Some Tips on Using Stories in the EFL Classroom
Storytelling is an ancient art and everyone loves a good story. Old favourites can be told or listened to, or new ones can be created but whatever way it occurs, stories and storytelling are excellent tools for the ELT classroom. Stories not only inspire and activate the imagination, but they also increase vocabulary and demonstrate grammar within a specific context with a beginning and an end. I have been an avid collector of stories for many years and now have quite a considerable collection, which serves me well in the classroom and which continue to enrich my lessons. For those who do not have a rich library of stories, here are some ways of finding them and implementing them.
Reading Stories: text plus questions
A good source for stories is Wasp Reporter. This is a magazine that covers up-to-date, topical and interesting subjects. The articles are given stars to denote their level of difficulty; one star for elementary, two for lower intermediate, three for intermediate and four for upper intermediate. See: http://content.waspreporter.nl/.
Accompanying each publication is a student file full of questions, glossaries for looking up unfamiliar vocabulary and a teacher file to check the answers. (The only disadvantage is that, as it is published in the Netherlands, a few of the questions are in Dutch, which could hinder a native English teacher).
One of the stories (a two star text) is called The Challenge Junkies, which tells the story of super fit amateurs who undergo more and more dangerous feats all in the name of charity. Pre-reading questions activate the schemata, testing any previous knowledge the students may have, i.e. do you do any sports, yoga or other physical exercise? A reading for gist question can also be used and is designed to ensure that the reader understands the meaning of the text, i.e. what is the main message of the story? This could also be considered a CCQ (concept checking question). Last but not least are the reading for comprehensive questions/ specific information, which are rather more analytical, i.e. Judging from lines 88-101, what is Dr Peter Ax’s attitude to daily jogging? (Wasp Reporter: number 2: volume 9: November 2010, Thieme Meulenhoff).
Reading Stories: jigsaw task based on a story
The jigsaw activity can be an interesting and engaging way to involve groups of students. See, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/fun-activities-adult-learners-daniel-israel?trk=prof-post, What is about to follow is a variation of this task and is rather more labour-intensive, but potentially more fulfilling. First, you find a good story to inspire you. Then, you find interesting pieces of information and last, you adapt the material to suit a task you have in mind. By dividing up the text, giving groups roles and questions to answer, you will be all set.
The story chosen as an example comes from a book called The Hoffa Wars: the rise and fall of Jimmy Hoffa by Dan E Moldea, Open Road Media, 1978. The story is a fascinating one, it is biographical, and covers an intriguing period in the history of the USA. Hoffa was a powerful Union boss who, together with his loyal friends, used violence as a means to an end. Ironically, he was adored by his wife and he was very much a traditional family man. Having links to the mob would later haunt him, he was hated by the Kennedy’s, suspected of the murder of JFK after a similar gun to the one used by Lee Harvey Oswald was found in his office, and remarks had been made by him that he wanted the President dead. After disappearing one night when scheduled to meet somebody, subsequent sinister remarks by a mafia operative had circulated that he had gruesomely ended up as a hub-cap.
With such a wealth of information and intrigue, the unsolved elements can be manipulated. Was he in fact responsible for assassinating John F Kennedy? Was Hoffa kidnapped? Who was the last person he spoke to? Was that gun actually the one Oswald had used? What happened to Hoffa’s body? One group of students could be a group of detectives and the other, either family friends of Hoffa’s or gangsters. Speculation, rumours, conspiracy theories and riddles can all be powerful ways to involve the class, and to make it even more intriguing, involving Chinese whispers could distort such information; this can also be woven into the lesson. A statement made by the teacher, for example, and whispered into the ear of a student and then passed around, could serve as a clue or a bluff.
Writing stories individually
Veering away from anecdotes, See (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/using-anecdotes-classroom-daniel-israel?trk=mp-reader-card) students can be assigned a story to be written in class, bearing in mind that it can take up quite a bit of time, or as part of homework, and then it could be corrected in the next lesson, and any mistakes could be looked at during the feedback stage. For guided practice, a fictional story using lots of adjectives to describe characters such as princes, princesses, witches and wizards as well as locations like castles would do nicely. Although for freer practice, the instructions would be far more basic, i.e. write a fictional story: you have 20 minutes and then we will go over it together.
Writing Stories as a joint effort
Another creative writing task is to pass around an A4 piece of paper (depending on the size of the class) with an open beginning to a story like once upon a time there lived. By the time the paper has been filled, you should have a story of some kind. This is a fun and challenging task, especially for elementary students. You can give them some ideas and guidance if necessary. Afterwards, you can put mistakes on the board without mentioning names and see if your class can identify errors, and even explain why they are wrong. If not, then you step in.
Storytelling to promote conversation
The teacher can tell a story during a conversation practice and ask the student to think of how he/ she would react in a certain situation. For example, the topic is travelling and first, the student is asked if he/ she has had any negative experiences while holidaying. Then comes a horror story that the teacher had seen on travel programme on TV. A family went on holiday to Greece and were desperately disappointed to discover that the swimming pool was not yet finished as the tour operator had promised it would be. To aggravate the situation, there was no rep waiting for them at the airport and, as a final straw, the shower was so filthy that it wouldn’t be decent to describe it. There is a happy ending as, after making a strong complaint, they were able to get a refund and an apology from the company in question.
Listening to Stories
A live listening task could include a pre-written story to test listening for gist and specific detail accompanied by a set of questions. For example, it could be a story about an enchanting and mysterious historical figure like King Ludwig of Bavaria who loved Wagner, had lots of castles built, was rumoured to be mad and died under suspicious circumstances. You would read out a summary of factual information about his life, i.e. Ludwig was born in 1845 and died in 1886. Naturally, you would include the mystery surrounding his death: although he had drowned, one version of events is that Dr Gudden, the man who had been with him during his final moments on earth, was responsible for his demise. NB: supply more information regarding these hypotheses. A comprehension question could ask which theories there are regarding his final moments.
How else would you use stories in lessons? It would be great to hear from you!