Once upon a time…

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Frog prince
We can all be frogs or princes

Storytelling: a hot topic

Storytelling is a hot topic at the moment, at least judging from the popularity and enthusiasm of the tweeters on the recent storytelling #eltchat, where professionals from the EFL world devoted a frantic hour to exchanging thoughts and insights, resources and teaching ideas. One of the great things about #eltchat is that it is always followed by such well written summaries and resource lists and this one was no exception; written by Leahn Stanhope on her blog, who succinctly wove together the threads of the discussions, and provided a list of a whole range of great classroom resources. But that is not all!

We danced into the night

The party went on and on, sending ripples out into the world.

After the chat came  Tara Benwell’s brilliant Twitter challenge that  asked people to tell their everyday stories  in one tweet and publish them at #eltstory, resulting in a stream of stories and comments that was…, well, it was amazing, communicative and fun; a whilrlwind of creativity.  Then blog posts started appearing  right, left and centre, like Janet Bianchini’s  where she talked about digital storytelling and a course on this that she has just done with Ozge Karaoglu, who among other things, has, in the past provided us with 100 digital storytelling tools…another excellent place to go for even more classroom resources. So storytelling is causing a stir, we have lots of ways of doing it, but, at the same time, we may want to think about why stories are so effective.

Me at Lake Garda
Once upon a time there was a teacher who...

We are all Stories

Storytelling  is definitely something we all love; tales can take us back to the safety of childhood bedtime stories, and the magic of fairy tales and Narnia, or, of course, we can watch them on the evening news, or in a detective series on TV. We all love a good story, in fact we could go further than that and say, in the words of Jan Blake at the Istek Conference, earlier
this year:

 “We are all stories, we are all made up of stories, we all walk
around with stories within us, even if it’s the story of what happened this
morning, the story of why we’re late, the story of whay we haven’t got the

The idea of being stories really strikes a chord with me. We actually talk about our lives every day, telling friends and family what has happened to us, and what we have done, and as we do this we weave the threads of our stories into the fabric which becomes our lives. To go even further we could also consider that our countries or states and our
worlds are also their stories. In English we distinguish between “story” and “history” but many other languages do not.

Our world is the result of the past and its story, and to understand why we think the way we do today, or have the socioeconomic and cultural beliefs we do, we need to look to the stories of the past. Storytelling is one of the most ancient skills and a great storyteller like Jan Blake can tell a story that transcends the reality of space and time carrying you, the listener away with her into another dimension. When Jan wove her magic at the Harrogate
Iatefl Conference in 2010, I’m sure there was not a dry eye in the auditorium, and you can see some of this on Youtube:

This video gives you a taste for this type of storytelling but, although I’m a great fan of YouTube, I’m afraid that…you really had to be there. I can still remember the smell of the auditorium, the quality of the darkness and the emotions, and thoughts that these stories evoked as Jan swept us away on her magic carpet.

Fly away on a story

What do we do when we “storytell”?

So, all this made me stop and start thinking about two things: one is why some classroom storytelling activities may not actually work very well and the other, which is directly connected to this, is what is actually involved in the storytelling process.

Many exams used to have a section where candidates were given pictures and had to tell a story from them. I definitely remember having to do this for one French exam, and how we all hated it. In our world it is a component of the CambridgeESOL Young Learners Movers and Flyers oral exams. Candidates are given a strip of pictures which tell a story. They are given the start to the story and then told to “tell the story”. Some young learners can do this very well, much better, in fact, than many adults, but for others it is tantamount to a torture session and can actually put them off for the rest of the test. So, why does this happen? I have observed this in action and I wonder if the stories themselves are too complicated. We are actually giving them a lot of input in these strips, which may well be too much for some learners to process.  Adults tend to look quickly through the pictures, searching for the logic or the plot, whereas young learners may not equate stories with plots. They may get sidetracked by the characters or the location or any number of things. A story, of course, is much more than simply a plot, but that is often what exam questions are asking for. I sometimes wonder whether it might not be better, for this type of task to simply begin with less, a character or a place and, by asking a series of guided questions, lead the candidate into telling the story directly. It is easier for the student to tell a collaborative story, in fact, if you simply show them a character and say:

“Look, this is Mary: what type of house does she live in?” etc.

This works with adults too, by the way. What I mean is that by saying “Tell the story” you are already putting the storyteller at one remove. By going straight into it, without even mentioning that there is a story to tell, is somehow more direct. For a story to “come to life” it has to be relevant and to echo within the being of the storyteller and the listener. It has to mean something on a personal level. This is definitely not the case with these exam”plots”.  As I said, this is only a sensation I have but it is a strong one. So, how can we make sure our stories are real ones and not just “plots”?

Jan Blake, in the Istek interview mentioned above said that stories are powerful because, among other things:

  • they train us to listen;
  • they train us to use our “inner eye”;

So, there is value in listening to stories as well as telling them. There are conventions in stories that are told such as voices, repetitions of key elements: “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” etc. that the listener can recognise, and that we learn to listen for. On the other hand, there is also an element of suspense and wonder that keeps us there (In the case of some Soap Operas this can keep the audience there for years, in fact.) For our language learners to learn to listen for the story means that they can stop worrying about the language, and can help that very language mean more to them. It becomes more than simply an exercise, something they have to grapple with to understand; it becomes a vehicle at the least, and a magic carpet, at the most, which can transport them into another world, which, at the same time becomes theirs, when they enter into the story. When you listen to Jan Blake you can see her characters, their world and their homes, and your inner eye really goes to work. This made me think of another teaching technique which is very powerful for storytelling: visualisation.

The Mind's Eye
Exploring the mind's eye

The Mind’s Eye

Using visualisation can help learners to tap into their subconscious world. I can remember using a guided visualisation once to encourage students to tell the story of a journey. They were encouraged to relax, to either close their eyes, or if they did not feel comfortable doing that, to focus on a point on the wall and to listen and follow my instructions in their minds.To do this they were asked to visualise the answers to a series of questions. The activity went something like this; they listened as I read this text in a quiet voice, pausing as I went to give them time to imagine the answers:

“We are about to go on an exciting jurney away from the classroom to somewhere you have never been before, so take three deep breaths and then, there you are in our magic plane… now you are arriving, the door opens and you step out into…. another world:

What can you see?  Are you alone or are there other people there too?  What happens next?  What can you hear?   and smell? Can you taste anything? Does anyone speak? What do they say? … Now it’s time to come home again so go back to the plane and get on. Sit down and now you are coming back to the classroom.”

The students were then given a list of the questions I had asked them and they used them as a starting point to tell each other where they had been. This was where the exciting part started, including one trip down through the sea to the centre of the Earth itself. The imagination that these adults used to tell their stories went way beyond the type of content usually produced. I had been rather unsure of how the visualisation would go down, but the results surpassed anything I could have predicted.  The stories they produced were both powerful and memorable and everyone was interested in the other people’s stories. This, in my opinion, is learner centred work at its most powerful, combining imagination and storytelling. One of the most useful resources that I have ever used for this type of work is the Cambridge University Press Handbook: “Once Upon a Time” by John Morgan and Mario Rinvolucri.

Of course, in this post I have only thought about telling stories and listening to them, but there is also the whole question of writing them… Well, it’s late so maybe I’ll leave that for another day. Time for a bedtime story and a mug of cocoa, I think 🙂


3 thoughts on “Once upon a time…

  1. Fascinating post!
    You said:
    “…by asking a series of guided questions, lead the candidate into telling the story directly. ”
    I find this particularly true with weak learners, and it works well for written work. Although it has been called Reverse Reading Comprehension (starting from the questions) it works just as well for creating written stories.

    Can’t resist adding a recommendation to read this speech by Lois Lowry (author of The Giver) which I just read – so relevant!

  2. Hi,

    I’ve just stumbled on your blog today. I really enjoyed reading this post and thanks for the mention. I love storytelling too.



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