Stories and language teaching
By Andrew Wright
My son Tom, when he was 11 and just starting his life in the Comprehensive School in South Manchester, wrote a story called, ‘The End of the World’. It was five lines long. I found it by his bed when he was asleep. The teacher had written underneath, ‘Three spelling mistakes. Correct them.’
At breakfast I congratulated Tom on his economy. He replied, ‘There is something you learn at school, the less you do the less mistakes you can make.’
What do you think about this language teacher using stories in language teaching?
‘Using stories’ OR ‘stories and language teaching’? A difference.
Stories have been used by language teachers for generations. I submit that the main ways of using stories have been: 1) introducing new language 2) practising the four skills 3) testing language competence.
And, in consequence some students, from the beginning of their secondary education have concluded, ‘My client is obsessed by mistakes. Better write as little as possible to keep him/her happy.’
What is the alternative way of thinking about stories in language teaching?
First of all, stories are not a mere pastime. Stories are a fundamental way in which humans find some sense in the infinite complexity of daily experience. Neurologists have found that nine million bits of information assail our senses every second. We have to select. We have to create a guiding map of values, perceptions and behaviours to live by. We do it by making, telling and living in stories like the food we eat contains the vitamins, minerals and other things. Stories make our minds. Food makes our bodies.
We were on holiday in Whitby by the North Sea. It was dark and he had not come home. He was eight years old. I found him at the end of the pier lying in a nest of ropes looking at the starlit sky.
‘Tom, what are you doing there?’
‘I am look at the stars and shivering.’
‘Why are you shivering?’
‘Because there are so many of them.’
‘Tom, you are staring at infinite complexity! There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on every beach and in every desert in the world! No wonder you are shivering. But would you like to name some of the stars?’
And I showed Tom the Plough (the big dipper in the US). Stars which are a different numbers of light years away from Earth but can be seen as a plough.
My mother had shown me the Plough from almost the same place many years before.
We cope with complexity by naming the patterns we find. We name things and we describe relationships and sequences of happenings. We need to. We need to in order to make sense and in order to share the sense we have made. Societies work when a story is shared. Does it matter which side of the road we drive on, as long as we agree?
After 9/11 President Bush stood with his arm on a fireman’s shoulders and said into the world’s cameras, ‘We are goin’ to hunt ‘em down and smoke ‘em out!’ He was acting out his part of sheriff in the story.
‘The world is a stage and all the men and women merely players.’
This article is very short given the topic could hardly be bigger.
Stories are fundamental to our being human.
To use them as mere techniques for language teaching is misguided.
You and your students are fellow human beings. Let stories have their normal role of sharing experiences and expressing ideas and feelings. Language development will be a by-product of wanting to take part in something which matters.
But Andrew! We need to practise language forms and we need to test!
Of course, you do! Just like footballers need to practise ball control and need to analyse matches. But just imagine telling footballers, ‘You are not allowed to play a proper match until you have developed a high level of ball control and a deep level of knowledge about the grammar of football.’
I submit to my colleague teachers, do the focussed practice and the testing but on texts which don’t go as potentially deep as stories!
Here’s another story.
I sat in on a colleague’s lesson. He is a very experienced teacher and a good and empathetic human being.
‘What did you do last weekend?’ He asked a student in the class, clearly practising the past tense form and clearly linking the activity to the student’s actual experience. So far so good.
‘I swim across Lake Balaton doing butterfly.’
And he asked the same question of the next student…and so on.
How easy it is to appear to put personal sharing first but really just to use it in order to test!
At the end of the lesson I said to my colleague, ‘Did you hear that first student tell you that he swam across the biggest lake in Central Europe using the most difficult of all the swimming styles?’
He is a good man and he was ashamed.
How easily he could have said, ‘Gosh! That’s amazing! You swam across Lake Balaton!’
Earlier I gave three of the traditional ways of ‘using’ stories in language teaching. Here are some alternative roles for the language teacher who wants stories to live in the classroom:
Be a fellow human being and respond as a whole human being to sharings of experience, ideas and feelings.
Help students to share their stories (whether they are one sentence long or several pages) with other people…other students in the class, other classes in the school. Publish and exhibit and perform stories out of the classroom. These days it is SO easy to publish stories in book form or on the internet. And never select the best ones. Publish all the stories unless a student doesn’t want you to and it is his or her copyright, after all.
I was in Klagenfurt in Southern Austria working in a local school. A woman stopped me in the street.
‘Are you the person working in the local school on stories?’
‘I’ve got something to tell you. My son has been difficult to get out of bed all his school life except this week when he has been setting his alarm one hour early so he can get to school and work with his friends on the story book they are making with you!’
What is a student? Somebody who studies.
This word, ‘student’, is so mis-leading! These young people in Klagenfurt were not going to school, especially early, in order to ‘study English’ they were going to school to make something which had never been made before. They were conceiving and giving birth! They were working together.
You are not the receiver bouncing a story back with red scribbled exhortations to get the spelling corrected. You are there to help them to get the book better because it is going to be exhibited in the local town library or bank or restaurant (I have been involved with exhibitions in all these places). And Grandma will get one and their own grandchildren, one day, will ask, ‘Did you do this Grandad or Grandma? It’s lovely.’ (I have told classes that nobody will throw their books away and in years to come their own grandchildren will look at their books.)
I know you must practise the language and you must test. And I know that they may have very little English…and its shaky.
Here are a few proposals for coping with these realities:
Encourage the writing of list stories…preferably down the centre of the page because this gives the text enormous formal presence compensating for the minimal English. And how about the final version being written on A3 or even A2. Exhibition!
As they improve, encourage them to include short phrases in the list.
And rejoice when you find your cup a quarter full and not three quarters empty.
Class made story
Create the story as a class with you as the ‘questioner collector’ but NOT the initiator. I use four questions (sometimes supplementing the question with suggestions BUT a wide variety so I am NOT telling them what to say):
Who is in your story? (A man. A woman. A boy. A girl. An animal)
Where are they at the beginning of the story? (Country. Village. Town. etc.etc.)
When is it? (Seasons. Days. Weather, etc.)
What’s he/she/it doing? (What can you see, hear, feel, etc.)
You use the language which is within the comprehension range of your class. Don’t comment as you collect. Don’t let them feel it is your story. They must be responsible. Accept silliness…it is not your story it is theirs. To avoid clashes between rival groups of students tell them that everything you hear will be included in the story.
You keep re-telling the story. Not them… it will slow down the drive. They will have their turn when they come to make story books based on the class story.
My books related to this topic:
For a wider application of the ideas in this short article you might like to look at my following publications:
Storytelling with Children. Oxford University Press.
(Stories. Lesson plans. A larder of 100 things to do with any story.)
Creating Stories with Children. Oxford University Press.
(Various ways of helping people to make stories…not just children.)
Writing stories. Helbling Languages.
(A real ‘craft of writing stories’ book…for 15 year olds and up.)
Beggar in Bogota. firstname.lastname@example.org (A collection of my very short stories.)
Larger than Life. email@example.com (A second collection of my very short stories.)
Author's bio: Andrew Wright is an author, illustrator, teacher trainer and storyteller. He has written a number of books for teachers. He is the author of Spellbinders , a readers series for children. He is also the author of Storytelling with Children, Arts and Crafts with Children, and Creating Stories with Children for the Resource Books for Teachers series published by Oxford University Press.