Use storytelling to enhance language learning

This post is a supplement to my Deskundigheidsdag presentation at In’to Languages at Radboud University.

Authentic teaching materials are everywhere if you’re a language teacher. There are newspapers, websites, and textbooks galore if you are looking for non-fiction or literary texts to work with. These texts are impersonal. They do not tell individual stories and the content is not always interesting. Not every student is interested in the expanding British royal family or North Korea’s latest nuclear test. Personal stories well told, however, are almost always interesting.

Storytelling is a great classroom tool for developing language skills. Students from beginners to academic writers can benefit from sharing their own stories as well as listening to or reading others’ stories. The challenge for language teachers is to mine storytelling experiences for language learning opportunities. There are many ways to do just that.

A story-based lesson or series of lessons can incorporate all language skill areas; writing, listening, speaking, and reading. Stories can also be useful for teaching functional language skills such as getting attention or using descriptive language. Storytelling also provides an opportunity to discuss narrative structure, a skill that many speakers and writers neglect.

A series of lessons that builds on all these skills might start with asking students to write a simple personal story around a theme or moment in life. The students could then tell each other the story in small groups. This could lead to a writing assignment to rewrite the story with more details or in a different tense. Students could write the story they heard. These assignments could be brought back to the classroom for others to read. Follow-up assignments could include improving linking word usage, adding descriptive language, or telling the story to the class.

Below are examples of how you can use storytelling in your language classroom:

  • Read a story, fairy tale, folktale, or fable
  • Read a story your classmate wrote
  • Read an article and retell the story in narrative form
  • Write the key moments of a story to summarize it
  • Change the tense of the story
  • Write a story from a different character’s perspective
  • Listen to your teacher or classmate tell a story
  • Listen to a storytelling podcast (The Moth) or watch a storyteller video
  • Listen to a live storyteller
  • Tell a story for the class
  • Gossip a story, telling it casually to a classmate while walking together
  • Introduce new vocabulary: idioms, phrases, or imagery
  • Use descriptive language: people, places, things, and sensory experiences
  • Use linking words stronger and more meaningful than “and then”
  • Practice active vs passive
  • Combine past tenses for setting the scene versus showing action
  • Use reported language
  • Getting audience interest

Teaching narrative structure through storytelling helps students prepare effective presentations. Stories require a beginning, middle, and end as well as a main character, purpose, and action. Structuring lessons particularly useful for business or communication students.

A final benefit to storytelling is that personal stories help create community. Storytelling requires the storyteller to make themselves vulnerable by sharing something about themselves. Even if the topic of the story is relatively impersonal, the choices the storyteller makes in telling the story make it personal every time.

Do this:

Try telling a personal story to introduce a topic during your next class or presentation by linking them with a universal theme. Then use one of the suggestions above to get your students working with stories in the classroom!

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