Storytelling in the EFL Classroom


When you think of using storytelling in the classroom, do you just think of young learner courses? This article is based on work originally prepared for our Delta Module One course, and focuses on the uses of storytelling in the EFL classroom for a range of different learner types and learning contexts, giving an example of each. 

1. Use: To increase learner engagement in listening .activities. Particularly relevant to YLs (primary) courses. Young children love listening to stories, often the same ones again and again, which can be usefully exploited in the YLs classroom, both to increase motivation and to constantly recycle and consolidate language.

Example: The T. can finish the class with a story – either using a “classic” such as “Where’s Spot?” or “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” which has language within the children’s grasp, or showing a video from You Tube – such as one from the Peppa Pig series which the children may well know and love in their own language. The language contained in the video may be too difficult for the children, but it can be played without sound, with the T providing a simplified version of the commentary and the characters’ speech.


2. Use: To develop the text mediation skills of listening, summarising what was heard and expressing a personal reaction to the text.  

Example:  (particularly relevant to lower level learners for whom there is not much extended listening available). The T. can choose a novel in the form of a  graded reader at the Ls’ level (and suitable for their age group) and read a chapter every lesson (or, if there is an accompanying recording, use that). Comprehension can be checked simply by asking the Ls to tell their partner what they understood, whether they enjoyed it and why, what they thought of the characters etc. In the next lesson, learners can recap the “story so far” (useful if there have been absentees and providing useful task repetition to help in developing fluency) before the story is continued.

3. Use To prepare Ls for exams where they will have to recount a story. Particularly relevant to exam-oriented YLs courses aiming at exams such as Cambridge Flyers, or First for Schools. In the exam, they may have to write the story, but it can be prepared orally first in PW, to give the Ls planning and speaking practice. 

Example: A group studying for First for Schools is given the same information as they would have in the exam – a first sentence and obligatory content. In small groups they brainstorm ideas for the story and gradually formulate it. The T. monitors helping with unknown or incorrect language. When they have formulated their stories they change partners and listen to each other’s stories, possibly making suggestions for additions or improvement, which can then be incorporated into the final writing stage.


4. Use: To develop fluency by giving the learners a chance to prepare and tell a story or anecdote  more than once (task repetition). Particularly relevant to teen and adult group courses. The approach uses the following steps : Silent planning - Language Input and T. model  - Task Enactment (PW) - Follow up (feedback and further language input) – Partner change –and Task Repetition - Feedback  - and possibly further repetition. Weaker Ls who need to continue “polishing”  their story can tell it again, while strong learners are given the challenge of telling a story they heard from one of their previous partners. This technique can therefore work well in mixed ability groups. 

Example Language focus – brainstorming of lexis in the field of bad weather. Model and listening practice  – the T tells an anecdote of a time s/he was caught in bad weather – comprehension check. Silent planning time – the Ls think of their own anecdote on the topic and ask the T. for any problem language. Speaking practice – they then tell the anecdote to their partner. Feedback – error correction, and upgrading of language overheard and a second chance to ask for any unknown language which “emerged” during the first telling. Ls then change partners and tell the anecdote again. Further feedback is done and there is then another change of partner.


5. Use: To give exposure to (listening practice) and speaking practice of common features of narrative texts such as narrative verb forms, especially past tense forms. This is relevant to all levels. At elementary level this may just be past simple and continuous; at intermediate level past perfect simple can first be incorporated, and finally at B2/C2, past perfect continuous. 

Examples: Any of the storytelling techniques described in other points can be used for this purpose.        


6. Use: To develop the coping skill of asking for clarification while listening. 

Example : The  Ls are divided into small groups, each with a bell or buzzer (if not available, then “hands up” works) The T. tells a story or recounts an anecdote, building in certain lexical items that s/he knows the ls won’t understand. When they hear them the must press their buzzer or raise their hands. The first team to do so asks What does XXX mean? or a similar exponent of asking fo clarification, the word is explained and the group receives a point. This is particularly relevant to elementary and lower intermediate learners, who often have difficulty identifying problems and interrupting to ask for clarification. The competitive element is particularly suited to YLs  (groups should be equally balanced between strong an weak learners, and there can be a rule that, after one person in the group has contributed, it must be a different member who asks. This stops stronger learners dominating.)


7. Use: To practise interactive listening. The T. tells a story or recounts an anecdote and at certain points pauses. At that point, a learner has to ask a question or make a comment before s/he continues. Particularly relevant to intermediate learners who, as stated as stated above, often have difficulty “interrupting” another speaker, and therefore in participating in primarily interactional discourse.  

Example: A business English learner who I taught 121 said that his most important problem was not participating in meetings, presentations etc where the topic was predictable and the discourse structured, but in the “social conversation” in coffee breaks, at lunch and dinner etc. He often had difficulty following what the speaker was talking about, and when he could, by the time he had formulated a contribution, the discussion had moved on. This technique helped him by first giving him the extra “thinking time” he needed, As the course progressed, he gradually became more proficient at interrupting.


8. Use: To develop bottom-up decoding listening skills – eg: decoding features of connected speech and other features of the spoken language.  May be relevant to learners in a non-English speaking environment, who have little contact outside the class room with features of NS speech, but may need to understand it in the future, or learners in an English Speaking Environment who have to cope on a daily basis with such features.   

Example: The T tells a story or recounts an anecdote into which the features s/he wants to focus on have been built. After work on comprehension of the information has been done, a gapped transcript is given out. The Ls first predict what they think might be in the gaps and the T confirms whether their answer are or aren’t possible, and if not why not. The Ls then listen again for the words which were actually used and the T explains as necessary.


9. Use: To develop top down processing skills – eg interpreting non-explicitly stated meaning. The T. will tell a story where the “moral” is not explicitly stated but must be inferred, such as Sufi stories. (Alan Maley has termed these  “Wisdom Stories”.) Particularly relevant to intermediate learners.  

Example:  Eg (outline of story only) A village was suffering from severe drought – day after day the people went to the temple to pray for rain but the drought continued – cattle and crops were dying  - then one day a little girl went to the temple to pray – as she did there was suddenly a crack of thunder and the rain started to pour down. - smiling happily she picked up her umbrella and left.  I often use three or four of this type of story and start by giving one story to each group. They read it, then turn it over and from memory try and reconstruct it together. If they are unsure about something, one person can turn it over to check. When they are clear on all the details of the story, they put the text away, and then change partners so that each group has members who have read different stories. They each tell their stories to each other, working together to decide the “moral” of each.

10. Use: To teach effective storytelling and reading aloud skills (eg the use of word grouping, stress and intonation, weak forms etc) for learners to do actually have to tell/read stories in real life. This is particularly relevant to NNESTs on Language Development for Teachers courses, to enable them to improve their reading aloud skills and thus be able to use stories in their own classrooms in some of the ways mentioned above. However, ... 

Example: I have also had a 121 learner who was a grandmother, whose daughter had married an American, lived in the US and was about to have a baby - who would be brought up speaking English. My client, at A1 level, wanted to be able to play with her grandchild - and that included reading him/her stories. We therefore worked on the type of books for young children which she might use. like Where’s Spot? and others like it.

11. Use: To encourage and develop creativity. Particularly relevant to YLs for whom the teacher is arguably not “just” a language teacher but must be an “educator”. This role includes developing higher order thinking skills, of which creativity is the highest in Bloom’s Taxonomy

Example: Ls can be given an ambiguous picture – I use one with a photo of a woman and young boy asleep on a hard airport chair (planes can be seen through the window). Prompt questions such as Where are they? Who are they? Why are they there? What’s happened? are set and discussed in pairs. Answers are elicited and boarded. All ”banal” answers (eg a mother and her son; they’re going on holiday) are crossed out and the learners then change partners and see if they can come up with a more interesting story, avoiding “obvious” solutions.