Once upon a time, in a far-away land I found myself teaching English to Chinese teenagers.  Every day they had to study English to comply with Australian visa requirements.  There was one, particular, special activity in their weekly routine which seemed to truly engage them; On a Friday afternoon the students would sit on the floor on big cushions, the lights were dimmed, the candles lit and the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl was the signal to embark on a trip to the magical world of stories. There we would cross the boundaries of languages difficulties and navigate into the universal language of story. It was in this fertile land that the students really started to connect with each other, with me and to the English language.  This is when I realized that stories are not to put you to sleep, stories are to wake you up!

Stories stimulate the senses and the emotions as you travel with the characters on their adventures.  They provide a clear context to work in and they stimulate curiousity and imagination. All this makes the learning experience much more memorable as it helps to retain the  language in the long term memory bank.

Now one could imagine that this was the way to learn about the world in the beginning of time, the stories shared sitting around the fire would serve as a guide to make sense of the world. If stories are the oldest educational tools that exist then why not use stories to teach English in modern times?  There and then I decided to leave teaching English in the conventional way to develop a method to make the English language more accessible and memorable by using stories. Since then thousands of students have had the opportunity to enjoy English through the natural medium of storytelling.

One of the main key competences is communicating in a foreign language and teachers soon realized the potential of storytelling in learning English and to meet this demand I prepared a variety of teacher training courses on how to incorporate storytelling in the English language classroom.  The aim of these courses is not to turn teachers into professional storytellers but rather to help them acquire the basic tools of narration so that they can tell stories confidently in the classroom. That way stories can yet again serve as a guide to understand and make sense of our world.

For anyone wanting to train teachers in applied storytelling I would recommend incorporating the following elements into their programme. Obviously the time spent on each would depend on the length of the course but even in a 3 hour workshop one could focus briefly on each aspect.

  • A demonstration of a variety of ways to tell stories, including the use of visual aids such as picture books, Kamishibais and felt story boards. Clear images can help students overcome difficulties with vocabulary so that they are able to flow with the narrative and enjoy the story.  This is a good moment to demonstrate that storytelling is much more than reading out loud and that it should be accompanied by clear eye contact to engage the listeners.
  • The basic tools of the narrator should be highlighted throughout the session. The tone and quality of voice and the importance of breathing and pauses. Non-verbal communication is also important as facial expression and gestures should always accompany the story in the right moments. In countries where people use a lot of gestures such as Spain and Italy teachers should be made aware that an excess of hand actions may distract the students from the story.
  • How to learn a story. I consider storytelling to be a visual art and see stories as a series of images. The art of the storyteller is to be able to describe these images clearly in one’s own words. After listening to a particular story I invite teachers to draw a little map or storyboard of it using simplified images. That way they can identify the main events of the story, order the sequence of these events and centre a little on what their characters may look like.
  • Shape the story for telling. After mapping out the story I invite teachers to do a little visualization exercise and take a walk through the landscapes of their individual stories. Here they can observe details through the different senses: They can feel the temperature and see the colours, they can stop off and get to know the characters they meet along the way, they can listen to their voices and perhaps even asking questions about their background. Objects can be touched, food tasted, flowers smelled, background noises listened to and feelings can be explored. All these elements help to make the story come alive. If the teacher can see the images it is easier to transmit these images to the students.
  • Adding emotions. It is useful to go back to the original drawing of the story and identify emotions in the storyline. 
  • Rhythm and musicality.  If possible add rhythm and repetitive phrases. That way it is easier to tell and the story is more memorable to the student. I have gone back to schools and heard children freely recall phrases from stories I had told them years before.
  • The story must have a clear structure with a beginning, a middle and an end. Most stories follow a familiar pattern. There once was a character, in a place and he or she faces a problem. He or she uses internal and/ or external resources to solve the problem. Afterwards there is some kind of positive change, transformation or learning as a result.
  • Practise telling the story:  the more times a story is told the richer it becomes. I advise teachers to tell their story to their families, to their pets, to themselves as they are having a shower or waiting on a bus and of course to their students.

In longer courses I would suggest:

  • Looking at the different types of stories that you can find, fairy stories, urban legends, tall stories etc. Finding stories that are connected to student needs. Do students need a story to activate them or to calm them down? Is there an issue in the class that could be dealt with indirectly through a particular story?
  • Telling stories from different perspectives. For example in ‘The Boy who Cried Wolf’ the wolf’s version of the story could be told or the boy’s version, his mum’s version, a neighbour’s version etc. This helps connect with the feelings of the different characters and makes the telling richer.
  • Story creation. There are many fun activities things you can do to create stories. One of the easiest it to take the structure from a known story and change the character, the setting and the events and you have a completely different story. You can also invent stories from sounds, pictures, photos, objects. We’ll talk more about this in the bulletin coming out soon that is dedicated to ‘Resources in the Classroom’.
  • Application in the classroom. There are lots of related activities to apply the stories in the classroom. Through stories we can  practise the 4 skills of speaking, listening, writing and reading and focus on vocabulary and the use of grammar in a fun way but we will examine this further in the bulleting coming out soon that deals with ‘Resources in the Classroom’.

A famous quote from Benjamin Franklin says. “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn”. Storytelling involves the students and the teachers. It inspires and it creates community, giving a feeling of belonging.  Stories activate the body and the emotions and they prepare the student for learning and stimulate long term memory learning. As well as the key competence of learning a foreign language other key competences are also touched. There are just so just so many good reasons for English teachers to start telling stories in the classroom and its fun!


Jennifer Ramsay

This article is part of AEDA´s  37th Bulletin: Storytelling in  the classroom