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

Picture It: A Drawing-Based Pre-Reading Activity

 2013_Heyer_Sandra Sandra Heyer
In the last newsletter, I shared drawing tips that make it possible for any teacher, even one as inept at drawing as I am, to convey meaning with simple sketches on the board. In this newsletter, I’ll share some ideas for making drawings the centerpiece of a pre-reading activity.
Many textbooks at the lowest levels have pre-reading drawings built right into the book. For example, each unit at the Very Easy and Easy levels in the True Stories reading series begins with comic-strip-style drawings like those below, which are from Unit 11 in All New Easy True Stories. (The story, titled “The Best Doctor,” is about a woman in Alaska whose knee problem was finally resolved after she was chased by a bear.)
Sandra_Heyer_Feb1Appropriately, textbooks beyond the entry levels do not give students the extensive visual support that picture-based readers do; however, I have found that students above the first levels still benefit from seeing just a few drawings before they read. Where do I find these drawings? I sketch them myself on the board, using drawing tips I learned from the late Norma Shapiro and from her resource book Chalk Talks. I’ve seen the positive effects of this picture-based approach so many times that now I always preview a reading selection with drawings.
How does the preview work? I simply tell students the beginning of the story they’re going to read, all the while drawing simple illustrations on the board. (I usually draw about five sketches.) For example, Unit 10 in the Beginning-level reader True Stories in the News, “Love or Baseball,” is about a guy named Joe who fakes a broken leg to get out of taking his girlfriend to a dance; he’s a baseball fan, and his favorite team is playing in the World Series the night of the dance. I set up the reading with sketches like these:
Sandra_Heyer_Feb2
The key to this technique’s success is to tell just enough of the story to set the stage for the reading selection but stop short of giving the story ending away, ideally stopping at a “cliff-hanger” point. In the case of “Love or Baseball,” I don’t tell my students how Joe manages to fake a broken leg or how his scheme works out for him—they read the story to find out.
You might also want to try these variations of the basic technique: Continue reading

Teaching Consonant Blends, Digraphs, and Trigraphs

John_Caine
Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

More than any other request, my students ask me to help them with pronunciation and vocabulary. After my first few semesters, I realized that a key factor in helping them was to start with consonant blends.

A consonant blend (also called a consonant cluster) is a group of two or three consonants in words that makes a distinct consonant sound, such as bl, br, cl, cr, dr, fl, fr, gl, gr, pl, pr, qu, sc, sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, sw, tr, and tw, We can group these into “l” and “r” blends, which are the most frequent and convenient to categorize.

A digraph is a single sound, or phoneme, that is represented by two letters. A trigraph is a phoneme that consists of three letters.

Consonant digraphs include ch, ck, gh, kn, mb, ng, ph, sh, th, wh, and wr. Some of these create a new sound, as in ch, sh, and th. Some, however, are just different spellings for already familiar sounds. Some consonants have “silent partners”: for example gh is a different spelling for “f” and mb is “m” while wr is still the “r” sound.

Sometimes reframing the concept in familiar terms lowers the affective filter encouraging self-scaffolding. Our goal is to encourage students to use the language they’re learning, and making the language fun to use is a great way to do that. Blends are fairly straightforward because they keep their phonemic structure. But sometimes helping students to vocalize these blends can be daunting. Teaching decoding helps them recognize and form new words.

But, there are so many blends and digraphs in English. Where to begin? Ah, the one reliable go-to connection for teaching—food. This is something familiar, something students can relate to, and something they can practice using since they come in contact with these items every day. Continue reading

F is for Frequency

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Here are two key questions related to frequency: What are the most frequent words in the English language? and How frequently do we need to be exposed to new words in order to acquire them?

To answer the first question, certain words in every language appear more often than others. A common list of the most frequent 20 words in English typically includes the, be, and, of, a, in, to, have, to, it, I, that, for, you, he, with, on, do, say, and this.

Many would agree that these 20 words seem extremely common, but any comprehensive list of words tends to be drawn from a selective corpus, or body of words. The selective nature of any corpus influences what words will appear most often. For example, the Cambridge International Corpus replaces some of the above top 20 words with, uh, yeah, know, like, they, so, was, and but. Many teachers would take exception to teaching uh and yeah as among the most important words for their beginner students to learn.

The sources for corpora are often dialect-specific, for example, American English or British English, and may focus on written English or spoken English or a combination. Some corpora only collect words related to particular themes and time periods (e.g., 18th-century novels) or specific genres of speech or writing, such as medical English. Some corpora document dead or obscure forms of English, such as those drawn from Old English, Middle English, and Early English texts.

Scroll to the end of the article for teacher tasks and student tasks.

 

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