Bringing storytelling to life

Here are some tips and suggestions to keep in mind while storytelling in the EFL classroom.  Both our young and adult students love stories (well, most of them do!), and they get really involved. You can encourage this in the following ways.


 1. Keep it simple. 

Simplify the linguistic content, depending on the level of your students.

a) Substitute less common vocabulary for known words.  For example, stool = chair.

b) Shorten long sentences.  For example,  ‘The princess, who had a kind heart, agreed to the marriage’ = The kind princess said yes.

c) Simplify or remove idioms. For example, ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist’ = Don’t panic.

d) Simplify tenses. For example, ‘he had been swimming’ = he swam.

2. Maintain eye contact.

Make sure you look around the room. Try to include everybody – don’t focus on just one person.

3. Think of a hook for the start of the story.

For example, imagine a world without animals (for introducing a story about environmental dangers).

4. Find an underlying theme to tie into your story.

What happens in the story?  Is there a moral?  Are the characters giving advice, or making suggestions?

5. Differentiate between the characters.

Change your voice and/or position for different characters.

6. Use vivid, colourful language that your students can understand.

For example, ‘My dad’s got fingers like big fat sausages!’

7. Think about when and how to use pauses.

Listeners need time to process the story – don’t rush.  When you’re reading dialogue, pause as you would in a real conversation.

8. Use movement/mime to help clarify meaning.

For example, show with your hands, arms, and eye movements how enormous or tiny something is.

9. Try to appeal to all the senses.

Don’t limit yourself to the visual – use language to describe smells, sound, touch, taste.

10. Invite interaction and questions.

Encourage students to offer predictions.  Once they’ve made a prediction, they’re more inclined to listen, as they have a stake in the story.

11. Create the “Well, I never!”/ “You don’t say!” moment.

For example, did you know there are 7 times more chickens than people in the world?!  (World population is around 7 billion, and there are an estimated 50 billion chickens!)

12. Create sound effects.

For example, tapping on the window, scraping the floor, etc.

13. Use repetition.

Have a key part of the story, a catchphrase.  Invite the students to repeat it throughout. For example, (you) “And what did we say?’ (students) “Puppy, puppy …”

14. Do the storytelling in Spanglish.

If the English level is too low, help the students along.  Storytelling should be fun and accessible to everyone.

15. Think about props.

Bring something to the classroom to stimulate interest. For example, wear a special storytelling hat or jacket.  Students see you put it on, and immediately know what to expect.

16. Choose a story you like, not just one you think your students will like.

You’ll enjoy telling it more and you’ll transmit this to your class.

17. Think about how to end your story well.

The audience, whether children or adults, need a good, clear finish (with storytelling in the classroom, as with any performance).  Invent your own phrase that you can always say at the end of the session.  For example, ‘And that’s it for today!  Another story next week.’

John Harrop storytelling for adults

Storytelling in the classroom workshop for English secondary teachers at CARLEE, Zaragoza

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