David Heathfield suggests some simple storytelling strategies.

ETp logo

The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of English Teaching professional magazine.

With minimal guidance, students can tell and even create a story orally. Storytelling is a universal tradition and even students who claim not to have much imagination may surprise themselves doing activities like those described below. Whether it is fictional or anecdotal, a story is not only a sequence of narrated events. It almost always involves setting a scene followed by a series of events involving at least two characters. The reincorporation of these characters and the effects of their actions into the story as it progresses and concludes is what distinguishes a story from a sequence of unconnected events.

Story-making suggestions

  • Set the scene of a story yourself and then start to invite student input. Once you have established that every contribution must be incorporated, invite a volunteer to take over the role of storyteller.
  • Alter your voice to bring students into the mood of the story.
  • Use a simple prop which can be passed to students as they take their turn as storyteller.
  • Play an extended piece of background music such as a film soundtrack. This can guide students and fill silent pauses with expectation rather than awkwardness.
  • Take a well-known story and ask students to retell it from different characters’ viewpoints.
  • Use visualization techniques to inspire creativity.
  • Ask each group of students to create their own ending to a story and then to listen for similarities and differences.
  • Ask students to dramatize scenes from the story they have created.

The find

The aim of this activity is to create stories orally in groups. It takes around 25 to 30 minutes, and you will need a selection of small interesting shiny objects (e.g. jewellery, teaspoons, thimbles, marbles) and atmospheric background music (e.g. the soundtrack by Eric Serra from the film Leon).

1. Invite the students to sit in a tight circle, and put on the background music. Speaking in the first person, begin in a gentle voice, as if sharing a personal secret: ‘I’ve got something I’d like to show you. It’s something I found many years ago and I’d like to tell you the story of what happened.’ At this point, take out one of the shiny objects you have prepared and hold it out on the palm of your hand for the students to admire. Ask ‘Where do you think I found it?’ and give time for several different suggestions before asking the group as a whole which one of the suggestions they would wish to be the right one. Begin the story incorporating that idea. For example, if they choose ‘on the beach’, you might say ‘Many years ago I was walking along a sandy Jamaican beach at sunset when I noticed something glinting in the sand at my feet.’ Ask ‘What did I do?’ Accept the first answer (unless it is silly) and continue the story, incorporating student input while now and again asking for further suggestions with such questions as ‘What did I do next?’ ‘How did I feel?’ and ‘Can you describe the young woman?’ Accept every contribution. The storyline can go in any direction and might be prosaic or magical, but bear in mind that a good story generally requires a problem that needs resolving.

2. Once you have established that the object is integral to the whole, hold it out solemnly and a volunteer student can take it and continue. Make sure he or she solicits and incorporates other students’ ideas. Every now and again, encourage the group to recap the main events of the story so far.

3. Once a few students have taken on the role of storyteller, you might prompt the class to reincorporate some characters and events from earlier in the story in order to guide the storyteller to the ending. Then slowly turn down the volume of the music to silence.

4. Ask the students for some interesting personal objects which they don’t mind other students using, such as rings, watches or chains (one per group of four to five students). Check if the owners are happy to let students from another group use their object. If not, use the objects you have brought along. Put the students in groups and suggest that the student who starts the story begins it in a similar way, i.e. with the new object being found on the beach. Put on the music again so that each group can create its own tale as in steps 1 to 3.

5. Once they have finished, students from different groups can form pairs to retell and compare their stories (arrange for the owner of the object to hear the story that another group told about their possession).

Note: If necessary, you can remain in the role of storyteller throughout. By inviting input from the whole class, you can be sure that they will all feel part of the creative process.

Story endings

The aim of this activity is to tell and listen to anecdotes and guess the endings. It will take around 20 to 30 minutes.

Before the lesson, practise telling the first part of a short story with an unpredictable ending. Remember to establish clearly who was involved and where and when it happened. Traditional folk tales from oral traditions are a particularly suitable source. One of my favourite websites (http://oaks.nvg.org) is full of wonderful Norwegian folk stories, such as The boy who went to the north wind (about a boy given a magic cloth and a magic ram by the north wind after he complains that the wind has blown away his meal; these gifts are then stolen by a wicked innkeeper but restored when the north wind gives him a magic stick which beats the innkeeper until he returns the cloth and the ram).

1. Having established a storytelling atmosphere, start telling the tale and stop at the climax where different endings are possible. In the case of the story mentioned above, you might stop when the boy gets to the north wind’s house for the third time.

2. Put the students in pairs and tell them that they have a few minutes to bring the story to a conclusion. Then ask them to form new pairs and give them 30 seconds to tell each other their endings.

3. Ask the students how different their endings were. Elicit one or two very distinct endings to be told in front of the whole class before you tell them the original ending of the story. 

4. Ask the students to think of a short story the other students are unlikely to know and to raise a hand only when they’ve thought of one. Once a third have a story (the As), group them with two students who haven’t (the Bs and the Cs). Tell them that the As will tell their story, stopping at the climax. The Bs must immediately invent and tell a happy ending and the Cs an unhappy ending, before the As tell them the original ending.