Storytelling: Your Go-To Activity

Storytelling can be any teacher’s go-to activity because stories can be short or long and make use of any target language. If you have any concern about your own lack of creativity, don’t worry about running dry; tap into your students’ wonderful minds. All they need is a prompt, like an interesting photo from the camera roll on your phone or a rich site like Pixabay.

Storytelling can be a 5-minute warm-up, a way to wrap up a vocabulary or grammar lesson, or the focus of an entire lesson.  Storytelling can be oral or it can be a combination of speaking and writing. The flexibility of this activity is incredibly appealing.

Creative ideas facilitate student production, and such ideas are usually in abundance if you have students working together. I personally love engaging students in storytelling. There are different levels of demand you can place on learners, so you need to know how much to ask of them and how much guidance is required.

A key to successful storytelling is understanding the basic elements. (See video on the elements of storytelling.) Talking about people hiking on a path is merely an idea. You only named the characters and the setting. Talking about people hiking on a path who then get lost without any cell phones is a basic plot. Now that there’s an interesting problem, and we can develop it and resolve it. That’s where your guidance comes in. You need to prompt students to define the central conflict and pose questions to help them create resolution.

For advanced students, you can use a text prompt rather than a photo, and the text can be a short scene from a story. A follow-up question such as, “What must have happened before this?” can prompt them to build around that scene. See my Story Starters and Endings activity.

The possibility of developing a full story can be a full-scale project, as my students did in a summer creative writing class. I provided the beginning of a story, and they wrote the rest, with final works worthy of being published in book format! (Learn more.) See a student sample made with BookBildr.

For beginners, you can focus more on text manipulation, having students change verb forms, for example, as I did with “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Goldilocks.” See my activity The Fate of Fairy Tale Heroes. This kind of text manipulation is modeled in my Basic English series on YouTube. (See Lessons 90 and 91.)

Text manipulation can also be done at the higher levels. Once students gain confidence manipulating the text with target grammar, you can raise the bar by inviting them to try text generation. See my “Island Adventure” story to practice adverb phrases.

Another way to create a low-pressure storytelling activity is to have students put the events of a narrative in order. They don’t have to generate ideas. Instead, they must talk together about the logical order of ideas. See my Story Match activity for gerunds and infinitives. Once the story is complete, learners can practice retelling the story.

Writing a short story is less intimidating if you provide sufficient prompts. For low intermediate students, I’ve used Q&A story building. See model. In this approach, you prepare a set of questions, which, when answered, produces a full narrative. This activity integrates reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The final narrative should be familiar to all participants in the group (the whole class or small groups) since they are the co-authors. They can then take turns retelling the story orally. Variations at that stage are perfectly fine and very welcome.

More brain power is required for my Storyline activity, which challenges intermediate and advanced students to use model sentences from the dictionary in an original narrative. Sometimes writing in a box is actually more challenging than allowing for complete creative freedom.

As an online teacher, I’ve had quite a number of live streams. The public ones are large and energetic. One way I’ve channeled that energy is through storytelling. Both on Instagram and Hallo I’ve led students in storytelling. My most recent live stream on Hallo had about 250 participants. The live text chat was a constant source of content, but the highlight was having students hop on with me for a few minutes at a time. Each hop on generated some new lines, and each student had the chance to retell the current “draft” as best they could. The final student to hop on earned all of our applause by retelling the entire story and incorporating most of the key vocabulary that I’d been highlighting throughout the session. The experience shows how storytelling can work one-on-on, in small classes, or with hundreds at a time.

When was the last time you had your students tell a story?

Featured photo by VIctoria Borodinova. Retrieved from

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