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YOU are a story absorber and a story teller by Andrew Wright

Stories are the sap in the tree

You have been absorbing stories from the moment you were born and it didn't stop when you became a teenager or adult. Stories are the sap in the tree. People go to war because their stories are incompatible. The Vikings wanted to make their wild slaughterings acceptable so they employed storytellers to make the tales sound good. The royal family has appointed a storyteller (spin doctor) I believe, to make their story more palatable. And we all know that Blair and Bush ride on a sea of spin doctors.
Enough! Stories are for all of us, not just for kids.

You are a storyteller

And every time you tell someone about missing a train or plane or losing your watch or having a rotten Christmas or having to cope with the wretched behaviour of another colleague…you are telling a story. You cannot tell all the facts…you select. You decide what to say first and then next…you sequence for effect and understanding. You decide what words to choose and how to move your body and use your voice…for expression.

To say you are not a storyteller is like saying you're not political because you don't vote. Not voting is a political act. We are all storytellers.

Language teaching?

Every one of our students, young or old, wants a story. They may not want them all the time but basically they all need stories.

Stories are largely based on words. Stories give meaning to words and students want them. Why aren't stories more central to language teaching?

What are stories

It is true that I have quite a wide view of what stories are. This understanding ranges from a good old fashioned myth or fairy story right through to a phrase like, 'The Iron Lady'. How happy Mrs Thatcher must have been to be called the 'iron lady' by the Russians! She knew that the image would never be forgotten. It is part of storytelling without being a full story.

In the classroom: you as a teller

You are a real person and can choose to share some or many of your experiences with the students. If you time it reasonably then this is not only listening comprehension but helps to establish a special rapport with the class. And if you give then you are more likely to receive. The students are more likely to really use English in order to communicate than merely mechanically practice it. They will probably do this because they begin to see you as a person and not just a teacher. And they realise that you think of them as people and not only students of English. Personal stories can help to bring about this shift of perception.

You can read and tell stories. Both forms are good and have their strengths. But do tell stories sometimes. That is the main way in which you can give something personal to the students.

In the classroom: you as a helper

You can help the students to make stories. In my opinion your first role is to create an atmosphere in which stories are valued in human terms much more than in 'learning English' terms. Revel in their stories and let them see it.
A few suggestions. As a general principle I find that class and group storymaking enable you to help the individual student to experience a wide range of possibilities in storymaking rather than just to be lost in his or her idiosynchratic bits of memory of stories they have heard. It is certainly helpful to the less able storymakers and it doesn't do any harm to the more able.

My main technique is to ask questions in order to drive them to create the unique and not the general, 'Well it were…you know what I mean…you know what I am saying', kind of sketchy, dull eyed vagueness.

I have worked with very young children from three years and I have worked with adults, including business people. The principle is exactly the same. 'Tell me more!' 'But what do you mean?' 'Tell me how he walks when he is going to work.' 'Tell me how he walked on that particular morning.'

Publish and perform

Most student work goes to you and back to the student. Which is OK if it is 'most' and not 'all'. To experience using English they must perceive of themselves as people and not as students of English. Instead of asking them to write a story in their exercise book for you to mark, show them how to make a book (zigzag of paper is the easiest) and to write, design and illustrate a book which is then exhibited in the school lobby and in the local bookshop and then put in the school library. You wont have to say, 'Get the English right!' They will be desperate to do that because their dignity as a whole person is at stake.
Perform stories: shadow theatre, overhead projector, audio recording, video recording, masks, make up, etc.

My own experience

I have worked with all kinds of learners in many different places. Sometimes I get small groups but I am often given huge numbers (the biggest group was 550 students aged 17 and 18 in Denmark). I love the work but it is not always successful, of course. It is essential to say that because you might feel unsure of yourself! And it is normal to get things right every time.

Brief tips: it is essential to let them know what is going to happen so that they can adjust their minds. Also make clear that you are not gunning for grammar but are really interested in the story.

My two books

Oxford University Press uniquely allowed me to do two books on the use of stories in language teaching. That shows what a powerful subject it is!

Storytelling with Children is a book of stories and ideas for telling stories to students (it says children in the title but it doesn't make much difference actually). I put a list of 94 activities you can do with most stories.

Creating Stories with Children offers lots of ways of helping students to create stories and also to make books and put on performances.

I hope you found this article useful in some way or another. If you are interested in having more practical things to do…then that is what books are good at!

Further reading
Gersie and King. Storymaking in Education and Therapy. Jessica Kingsley
Maley and Duff. Drama Techniques in language Learning. Cambridge University Press
Morgan and Rinvolucri. Once Upon a Time. Cambridge University Press
Rosen. And None of it was Nonsense. Mary Glasgow
Rosen. Shapers and Polishers. Mary Glasgow
Wright. Storytelling with Children. Oxford University Press
Wright. Creating Stories with Children. Oxford University Press


Andrew Wright has been an author and illustrator for many years and has written books for Oxford University Press (some of the reviewed here), for Cambridge University Press (Five Minute Activities, Games for Language Learning, Pictures for Language Learning), Longman (1000+ Pictures for Teachers to Copy). He has been a professional storyteller for fifteen years and estimates that he has worked with 50,000 student either telling them stories or helping them to make stories and books. Now Andrew is based in Hungary where he runs a language school (ILI International Languages Institute) with his wife Julia and the intensive LCCI Arels Cert TEB course with Mark Powell (for teachers of business English). Andrew cfan be contacted at If you want information about the LCCI Arels course then please see the ILI International Languages Institute web site

To an interview with Andrew

To the review of Andrew's storytelling books

Storytelling related links on the site:

Storytelling for the classroom by Michael Berman

Warrior, Settler or Nomad by Michael Berman

June '01 Newsletter with theme on Storytelling

Effective Storytelling - A Manual for Beginners - lesson plan

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