So much of what we speak daily consists of reporting facts. Gossip, news, jokes, catching up, recollecting a fact, explaining causes of injuries to a doctor, reporting past procedures, lying. So much language use devoted to narrating fiction or facts. Yet, classrooms still lack storytelling time and teachers still see it as a distraction or time filler.
We often ask students how their weeks went as they enter the classroom, although seldom do we truly focus on the language being produced at that point. Or worse, too much focus on form rather than meaning could inhibit students from sharing future personal experiences and that could end up damaging rapport.
Teacher: So how was your weekend?
Student: My dog die.
Teacher: DIED. Can you repeat?
Student: (sobbing) My dog died.
Storytelling is part of being human. Also, it is a great tool to enable students to connect to their peers and teachers while practicing the target language. In expressing their personal views and experiences freely and feeling their voice is truly being heard, they allow themselves to strengthen bonds and untie any emotional knots that might be sabotaging their language acquisition process.
I have recently taken part in a workshop entitled ‘Personal and creative storytelling: telling our stories’ given by David Heathfield. Apart from proposing a few activities to use storytelling in ELT, he also pointed out a few academic findings regarding the effects of storytelling in our brain.
One of the most interesting experiments in order to investigate what happens to the brain when there is an exchange of personal stories is called neural coupling. Research on the issue has found that the same areas of the brain of the listener and the speaker light up, almost at the same time, when a story is being told. As if the listener’s brain would ‘guess’ where the story will go as the speaker tells it.
This leads to building bonds and confidence through sharing a narrative. Steven Pinker, a sociobiologist heavily influenced by Chomsky, affirms that:
“The areas of the brain that processes certain senses are activated though being engrossed in a compelling narrative.” PINKER, 2007.
One of the storytelling activities in the workshop really stuck with me for the many benefits that may arise from including it in an ELT lesson. It has the power to foster better rapport among students due to the fact that they have to, literally, put themselves in their colleagues’ place. Additionally, it provides them with the opportunity to explore not only verbal, but also physical language to convey their message. Also, it might help students with short attention spans to focus through observing their colleagues globally, not just focusing on what they are saying, but also what they are doing. Finally, it ensures enough time for students to play with the target language as they please, making attempts at including it in their everyday linguistic repertoire in a safe environment.
Therefore, after considering these many upsides to this activity, I have elaborated a lesson plan inspired by it and I hope you can enjoy and apply these techniques in your classrooms too.
Enjoy and, as usual, have fun with the games.
Drama Game: Storytelling: Listen, judge, repeat– Vocabulary/Function freer practice
Type: Vocabulary / Function practice
Age: Young adults and Adults
Language level: A2-C1
Aim: Create a social bond and practice target vocabulary / function freely
Interaction Pattern: trios
Timing: 20-25 min
The suggestion here is to insert this storytelling activity after you have already presented and worked on the target language in a very controlled way. Therefore, students should be aware of what the target language is, how to use it (form) and when to use it (meaning). Only then would you ask them to attempt using it in a freer manner, combining it with personal memories or creating a narrative with it.
So the recommendation would be to assign this task at the last half an hour of the lesson in which you introduced the topic or as a reviewing activity at the beginning of the following lesson. In the first scenario, it would be used more quickly as freer practice; in the second, you could devote a full lesson just for the practice of the target language, providing late correction of what was performed during the storytelling.
Set the task carefully and make sure students understand what each member of the team is supposed to do: Tell your students they are going to be in trios and one of them will tell the others a story; they should decide who will tell the story first, who will listen and who is the judge; the person who tells the story has to use the language learned in the lesson and tell a story (real or not) in a very interesting manner; the listener has to pay close attention and look for mannerisms, mimics, intonation, tone of voice AND content. The listener will have to retell the story AS THEIR PARTNER, with the same mannerisms, mimics, intonation, tone of voice AND exact content; the judge observes everything and gives feedback in the end on vocabulary use and fluency to the storyteller and on retelling the story accurately to the listener.
To make sure students really understood the task and know exactly what they are expected to do, you should use Instruction Check Questions, or ICQs. You should prepare them beforehand baring in mind the difficulties that may arise in comprehending the procedures to be followed. For more on the topic, here are a few links to help you:
Set the objectives carefully and make sure students understand WHY they are to perform this task: Tell your students the objective of the storyteller is to practice the language learned in class and improve their fluency; the objective of the listener is to practice retelling stories they have heard and improve their language use (spoken and physical); the objective of the judge is to observe if the other people in the group followed the instructions thoroughly and practice giving constructive feedback.
Especially when proposing activities that are not common place in ELT – such as this – it is advisable to make sure students know the reason they are being asked to perform the task. In other words, be prepared to answer questions such as: why in hell should they play games in class? How can any of this help me show my boss the English course he is paying for is bringing me results?
Students are a lot more receptive to new classroom practices if they comprehend the outcomes expected from using these tools for language learning. You will not have to explain the objectives every time. Nevertheless, you ought to at least for the first time you introduce an unusual activity.
Students take turns performing their tasks: first the storyteller tells the story; second, the listener reenacts it; third, the judge gives the previous two feedback on both their performances.
Now, students change roles: storytellers are now judges, listeners are now storytellers and judges are now listeners. Repeat all procedures.
Once more students change roles, taking the ones they haven’t performed yet.
While students perform the task, you can monitor their work and take notes on ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’: ‘the good’ are examples of successful use of the target language; ‘the bad’ are examples of language that is not necessarily wrong, but can be improved; ‘the ugly’ are examples of misusage of the target language that should be corrected. You could use these notes to make an extra reference sheet for the following class and hand it out to students or you could provide them with a late correction activity as a follow up to the storytelling.
As students finish the task, praise them on their accomplishments, point out what has to be worked on and ask them for feedback on their production during the activity. Alternatively, you may ask them how they FELT during the activity and how they think it helped them practice the language.