How to use stories in the EFL ESL classroom

As teachers of young learners and very young learners, we are often told that stories are a useful, if not essential, part of our repertoire. But how do you use stories in the EFL/ESL classroom? I love teaching English through stories and my groups of kids love learning in this way, too. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what works (as well as what doesn’t!) In this post, we’ll look at the benefits of using stories, how to plan a storytelling session, and I’ll share my top tips for the different aspects of a storytelling lesson.

Why use stories to teach English?

Stories are fantastic tools for educators, in that they can provide the opportunities to learn and develop a whole host of skills. In the context of language acquisition, they are invaluable for several reasons:

  • Storytime is often a relaxing and enjoyable experience for children. When children are relaxed and enjoying themselves, they are better able to acquire language.
  • Stories are universal and common across all cultures. Children are familiar with common themes, structures and tropes and are able to understand and recognise them, even if the language is unfamiliar. This familiar framework helps them make connections between the new language and what they understand. 
  • Stories provide a memorable context in which language is used meaningfully. Children are often able to recall language used in stories and they understand how it can be used.
  • Stories for young children are full of engaging illustrations which help support understanding.
  • Stories often include a lot of repetition. This is a key factor in successful language acquisition.
  • Stories provide children with a genuine reason to communicate. Children naturally want to express their thoughts, feelings and understanding of the world, as inspired by the story.
  • Interaction between the storyteller and the children provides multiple opportunities for repetition and drilling.

What are the best stories to use?

There are many types of picture books to choose from. You can broadly divide them into:

Each of these story types has advantages, and I would aim to include a balanced mix across sessions. Make sure that you include some narrative stories, as these are the ones in which the kids can get more involved with the story events and engage meaningfully with the content.

What makes a good story for teaching English?

  • It matches the conceptual level of the children. By this we mean that the children should be able to identify with the characters and events in the story. They need to be able to make connections with what they see in the story and their own lives. If not, they just won’t engage with it. Apart from making that tricky for you as the teacher, it means they won’t be able to reap the benefits of stories that we outlined above. 
  • It has a predictable sequence or pattern. The children will be able to predict what comes next, enjoy the motivation and satisfaction of having their expectations met, and also be able to participate more actively in the storytelling.
  • It has engaging, supportive illustrations. These are essential for helping the children construct meaning. They will not understand every word you say but through a combination of the pictures and your use of gestures and voice, they will be able to understand the story and start to make connections with the English they hear and what they understand in the story.
  • It includes plenty of repetition / rhyme. For the children to be able to acquire language, they need to hear it several times in a meaningful context.
  • The linguistic level is appropriate. By this, we don’t mean that the children need to understand most words. In fact, one of the reasons that stories are great to use with kids is that children have a much higher tolerance of ambiguity (they tend to focus on what they can understand, rather than worrying about unfamiliar language) and they will be able to engage with the story with support from you and the illustrations. BUT beware of lengthy sentences full of lots of complex grammar and vocabulary. The children will quickly lose interest and apart from that, they won’t be able to make connections with what you say and what they understand. HOWEVER, this doesn’t mean you can’t choose the book. You just need to adapt the language you use when you tell it. Elmer is a great example of a story that is always popular with very young learners, but is less successful if the words are read straight off the page. See our post on How to adapt stories for teaching English.

If you don’t have access to a book you’d like to use, one alternative is to put a storytelling video on mute and pause at appropriate points as you tell the story. You can find lots of videos on our Stories page

How do I plan a storytelling session?

  1. Preview the book and decide if you need to adapt the original text or not.
  2. Decide what language you’d like to focus on. This could be key vocabulary in the story or a phrase or structure that you’d like the kids to acquire.
  3. Choose activities for before and after the storytelling.
  4. Practise telling the story.

Pre-storytelling activities

There are many types of activity that you could do before the storytelling itself. There are some suggestions below. First, I usually ask myself two questions:

  1. Is there any key vocabulary that I want to introduce to the kids before the story? You might want to focus on key vocabulary so that they are more able to participate in the storytelling session itself. Even if they are not able to produce the language yet, they will be more likely to recognise it when it comes up.
  2.  What are the dynamics of the activities? You will want the kids to be ready to sit down and give you their attention during the storytelling stage. They won’t be able to do this if every activity leading up to it is teacher centred.  If all of your activities have required them to listen and follow instructions, they will be less willing to continue listening to you during the storytelling too. Think about where you are asking the kids to direct their attention. It might be towards a puppet, towards each other in a game or song, or towards flashcards or items in the room.

Flashcard games:

  • Mystery box/bag: Place pictures or flashcards of key story language in a bag. Chant, “Mystery box, mystery box, what’s inside the mystery box?!” Each child takes turns to take out a picture and show the others, while you give the name for them to repeat. Do some dynamic drilling in different voices and paces, e.g. saying it slowly, quickly, quietly, loudly, in a deep voice, high voice, like a monkey, like a cat, in a silly voice etc.
  • What’s missing?: Reveal and drill each flashcard in turn, placing them somewhere where the children can see. A circle usually works best. Gather up the cards and shuffle them. The kids tell you to “Stop!” Place the card facing you, behind your back (or sit on it!) so they can’t see. Reveal and drill again. The kids tell you what’s missing. You can award the card as a prize. Repeat the process until the selection of cards dwindles. By that point, they will have seen the new vocabulary A LOT!
  • Run and Point: Place the flashcards on a board, wall or around the room. Do this one by one, drilling the new language as you go. Organise the kids into teams. When you say the word/phrase, the first person in each line runs to point to the correct image. You can also do this whole class, rather than teams, if you place the cards around the room, with kids taking turns to be teacher (with you helping of course!)

There are endless games you can play with flashcards! Whichever, one(s) you choose, try to have them placed so that the kids can see them during the storytelling. They can be very useful prompts for the children during the storytelling stage. For example, they can use them to predict what’s next or you can prompt them for the words/phrases to join in.

Songs

Sing a song together that revises some of the story language or invent your own! Adapt a song you already know to fit in with the vocabulary you want to practise. For example, I adapted Super Simple’s ‘Open, Shut them’ song to include the adjectives from Dinosaur Roar.

TPR (total physical response)

This is obviously a great option for stories that focus on parts of the body and actions. It’s also fun with prepositions. In preparation for We’re Going On a Bear Hunt, we’ve had a lot of fun going ‘over’ tables and ‘under’ chairs!

Puppets

I love using puppets! Sometimes the puppet or stuffed toy is connected to the story. I have a bear that makes an appearance when I teach stories with bears in them, and a pig and cow that usually come out for farm related stories. They can help engage the kids with the topic of the story. If the puppet is excited to read it, because they’re in it, the kids will get more excited too. They can also play a lead in any games in the role of the teacher, or they can be the student with the kids helping the puppet get the new words right. So many possibilities!

Telling the story

  • Choose the storytelling space – It’s a good idea to designate a special area in the classroom for storytelling. This is a signal to the kids that they are going to settle down and listen to a story. It’s usually best to have them sitting in a semi-circle if possible so that everyone can see. Make sure that everyone is settled before you start. You don’t want cries of ‘I can’t see!’ when you’re trying to tell the story.
  • Engage interest – If you’re introducing a new story for the first time, show the kids that you’re really excited. If you look interested, they will be too. Show the kids the cover and let them look at it. What can they see? While you tell the story, peek at the next page so that the kids can’t see and show an appropriate emotion. Can they imagine what it is?!
  • Delivery – Use facial expressions, voices and gestures to support understanding. Try not to read off the page, but make eye contact with the children (This is one reason why it’s important to practise first!) I generally try to read the pictures rather than the text. 
  • Involve the children – ask them questions. What can they see? How is the boy feeling? Is he happy? Why? What do you think is next? Ask them to indicate things in the pictures. Point to things and get things wrong so they correct you. Encourage them to join in with repeated phrases. I’ve had a lot of fun with Go Away Big Green Monster, where I pretend to be really scared and not able to look at the page. The kids start saying either ‘I’m not scared!’ or sometimes, ‘I’m scared’, to keep me company! They could have pictures of key characters to hold up when they appear, or sequencing cards to put in order. Give the learners the space to react to the story at various points and share their experiences. Ask questions that promote higher thinking skills, e.g., Why do you think the elephant painted himself grey?

Post-storytelling activities

It’s really important that the story doesn’t just end with the storytelling. If you want the kids to acquire language from the story, you’re going to have to help bring it to life. That’s where your post-storytelling activities come in. Depending on the time you have available, these activities might carry over to the next lesson or a series of lessons. Again, there are a lot of different activities you could do, including flashcard games and mini-card games. More often than not, though, most of my learners are ready to do some individual (but interactive!) work and they really look forward to a craft or worksheet type activity. These also serve as a record of work and something to share with families, who can carry on the learning at home. For me, one of the most important things to consider in a post-storytelling activity is how I can include as much story re-telling as possible. These thoughts led me to creating a lot of my own resources that serve to do just that. Below is a summary of some of the main types of activities involved in my worksheets and crafts that my learners and I like to do (more details in future blog posts!)

  • Colouring – We do this interactively, sometimes in a dictation format. Rather than me simply telling them what part to colour, I might retell the story and stop at particular points for them to tell me what they have to colour next. If it is a song-story, we sing the song (with the verses out of order) as a way to tell them what the next item is. Alternatively, they can colour what they want but they need to ask me for the colours in English. This gives me an opportunity to talk to them about their pictures and gives them the chance to hear or produce the language. Sometimes, I simply let them colour at their own pace, but it gives me the chance to go around and interact with each student. With song-stories, I have the song playing quietly in the background.
  • Find and stick / cut and paste – In these activities, the students need to glue a key character or object from the story in place. I usually prefer to do the cutting part myself before class, partly to save time and also partly because it allows me to set the activity up in a more interactive way. I like to place a mixed up collection of these cut up pieces in a part of the room or kept in their sets but placed in different areas of the room. As with colouring dictation activities, I can retell the story, pausing at points for them to find and stick the correct item in place, or they can ask me for what’s next. With certain crafts, such as storyboards or mini-books, they have to make additional decisions (recalling the story) to put the pieces in the correct sequence.
  • Construction / crafts & games – Some activities involve folding and skills that need more fine motor skills. For these, I usually have the children sitting in a circle and we do it together. This also gives me the opportunity to reinforce language from the story, as well as practising other classroom language. We use these types of resources, such as fortune tellers, magic books, spinner crafts, flip books, mini-books and slider crafts as retelling tools once they are completed. It’s great to see kids spontaneously use English as they play at retelling the story together!
  • Dramatisation – Some stories are fantastic for dramatising the whole thing – The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Enormous Turnip and One Duck Stuck come to mind. The kids can usually produce the whole thing themselves after a few sessions. But dramatising doesn’t mean a whole theatre production. Quite often, we’ll make masks or puppets and play with drama games with them. With Elmer, the kids played with their finger puppets, making them walk, jump, fly, dance or swim to different colours in the room. With Walking Through the Jungle, we played the song and they made their stick puppet do the actions.

Final thoughts and top tips

  • Choose stories you like and feel comfortable with. If you don’t like them, it’ll be pretty tough to get the kids interested.
  • Tell the same story several times over a few sessions. The first time, don’t overdo it with the questions and interaction opportunities. It’s the first time the kids have heard the story. Let them hear it! There’s a danger you’ll kill the story and the kids will lose interest. This was a top tip I’ve held onto from feedback I got when I started storytelling. The next time, they’ll be able to spend a little more time over each page. After that, they’ll be more familiar with the key language and can start joining in a bit more. Many of my groups like taking turns being the storyteller (with me helping them out at the side). I usually divide the pages up among the students so everyone gets a go.
  • If you see them losing interest, try your storyteller tricks! Vary your voice, feign shock at the next page. You might just have to pick up the pace. Of course, if you see that they’re just not into it that day, it might be because they’re tired or hungry. Don’t force the story on them. It might be wise to leave the story that day but come back to it the next.
  • In dictation type post-storytelling activities, it often happens that the whole group starts off together but after a while, some are faster, some slower. One way I have kept them together in the past is by turning the activity into a team competition so that they help each other complete that section of their picture/craft. Nowadays, if they start going at different paces, I let them. I’m usually still able to give the language to each individual when they’re ready for it.