12 ways of creating stories with your EFL students

Storytelling

I’ve been reading a fair amount recently about the value of storytelling – and, in particular, the telling of vivid and emotionally-engaging stories – to memory in general, and vocabulary-learning and grammar practice more specifically. It certainly seems that learning new words from a list is a duller and less efficient alternative to acquiring and retaining new vocabulary than involving your learners in narratives using the target words.

With this in mind, here are four ways you can involve your learners in creating stories around particular lexical or grammatical themes, and a list (and brief descriptions!) of eight other methods from various corners of this site:

  1. Stories from boxes
    • Draw eight rectangles on the board, with space between each one.
    • Invite student volunteers to come and draw one thing, each in a different rectangle. They can draw whatever they like – the drawings don’t have to relate – but set a low time limit (maybe 40 seconds) to show the drawing can be simple.
    • Explain that your students will work in small groups to create a story using these pictures. Write or ask question prompts like “who is in the story?” or “where are they?” to help their imaginations. Explain that each story must connect all the pictures together.
    • Divide your students into groups of three and let them invent their stories within a time limit (5 or 10 minutes, perhaps).
    • Each group stands by the board and tells the story, pointing at the pictures as they do so; then ask the student artists what they had in mind when they drew their pictures (if anything).
  2. Stories from Pictures
    • Prepare seven envelopes of (magazine) photos and label the envelopes as follows: people; places; objects; desires; difficulties; action; end.
    • Put your students in pairs or groups and ask them to choose two photos from each envelope, but only one from “end.” Ask your students to sequence the photos and lay them out on the table or the floor.
    • Ask your students to visit other groups’ sequences; they try to guess the other groups’ stories from the order of photos, then listen to the story that was created.

    Note: The two ideas above come from Creating Stories with Children by Andrew Wright.

  3. Stories from blank paper
  4. Actually, this activity should more properly be called “texts from blank paper”, as it can be applied to any text your students are happy (or even eager!) to engage with: newspaper articles, letters of complaint, posters, emails, and so on.

    • Show your students a blank sheet of paper. Tell them it’s a story and elicit what style it is (if you want to include other text-types, just tell your students it’s a text and elicit what kind it is or what kind they’d like it to be).
    • Elicit several more details about the story: how many people are in it? Is it set in the past, now or in the future? How do these people come together in the story? What are their names? How old are they? What are their relationships with each other? and so on. Two useful rules for this elicitation stage: accept the first idea that’s given to you, as long as it wasn’t designed to get a laugh; once you’ve accepted an idea, don’t backtrack on it or change it – just board it instead, and that’s it.
    • Tell your students you’re holding one page from this story. Ask them if it’s from somewhere near the beginning, the middle, or the end. Ask them to think of their story and tell you just one or two things about what’s happening on this page.
    • Divide your students into pairs or small groups. Working together, you could ask each group to write this page of the story (perhaps turning it into a competition with prizes for the best readings, the best language, the most exciting or dramatic, and so on – with student feedback as to what was the best in each category, of course!), or you could ask them to write it as a dialogue and perform it (again, this could be turned into a competition, maybe even with tiny prizes).
    • All the while, as they’re writing, reading aloud or performing, you could monitor their language (noting “good” and “bad” formulations) for subsequent, whole-class feedback.

    Note: I believe this idea is mine, though it was certainly inspired by work in Impro by Keith Johnstone.

  5. Class story (singular) from blank paper
    • As above, though elicit and board the opening paragraph(s) of the story with your students as a whole class.
    • You could now focus on vocabulary-building (for example, by locating a lexical chain – or repeated references, using different words, to one idea – and asking your students to find others), or grammar awareness (by focussing on a feature of the boarded text your students might need practice in – for instance, you might ask your students to close their eyes and erase the story’s articles or prepositions, then ask your students to work in pairs to restore them).
    • Otherwise, or after the vocabulary/grammar focus, divide your students into pairs or small groups and ask them to write what happens next.
    • As above, monitor your students, helping them with language or ideas as necessary (I find asking short, closed questions helps students come up with some great ideas if they get stuck), and take notes for subsequent feedback.
  6. Class story creation
  7. This is a way to help your students create a story using an imaginary book from an imaginary shelf. Again, one of the best things about it is that it requires absolutely no materials. Another advantage is that it can make for a very memorable lesson! Click on the link above to read about how it can work.

  8. Circle story from ‘yes’/'no’ prompts
  9. With this method, your class unwittingly create a story they think you’ve already prepared. Again, click on the link above to find out how it works.

  10. Story battle
  11. This is a nice way of turning the process of story-creation into a high-tempo, competitive challenge. Tends to work well with 11-15 year olds.

  12. Using ghost stories to revise narrative tenses
  13. I wrote about this recently; I find it’s a very interesting and memorable approach, for teachers as well as their students!

  14. Vocabulary bag stories or poems
  15. One way of using word bags (a bag or box of words and expressions that have come up in class – if you haven’t set one up with your class yet, they can be a very good way of revising vocabulary and keeping things organised).

  16. Generating stories from your students’ daily narratives
  17. Click on the link above to find a method of turning your students’ tepid afternoons of television-watching into dramatic adventures, chilling horror stories, or whirlwind romances.

  18. Sound stories
  19. Using (English) sound effects and phonemes to generate a story.

  20. Stories from character names
  21. Another approach, this time letting names inspire your students.

Well, that’s it for this evening! I hope I’ve at least provided some food for thought; and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about these ideas (you can use the contact form in the menu above, or write a comment below) – I’ll do my best to answer them, as long as they aren’t too daft… :-)

Oh yes, and if you have any more ways of generating stories, please add them in the comments section below.

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is an EFL teacher and writer.
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4 thoughts on “12 ways of creating stories with your EFL students

  1. Oh, that’s a good idea – I like the open questions, too. Thanks very much!

    Another variation of Mike Harrison’s idea could be to ask students to choose their favourite from a limited range of genres, too, then ask them to find and work with other students who chose the same as them. This might even lead into a research project with each group finding out about famous stories or themes within their genre and sharing these with the class. What do you reckon?

    All best wishes

    Simon

  2. At the school I’m working at now, we deal with nonfiction essays more than fiction or stories, and I was thinking of something along the genre lines except with the type of essay we do each session i.e. compare and contrast essay or argumentative essay.

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