We often hear that it’s good to retell a story several times, so that our young learners have a better chance to acquire new language, activate language that they are learning, and to be able to engage more critically and creatively with themes or events in the story. It also helps them to create a more memorable internal representation of the story. This, in turn, builds a more solid basis on which to ‘hang’ new language. Sometimes, however, we might be worried that the kids will be bored – “THE SAME STORY AGAIN, TEACHER?!” It could be an uphill battle to get them engaged with seeing the same story for the 3rd, 4th or 8th time.

In this article, I’m going to share with you some different ways that you can retell stories so that both you and your students are engaged and can enjoy the benefits of story retelling.

1. Interactive storytelling techniques

how to use stories in the efl esl classroom

The first time you tell the story to your group, it’s best to focus on simply enjoying the story. I wouldn’t recommend interrupting the flow too much with questions. You can elicit predictions about the storyline, ask for their reactions, and occasionally ask them to identify things in the pictures. Apart from this, they should be able to sit back, listen and watch the story unfold.

The next time(s) you tell the story with the picture book, you are retelling something that is familiar, and you can include more interaction. How can you do this?

  • Ask students to predict/remember what comes next: “What’s the next animal?”; “What happens next?”; “What do they do?”; “And now?”
  • Ask them to do the actions if appropriate, e.g., In From Head to Toe each animal/child does an action to join in.
  • Encourage them to join in with repeated refrains throughout the story, e.g., In Monkey Puzzle, I encourage the children to join in with the Monkey, “No, No, No. That’s not my Mum. It’s an elephant!”, and the Butterfly, “I know! Come with me!”
  • Get students to point to/identify things in the pictures: “Can you see something yellow?”; “Where is the girl?”; “Can you see the table?”
  • Ask questions to promote critical thinking and personal response: “Do you think he’s happy? Why/Why not?”; “Is that a good idea?”; “Have you done this?”; “Do you have a dog?”; “What do you think the author wants us to think?”; “What is the message/moral of the story?”; “Do you like the ending? Why/why not?”; “Does anyone have something they want to say?”
  • Ask comprehension questions: “Is this red?”; “What is she doing?”; “Are they at the zoo?”; “Is the gorilla sleeping?”
  • Say some things wrong for them to spot and correct: “They saw a blue dog” – “NO! Not blue. It’s a brown dog!”

Add more variety by changing the material that you use. You don’t necessarily have to use the picture book each time. On the 3rd or 4th time, I tend to retell the story using a different resource. I might go back to the picture book in a later lesson.

2. Participation with flashcards

Participate in story retelling with flashcards

Give each child a flashcard that represents an event or character from the story. When the event or character appears, the child can hold up their flashcard and say a line or phrase. They could even do an action. For example, in One Duck Stuck, each child can have their turn at trying to pull the duck out of the muck.

3. Retell the story around the room

flashcards around the room story retelling

If you have flashcards to represent key story events or characters, this is a fun way to retell the story that incorporates movement. Simply pin the flashcards around the room in preparation. Even if you don’t have time to pin them up ahead of time, you can turn the retelling preparation into an event. Revise key story language as you go: ask the kids where to put each item and drill the language as you go. They’re bound to ask you why you are sticking up the cards. Create suspense by not telling them – “Wait and see!”

Use the cards as visual prompts to help you retell the story (you can always have the picture book to hand if you can’t remember!) Each time you mention a character or a story event, the children can point or go to the picture. You can also have them predict the next flashcard, and go to it ahead of time.

Some stories are particularly conducive to this type of retelling. I love acting out We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with my groups. We pretend we’re on an adventure just like in the story, traversing the different landscapes. We end up at each landscape flashcard as we go.

4. PowerPoint stories / Digital stories

powerpoint and digital stories for story retelling

I have some stories available as PowerPoints and digital stories (just search for them in the dropdown menu on the Resources page). I use these, just as I would use the picture book with the interactive storytelling techniques outlined above. If you’re lucky enough to have an interactive whiteboard, you can get the students to take turns moving the slides on each time.

5. Storytelling videos

There are lots of storytelling videos available on YouTube. I’ve selected and organised some good ones on each of the Story Resource Pages. Sometimes, I simply share the links to the relevant page with families to watch at home with their kids. It’s a nice way to keep the families informed about what their kids are doing in class, and it provides some extra retelling opportunities at home.

I also sometimes finish the class, by letting the kids relax and watch a video of the story. It can be another good activity for kids who have finished cleaning up and putting their things away, if you only have a few minutes.

However, I usually tell the stories in a way that is more accessible to kids who are learning English as a second or foreign language (you can read more about the steps I take to adapt stories here). So, if I use the video as a story retelling tool, I usually put the video on mute, and tell the story in my own way. This is another way you can use stories in class, even if your resources are limited and you don’t have a copy of the book.

6. Storytelling cards

storytelling cards to retell stories

These are cards that depict the story in pictorial form. They are a little more detailed than flashcards, so it can be clearer to understand the story events. You can find examples in some of our Story Activity Packs, but if you are feeling creative you could create your own versions for your stories. Even better, your primary students could create them for you! Again, these provide a different format for you to retell the story and maintain the students’ interest.

7. Sequencing cards

sequencing cards for story retelling

These are smaller cards that represent the key story events. There are a number of ways you can use them to retell a story. Here are a few examples:

  • Give each pair or group of students a set of cards, and have them predict/remember the order. Retell the story (either using your own cards, or the book), while the kids actively check and correct their decided order.
  • Give a card to each learner, then retell the story. As the children listen to the story, they should hold up their card at the appropriate point and bring it to the front. As a class, you build the sequence of the story with the cards.
  • Give each child their own set of sequencing cards. They could even create their own in a previous class. Older students can draw their own pictures, while younger students could do a colouring activity to create their cards. You can see an example in our Peace at Last Activity Pack. They could also complete a storyboard activity, then reuse it as sequencing cards, by cutting it into blocks. Look at the free version of our Stick Man storyboard, or our Meg’s Eggs Activity Pack for inspiration.

8. Small world play

small world play for retelling stories. Pictures from We're Going on a Bear Hunt Activity Pack.

Small world play essentially involves the creation of a mini-scene with objects that the children can manipulate. There are many different uses for small world play. It is a wonderful way to give children more free play opportunities, where they can interact with props and realia, use their imaginations, and perhaps retell the stories themselves. It can also be used as an alternative way for you to retell the story in a teacher-guided format.

First of all, it doesn’t have to be complicated! You don’t need to invest in lots of pricey props and elaborate scenes (although these are great too, of course!) You can simply give the children some easy foldable characters and pictures to represent the story scene. See the example of the 3D house and characters in our Peace at Last Activity Pack, or the small world play craft in the We’re Going on a Bear Hunt Activity Pack.

9. Students as storytellers

students retelling stories

On the 3rd or 4th retelling, you can hand over the reins to the children and let them have a turn at reading the story. By ‘reading’, I don’t mean actually reading the words off the page, although this might be possible with older primary children. There are some things to bear in mind:

  • Share the retelling between different students. We usually count the pages and divide them up so that everyone has an equal turn. If you have a lot of students, you can either retell the story with the other half in the next class, or you can give the others the retelling job for the next story you tell.
  • Sit near the storyteller, especially if they are very young. With my preschool kids, I’m normally whispering what they can say in their ear, and then they tell the class.
  • They love playing at being teacher, so give them a turn at asking one of their classmates a question.
  • Think about how to physically manage the book. I use a lot of big books, which can be way too cumbersome for little hands. You might want to prop it up on a chair with the storyteller standing next to it. You could also have another two ‘helpers’ to hold the book and turn the pages.

Final thoughts

  • Don’t be put off by worrying that your students might be bored by seeing the same story again. They won’t be! They’ll enjoy the growing confidence they’ll experience with each retelling. The retelling tips in this article will keep it fresh, while letting them get the most out of the story.
  • Kids love routine. Build up the expectation that they will work with one story in different ways across a series of lessons.
  • Don’t restrict the story retelling to only the storytime part of your class. See our post on Using Simple Crafts to Retell Stories. A lot of simple paper-based activities are the perfect vehicle to retell a story. The best bit is that they empower your learners to retell the story themselves.


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