Images of book covers with text overlay - Covering Content without course books

The value of teaching children English through picture books and stories is well documented. However, many teachers still feel that stories are not enough on their own, and a course book is necessary to make sure that they cover all that is required in the syllabus. A teacher can feel secure that they have covered the necessary content if they follow a course book. While picture books may be integrated into the course, they are often seen as an extra and not something that can form the backbone of the course.

In this article, I want to demonstrate how teaching English through picture books can actually help you cover MORE of the content in a beginner (Pre-A1 to A1) syllabus, help you prepare your students for young learner exams, AND let you and your students enjoy all the other benefits that stories bring.

What’s in a beginner (Pre-A1/A1) syllabus?

Look at any young learner course book and you’ll find the same topics and language points coming up time and again. These are reflected in internationally recognised young learner language exams and the CEFR (Common European Framework). As part of my process in designing syllabuses around stories, I summarised the topics and language functions in a table for easy reference:

A table with a summary of the language goals, lexis and topics covered at Pre-A1 and A1 levels in the Trinity and Cambridge exams
Summary of language goals for Pre-A1 and A1 levels.

In order to make sure I target the language that my students are expected to cover at this level, I have this summary as an easy reference. When I select the stories I want to use in my classes, I consider which language points and functions they will help me practise with my learners.

What are the benefits of using stories to cover beginner (Pre-A1/A1) language requirements?

There are SO MANY benefits that stories bring to the language classroom. You can read more about them in How to use stories in the EFL/ESL classroom. In this article, however, I’m focusing only on the way they help you cover the language syllabus. These are some of the key benefits I think they give us:

There are often several topics to explore within a single picture book

Children get a more global feel for how the language interacts across topics. They don’t see each topic in isolation, but see them interacting together. I believe this helps prepare them for more natural communication and helps them form deeper connections about how the language is used. For example, they may simultaneously be building their knowledge of family vocabulary, while learning language to talk about animals, food or nature. Similarly, they won’t just associate using the present continuous with sports and free time activities, but will see it used in many other contexts.

There can be more opportunities for repetition and revision

Because topics are mixed and repeated across different story books, this means that your students get to hear (and use) familiar language again and again. A good course book will try to incorporate plenty of revision too, but sometimes this can seem forced because they are generally structured around coherent topics.

Using picture books naturally facilitates many beginner language functions

Interactive storytelling and the activities you do before and after the storytelling allow you several opportunities to practise the functions described in the CEFR ‘CAN DO’ statements (See these in full in the summary table above). They are neatly expressed in the language function requirements for the Trinity Graded Examinations in Spoken English Grades 1 and 2:

Children get exposed to language and functions beyond their level

Another thing I love about teaching through stories is that the language is not graded or restricted EXCEPT in the way you choose to restrict it. This means that your students can acquire, or at least get exposure to language structures and functions that you wouldn’t find in a course book designed for their age and level. If they are ready to acquire it, they can!

Children WANT to re-read stories

Children connect with story books on a much deeper level than with a course book unit. This not only makes the language more memorable, but it also means they naturally want to revise, review and use the new language. Of course, this is provided you select engaging and appropriate stories and you vary the story retelling dynamics. You can read more about selecting stories in How to use stories in the EFL/ESL classroom and get lots of ideas for retelling in How to retell a story multiple times in the EFL/ESL classroom.

Examples of Stories and the language points you can target

There are endless stories to choose from! It’s true that some are more suitable than others for teaching beginner language points, but remember that it’s often very easy to adapt the storytelling to focus on your target language. See practical examples in How to adapt stories to teach English. In the section below, you can see some of the stories I use and the different language points they can help you cover.

I haven’t included some of the more generic language functions (listed above) that I think almost all stories can help with. I have instead focused on specific functions and grammar points that each story is particularly suited to.

I have also included language points that go beyond beginner level. While you may not choose to actively target them, it’s good to know what your students have the potential to acquire.

You can also search our Story Resource Pages by Topic to quickly find appropriate stories.

The Smartest Giant in Town

smartest-giant-in-town-story-resources

Topics:

  • Clothes
  • Animals
  • Friends

Language functions:

  • Describing people, animals, objects and places

Language points above level:

  • Expressing purpose with ‘for’
  • Expressing desires with ‘wish’
  • Superlatives

Peace at Last

peace-at-last-cover

Topics:

  • House and home
  • Family

Language functions:

  • Stating simple facts
  • Indicating the position of people and objects

Language points above level:

  • Describing states in the past

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Hungry Caterpillar book cover - ink to story resources page

Topics:

  • Food
  • Days of the week
  • Colours
  • Numbers

Language functions:

  • Stating simple facts

Language points above level:

  • Describing processes
  • Less common food

Elmer

elmer-book-cover-resources-efl-es

Topics:

  • Colours
  • Animals

Language functions:

  • Describing people, animals, objects and places

Language points above level:

  • Describing patterns

From Head to Toe

From Head to Toe book cover - link to story resources page

Topics:

  • Body
  • Animals
  • Simple actions

Language functions:

  • Identifying and naming

Language points above level:

  • Expressing ability

My Teacher is a Monster

My Teacher is a Monster book cover - link to story resources page

Topics:

  • School
  • Body
  • Numbers

Language functions:

  • Expressing feelings
  • Describing people

Language points above level:

  • Speculating

We All Go Travelling By

We All Go Travelling By book cover

Topics:

  • Transport
  • Colours

Language functions:

  • Identifying and naming
  • Describing objects

Language points above level:

  • Other present simple structures

The Yoga Ogre

the-yoga-ogre-book-cover-story-resources-activities

Topics:

  • Sports

Language functions:

  • Stating simple facts
  • Understanding descriptions of what people are doing
  • Describing people

Language points above level:

  • Present continuous

Over in the Meadow

Over in the Meadow book cover - link to story resources page

Topics:

  • Animals
  • Numbers
  • Actions

Language functions:

  • Describing position of people and objects
  • Describing animals and places
  • Counting to 10

Language points above level:

  • Nature & habitats
  • Relative clauses

Shark in the Park

Shark in the Park book cover - link to story resources page

Topics:

  • Places around you
  • Animals

Language functions:

  • Describing position of people and objects

Language points above level:

  • Prepositions & adverbs

So, are picture books all you need?

Well, unfortunately not. Simply reading a story a few times with children is probably not enough to help them acquire the target language. The activities you do before, during and after the storytelling are essential to give the children the repeated quality exposure they need and the opportunities to experiment with the new language.

This is where craft, games and songs really help us teachers out! You can read more about the type of activities I use and the lesson structure in How to use stories in the EFL/ESL classroom.

Final thoughts and top tips

If you’re interested in putting stories at the heart of your (very) young learner courses, here’s some advice on getting started:

It might seem less straightforward than picking up a course book, but I truly believe that teaching through stories is the best approach for our youngest learners. In all honesty, I’m someone who likes to be organised, have structure and know they are meeting objectives. I hope I’ve helped you see that you can still do all that with a syllabus based around stories.

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