have picked up along the way – or that they simply like the look and sound of. Stories can take centre stage in a lesson, or the lesson itself could be constructed around and outwards from the story (much the same way ‘conversations’ work and can be used in class). Stories and storytelling can be the way into a lesson just as they can be seen as the way to end one too. There’s a flexibility to them; a simplicity and ease of use – just as they can be solid, immutable, and with many layers of complexity too.
Anecdotal stories can help personalise language and its meaning for the learners. If our learners genuinely have something to say, something real to do with the language (and what could be more real and innate than telling someone a story?) and that has an emotional resonance with their personalities, experience, and learning, then what could be a better language teaching/learning device than that? Is it really more desirable to have them – at lower levels, at least – just mechanically reel off utterances/sentences as merely a recognition activity and as a physiological way to literally get their mouths around the target language (not that that isn’t an important thing, of course) in, say, semi-absurd roleplays or contrived “stories” from their coursebooks? Couldn’t a productive use of stories supplement, if not replace, such insipid exchanges and strained enactments? And, no, that doesn’t mean that stories are more important than speaking practice – far from it; these essential skills are both important spokes in the same wheel of learning that clearly need to be individually cared for – oiled so to speak – lest the wheel become buckled and unrideable. One of them should not necessarily be the default though; they can surely work in tandem. Too heavy with the cycling metaphor here? Still, we can agree that working to find a balance is one of the easiest ways to successfully – erm – ride along the twisty path of language acquisition, that’s for sure. OK, OK, that’s too much, sorry. Only another twenty points to get through and then I’ll get on my…oh, dear.
Stories don’t have to be long either; they can exist within the beauty of brevity just as they can possess the luxury of length. Stories can be a caption in a meme, a slogan on a poster, a joke or a limerick, fifty words long, or a stroll through Dublin on Bloomsday in a quarter of a million words. And yet, whatever the length, are they seen as something that only the more extrovert teacher knows how to use – or is brave enough to brandish so commendably? They don’t have to be the sole possession or the effective weapon of the lucky few; we can all embrace stories in our classrooms if we really want to.
7. Stories are just for kids
Seeing that stories are quite often a key component of young learner courses, does that then imply that adult courses are exempt, and don’t need stories? Nothing could be further from the truth. We are constantly telling ourselves stories as we deal with the bombardment of information that assaults us from everywhere through our senses. We process and make cognitively unconscious choices through the principle of storytelling and its main ingredients: what does this remind me of? How does what happened before influence my now? What information can I discard? What happens next? Is she going to kill me? How am I going to survive this? and so on. So how could something so ingrained within us not be relevant even to those know-it-all adults that we claim to be?
“It is parents and guardians who have classified fairy-stories as Juvenilia.”
(Tolkien, 1939, p.22)
Perhaps our busy lives, poor time management, and an over-dependence on attention-snatching devices – and the seemingly ever-diminishing bandwidth through which we tend to experience reality – have all forced us to read less, watch fewer films, and this has created a much shorter attention span in, erm, everyone nowadays. Perhaps these things have subsequently modified the very architecture of the brain itself which has then led us to collectively and irreversibly convince ourselves that we no longer need or like (lengthy) stories as we once used to do when we were younger – when the world was younger, and when it seemed stories were our everything. But, as is so often the case, correlation isn’t necessarily causation; but just sometimes it can be.
Has the death of the hearth in Western society, the reduction of event TV, our water-cooler culture, or the YouTubeification of attention spans – not to mention the birth of Podcastistan as a new collective information continent – all contributed to the decline of traditional storytelling? Be that as it may, we, as teachers, need to stare unabashedly into the face of such evolution and not bury our heads in the Luddite sand of our own fear and ignorance (I’m talking to myself here) when it comes to understanding and using such resources. We have a responsibility to learn the language of these outlets – a language our younger learners are fluent in and that they are actively helping to sculpt and change almost in real time; we need to be up to speed or, at the very least, neck and neck with the burgeoning beast of AI (however daunting and ultimately pointless that may prove to be; see point 24 – HLT, Feb 2024) and the First Coming of the AI-tutors. Yes, get ready, folks; they are coming.
There is an ever-growing number of scientific studies being conducted on the neurophysiological aspects of what happens when we listen to (and engage with) stories and the data is compelling and clearly suggests (if not proves) that a healthy adult brain doesn’t “grow out” of stories in any way at all; the story that neuroplasticity is telling us is, literally, a mind-bendingly fascinating one that we have only recently started to listen to properly.
Stories also seem to possess the very essence of what fascinates us about the cyclical nature of existence. These metaphysical and epistemological rhythms and dichotomies saturate our stories: life and death; day and night; triumph and failure, male and female (wait, or is that one no longer a thing anymore?), sacrifice and rebirth, good and evil, the wise and the foolish, and so on. Our stories never really die – they just change shape and evolve to the productive medium and receptive context they find themselves in – just as life itself does all around us. And yet these archetypal – perhaps even universal – patterns (as well as, arguably, only human constructs) all remain deeply interwoven within the stories; hence another persuasive reason for their longevity and our uncanny inability to separate ourselves from them. The truth is we simply couldn’t grow out of stories even if we wanted to. So, no, stories are not just for kids.
8. Stories and pictures are worth more than a thousand words
Stories can be used productively and quite wonderfully with images; they can go hand in hand easily and have done for thousands of years. Just look at the beauty of comics, anime, silent movies, or Trajan’s Column in Rome, or Japanese woodcuts from one thousand years ago – or the pictorial nature of the accordion-like pleats of Mesoamerican codices, the layered beauty and complexity of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the epic plates of William Hogarth, Max Ernst’s A Week of Kindness, Watterson’s masterpiece Calvin & Hobbes, GIFs and memes, visual puzzles, photography, and so on. Instruction manuals would most certainly be incomprehensible without images helping us to “see” the story they are trying to tell us through the unambiguous juxtaposed beauty of sequential art. Interesting to note, as Roland Barthes did in the mid-70s, that images no longer illustrate a text as they once did, but now text realises, sublimates, and elucidates the image itself (“an important historical reversal.” as he called it), and definitely something to consider playing with when using images combined with text in class.
“…the unconscious minds of modern man preserves [sic] the symbol-making capacity that once found expression in the beliefs and rituals of the primitive.” (Jung, 1964, p74)
Just look at the spreadworthiness of the internet meme (which, by the way, is an easily made storytelling resource to be tapped into and that has an engaging iconographic/linguistic language with the added advantage that most (young) learners are already very familiar with it). As any experienced teacher knows – and as newly-qualified teachers intuitively feel (we are all human after all) – images can play important roles in storytelling and for generating language, memories and past events, creativity, visualisation of possible future events, and, of course, emotions – not to mention nonsense and fun as well: all the very stuff of stories as well as being core features of what constitutes a mind. Yep, even the nonsense and fun parts.
9. I can’t draw though to save my life
Sketches, photographs, infographics, adverts, memes and jokes (the fastest travelling stories we’ve ever experienced), and comics can all be made by our students. The images themselves could be made by the more artistically gifted learners (although everybody should have a go) just as they could also be lifted from various resources online. Such images could also be AI-generated (complaints to the usual address). Considering the complexity and need for very exact language in formulating the written prompts (the so-called prompt engineering that we’ll soon all need to be qualified in) prior to generating the actual image, such prompt formulation could also become a bona fide learning opportunity in itself. The prompt writing could be a teaching/learning opportunity that may include many features of language learning such as the need for accuracy, basic sentence structure, the role of punctuation, pronoun and article use, the ambiguity of tense aspects, subtle or contrastive differences in adjectives and adverbs and their positions, important syntactic considerations, and so on and so forth.
They can invent their own image-inspired stories and we/they could write our/their own interpretations and thoughts of these images (and subsequent stories) which we can then all share, gorge on, enjoy, and then productively use to learn from together as a student-generated original resource; a resource that is soaked with semiotics, and that is unique, precious, evocative, and relevant while being a genuine student-centred creation pregnant with potential meanings and applications. What could be better at instilling a sense of joy and wonder in one’s own use of language that can then elevate that language from a mere subject into something else, into something more personal, to become a narrative? Naturally, such an activity could provide key insights into areas that need work and development – just as, for the keen lovers of red ink among us, this might also become an easy (and arguably pointless) way to impose the tyranny of correction.
This sense of pride the learners have in their work must be allowed to blossom and turn into (and have the potential to remain) an immovable motivational and inspirational energy that should comfortably nestle within and permeate throughout (and profoundly affect) any language course.
Incidentally, we don’t have to be a Michelangelo or a Dürer in our classes, less is most definitely more in a language class when it comes to artwork. However, it can certainly be motivating as well as entertaining for our learners to see us having a go (as we so often glibly expect them to do) – even allowing them to give the teacher’s sketch, work, or text a mark, or even a full report card. Every single moment in a class, with careful considerations – as well as split-second unplanned decision making (sorry IH, sorry BC, sorry Trinity, et al.) – has the potential to become a profound memory-instilling event for learning.
Empowering the learners (and that includes adults) to become critical and think about language is a sure-fire way to create interest and to demonstrate (via such a role-reversal-marking activity, for example) how a diverse and presumably unknown – or at least unfamiliar – style of language can be used by them and is not just the exclusive possession of the teacher. By entrusting the learners with such language – apart from giving some of them a sadistic joy in exercising that analytical power and turning it against us, so to speak, the learners can feel a sense of togetherness, the collective spirit of the group against the authoritarian know-it-all; there is a certain liberation in such a notion (as well as a recipe for anarchy in some teaching contexts). Not only would this appease the more rebellious among the group and allow them all to play with role reversals (itself just another kind of story and very much akin to pretend play) as well as create new possible bonds between them, but it could also prove very useful for the teacher – as long as we let them understand that we are taking what they write and observe seriously. In hoping that the learners are brutally honest in their feedback, they can begin to trust and believe in such an activity and the role it offers them, as well as allowing them to get a feel for the real power and influence that language and the specific words we choose to use can have on other people – something that should never be overlooked in any language class. Mind you, thick skin might be a prerequisite for such an activity (if not full body armour in some of the places I’ve worked!). But bright and shiny things can almost always be found in the darkest of places if we look carefully enough – if the boldness of the light doesn’t frighten us away – and if we are prepared to let it tempt us away from the safety and comfort of habit.
10. Stories should be encased in sound
The teacher’s voice is one of our greatest weapons. Stories should be told using this weapon, unashamedly, gloriously, and with the pretence and semblance of confidence (it will come with time), passion, and hopefully a little grace and style sprinkled on top.
With a little practice, some simple voice tuition, and some basic breathing techniques – in front of a mirror, recorded and painstakingly reviewed on a device, regurgitated to true friends (they’ll need to be!) – even the most self-doubting among us can become a decent enough storyteller that maybe even King Shahryar himself might have entertained – and even refrained from beheading you.
“Setting words to music, especially in preliterate cultures, has played a huge role in relation to the oral traditions of poetry, storytelling, liturgy, and prayer. Entire books can be held in memory - The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously, could be recited at length because, like ballads, they had rhythm and rhyme.”
(Sacks, 2007, p.238)
The storytelling can be accompanied by music, sound (video), dancing and acting, and props and realia too. Such things have always been beautifully and inextricably intertwined right through our many storytelling histories, our lullabies, and our performances, so why should we stop now?
Andrew Wright – renowned storyteller, author, caring father and husband, artist, trainer etc., uses the most astonishing storytelling waistcoat – adorned with curious colourful decorations, odds and ends, badges – that not only perfectly accompanies his mesmerising storytelling and instils a sense of wonder and curiosity in the storytelling event, but it also functions as a cue for his students to know what is just about to happen: get ready for story time! Genius stuff.
A little teaching courage could go a long way to liberating our students from the ancient shackles of their desks. It could give them an outlet for productively and proactively using and creating language-rich situations as well as showing them that the teacher is leading by example and is willing to put his/herself into the same “frightening” or nerve-wracking situation that we expect them to stroll so effortlessly into (although the choice of an excessive pampering over a pushier insistence is a tricky and complex issue and depends on many factors). In this way, we reassure them – or model to them – that (our) uncertainty is not simply weakness and that it’s perfectly OK to be insecure and not an expert. It might not be music to everyone’s ears, but sometimes, just the act of trying can be good enough – as well as remembering that, sometimes, we need to put the hard work in to get the result we want too. Why wouldn’t a teacher want to teach/model such things? Why wouldn’t we want to reveal that we also suffer from the same anxieties and doubts that the learners do – and to then demonstrate that we can always (try to) fight against such things – or be willing to try to anyway – and to then find a possible solution, strategy, or a helping hand even? What a shame if it is simply pride, or even status that gets in the way of such possible constructive revelations.
We’ll never be Andrew, but we can certainly aspire to his levels, read his many classic books on stories, find inspiration and joy in his passion for what he does that may then – if we’re brave and lucky enough – carry over to our own classrooms and learners. Conversely, from the learners themselves, in their presumed blossoming, failures and triumphs, we could then be inspired (and learn more) ourselves which benefits every single person in the class and most definitely the school itself, as well as – one would hope – society at large. A Socratic awareness of our own limitations, a willingness to accept when we are wrong, the need for an almost childlike spirit of curiosity, and a desire to continue learning shouldn’t flatten out and be forgotten once we become teachers, should it? Or did I miss a meeting again?
11. Stories should be emotional rollercoasters and not reimagined shells of their former selves
Stories can (and should) engage the whole person – both the teller and the listener – their minds and their entire bodies. Stories make us move and dance and be; they can be quite incredible kinaesthetic happenings. The internal journey that a story takes inside of us is much more important than the external story itself. They can make us move – in all senses of the word – to an unseen and yet neglected universal rhythm that we are all predispositioned [sic] with genetically and culturally. Something we should surely all be familiar with in our everyday lives and that, perhaps, we have forgotten to latch onto deliberately in class. That said, our everyday lives have unfortunately been infiltrated and saturated with a plethora of rubbish stories – our media positively hijacked by them. Just take a look at the mind-numbingly repetitive onscreen storytelling of Marvel Entertainment, Pixar Animation Studios, and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars franchise (incidentally, all owned by Disney for years – a once pioneering champion for storytelling that has become a clueless company nowadays that simply pilfers its back catalogue of classics into soulless cash-grab drivel). What about the (very often) box-ticking-plot-destroying world of modern-day Disney+, HBO, Netflix, Streamberry and the like? The weakest storytelling, and we are all the poorer for it. Perhaps such weak storytelling is a necessary lull that pushes us to see beyond it and produce better work; perhaps this is how stories and storytelling keep themselves alive, this is how they evolve in any given civilisation. Maybe.
That said, such modern storytellers are all guilty of the lazy creative art of dead-horse flogging as well as the trendy crime of kowtowing to the current ideological agenda instead of focusing on the actual depth, quality, and all-important structure and message of the story itself.
“The old stories are mollified or bowdlerized, instead of being reserved; the imitations are often merely silly, Pigwig-genry without even the intrigue; or patronizing.”
(Tolkien, 1939, p.15)
The fictional Streamberry is intriguing; it is either an excellent example of a producer biting the hand that feeds him, or it’s just a provocative tongue-in-cheek recursive story of a storytelling medium telling its story via the storytelling medium. Is it bafflingly clever and satirical or is it just a brave betrayal? Who knows? Who cares? It’s an enthralling, peculiar, and yet thought-provoking and well-written story, nonetheless. That’s what stories should be for: creating any emotional response whether positive or negative, happy or sad, and so on; if we aren’t feeling anything – the story means nothing to us, does nothing for us – and that means for them too: our learners. Stories shouldn’t become containers for virtue signalling and pseudo politics or an appropriated vessel for insincere inclusion – just as we should also remember not to let the odd bad apple spoil the bunch (see point 15 below in HLT, Feb 2024). But I digress… But, most likely in many classrooms, these aren’t the stories you are looking for.
12. Stories help with focus and remind us of the importance of slowing down
Stories can teach learners the beauty and almost meditative quality of reading; yet another forgotten and overlooked skill, some would say, in this frenzied and manic day and age we bustle around in like headless chickens. Stories can, perhaps, more importantly, also teach learners (and not just the younger ones) how to focus their minds and how to concentrate better, and not only in a learning environment we might add. Being able to concentrate better is, unquestionably, something we all need to do more and be aware of in today’s attention-snatching, narcissistic social-media world we all find ourselves submerged and suffocated in. It is certainly the educator’s role to find ways to pull or tease our (primarily younger – but not only) learners away from the lure of such dependency or, at the very least, to help them recognise and hopefully mitigate that lure. Stories can do that if they are allowed to. If we let them.
Stories can be a way to show us how to slow our minds down, reflect, and to relax, just as they can push us to wake up, think and act – and most definitely not just in a language classroom, of course; just look at the increasing popularity of audiobooks as a preferred storytelling medium for many – arguably thanks to the many devices that make them so portable and accessible and not the medium itself (audiobooks have been around since the 1930s) – although, the evident rewiring of our lazy brains towards a shorter attention span might also be a relevant factor here. In our classrooms, if we imagine the story being accompanied by a transcription, either before, during, or after the telling, then we might be helping our learners to create an important new relationship and connection with what they heard and what it looks like when it’s written down. This important association – that all learners need to develop if they want to progress – of getting used to the seemingly irregular and tricky spelling system, the splendid morphophonemic madness that is English, might then begin to help them (and us) see both stories and the language in a new light.
13. Stories teach vicariously
As young children, aren’t stories perhaps one of the first places where we learn, amongst other things, the necessary and sophisticated skill of empathy? They also teach children to listen, to be curious, to doubt, to also ask pertinent and thought-provoking (most often unanswerable!) questions – to be annoyingly, outrageously, and quite wonderfully inquisitive about things, people, the world, and everything that surrounds them (why we feel we need to grow out – and teach kids out – of such a mindset, is surely one of the greatest creative calamities if not human catastrophes of the last one-hundred years or so). Stories are a place where children are given the opportunity to visit strange new worlds, just as they also allow them to start to learn how to distinguish those worlds from what is really here and now. They are also the first time that we get to witness the immense beauty and power of words.
As children we get to inhabit new bodies and to question, to doubt, to criticize and appreciate the real-world values that we will need to embrace, discover, negotiate, or negate further down the line – but without the literal risks involved. OK, it can get a little risky with kids. Although certainly key to young children’s development, such sophisticated mental simulations are not exclusive to children either.
“I know we've come a long way
We're changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?”
(Cat Stevens, 1970)
Stories, rough and tumble, dressing up, and our need for storytelling and fiction are all important factors in helping to shape who we become as adults. Just look at what can often happen to adults, for instance, who were denied that kind of play, or when they were discouraged from engaging in rough and tumble play – look at how those people turn out; it’s not always pretty. Just like rough and tumble play, are stories something we feel that we should all be weaned off of as we get older?
Through the complex and necessary art of pretend play to the (usually positive) parasocial relationships formed by young adults with characters in narrative fiction, storytelling not only reveals and imparts wisdom of the world we live in, but it also forges and moulds who we are within it. Storytelling nudges us away from the anxiety of ourselves and entices us to embrace the concept of the other – as in the fictional characters and the very real emotional connections that we form with these fictional “people”. This ability (or data collection and analysis) then beautifully transfers over and helps us to apply the fictional insights and understanding to the real world, to the real tangible characters all around us; stories are the spectacular mental facsimiles of reality that become trial runs in the (relative) safety of our minds. Add to that the apparently unique human ability where we learn to infer contingent and implicit information that may keep us alive – not to mention how storytelling engenders a sense of belonging and community, a real feeling of plurality – and we come to find the very bedrock and foundations of the young developing social mind, which then develops into the crucial theory of mind.
“Stories should not be seen as simply a way to run away from reality, but more as one of the fundamental ways of learning how to navigate through it.”
The Moka people from an island community in Thailand survived the devastating 2004 tsunami thanks to their stories. Buonomano, in his interesting book Your Brain is a Time Machine, highlights just how important and emotionally charged those stories must have been for them: “The stories told by survivors of past tsunamis must have been passed across centuries and stored not as boring facts in semantic memory (“when the sea recedes, run to higher ground”), but as visually rich and emotionally engaging stories about being eaten by the sea – and thus well suited to be vicariously stored in their episodic memory banks.” (Buonomano, 2018, p141)
It is really quite spectacular how important – and menacing – stories and storytelling can be to all of us in our daily lives. Just think, for instance, of the power of gossip which is nothing but embellished storytelling laced with sinister and manipulative properties that offer individual and group benefits – by all accounts, only 10% of gossip is about those good deeds done by others (Haidt, 2006). Look how it can shape a local community, police its inhabitants, and punish social violations (especially in hunter-gatherer societies) – or totally destroy someone’s reputation within that community. Doesn’t that remind you of the same (but even more brutal and ruthless) power exhibited in the pervasive stories we encounter on social media platforms with their legions of manipulative sociopathic narcissists and also where a minority of true psychopaths proliferate? Is such online behaviour just the evolution of gossip from the town square, the church club, the ceremonial fire, or the local pub but hidden behind the cowardice and protection of total anonymity?
But, on a more positive note, can’t stories also be the ever-present way for even the meekest amongst us to actually have a voice? Or, can they even be an opportunity where people find their own voice through the creation, telling, retelling and even the enactment of a story – just as these stories can be a way for the all-important outliers and those meek and timid among us (not to mention the apparently more assured and expressive) to sometimes find a haven, a refuge, a place to escape to, somewhere to take a breather for a moment or two? Don’t stories give us a chance to be heard just as they also allow us to hide away? It is intriguing to think just how such delicate power can be carefully and constructively used in our classes. The fact remains, stories should not be seen as simply a way to run away from reality, but more as one of the fundamental ways of learning how to navigate through it. Such a powerful learning asset surely needs to be harnessed by us teachers in any way we can in our classes. But does such an idyllic and apparently perfect teaching resource have a few downsides as well - and that may, ultimately, dissuade us from using it more often?
To be continued
The second part of this article (to be published February 2024) will delve deeper into some of the more negative aspects of stories in our classrooms and will discuss and analyse some possible solutions.
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Story Telling Today: Part 1
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