My Experience at the Story Listening Workshop

I finally got to attend a Story Listening Workshop! Beniko Mason and Stephen Krashen came to Chicago this week and gave a two-day workshop for language teachers on how to do Story Listening in their classes. I’ve been using Dr. Mason’s Story Listening method some (though not exclusively) in my adult ESL classes for more than a year now, but I had never really gotten “official” training, so I was glad to finally meet Dr. Mason in person and learn more from her. (Click here for an overview of Story Listening.)

We got to listen to three excellent Story Listening demonstrations: one from Dr. Mason in English, one from Dr. Mason in Japanese, and one from Claire Walter in Italian. It was especially helpful for me to see demos in languages I don’t speak (Japanese and Italian) to get a feel for how students feel when listening to stories in a completely new language. It also reminded me just how helpful it is to be able to use cognates. The Italian story was much easier for me to understand than the Japanese story. Even though I don’t know any Italian, I understood a lot of it just from cognates with English and Spanish. With the Japanese story, even though Dr. Mason did a good job of making the language comprehensible, I still felt a little overwhelmed by all the completely new words. I’m sure it would get easier if I listened to more and more stories, but for the first time, it felt like a lot! It’s a good thing for me to keep in mind when I’m teaching absolute beginners.

One of the most useful things I learned at the workshop was about how Dr. Mason makes a “prompter” to use when telling a story. It’s basically just a list of the words in the story that will probably be new for the students and maybe a few other words that are important to the story. The teacher holds the prompter in their hand while telling the story and can glance at it when needed to remember what words to use and write on the board. The list of words also helps jog your memory of the important parts of the story.

Until now, when I was telling a story, I just held the whole text of the story in my hand (what I would later give to the students to read), and I had the important words highlighted on my copy. It worked okay, but if I needed to look back at the text to help me remember a part of the story, it was hard to find my place quickly. Most of the time, I had looked over the story enough times before class that I didn’t really need to look back at the text; however, there were a few times when I forgot a small part of the story and it wasn’t until I reached the end of the story that I remembered I’d left something out—and in some cases, it was a detail that was necessary for the ending of the story to make sense. And I also sometimes forgot to introduce some of the new words I’d planned on using, which meant that when my students read the text later, there were some words they hadn’t heard yet.

So this morning with my intermediate-level class, I tried out using a prompter when telling my students the story “The Flute Player of Hamelin” (the same story as the Grimm brothers’ “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” but I decided to change the title for my students to make it a little easier and to reflect modern-day language use). The prompter was so helpful! I glanced down at the paper pretty often, but it only took me a quick glance to find my place and see what the next word was. It helped me to remember all the important parts of the story, and I didn’t forget any of the new words I wanted to introduce. It was great! And I think that having the prompter also helped me to relax more. Previously, I always felt kind of nervous right before telling a story since I was worried that I would forget an important part. But with the prompter, I didn’t have to worry as much about forgetting things since it was so easy to look back at the paper quickly.

Dr. Mason showing us what a prompter looks like. (Note that the students would NOT see the words written in a list like this; the prompter is just for the teacher.)

In Dr. Krashen’s portion of the workshop, he talked about second language acquisition theory and also talked some about his own language learning experiences, which was interesting to me. He mentioned that when he first started doing his research and realized the importance of comprehensible input in language acquisition, he initially thought it would be best for language teachers to strike a balance between implicit and explicit learning. He suggested that teachers should spend about 2 class periods per week devoted to subconscious acquisition through comprehensible input and about 2 class periods per week devoted to conscious learning through grammar study. He assumed that the conscious study of grammar rules was necessary in order to develop grammatical accuracy. He even published articles about the importance of correcting students’ errors.

But as he read and conducted more and more research, he eventually started to realize that the conscious study of grammar rules does very little to develop students’ proficiency in a language. He was still somewhat resistant to this idea at first. Dr. Krashen told us, “No one was more disappointed to discover this than me.” Because he loves studying grammar, he didn’t want to face the fact that his grammar study wouldn’t do much to help him in acquiring languages. And even now, he said that he still sometimes has to remind himself of this fact. He is in the process of acquiring Spanish and hasn’t perfected the ser and estar distinction—which is perfectly normal, considering it tends to be very late acquired. But he still sometimes tries to monitor his speech while he’s having a conversation in Spanish and tries to consciously think about whether to use ser or estar, which results in a lot of long pauses and a lot of frustration. But if he instead tells himself to relax, not think about it, and just “says whatever comes into his mind,” the conversation goes much more smoothly. People can still understand what he’s saying, and nobody really cares if he makes some mistakes.

This was encouraging for me to hear, as I am also in the process of acquiring Spanish (and deal with the same ser vs. estar frustration!) And it was a good reminder to me about the seemingly contradictory nature of language acquisition. It feels like conscious study of grammar rules should help us speak better. If we’re having trouble with a certain grammatical feature, it seems like studying the rule and “practicing” it a lot would help. And if we keep making mistakes, it’s easy to blame ourselves and think that it’s because we “just don’t have a good enough memory” or we “just aren’t studying hard enough.” But if we look at the 40+ years of research in the field of second language acquisition (as well as the personal experiences of language learners), we see that that’s just not the case. The conscious study of grammar rules doesn’t help much over the long term when people are engaging in unrehearsed, spontaneous communication. But even those of us who know that fact tend to forget it. Even Stephen Krashen himself “forgets” it sometimes. We want to have control over our use of language, and especially for those of us who are highly motivated language learners and desperately want to have excellent language abilities, it’s hard to just sit back, relax, and trust the process.

Not that studying grammar is necessarily bad. As Dr. Krashen mentioned in his talk, formal grammar instruction can be helpful, especially for higher-level learners and when used as a tool to edit our writing. He mentioned the example of its vs. it’s in English. Even a lot of native English speakers have not fully acquired the difference between these two forms and need to consciously think about the rule when deciding which form to use. And lower-level learners can sometimes benefit from short grammar pop-ups—very brief explanations of grammar points, given in context when the forms naturally arise. But explicit grammar instruction should not be a major focus in language classes, especially not with lower-level learners. First, learners need a base of acquired language. Later on, explicit grammar instruction can help to refine that language a little bit.

Dr. Mason also talked about some of the research studies that back up her methodology, which are available on her website. It’s amazing to hear about!

I learned a lot at the workshop and got even more excited to continue using stories in my classes. If you have the opportunity to attend one of their workshops, I highly recommend it.

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