This is the fourth* of a series of articles for teachers of very young learners, linking highly-practical, tried-and-tested activities by Ola Komada (Teddy Eddie) and ELT methodology background notes by Grzegorz Śpiewak (deDOMO Education).
*this article was first published in the Teacher Magazine 06/2015
PART 1 by Ola Komada
I believe that stories are vital in the YL classroom as they offer a major – and constant – source of language experience. They are intrinsically motivating and rich in natural language. And, above all, very young students love them! In my experience, using stories enhances YL language acquisition as they teach young children to understand natural language flow, where new words and unknown chunks do not disturb a global sense of understanding. The way that key utterances are naturally repeated within a story gives us a teacher a great opportunity for oral recycling – learners first simply repeat certain words and expressions as they recur, then they learn parts of the stories by heart. They end up using relevant phrases in adequate contexts beyond the original story context. However, doing stories in a YL classroom may well end up badly, with kids being either bored or discouraged. I hope that the ideas presented below will help you to achieve a very different outcome.
Before you start presenting a story, it is crucial to focus students on the activity itself – and of course also on the main storyline. Here is how:
- put away all objects that may distract your kids (toys, flashcards etc.).
- introduce a routine that will make students quiet and calm, for example a simple rhyme like that:
“Abracadabra, buzzing bees, everybody quiet, please!”
At the end of such a ‘logistical’ rhyme students should put their index fingers on their mouths and whisper: “shhh…”
- use a ‘FOCUS POCUS POSITION’ – get your students to sit with their legs crossed, elbows on their knees, with index fingers pointing at the ceiling. Surprisingly this special position lets them stay focused for a longer period of time J
- add a sense of mystery and build some suspense – try to stage-whisper what you are going to do but make it sound really special: “Now we are going to listen to a VERY special story. It’s about a naughty hamster. Oh, no! Something scary is going to happen to it! Ooo!” I often mix the mother tongue with English on this occasion as it makes students much more interested when they understand exactly what is going to happen.
- STORY THROUGH THE BODY
OK, so you have managed to focus your YLs sufficiently and they have listened to the story more or less attentively. What should happen next? In my view, after you present the story it is good to make students listen to it at least one more time, possibly two or even three times, depending on how complex/ linguistically challenging it proves to be. The trouble is that by now they already know what the story is about and how it is going to end – so it is a bit tricky to focus them again (and again). This is the moment when the TPR method comes in handy.
- Get your students to stand up, listen to the story and “act out everything”. They pretend to be all the characters at once and do all the gestures and movements that are needed to visualize the story.
- Students can even act out the descriptions and feelings, they shiver when they hear that it is cold, they huff and puff when it’s hot etc.
- Try to read the story in jumbled order (if you have an appropriate version of the recording, it is even better). Students will have to listen really carefully to act out the scenes in a new, unfamiliar sequence.
- If there are two or three characters in the story you may divide the group into two or three smaller groups and let each group act out one character and thus move together in a similar fashion. This exercise is great in a considerably mixed ability group, where some children understand a lot and weaker students just copycat others.
- While acting the story out try to stop the recording (or pause your reading) in unexpected places – your students will have to “freeze” at that moment. You may then walk among them and check who is really “still.” They start moving when you resume telling/ reading the story.
- GAMES WITH STORY FLASHCARDS
Many of the YL lessons that I observe include a flashcard game. Yet, very few of these games make use of story flashcards. This is very surprising as story flashcards are perfect for most YL in-class games – including all-time classics like “What’s missing” (see below). What’s more, they help YLs repeat complete utterances taken from a story and thus memorize relatively long chunks of language.
- GAME 1 – WHAT’S MISSING
Students sit in a circle, a few flashcards are scattered on the floor, inside the circle. The teacher tells students to close their eyes and hides a flashcard. Students open their eyes and guess what is missing. When you play the game with ordinary flashcards you may get a word such as: “a banana!” or if you are lucky (and insist that your students speak in full sentences) a longer phrase: “I like bananas!” But if you play the game using story flashcards you may even get a sentence such as: “Once upon a time there was a little girl called Little Red Riding Hood.”
- GAME 2 – ROLL AND WALK
Place the story flashcards on the carpet, in a circle (a reasonably big one). Students should stand in a circle around the flashcard circle, each student next to one flashcard. You roll a dice. Students walk clockwise as many steps as there are points on the dice (one step is one flashcard). When they stop you choose two or three students to say what flashcard is next to them. Then again you roll the dice, students walk and say what they “have got.” Here you can also get a sentence such as: “Stop! Don’t run! Stay with your mummy and daddy, Gingerbread boy!”
- WHO IS WHO
At one point you will surely want to act the whole story out with your kids, and give each student a role to perform. It is worth to remember a few practical tips.
- All students should take part in the “show” and play their favourite character, so relax when you end up with three Little Red Riding Hoods, five Bad Wolves and you as the granny, as nobody likes that role. Remember, it’s not about your young learners ‘cast’ of story characters to be faithful to the story – rather, it is all about fun and extra language practice as a by-product (something that many teachers of YLs seem to forget about, in my experience as a lesson observer).
- Even if you assign the roles and repeat who is playing whom a few times, the moment you start your young students are sure to forget their characters. That is why I always use plastic badges and/or pictures of characters and attach them to students’ T-shirts, so that they can look at a visual cue as many times as they need to. Another idea is to use plain paper plates, with the proper character drawn on them and a piece of string attached, to be hung on students’ necks.
- NO OVERKILL…
It is easy to get excited with a great story and retell it so many times that your students will end up tired and even fed up – and thus lack interest when you present a new story to them some time later. That is why when I try to keep my students interested throughout the whole story cycle I never do all exercises and activities related to that story during one lesson. I spend more or less 5 to 10 minutes each time “doing” the story and then we play games or perform activities that are not connected with the story directly. I always leave a little bit of understatement, for example when we listen to a story and act it out and students ask for more, I promise them “another great story activity” during the next lesson. This makes them look forward to our next session, where we continue our story telling, retelling, acting, reacting and drama, and much more.
PART 2 by Grzegorz Śpiewak
It’s how we tell them !
The title of my piece in a sense says it all, particularly when it comes to stories in a young learners’ foreign language classroom. The potential benefits of stories as a vehicle of foreign language learning have been praised over and over again – see e.g. Morgan & Rinvolucri (1988), Vale & Feunteun (1996), Wright (2009), and especially the truly comprehensive summary in Paradowski (2014, which includes a succinct discussion of types of stories for classroom use, story selection criteria, as well as key before/while/after telling techniques.
Importantly, Paradowski (2014) locates the unique potential of stories in the language classroom as a by-product of the learner being involved – potentially at least – not just cognitively, but very much through the whole body. To Paradowski, the intuitive appeal of kinaesthetic and even tactile aspects of storytelling can be grounded in the recent thinking and research into ”embodied cognition”, which in turn may well lead to a major re-appraisal of the relative strength of the main learning modalities (2014: 32 ff). This offers a highly attractive theoretical basis for the TPR (Total Physical Response) activities that Ola Komada offers in the practical part of this article. Paradowski argues that “[p]hrases which are acted out when we are trying to remember them are more likely to be subsequently recalled than those which are [only] verbally encoded into memory”(2014:32).
The same goes for activities that include at least a certain amount of gesturing – recent research studies (e.g. Macedonia, Muller & Friederici 2011, Tellier 2008, among many others) have confirmed positive effects on both short- and long-term recall. Notably, the effect holds “not only for learning concrete words with iconic co-speech gestures, but also abstract words accompanied by the enactment of symbolic gestures, vs. ones learnt [only] audio-visually” (cf. Paradowski (2014: 33), my stress).
This is perhaps not that surprising, given the natural suspense, attention focus and genuine emotions that will accompany the telling of an in-class story (provided it is well selected and aptly presented). They help the young learner audience remember not only the plot and sequence of events, but first and foremost the language used. The really good, engaging stories will literally resonate in learners’ ears long afterwards, which further enhances long-term storage of target lexis, phrases and grammatical structures – a highly attractive alternative to tedious, mechanical in-class repetitions. As Ola Komada notes at the outset, “storytelling can [and does] make use of frequent reiterations of words and phrases that will be perfectly natural in the context, for instance when a certain schema or ritual reoccurs several times during the plot” (Paradowski2014: 15, stress added).
The very act of successfully participating in an event of foreign language storytelling aids the development of the receptive skills of listening in L2. As Wright notes, this is founded on “a positive, lenient attitude to not comprehending everything and on developing the skills of searching for meaning, predicting and guessing” (2009: 4). If the learners are also encouraged systematically to reproduce (parts of) in-class stories, their productive skills of speaking (and later on, writing as well) are attended to, again based on “a positive attitude to ‘having a go’ with the language, the skill of constructing meaning with limited resources, and not being anxious about making mistakes” (op.cit.).
As Paweł Tkaczyk has insisted in a recent plenary lecture, the story itself is but one of three elements of the “storytelling triangle”, the other two being the storyteller and the audience. The ideas and tips in the fourth, concluding episode of this mini-series are all about the how of storytelling so that the very young learner audience can benefit from the experience to the full – psychologically, pedagogically and above all linguistically. As Tkaczyk maintains, an act of storytelling is in fact two-directional in nature, with the audience – not just the storyteller herself – having a major impact on the end-result, as anyone who has ever been to a real classroom will easily agree with. We as teachers may not all be naturally born storytellers, but this need not stop us from offering our YLs a truly first-rate storytelling experience, provided we do know how!
Macedonia, M., Muller, K., Friederici, A.D. (2011) “The impact of iconic gestures on foreign language word learning and its neural substrate”, in: Human Brain Mapping 32: 982-988
Morgan, J., Rinvolucri, M. (1988) Once Upon a Time. Using Stories in the Language Classroom, Cambridge University Press
Paradowski, M. (2014) “Storytelling in language teaching – re-evaluating the weight of kinaesthetic modality for brain-compatible pedagogy”, Storytelling Vol. 1 no. 2: 13-51
Tellier (2008) “The effect of gestures on second language memorization by young children”, Gesture 8: 219-235
Vale, D., Feunteun, A. (1996) Teaching Children English: A Training Course for Teachers of English to Children, Cambridge University Press
Wright, A. (2009) Storytelling with Children, Oxford University Press
 „Alicja w krainie … marketingu”, plenary talk delivered at „Skills and Stories”, 2015 Macmillan VIP Event, Warsaw, May 22, 2015.
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