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Once upon a time, in the language classroom…


Christina Giannikas owns a chain of private language schools in Southern Greece. Here she talks about teaching through stories.

There are many techniques that language teachers can use to keep young language learners interested and motivated. Storytelling has been described as an ‘ideal method of influencing a child to associate listening with pleasure of increasing a child’s attention span and retention capacity’ (Cooper, 1989:3). In a fun way, young learners see themselves in a motivating and challenging environment which develops and enhances a positive attitude towards the foreign language.

Outcomes of my own research showed that students of a young age are especially interested and drawn to stories where they are given the opportunity to become personally involved and take responsibility for their own language learning. This imaginative experience helps them identify with the characters of the story and build up their own creative powers. One example of this is a lesson with a beginners’ class who were new to story-telling in a foreign language context. Before the story was told, I pre-taught some of the vocabulary which was done by writing the unknown lexical items on the board and eliciting their meaning by miming or placing the words in context. The children were involved and felt great delight when they correctly estimated the meaning of the word.

After the unknown vocabulary was clarified, the children were asked to sit in a circle whereas I was seated in the centre of the network. The students were comfortable and excited since this was new for them. Because of the fact that they were eager to hear the story, I had their undivided attention. The story was taken from Vanessa Reilly and Sheila M. Ward’s ‘Very Young Learners’, a resource book for teachers. The story was called ‘Why do Rabbits Have Long Ears?’ and the aim of the story was to enhance students’ listening, enrich vocabulary by introducing names of animals and the phrases I am a… You are a…before telling the story, I told students that rabbits did not always have long ears and that they were going to discover how rabbits changed. Students were involved in the story-telling process where they were encouraged to mime and pretend to be different animals and elicit names of animals, which made the plot interesting and challenging since their participation was carried out in English.

After the story was told once, the students were asked to tell their teacher what they understood from it and what the main point was. All children volunteered to provide the class with the information, giving a sense of confidence as they enthusiastically raised their hands. When I selected one of the children to give a short summary, he immediately asked whether the answer should be given in Language 1 or Language 2. Given that the child was a beginner and it would be difficult to deliver the summary in Language 2 I requested that the summary be given in Language 1. This way, the child could freely express himself because the key of giving the summary at this stage was to evaluate the participants’ comprehension rather than oral skills. He gave a precise summary of the story, proving that everything was understood even though the story was presented in the Language 2 entirely. Since the children enjoyed story-telling, I followed with a task connected to the plot of the story. The children were asked to create masks of various animals that appeared in the story. At the end of the lesson, students wore their masks as they left the classroom and walked out to their parents producing animal sounds that matched their mask.

Children enjoy listening to stories. It is a shared social experience which can provoke a shared response of all kinds of emotions. This can help boost children’s confidence and encourage social and emotional development (Ellis & Brewster, 2002).

Cooper, P. (1989) Using Storytelling to Teach Oral Communication Competencies K-12. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association (Eric Document Reproduction Service no. ED 314 798).
Ellis, G. & Brewster, J. (2002) Tell it Again! The new storytelling handbook for Primary Teachers. Penguin English.
Reilly, V & Ward, S.M. (1997) Very Young Learners. Oxford University Press.
[Photo by San José Library via Flickr/Creative Commons]

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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