Stories are one of the most natural ways to teach or learn English. There is power in a good story; it can be engaging, inspiring and imaginative while at the same time teaching vocabulary, concepts, and comprehension. Through stories, we can understand cultures, relationships, language evolution, traditions, customs, and history. Storytelling is a useful tool to implement in both offline and online ESL classrooms.
“People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of immortality too. It goes from one generation to another.
I will never forget as a young child when I came home one day from school and found a box of Childcraft World Book Encyclopedias in my room. Volume Two was full of stories and fables from around the world, and I was fascinated by the variety of legends. My favorite American story had always been Paul Bunyan and Babe, his big blue ox, but in this book, I was introduced to Aladdin and his mysterious lamp (Middle East), and a fable about why a kangaroo hops on two legs (Australia). I devoured that book and its stories, which inspired me to look for more information about those areas and their animals, geography, and culture.
When we teach English using stories in our classrooms, we hope to spark that same hunger for learning that those books created for me. We want to see the students satisfied that they learned something, but we also want them to be hungry for more at the end of our classes. They should feel success in understanding the storyline but wish to continue on to more advanced stories and challenges.
I am fortunate to tutor for ALO7, an English language company based out of China. Some of our courses have story time included in the lesson, in which the characters speak while the students read along with the dialogue. The students can then practice reading aloud while the tutor checks comprehension and asks conceptual questions. I have found this to be an appealing draw, especially for my younger learners.
In an ESL classroom, we can use reading and storytelling to develop many vital areas in our students’ development. This versatile tool can be used for all ages and at all levels of learning if adapted well to students’ abilities and needs. To teach English using stories, we must have a pre-story, storytime, and post-story part to our lesson plans.
As we prepare our lesson, we must think about our students’ likes and dislikes. What are their interests? What will catch and keep their attention? I have found that my teenage students especially like to hear personal stories about my life as a teenager in the USA. Younger students seem to prefer stories and fairy tales, but not all of the time. If I can relate my childhood to theirs, they are drawn into the story just as much as if it were a princess and knights story. Adult learners seem to be drawn into personal stories as well, but they also enjoy bringing out the inner child in them through a child’s story. Either way, we must know our audience.
When we know our target vocabulary words and grammar concepts, it makes it much easier to plan our story time. We need to make sure that we don’t overwhelm our listeners with new vocabulary, though a few new words that can be learned in context are fine. Make sure that the learning objectives are clear, not only for ourselves but also for the students. It is easy to be sidetracked during stories, so keeping the objective front and center will help keep the class on track and help students maintain focus.
Whether reading, listening or both, a teacher needs to check the students’ comprehension throughout the story. When I am teaching online, I stop the story from time to time to ask the students questions according to their language abilities. I primarily focus on the grammar and vocabulary objectives that go along with the lesson.
One tactic I like to use is to have my students read along with the story while listening to it read aloud. If they have a physical book in front of them, I ask them to follow along with their finger so as not to lose their place. If they come upon a word they don’t understand, I ask them to underline it to check later.
Another useful thing to practice during a story is to ask for predictions. Stop your story at a pivotal point and ask the students to predict what could happen next. Older students enjoy the challenge of thinking about what will happen. Younger students enjoy the imagination sparked in them through thinking about what might happen.
For some students, listening to and comprehending a language other than their own can be a challenge at first. They may not have heard native speakers talking before, and have only read and studied English. The advantage of story reading is they can listen to the language spoken, noting the different inflections and pauses that go along with natural dialogue. As students advance, it helps to have them role play and read aloud with the story to practice natural speaking and conversations.
When the story is finished, it is most important to recheck comprehension. Ask the students to retell the story to you, or to tell it from a different perspective. You can have younger students illustrate what they understood as a way to check their understanding. Older students can also write the story in their own words or write out the key points. You may also want to discuss cultural differences or exciting aspects they enjoyed from the story. Remember to check any vocabulary or concepts they may have found difficult. Once again, it is essential to keep in mind the key vocabulary and grammar objectives from that particular lesson.
Using stories to teach English is just one way to liven up classes and meet the needs of different types of students. I also use other methods like teaching English using music and songs. What do you do to keep your classes fresh and engaging?
• A study: Teaching English through Stories: A Meaningful and Fun Way for Children to Learn the Language
• Learn English Through Stories: 6 Ways to Use Stories to Improve Fast (+ Recommended Books)
• Reading English through Stories Playlist
Jan Millsaps has been an advocate for the improvement of education models in Latin America for the last fifteen years. She is making a difference one classroom at a time. Jan became an online tutor with ALO7 in late summer of 2017 to help pay off medical bills and to provide for future retirement, if there ever will be such a thing in her life.
Jan has a B.S. in Education, concentrating in Reading (K-12) and Math (6-9). However, she has taught every subject and grade level throughout her 25-year career. The last fifteen years have been dedicated to teaching ESL the majority of the time. She also continues to teach math and reading.
Jan believes education is the key to societal development and works hard to make a difference in the lives of her students both online and offline. She is passionate that her students reach their full potential and become world changers.