The Joy of Teaching with Stories

My curriculum for all of my ESL classes is largely based around stories, no matter what level.

I didn’t intentionally set out to focus on stories. When I first started trying to focus on providing more comprehensible input to my students, I did it because of what the research on second language acquisition shows and because I thought it would help my students learn language most effectively. I heard that TPRS was a good way of providing comprehensible input, so I started using that. And with my higher-level students, I started using novels—first, just as whole-class novel reading, and, later, adding in free voluntary reading time so students could choose their own books to read. Over time, I’ve also discovered other methods, like Story Listening—another great way to share good stories with students.

I use a combination of different techniques, but most of them revolve around stories. Stories, stories, stories.

I’ve found that this focus on stories causes a huge change in the environment of the classroom and in the experience of both the teacher and students. Since switching to a focus on stories, I’ve found that I get to know my students better, we have more fun together, and we make deeper connections in class. We get to hear and read interesting stories that make us laugh or make us cry or make us think.

As one example, I received this text recently from a former student:

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Not only is this student choosing to read English books in his own free time outside of class, he is also experiencing that joy of connecting deeply with a story and even having different thoughts and feelings toward the book after a second reading. And he was so excited about it that he took the time to text his teacher about it.

Before I started teaching with stories, I never got these kinds of responses from students. Sure, some of my hard-working, motivated students practiced English outside of class—for example, by quizzing themselves on a list of vocabulary words or reviewing the pages of their textbook. But I don’t think any of them really enjoyed doing things like that. They did those things because they felt like they should.

But when we focus on stories in class, learning a language isn’t about forcing students to “work hard” and forcing them to memorize words or do boring grammar drills. Suddenly, learning a language becomes something fun and engaging.

In one of Martina Bex’s recent blog posts, she mentioned the same idea. She wrote:

“As you, too, step away from the textbook and the comfort of the activity types that you have seen since you took your first language class—you know; conjugate the verb in parentheses, complete the dialogue, define the word—you will quickly find that there is a richness to the instruction that comes with stories. And when I say ‘stories’ in this post, I mean in the broadest sense: the stories we create, the stories of real people (like the 35 sitting in front of you right now!) and events, the stories that tell the history, challenges, and victories of the cultures we are studying. I am confident that as you continue on your journey away from practice, practice, practice, you will find and appreciate the same richness that I have seen.”

Not that teaching with stories is always easy. Teaching with a focus on providing comprehensible input is hard work. It’s harder than just handing your students a grammar worksheet and correcting their mistakes. We have to actually pay attention to our students in class, have real conversations with them, respond to their ideas, and find or create stories that they will enjoy.

Honestly, I feel like I often waver between two extremes. On some days, I think to myself, “I have the best job ever! I get to hang out with my students and we just talk together and share good stories together!” and then, on other days, I think to myself, “This job is so exhausting! How am I going to make it through the end of this week?!”

But even on those very tired days, I know that I am doing something that truly impacts students. Teaching them to enjoy stories opens them up to a lifetime of learning—not a “buckle-down-and-work-hard-even-when-you-hate-it” kind of learning but, rather, a deep learning that is driven by our innately human desires to make connections with others and to satisfy our natural curiosity. That is what I want for my students.

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