IATEFL 2015: Storytelling in the 21st Century Primary Classroom – Viv Lambert and Mo Choy


Love the cheshire cat! 🙂


We started with “Welcome welcome” song and some storytelling from Alice in Wonderland. This was to remind us what storytelling feels like. Today we will learn about its relevance in the 21st century. Storytelling evolved as a way of passing on knowledge and culture from generation to generation. We are all storytellers. E.g. when we tell anecdotes. We edit, sequence, choose words for effect, add gesture and expression, and most importantly, emotion. Without emotion it’s just a list of events. It’s a shared experience and still an important form of communication.

We all use stories in the language classroom, children love them, see them as a treat like songs. You get all the language in one package, one context. Children listen with purpose – to know what will happen next.

There are pedagogical reasons for it:


Being literate opens doors for everybody in all walks of life. The more we read, the more we learn about life, the better we can connect with people. Lots of studies have shown the benefits of reading on both first and second language development. E.g. Krashen. The knock on effect is better speaking, writing, spelling. Children who are keen readers do better in all subjects. Reading for pleasure has more influence on how well children do at school than social and economic factors.


How do we choose stories for the language classroom?

We have graded readers, stories in course books, anecdotes, childrens’ own stories… but what about selecting storybooks?


Further activities could be acting, craft etc.

With young learners, images are very important to aid with processing. Genres xx have used in Story central: a myth, a superhero comic, a folktale, a factual story (based on a news story). There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to selecting stories. Anything which the children will enjoy and will let them learn something about their world has value.

“There’s no such thing as a child who hates to read, there are only children who have not found the right book.” – Frank Serafini.

We do have a continuous stream of attention-grabbing information from our devices, but at the same time, it also gives us more choices of reading material e.g. ebooks, audio books. If you share reviews online, you become part of a community that helps you find the books you like quicker, through recommendation.

Whispersync technology – allows you to synchronise audio and text versions of the book, so that you can switch between the audio and the book, or listen at the same time with the words highlighted as you go. (Like Black Cat)

Digital storytelling can add interactivity. A good blended learning course allows print and digital to work side by side. For example, showing the pages of the storybook on an interactive whiteboard, you can zoom in on the frame you want to focus on and highlight the text, pause the audio, do all manner of things. Storytelling videos add yet another dimension.

<We are shown a storytelling video from Storycentral>


With this endless stream of entertainment from the technology around, then getting information isn’t the problem anymore. The question is how we navigate the maze of material out there. Children need to know what to do with it and what trust to place it in. This is where critical thinking comes in. We need to develop reasoning skills. Critical thinking allows us to question – who wrote it? when did they write it? what was their perspective? It’s a way of analysing and evaluating all that information around us.

So, to equip children for life in 21st century, understanding a text isn’t enough, they need higher order thinking skills:


It all sounds a little ambitious, with young learners? But actually, children are natural critical thinkers. What parent or teacher hasn’t at some stage been exasperated by constant questions from children? Why this? Why that? If you want to improve your critical thinking skills, act like a 6 year old! In the classroom, there is a lot of emphasis on passing tests and getting the answers right, while critical thinking encourages divergent and creative thinking. The child is not an empty slate but someone with valid opinions. There isn’t always a correct answer.



Which are higher order thinking? Which are lower order?

  1. Lower
  2. Lower
  3. Lower
  4. Higher
  5. Higher
  6. Higher

So the first three are simple comprehension questions, require recall and have a correct answer. The last three involve evaluating, imagining and predicting. You have to think more deeply to answer these. They had to find ways to simplify these questions, in some cases it could be a reason to use mother tongue.



  1. Fact
  2. Opinion
  3. Fact
  4. Opinion
  5. Opinion

Being able to distinguish between fact and opinion will help children to evaluate what they learn and gauge the reliability of what they encounter.



Describe the picture. Adjectives. Lush. Tranquil. Now imagine you are a teenager living in a house in that scene. Your friends live in the city. Wifi is rubbish. Transport links are terrible. Now describe it. Boring. Isolated. Desperate.

As you can see, two totally different points of view, about the same place.

Enter the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (Task)

Whose point of view is it?


  1. Town Mouse
  2. Country Mouse
  3. Country Mouse
  4. Town Mouse
  5. Country Mouse

Questioning whose point of view is expressed helps us to identify bias.

The Ant and the Grasshopper 


What do you think is going to happen next? Winter comes… the grasshopper has no food and is hungry/miserable. Predicting what’s going to happen next involves analysing a situation and imagining whats going to happen. Encourages children to think ahead and think about the consequences of actions. And hopefully to make better decisions as a result!

Are you an ant or a grasshopper?


“Imagine you have a magic pen. Draw something.” – They asked people of all ages to draw something and got this wide array of answers:


  • Bill, age 61 – spring
  • Sheila, age 82 – a nice cup of tea after a long day’s shopping

How simple critical activities can be even though the involve these higher order skills.



We started with Alice, so now we are going to finish with Alice too.


Alice is questioning! The moment she descends into the rabbit hole, she questions everything she thought she knew. A true critical thinker!

Brilliant session! Looking forward to getting back in the classroom with my Ms (11-12 year olds) now!! 🙂


Speaking and storytelling

In a recent post, I outlined a collaborative writing activity for consolidating past simple and past continuous tense use. In that post, I briefly mentioned a possible follow up activity, using learner generated content and focusing on selected elements of spoken narrative. Since then, I’ve done just that with my pre-intermediate learners, and found it worked well, so I thought I’d share what I did with it here…

Time: 45 minutes (depending on class size/group size)

Materials: Cut up structural elements of spoken narrative and their linguistic realisations. (See example here ) (With higher levels, previously, I’ve cut up all the chunks individually but with my pre-ints I cut the chunks up in groups, so they had to match groups of chunks with the function rather than individual chunks, to provide more scaffolding)

Focus: Chunks of language used to structure stories when told orally (rather than written).

As I mentioned, I did this as a follow up to a lesson focusing on consolidation of past simple and continuous. For homework, I asked learners to prepare a story to tell a small group of their classmates at the start of the next lesson. Some of them hadn’t done the homework, but I grouped them so that in each pair/small group, at least one person had done the homework, meaning there was student-generated content to work from.

  • Give learners a few minutes to tell their stories to their pair/group. Give some delayed feedback on language use.
  • Tell the learners that the aim of the next part of the lesson is to look at the language often used in storytelling.
  • Hand out the cut-up chunks of language and functions; ask learners to match them.
  • Give learners each a copy of the handout as it was before you chopped it all out.
  • Do some pronunciation work, so that they can get their mouths around the chunks and experiment with intonation.
  • Get them to think about how they could integrate the language into the stories they told at the start of the lesson.

(Some of my learners had written out their story, some hadn’t; the activity worked in both instances: learners were looking closely at their writing, or discussing what they had said, and matching parts of it to the various functions, to decide which chunks to include. I monitored and guided them if they were using a chunk inappropriately.)

  • Once learners have finished, either regroup them and let them re-tell their stories to a new group/partner, using that new language and follow that up by letting a few tell their stories to the whole class, or, as in the case of the second class I tried this with, if you only have a small number of students, if they have practiced their story in their groups, you can skip straight to the whole class stage and let all of them have the opportunity to show off!

(My students automatically gave each other questions to answer before re-telling their stories, in the first class which tickled me!)

The next part of the sequence uses Headway Pre-Int 4th edition’s picture story of a flight attendant, Stephen Slater, who gets hit over the head by a passenger taking their bag out of the overhead compartment before the plane had stopped moving. Slater goes crazy and opens the emergency exit/slide, slides down and is arrested. Based on a true story! The book sequence is a series of newspaper articles related to the story and the picture story forms part of an opening activity. However, any simple picture story would do here!

  • Get learners to tell the story in the pictures, using the storytelling language that they’ve just been working with.
  • Tell the learners that same story (in my case I did it from the point of view of one of the other passengers on the flight!), of course using some of the target chunks.
  • Learners listen and tick the chunks they hear used.
  • Follow up with a discussion about how the chunks can help them in listening/understanding as well as speaking, and how speakers use those chunks in storytelling to help the listener follow what is being said: when we tell stories, we want the listener to think it’s as funny/crazy/<insert adjective we feel the story is> as we do, so we want them to follow what’s happening.

As the sequence in the book uses newspaper articles (it’s a reading sequence), I might in the next lesson draw attention to how events are ordered in newspaper articles compared with telling stories orally…

It worked well, but of course it was also a bit back to front really – the learners heard me telling the story as one of the last parts of the sequence. It was a nice way to finish (I set the book reading activities – question answering – for homework) but logically it should have happened earlier in the lesson. But on the other hand, the learners got there successfully without it, using their own stories and the language/functions met in the lesson. They did upgrade their stories really well, and using the chunks helped them in terms of fluency. I could perhaps have told a story of my own earlier in the sequence, to illustrate the chunks in use – perhaps before getting the learners to edit their own stories. Perhaps next time I will! What order should you do it in? Up to you! 🙂

Consolidating narrative tenses: a storytelling lesson/lesson series idea

Level: Pre-intermediate but adaptable to higher levels by increasing the demands imposed in the collaborative writing stage.

Time: +/- 45mins (but time increases with class-size)

Materials: A story told in a series of pictures, all cut up. (E.g. a comic book story – blank out the dialogue, or leave it in to add reading to the skills used in this sequence; but such stories exist in ELT books too e.g. Straight Forward Teachers Resource Book Communicative Activity 2D – of which this activity sequence is an adaptation and extension. Alternatively, if you are of an artistic bent, create your own picture story!)

Focus: Narrative tenses (past simple and past continuous); question formation (the bane of a pre-intermediate learner’s life!); speaking; writing; listening.

This worked well with both my pre-intermediate classes yesterday, so I thought I’d share it here…

  • Stick cut-up pictures on the walls around the room in random order.
  • When you’re ready to start the activity, draw attention to the pictures. Tell learners the protagonist names and explain that the pictures tell a story about them.
  • Put learners in pairs (and one group of three if an uneven number, or groups of three if a larger class/you’re worried about time). Tell them to walk around, look at the pictures and decide what the story is: they can carry a notebook to make brief notes but at this point the focus is on speaking, brainstorming and logical deduction. There should be a lot of moving about to-ing and fro-ing between pictures, as they try to pick out the story.
  • When they have decided what the story is and have the key points established, they can sit down again. (They can always jump up for another look subsequently if needed!)

Now it is time for some collaborative writing:

  • In their pairs/groups, learners need to build their notes up into a story. Challenge them to use past simple/past continuous and linkers (when/while/because) – so that the story is not just a series of simple sentences and the target structures are used. For higher levels, require use of other tenses and encourage them to use as great a range of vocabulary as they can.
  • Feed in any vocabulary learners need (this gives them practice in verbal circumlocution too – e.g. “how do you say when you like someone very much in the first time of look at them?” [answer: it was love at first sight] ). This stage involves a lot of discussion, as the learners decide/agree on how to formulate their story. 

Finally, some storytelling and listening

  • When a pair/group of learners have finished writing their story, ask them to write three questions that are answered in their story. (You could stipulate that at least one question should use the past continuous.) If a pair/group hasn’t made much use of the past continuous, get them to look again and see if they can change that.
  • Now each pair/group takes a turn to tell the rest of their class the three questions they have decided on (the teacher can either have checked and corrected, where necessary, prior to this, or do the checking/correcting at this point, asking the rest of the class for help) and then tell their story. (Encourage learners to tell the story expressively,with lots of drama!) Classmates listen and answer the questions. The teacher listens and makes notes on language use and pronunciation for delayed feedback.
  • After a pair/group has finished telling their story, the rest of the class provides the answers to their questions. The teacher can then give feedback by writing up phrases to be corrected on the board (or, if available, using a good old OHP, having written language for focus directly onto a transparency! An I-pad/projector could fulfil the same function if you are a techie) and eliciting the corrections. Don’t forget to give positive feedback as well – pay attention to good use of language e.g. adverbs, dramatic language, good use of past simple/past continuous and linkers, and, of course, the content and coherence of the story.

(Of course, as the learners are reading a written story, this activity is not focused on the sub-skills of spoken storytelling, for either storyteller or listener. However, gaining better control over the past simple and past continuous will be a useful base for learners to approach an activity with such a focus e.g. the follow-up activity below…)

A homework/follow up activity sequence idea:

  • Get them to go away and prepare a story about something that happened to them (you could use the same past time point as you used for the picture story) – it can be real or invented.
  • They should come to the next lesson prepared to tell their story to a small group. Encourage them not to write it, but just to make notes. 
  • In the next lesson, get learners to tell their stories. You could these as the basis for a lesson on spoken story-telling skills, enabling learners to upgrade their stories by focusing on structure of spoken narrative and associated language/evaluative language/listener responses etc.


(For example: A sequence for focusing on structural language: 

  1. Give learners a spoken storytelling frame, with chunks of language for introducing different parts of a story.
  2. Ask them to listen to a recording of a story, which uses some of these chunks of language and identify which chunks are used.
  3. Get them to upgrade their story using the frame, deciding which chunks of language to use at each step.
  4. Ask them to re-tell their upgraded stories to different partners, decreasing the time they have for each telling.)


  • Then, for the next piece of homework,  ask learners to write their stories up (encourage use of a computer), using linkers to encourage the complex sentences that are typical of writing but not speaking, and bring these (i.e. a print-out/i-pad/laptop) to a subsequent lesson. (Having done the initial collaborative writing activity, this should be less daunting for them!) If learners are bored of their stories, let them choose a classmate’s story to write up instead! (It doesn’t matter if two learners have written up the same story, in fact it could yield some interesting comparisons in the peer-editing phase of this sequence…)
  • Use the pieces of writing as the basis for a peer editing activity, where they work on upgrading each others’ stories. They could then implement peer edits and upload the final version on a class blog or Edmodo. 

I hope you enjoy using these activities with your learners – do pop back and let me know how it went, if you can find the time! 🙂


Picture taken from Google advanced image search, licensed for commercial reuse with modification, source – http://commons.wikimedia.org