Storytelling in ELT

The Boyhood of Raleigh by Sir John Millais

The Boyhood of Raleigh by Sir John Millais


Two weeks ago I was interviewed at the ACEIA Conference in Spain. My interviewer – knowing that I’d just published a novel – asked me what role narrative plays in teaching. For a second, my mind went blank. Then I managed to bluster my way through an answer: something about storytelling being used in education for thousands of years. I waffled on that theme for a minute and then concluded “story is essential to the human condition and therefore it’s part of education.” Phew.

Later, when the interview was over and I was able to breathe again in the comfort of my hotel room, I asked myself: why are stories so powerful as teaching tools? Here are ten answers.



*Stories are the world’s oldest technique for teaching and memorizing, and they still retain their magic. They are how we read the world. We tell our life “story”. We gossip – another form of storytelling. We watch films, soap operas and the news, read novels, short stories and comics. Why? To experience a story.

*Stories exercise the imagination. When we hear or read a story, we co-create it in the mind. It becomes a little film playing inside our heads. If we’re lucky, we may feel as if we’re living two lives.

*Stories involve emotions like fear, sadness, and joy. These engage us and help us to empathize as we inhabit the lives of others.

*Stories are usually chronological. They contain a beginning, a middle (or sometimes a muddle) and an ending. This structure helps to guide students as they follow the sequence of events.

*Stories use formulas that translate across cultures. In all languages, stories contain conflict and a hero who braves obstacles to find his/her salvation. Stories also use linguistic formulas: “once upon a time” … “and they all lived happily ever after”.

*Stories contain rich vocabulary: adjectives to describe wizards and witches, powerful verbs to invoke battles and bust-ups, and vivid descriptions of mountaintop castles or crepuscular caves.

*Children’s stories often use the three Rs: repetition, rhyme and rhythm in lines such as “fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman”; “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”; “What big eyes you have! What big ears you have!” These lines are like ritualistic incantations, and they reinforce language.

*Stories contain language play. Fairy tales and folk stories often contain playful words, puns, and riddles. They also include names that invite readers to enjoy language for its own sake: Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Tom Thumb. For Charles Dickens fans: Ebeneezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, Pecksniff, Fagin, Magwich.

*Stories are multi-purpose: in language-learning terms, they can involve all four skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening); can be long or short, funny or sad; and can use an inexhaustible range of grammar and vocabulary.

*Stories express cultural beliefs and values. In religious texts, stories such as the parables in the Bible are a vehicle for moral guidance. But non-religious texts often contain a moral, too. In fairy tales, the good live happily and the bad die horribly. In noir fiction, everybody loses, even the winners. And in all fiction, the hero teaches us how to behave when the walls are caving in and the vultures gathering.



After considering the above, I thought about all the approaches to storytelling that I’ve used in class or heard about over the years. They come under three categories:

(1) Students read a story or listen to a recording or watch a film clip.

(2) Teacher tells a story. Students listen.

(3) Students tell a story. Everyone listens.

Within those categories there are many variations. In recent years, the options for (3) have widened. Digital storytelling may involve animation and story-boarding software, or it may combine audio, video and graphics. The icing on the cake might be to publish stories digitally.

Many classes benefit from the idea that, like dance and music, storytelling is a performance art. It comes to life in front of an audience. The current trend is to focus on students telling anecdotes about their lives, because these are personally meaningful to them, but there are numerous types of story – film or book plots, biography, and folk tales, to name a few, all of which can be used in class.



How do you make a complex story easier for students who have a very low level of English? Here are some ideas:

*Use bilingual storytelling. This only works if your students all speak the same L1 and if you speak it, too. You code-switch while telling the story. For example, if your students are Spanish speakers: “one day there was a rabbit, un conejo, who lived in a campo, a field. The rabbit had fifteen brothers, quince hermanos, and ten sisters, diez hermanas.”

*Use pictures to support the story. Students are given several pictures, Before listening, they try to put them in order and guess the story.  I saw this done with photos illustrating the life of Nelson Mandela. The act of manipulating pictures motivated the students to listen carefully.

*Use key words from the story. As with pictures, these act as advance organizers for the students, who predict what happens in the story.

*Use TPR (Total Physical Response). The students act out the story. For younger learners, simple repetitive gestures can be effective. I saw one teacher recount a fictional tale of an epic kayak journey. Whenever the hero was in the kayak, the students did a rowing movement. They loved it and it kept them involved throughout.

*Use jigsaw stories. The students read or listen to only a part of the story. Their partner has the other part. They come together to piece together the whole story.

*Use the teacher’s voice. The voice is the storyteller’s most valuable tool. Through it, the teacher controls volume, emphasis, pace, vocabulary and grammar, length of utterances and length of story. For more on this, see Alan Maley’s book The Language Teacher’s Voice.



In 1984, linguist Thomas Sebeok was presented with a daunting challenge. A nuclear waste repository was under construction beneath Nevada’s Yucca mountain. The mountain would remain radioactive for thousands of years. How could people be warned not to go near it? The Department of Energy planned to erect a huge fence with warning signs in six languages. But Sebeok pointed out that no languages remain comprehensible over many thousands of years.

His solution (which was rejected) was to start an “atomic priesthood”, a team of oral myth-makers who would spread the legend of the radioactive mountain. They would tell this tale so powerfully that it would live on from generation to generation. How telling that in this hi-tech world, the best bet for longevity did not lie in technology, which dates so quickly, or even in language itself, but in the power of story, the most ancient tool of all.

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