The Power of a Good Story: Using Stories in the Classroom

This article is another installment in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. In our eyes, teachers are superheroes, and we recognize them for their commitment to improving students’ lives. We hope you find these tips and suggestions helpful. And if you have ideas you would like to share with other teachers, please let us know. We would love to publish your article on our platform. You can reach out to us at esl_marketing@pearson.com

 By Jeremy Schaar

In 2007, I saw first-hand how powerful stories are for getting students excited about learning English.

I was teaching at a language academy in Chicago. It wasn’t a great school. There were never enough working CD players, and we bled each board marker dry. The teachers and students all knew it was a temporary gig/school until they could figure out something better. Still, we had fun like you have fun at a train station or a summer camp. The impermanence of it all was freeing, and the diversity of people was exciting.

One of my favorite students was an environmental lawyer from Poland who was a bartender in Chicago. He was irate when I met him. He’d signed up for Business English only to find himself in my Short Stories class. (They were both in a rotation of “advanced” classes, but never at the same time.) Business English was something useful for him. Short Stories was a waste of his time.

He showed up late and said he would leave early. (He had to work.) Then something remarkable happened. We read Can-Can by Arturo Vivante. In it, a man regrets setting up a rendezvous with a lover. The story is just a page or two long, but it’s full of rich material. The class talked about the language, the literary devices, and the themes. Then we started debating things, and while I can’t remember the Polish lawyer’s points, I’ll never forget the image of him standing halfway out the door, his arm waving in the air, shouting one last point about infidelity and marriage before he left to go to work… and then reappearing a minute later to make his last last point. He was hooked.

Pearson’s A World of Fiction, features “Can-Can” by Arturo Vivante and 15 other great short stories

In the end, we had a great class. Every lesson was full of passionate debates built around powerful stories.

I learned how great stories are for motivating the unenthusiastic student.

Now, let’s look at four more uses of stories as well as some good activities to do with stories.

Stories are a great jumping off point for a mixed-level classroom

One of the great uses of stories is to solve the problem of a mixed-level classroom. You start with the story and then let everyone fly as high as they can. The hardest part is finding the right story. You’ll want something that’s full of interesting images and ideas but not too hard to explain. Take 20-30 minutes to help everyone understand the story. Then do activities that work across levels.

Consider using Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken. There’s some hard language in it, but it’s short, so you can explain the ideas to students within 30 minutes. If students really struggle, encourage them to read a translation online.

Once the students have a basic understanding, the sky is the limit. Here are some activities you can use to deepen their understanding. You can do one activity as a class or let each student choose one they’d like to try.

Comprehension Building Activities:

  • Read the story to each other out loud, compare/contrast intonation
  • Retell the story to each other in their own words
  • Illustrate or act out the story
  • Write what happened just before or just after the story
  • Cut up the story into pieces, then reassemble the pieces from memory
  • Circle any new words, then find two synonyms for each new word

After your students have a deeper understanding, consider going further with these critical thinking activities.

Critical Thinking Activities:

  • Debate the meaning of ambiguous language/ideas
  • Guess why the author made some choices (e.g. why a wood and not a river?)
  • Find a story with a similar theme (in any language), compare/contrast the stories

Stories help you address challenging issues

There are any number of important issues we might like to address in the classroom. Issues like racism, sexism, and native speaker bias are important, but we can think more broadly. Consider family issues like disciplining children or an overbearing in-law. Or how about issues around making a career change, dealing with an illness, or breaking bad news?

They’re all hard to bring up. They are also a big part of our students’ lives, and we do them a disservice when we ignore them altogether. Stories let us all live in the challenging area for a minute without being overbearing or too personal. Here are some activities you can try after reading a story featuring a challenging or sensitive subject.

Sensitive Subject Activities

  • Identify empowering language. Our students often lack the language they need to stand up for themselves, but they can find it in stories. Have them circle useful language and describe situations they might use it.
  • Role-play the issue. It’s not nice to push students to talk about their own challenging issues, but role plays let everyone explore the issues in a detached way.
  • Describe how friends and family would react to the story. What would your friends back home think? How about your grandma? Why?

Stories show off the interconnected nature of language

We often think of language in terms of isolated things like definitions, grammar rules, and sounds. Language, however, is as much about the connections between things as the things themselves. For example, a word isn’t just its definition, but also all the words and grammar and ideas we associate with it. From this perspective, stories are a goldmine of connections. They show how the isolated bits add up to something greater than the sum of the parts.

Activities for Seeing Connections in Language

  • Find the words that go with other words. Identify some words that are repeated several times in the story. Then have the students list the words that come before and after those keywords.
  • Learn the importance of verb tense. Choose a new primary verb tense for the story and have the students list all the things they’d have to change to make it work.
  • Tell similar stories. Choose the ten most important words from the story. Then ask the students to imagine other stories they could tell with those same words.

Stories let everyone have some fun!

Finally, sometimes a story is just plain fun. That’s reason enough to share it with your students. Here are a few more fun activities you can do with your students using stories.

Fun Story Activities

  • Watch the movie! Graded readers especially are often based on movies. Enjoy the story. Then enjoy the movie.
  • Create a talk show with the characters. Imagine the characters are on a talk show. One student can be the host. The other students can be characters from the story.
  • Make a soundtrack. Ask each student to find and present a song that matches the story. Then make a playlist the students can keep forever.

* * * * *
Finding good stories is a challenge. Consider using these resources.

Pearson Graded Readers
A World of Fiction
True Stories
Classic Short Stories
Poetry in Voice

From classic stories to blockbuster film titles, our huge range of graded Readers features some of the world’s best-loved authors and the greatest stories ever told.


Jeremy Schaar is an English teacher who has bounced around the globe teaching and learning. He has taught in Russia, the United States, and South Korea. He has also developed content for colleges, websites, and textbook publishers. He is passionate about education in general and especially Business English, writing skills, and online learning. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremyschaar

Pearson’s University Success: Breaking It Down and Dishing It Out into Bite-Sized Chunks for EAP Student Success

By Mary Kay Seales, University of Washington

Note: This review was first submitted to the TESOL Higher Education Interest Section in December 2017.

Lockwood, R.B., Sokolik, M. & Zwier, L.J. (Eds.) (2017) University Success Series. Hoboken, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc.

Abstract

Pearson’s University Success series for EAP students brings together, and skillfully breaks down, the complex skills needed by English language learners at the university level.

Full Text

Anyone who has taught university-level English language learners knows that no matter how well they may have performed in their English language courses, they are usually not prepared for the shock of the real university classroom, which includes massive amounts of reading, competing in a classroom of native speakers, listening to hour-long lectures, and writing papers without their helpful English teachers nearby. How to help EAP students bridge this gap has been a subject of research and experimentation by English language teaching professionals for the last several decades, myself included. Delineating, and then breaking down those necessary skills that native English-speaking students take for granted has been a struggle for those of us working with this student population.

So here’s some good news. University Success, a new three-level series from Pearson, gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to helping students cross this bridge between their English language courses and life in a real university classroom. Each of the levels – Intermediate to High-Intermediate, Advanced, Transitional – is divided into Reading, Writing and Oral Communication skills, so three separate standalone textbooks at each of the three levels.

Each of the textbooks is also consistently divided into five content areas – Biology, Humanities, Engineering, Sociology, and Economics – as well as three sub-skill areas – Fundamental Skills, Critical Thinking Skills, and Authentic Extended Content. This consistency across textbooks and levels would make this an excellent series for an integrated Academic English Program, and the up-to-date topics, readings, and lectures by Stanford University professors give the series the authenticity they need.

Although there are myriad EAP textbooks, many of which I have used in my thirty-two-year teaching career at the University of Washington, this series brings together the best ideas from those texts into one book.  For example, in the Transitional level’s Oral Communication text, you can find activities covering everything from how to elaborate on a point you are trying to make to creating and communicating a visual, such as a graph or diagram. The critical thinking section of this particular text in the series includes a section on “interpreting and utilizing hedging devices,” something you might not think to teach but extremely useful. Finally, in the Authentic Content section of this textbook, students listen to authentic lectures by one of five experts while they practice using all the note-taking and listening skills they have learned in previous units. Even for experienced teachers, this helps break down the complex mix of skills need for understanding what’s going on in the classroom and taking a more active role as a student.

Another feature unique to this series is the level of attention given to the metacognition of language learning, which again is a nice feature for both teachers and students. Each mini-skill in every unit is explained clearly and succinctly, so students, and equally importantly, teachers can understand why they need to master it.  Although further research into the extent of the value of metacognition in language learning is needed, it has been shown to be a valuable enough tool to warrant adding it to our teaching strategies. “It is very worthwhile for teachers to understand the importance of metacognition in language learning because it helps learners to become autonomous and self-regulated language learners…teachers should focus on both teaching language content and teaching the ways and processes of learning” (Raoofi, Chan, Mukundan & Rashid, 2014, p.45). University Success textbooks operate on this assumption.

One other factor that I always look for in a textbook is the layout and design. I want something that is not too ESL-ish looking when I’m working with students who are serious college-level English language learners. The pages of the Transitional level of University Success are dense, the print is small, and the units are one to two pages in length. There are plenty of visuals to break up the pages – tables, photos, graphs, cultural notes in boxes – all making this, at least for me, a respectable-looking book to bring to the table for my graduate and undergraduate students.

In terms of support materials, the University Success series is accompanied by the online MyEnglishLab, where students go for the listening component of various activities throughout the textbooks, including the lectures and a self-assessment component at the beginning of each chapter.

As usual with textbooks, there is more than enough, maybe too much material. I would be hard put to get through all the activities in one textbook in the ten-week quarters we have in our English language programs at the UW.  Still, as an experienced teacher I would pick and choose from this text, and could put together a solid ten-week course using just this resource. I also think it is an excellent series for a new teacher who is trying to wrap their heads around the how to help their university-level students bridge that gap between their English classes and their university courses.

As one of the three series editors, Lawrence Zwier, an associate director of the English Language Center at Michigan State University puts it, this series provides an “academic onramp” for students, and I think it is definitely worth a look for your EAP courses.

References

Raoofi, S., Chan, S., Mukundan, J. & Rashid, S.M. (2014). Metacognition and Second/Foreign Langauge Learning. English Language Teaching, Vol. 7, (1), p.45.

www.PearsonELTUSA.com/UniversitySuccess


Mary Kay Seales has been an English language instructor at the University of Washington for over 30 years, specializing in instruction for EAP students. She also has extensive experience in teacher training in the U.S. and abroad.

Have you heard of PIAAC? (And why I think you should!)

by Federico Salas-Isnardi

(This article is excerpted from a longer article I published in the Texas Adult Education and Literacy Quarterly, 18, 2, pp. 1-3, Spring 2014.)

How many of you can raise your hand if I ask you about the 2012 PIAAC report?  How many of you understand its implications? Interestingly, as I talk to adult educators around the nation, many, if not most, tell me they have never heard of PIAAC.  Even many who say they heard of the report are uncomfortable articulating reasons why this study has serious implications for the practice of adult education.  So, what is PIAAC?

Released in October 2013 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for its member nations, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a cyclical study of the literacy, numeracy, reading, and problem-solving competencies of adults 16 to 65 in the USA and 22 other countries. Many of the comparison countries are among the twenty largest economies in the world.

Adults in the United States underperformed most of their counterparts in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The USA ranked 13 out of 24 countries in English language skills, 19 out of 24 in numeracy, and 15 in problem solving skills.  Over 36 million adults in the US have low literacy skills and fully one out every three adults have weak numeracy compared with the average across countries of one out of every five adults surveyed. Low level skills are distributed throughout different demographics in the USA, so that not only we have a larger percentage of adults with low skills but also a smaller proportion of the adult population has skills at the higher levels.  When racial and ethnic variables are considered, minorities are over-represented among those with low competencies; 43 percent of Hispanics and over 30 percent of Blacks score at the lowest levels of literacy used in the PIAAC study. When confronted with the dismal findings, many critics will counter that it is unfair to compare adults in the United States with counterparts in smaller nations or in countries with different or more homogeneous demographics.  However, one reason to be concerned is that the study compares our performance with that of adults in the other developed countries of the OECD, that is, the countries with which we compete for a slice of the global jobs pie.

Other findings

According to the PIAAC study, while adults in the USA have a higher rate of participation in adult education and training than adults in other countries, those who need the training the most are the least likely to get it.  Those of us working as administrators in adult education and literacy need to evaluate our programs; those of us who teach need to take a careful look at the teaching learning interaction in our classrooms, and those of us who focus on professional development must assess our training programs in order to determine why, in spite of the higher participation rate in education programs, our adults not only perform below average internationally but also show that we are getting worse instead of better over the last two decades.

It is also worth considering that the United States is not doing as well as other countries educating our youth; a separate OECD report on the skills of in-school 15 year olds (PISA, 2012) shows our young students scoring below their international counterparts in literacy and numeracy. The challenge is that while other countries have been able to address the skills gap of previous generations, youth in the United States don’t perform better, and often underperform their parents and grandparents.

The challenge to adult educators

It should be apparent now why I find it perplexing that so few in our field have taken the time to learn about this study.  I think that understanding the implications of the PIAAC study is a must for to educators and policymakers alike.  We know of the challenges our students with low literacy levels face obtain employment and to succeed in other personal or training endeavors.  It is noteworthy that according to the report, the United States has one of the highest percentages of available jobs requiring skills at a high school level or above. In other words, while most jobs in demand in this country require higher literacy skills, our adult population has lower skills than the countries we compete with.

So, what are we to do with this knowledge?  It seems to me that our first gut-reaction should be to acknowledge loudly that what we have been doing in adult education is not working.  We need to rethink literacy education and very purposefully integrate numeracy and technology-enabled problem solving in all our adult education programs.  And beyond that, we need to see the PIAAC report as a call to action and we should respond each within our purview because only collective action will address the massive challenges. Adult educators must be proactive and sit at the table as solutions for the problem in K-12 are considered because the literacy crisis affecting our adults is made worse by an ongoing flow of under-skilled youth.

 

For information on PIAAC and the study, visit the OECD

To access the study for the United States click here.

Link to: PISA 2012


Federico Salas-Isnardi has 30 years of experience in Adult Education and second language acquisition.  He has conducted hundreds of workshops on many aspects of adult education, literacy, and ESL and has focused on intercultural and diversity training as well as social justice issues affecting students and teachers for over 25 years.

Federico served on the team that developed the US Naturalization test and is one of the authors of Future US Citizens and a consultant to the Future English for Results series.

Fast Fiction: Teaching Reading and Critical Thinking

2014_Sybil_Marcus  Sybil Marcus

In ESL we’re constantly looking for new ways to surprise and engage our students while teaching core language skills. My focus has always been literature—I’ve found it to be the perfect vehicle for combining all the core language skills of reading, speaking, writing, grammar, and vocabulary with lots of critical thinking and the chance to expand cultural awareness. Continue reading

Transferring Skills for University Success

robyn_brinks_ps (1)  Robyn Brinks Lockwood, with Sara Davila 

The challenge of having a C1-level learner in class may be familiar to many teachers. You have an international student, who, for all intents and purposes, is a highly advanced English speaker who seems perfectly prepared for the challenge of university life. It’s easy to have a conversation, and the student can follow along in a discussion with other non-native English speakers with relative ease. There are no obvious gaps in vocabulary, and language use, with a few minor exceptions, is grammatically flawless. This is a learner that a teacher assumes would do well in any field of study. And yet, this very same student who is energized and ready to learn will suddenly end up in an English language course to further build their language skills. Why? What happened?

Essentially, regardless of C1-level learners’ high mastery of fluency with spoken communication, they are still not ready for the rigor of academic study required to be successful in academic classes in their field of specialization. In some ways, such learners are jumping off an English language-learning cliff. They are moving from classes with tightly leveled content for listening and reading and minimal writing requirements into an environment where the expectation of professors is that they have already attained the ability to successfully read and understand 50 or more pages of reading a day, participate in 90-minute lectures, and successfully write detailed and lengthy research-based papers. What can language teachers do to help address the needs of these already highly advanced learners? Continue reading