Once upon a sentence: the written word… storytelling part two

Lose yourself in a good book
Lose yourself in a good book

Stories can be written too…

In my last storytelling post I wrote about the oral traditions of storytelling and how we might use visualisation to spark off originality and imagination in our learners, who can use these techniques to draw on their own deep rooted experiences, beliefs and dreams, to communicate something which is not only meaningful and relevant to them personally, but is often a lovely story that we can all enjoy listening to, rather, I’m afraid to say, than the somewhat banal offerings that we sometimes get when we do storytelling activities half-heartedly, or when learners do not have enough time to really think about their stories in advance.
Storytelling, however, is also linked to the written word and it is written stories that I want to think about today. This also leads me on to wonder where the borderline is between storytelling an literature. When does a story become literature?  In my mind storytelling is only one part of literature. Well written, lasting narrative novels are not only limited to the plot, but actually use language, and finely honed expression, to stimulate thought on all kinds of level, by creating realistic characters with real problems, by putting these characters into different situations and questioning their thoughts and preoccupations, their perceptions and their daily life experiences, these narratives take us, the readers, into a new world, which, yes, is fictional, but which exists on a different plane and is an adventure park for us to explore, providing us with new “friends” that we can relate to and new experiences to go through, which have an effect on us even if they are vicarious. There is also another very simple reason why literature is very useful for language learners. It brings you, the learner, not only into the culture you are to some extent studying when you choose to study a language, but it provides you, almost as a by-product, with models ofskilfully crafted expression in the target language, exposure to which can only do us good if we are trained to notice the language patterns and usage. Our learners can work with literature at various different levels, integrating all the skills and ultimately moving on to, what is probably the goal for most of us: expressing their own thoughts and insights in writing, having fun writing poetry whilst reinforcing patterns and language chunks and taking the time to use written discourse, which is planned and effectively packaged, as well as expressing themselves in new, meaningful ways in the language they are studying. Writing has notnot enjoyed too much popularity in recent years, although it is making something of a comeback with web related activities like blogging and networking etc., but, in my opinion, writing is an invaluable process for all of us, including those studying another language. By taking the time to plan, sitting down and thinking about how to turn a phrase, by editing and re-reading your work, you are actually improving your own expressive ability, which is useful for communication in any language, and by rewriting and rephrasing you are often developing and shaping your own thoughts and ideas. So… in this post I’d like to explore all this a bit more. First of all, though, you may be wondering why the title of this post is “Once Upon a Sentence…” where does the sentence come into it?

There is no such thing as a word or sentence in isolation.

Where does this lead to?
Where does this lead to?

A lot has been written fairly recently about discourse and how it makes very little sense to look at language purely at the single word or the single sentence level. Key figures in this field in recent times are Michael Hoey or John Sinclair, without forgetting Michael McCarthy and Ron Carter.  It seems to make a lot more sense to consider language as text or discourse because one sentence leads on from what came before and leads into what comes next. Instinctively we all know this, and we know that many words have all kinds of connotations connected to them and inter textual or extra-textual, personal reading schemata and cultural references as well. A very accessible book on this subject for elf teachers is Scott Thornbury’s book “Beyond the Sentence” which was at the back of my mind when I wrote the title of this article (just proving the point that no language comes from nowhere. Everything links to something else.) Despite this, however, there is still a small army of coursebook writers, teachers, students, examining boards etc. etc. who persist in creating materials which look at language in precisely this way. Think of the tranformation exercises so beloved of certain exams where the focus is purely on the grammatical structure or the knowledge of phrasal verbs etc. in isolation, where the sentence is there, merely as window dressing, without being related in any way to a broader context.

One Typical Example
Transform the sentence below using the ending provided for you:
I started working in this company ten years ago.
                                   ………………………………………………for ten years.

This type of example is eminently forgettable, and, yes, tests knowledge of the form, but can’t we do this in a more meaningful way? Precisely because discourse connects and transforms language; words change their meanings within the contexts of one piece of writing we need to think about the broader context of the text. The classic example of lexis changing meaning within a text is that of “eggs”, which mean one thing at the beginning of a recipe and refer to something completely different by the end, when they have become an omelette. So, it would seem, at least to me, to be clear, that we really need to be thinking of texts rather than “bits of language” in isolation. Even isolated sentences, however, in coursebook exercises can reveal a lot about the state of mind of the person who wrote them, recisely because of the references they contain. An example such as “Teachers are very badly paid.” tells us quite a lot about the writer and his or her beliefs! This means, in fact, that there is no such thing as a sentence in isolation. As John Sinclair set out in “Trust the Text” ( see the link above) each sentence in a text actually encapsulates what has gone before and points towards what will come next. In teaching then we might usefully consider a sentence as a starting point which we can use to stimulate learners to think about whatcame before or what will come afterwards, as a springboard to working with a text, which would make a lot more sense than just looking at the single chunks in isolation. To go even frther than this, if we take the line that we are all our own stories then each of our sentences springs from those stories and can be used to lead our readers into our world.
Added to this is the fact that it is a very natural almost innate function of the human brain to tell stories, to look for connections and links. We simply need to look at a list of words and we start automatically trying to sort them into groups, forming connections and telling the story… each story, of course being different from the next.

So, the implications for teaching are that we can use this associative or storytelling function, and, in fact, we always have done. Yesterday, for instance,  I asked my learners to brainstorm words connected to money, individually, without giving any further guidelines. The result was that one person produced very technical words like mortgage, investment, interest rates, another student produced words like, holiday, work, hobbies, computers, which were related to what he needs money for, and a third wrote a list of things connected to money semantically like, payment, bill, cheque etc. The logical next step, then, was to ask these learners in groups to tell each other’s stories, why had they chosen those particular words. Each learner told another one their impressions which were then confirmed or not as the first student explained his or her choices. The whole activity was fascinating and developed both knowledge of lexis and helped us to get to know a little more about our classmates. To go even further in this direction we can take those “isolated words” and build them into patterns noticing and producing collocations, colligations and semantic prosody etc. and then to use them in different contexts. I suppose the point is that everything is connected so words and sentences can lead into stories and can then be used to build discourse. Of course we can do all kinds of things with stories, including reading them discussing them and writing them, but this brings me onto the question of which stories to focus on and how to work with written stories in our teaching contexts.

extensive reading
Extensive reading with a glass of wine

Working with texts inside and outside of the classroom: integrated skills work or an adventure of discovery

As I said at the beginning there are all kinds of reasons why we might want to work with literature both inside and outside the classroom so the next question is how to do it. Literature, prose and poetry, as well as film and songs can all be used as stories and an integrated skills approach might concentrate on reading and discussing or listening (watching) and discussing, noticing language, developing and writing, (not necessarily in that order). There are several classic teaching handbooks that I have found to be extremely useful over the years and three of these are Literature (CUP) Class Readers (OUP) and The Inward Ear (CUP), all containing a wealth of activities that can easily be adapted. There was an #eltchat this week (Wednesday June 8th) on this subject too, and the summary provides a lot of food for thought on the subject.( see the list of sammaries on the homepage) It would be a waste of space to repeat all these things but I would like to give three examples here of a classic activities that I use or am planning to work on different aspects of texts:

Working from the bottom up 

The first one ,then, is a typical example of a communicative activity which is a bottom-up approach (focusing on micro components of the text) and then needs follow up activities to look at a text from a more global point of view, but whichI have found to be fun, motivating and useful to learners and which I have been using successfully in various ways for years. The original idea, I think came from Penny Ur’s “Discussions that Work“.


You take an extract from a novel, (or any text for that matter) and make three versions, by carefully substituting key pieces of language. If, for example the text starts:

“Halloween, which is in autumn, is often a dark, cold time of year”

You might make:
Version A: “Halloween, which is in summer, is often a hot, sweaty time of year.”
Version B: “Christmas, which is in autumn, is never a dark, cold time of year.
Learners can work in pairs where one is given version A and the other version B. By means of logical analysis of each “word” and “sentence” in the context of the text, they work together to produce what they think the original text was. In this case it ptobably won’t be Christmas because of the time references (summer or autumn) and it can’t be summer either, so it is fairly simple to find a logical version. In the original version of this exercise students were asked not to lok at each other’s versions because the thinking was that they had to listen to each other, but I have found that to be an added complication so I ask them to read their sentences to each other, listening first, but I then let them look at the written text too if they need to. The final step is to give them the original text to compare with their versions and then to lead on to doing follow up work such as noticing language or discussion or anything you want to do, really. So, this is just one way of focusing on words and sentences in the broader context of discourse.

Using the text as a sringboard to further work

The other two activities I wanted to mention here are more technology related (sorry but it had to come in somewhere!). The second activity is a fun activity which I did with my university students this year. We used Fakebook, a wonderful tool where you can make “fake” Facebook pages for characters in a book, historical characters etc. We used this in the context of exams preparation because my C1 level learners were reading “The Winter Ghosts” by Kate Mosse as a set text for their final written exam. They enojoyed making the pages and it reinforced the idea of these characters as being “real” on some level, and if they have a Facebook page, then “you can relate to them personally as well“. In the #eltchat I mentioned above Shaun Wilden pointed me in the direction of  the Twitter “such tweet sorrow” project which looks great too. I haven’t used it but I got very excited about it so I thought I’d put it in here too.

discussing extensive reading
The book club in a digital age

Extensive Reading in a digital Age

The third activity I wanted to mention here takes reading and discussion to a whole new level, I think. This is a project I am setting up for next year and is based on the principle of the class library. I intend to use Google Reader, or something similar (any suggestions would be really welcome) to ask my learners to set up at least five RSS feeds for a month. They will then choose three items, which may be articles, podcasts, videos, whatever they like, that have spoken to them in some way. We have a class wiki which they can then use to post:

a) a brief summary of their top three choices;
b) the reasons why they think other people in the group will be interested
c) the links

The next step is to choose three of the posts and to follow up with the reading, and then have a final discussion lesson where learners can do a presentation of their ideas (Prezi or Powerpoint) and what they have learnt from this project. So, I have been talking a lot about how to use texts in the classrom but not much about writing, which is the final step today.

Inspiration and poetry
Inspiration leads to growth and creative expression.

So can we ask our learners to write literature??

Should we ask learners to write poetry? Isn’t it a bit forced? These are the type of objections you hear to the idea of writing poetry ( although less when it comes to writing stories, strangely enough). Writing, as I said at the beginningof this post, is, in my opinion, a great process to go through and not only for language learning. For language learners, thought, there is the added plus that writing poetry, even when they are beginners can be immensely satisfying. I remember using this a lot when I began learning Russian to reinforce patterns in a meaningful, expressive way(At least I hope they did). Just taking a language pattern such as “I like + ing” or “I like + noun” for a beginner, can produce a poem like this:

I like swimming in the sea
I like cake and tea
I like reading in the bath
and playing with my cat.

This may have dubious literary value, but on a personal level, it reveals a lot about this learner and she has also reinforced those patterns in a meaningful way whilst processing all kinds of language on the way. This type of activity is great for noticing and experimenting with language and enjoyable for learners too. Gunther Gerngross and Herbert Puchta’s book Creative Grammar contains a wealth of activities of this type. I could continue endlessly on the subject but if you’ve read up to this point you deserve a medal (or a chocolate biscuit and a cuppa at the very least) so I’m going to close the post here, but I’d be really interested to hear what you think on the subject…