Tom Hutchinson, co-author of Network, talks about the benefits of using storylines in English language teaching.
A prominent feature of the new Oxford American English course, Network, is the use of a storyline. Just as with a TV drama, we see episodes in the lives of a group of characters who frequent Cindy and Ryan’s cafe, Cozy Cup. What’s the idea behind this approach?
A storyline has many advantages in the language classroom:
1. Stories have a natural attraction for us, because they help to make events meaningful. This is such a strong instinct in us, that we even create stories out of otherwise unconnected events. Take these four sentences, for example:
- The ball sailed through the air.
- There was a loud crash.
- Glass flew everywhere.
- Bob and Marcie looked at each other.
There is, in fact, no link between these sentences – no reference, no connecting words, no repetition of words. And yet, nobody reads them as four separate sentences. You naturally create a story out of them in your own mind.
2. As well as satisfying our quest for meaning, stories have a very strong emotional appeal. We readily identify with the characters, as they experience the ups and downs of life – seeing aspects of our own lives in the triumphs, humor and disasters of theirs. When Cozy Cup is threatened with bankruptcy because of competition from a big company, we feel for Cindy and Ryan and wonder how they will resolve the problem.
3. This brings us to one of the most powerful aspects of a storyline. Because we care about the characters and because we try to find connections between events, we always want to know what happens next. It’s why we tune in to our favorite primetime TV dramas week after week. In the language classroom, this instinct not only creates strong motivation to move on to the next episode, it also provides the opportunity for some discussion and prediction – What do you think will happen next?
4. Prediction highlights another important advantage of a storyline in language learning – stories can be both receptive and productive. While it can often be difficult to get students to produce something of a factual nature, we can all create a story. We do it all the time when we talk to friends and family about what’s happening in our own lives. So, stories are a great way of getting students to use the language through prediction and role play.
5. Lastly, we might consider the kind of language that students will be using. An important feature of the story lessons in Network is a focus on Everyday expression, such as:
- Responding to information
(Oh, I didn’t know that. / Are you sure?/ Yes, that’s true.)
- Showing surprise
(You’re joking! / I don’t believe it!)
- or Asking for an explanation
(What’s the problem? / What do you mean?)
This kind of language can be difficult to find in other forms of text, but it’s a natural part of a story. Stories, thus, have a unique contribution to make to the language curriculum. They provide the perfect context for teaching and practicing this kind of everyday English, which is so important for natural communication.
In these and many other ways, a storyline is a very effective way of getting students fully involved in language learning. It provides human interest, humor, drama and a wealth of opportunities for using ordinary everyday English. In short: we all love a good story!
Do you use storylines in the classroom? Feel free to share your stories in the comments.