Using stories for young learners

Idea for this article

I came up with the idea for this article after receiving a letter from one of the participants who did ‘Developing school children’s foreign language communicative competence’ course, which I delivered at edu.1sep.ru for Russian state school teachers. The teacher asked me about the principles of teaching language via stories.

The idea of learning vocabulary and grammar in a ‘holistic’ way comes from the theories of language acquisition and learning. Children can imitate and pick up chunks that they are exposed to. In this way young learners receive input when they listen to a story that their teacher tells them and they work out its meaning by looking at the accompanying pictures or relying on the gestures their teacher uses. That’s how children acquire their first language so teachers may well integrate that into their teaching practice by selecting some stories.

Choosing a story for a series of lessons

The stories are good for teaching purposes if there is a lot of repetition, the pictures are appealing and the topic of the story relevant to the kids of this age group. When teachers tell these stories, they may exaggerate intonation patterns and invite the learners to repeat certain chunks. This is how the learners start interacting in English. Choosing such stories might be challenging and it is a skill that teachers have to develop. 

Teachers can bring stories from different sources to raise learners’ awareness of some cultural aspects, add variety to classroom routines, help kids develop listening and other language skills, trigger learners’ imagination and giving them an opportunity to respond to the content of the story in a creative way.

Who is generating tasks?

In my webinar I gave an example of a graded story from I-Spy series with a lot of repetitive patterns that learners will recognise and understand because it’s likely to remind them of a typical game, hide-and-seek. Another reason for showing that particular story is that the pictures contain a variety of lexical items that low-level learners can identify, count and describe. There is also some space for creativity in spite of the fact that there are a number of good activities in coursebooks and resource packs that are likely to meet teachers’ requirements. For example, teachers may reinforce learning by asking the learners to draw pictures themselves and they will be involved in creating matching or categorising tasks for each other. This will help practise and recycle vocabulary as well as develop cognitive skills. Young learners are likely to be interested in playing games or acting out stories by using new language if they have been given an opportunity to manipulate it in a variety of activities and have built confidence.

About authenticity

Having said that I use stories from coursebooks as it saves planning time, I’m also a great fan of using authentic stories, which are not created for learners of English, because they are more helpful in terms of exposing the kids to natural language use and teaching values. Using authentic texts requires advanced skills in material design and being able to convey meaning without getting help from a Teacher’s book. 

Another way of creating authentic stories is by prompting learners and letting them tell their stories to each other. Teachers will change their role of a story teller to an observer, who is ready to scaffold and intervene if necessary.

Are there any other benefits of using stories?

The teacher also asked me a question about teaching values, which I find very important. Teachers need to keep in mind that young learners are still developing their social skills so raising their awareness of fair play, turn taking and giving a helping hand to each other is a must.

To my mind, teachers are responsible for establishing a positive classroom environment, helping learners pick up new words and chunks as well as fostering positive values and story telling is one of the useful teaching tools for that.

References:

Pinter A. (2010) Teaching Young Language Learners. OUP.

Moon J. (2005) Children Learning English. Macmillan Education.

Ellis G., Ibrahim N. (2015) Teaching Children how to learn. DELTA publishing.

Heathfield D. (2014) Storytelling with our students. DELTA publishing.