A storytelling Classroom Ensures Meaningful Language Practice

An example of a storytelling classroom. Photo source: TeachHUB
An example of a storytelling classroom. Photo source: TeachHUB
Masum Billah
Written by Masum Billah

A storytelling classroom is a lively language practice venue. It ensures to develop learners’ necessary fluency as well as confidence which is a must to do language practice. A language teacher should devise a storytelling classroom to get the students involved in a meaningful language practice activity. Andrew Wright has succinctly remarked, “Go to any pub or party and you will hear a constant babble of stories.” The whole world is full of storytellers. Our students also have stories to tell and can become a part of that storytelling world to which Wright refers.

There is a four-step approach to help students develop their skills as conversational storytellers. The first step is an introductory lesson that presents learners with a model story and follow-up questions to raise their awareness of the story’s generic structure as described by Eggins and Slade (1997). The second step is a follow-up lesson that invites them to apply the Eggins and Slade (1997) framework and practice telling stories of their own. This practice is combined with a fluency development technique known as 4-3-2 (Naurice 1983, Nation 1989, Nation and Newton 2009). In step three teachers make conversational storytelling a regular feature of their classes and help their learners add interest to their stories through the use of devices such as extreme adjectives, idiomatic expressions and direct speech. Step four draws attention to the active role of the listener by helping learners use back-channelling and other linguistic devices to show interest and empathy as they listen to and interact with the storyteller.

A good start is for the teacher to present a model story based on some experience of his or her own. Teachers should feel free to choose any story that they feel would be of interest to their particular students. The story should focus on one simple event that gave rise to some emotional reaction such as pleasure, surprise, fear or anger and teachers should ensure that their stories provide the students with a clear model of the five generic components of conversational anecdotes identified by Eggins and Slade (1997). These components are abstract, orientation, remarkable event, reaction and coda (Eggins and Slade 1977). An abstract is a short phrase or sentence indicating that a story about to be told and it often contains a hint of the type of story to expect: I’ll tell you something funny that happened to me once. “Orientation explains the essential background information that the listener needs in order to be able to appreciate the story-who takes part and where, when, and under what circumstances the story unfolds. The remarkable event tells what actually happened and includes the section. How did the protagonist or other characters in the story react to the event? How did they feel, what did they say, or what did they do?

Coda is round off the story by relating it to another time or place and could be a reference to the long term effects of the related events. Eggins and Slades (1997) five components constitute a framework that teachers can present to the learners as a useful scaffold on which to build their stories. In particular, teachers should focus on the three central components: orientation, remarkable event and reaction. This is because the abstract and coda are optional features that will not necessarily appear in every anecdote (Eggins and Slades 1997). The remaining three features however will normally be present in any well-told anecdote. Orientation stage: who, where, when?

Teachers can be flexible about time allocation and should not feel compelled to adopt a strict four-minute- three-minute, two-minute timing sequence. Even though students have now been initiated into the art of conventional storytelling classroom, they will need substantial exposure, time and practice in order to develop their skill. Teachers can help by making storytelling a regular feature of their conversation classes. Various themes can be proposed: success and achievement stories, memories of kindergarten days, or elementary school or funny stories about pets or family members. As meaningful learning takes place in a lively and friendly environment, a storytelling classroom gives that opportunity to both the teachers and learners.

To give practice in expressing emotion through direct speech, teachers can consider giving learners short newspaper articles in which interaction is expressed through indirect speech and asks them to speculate on the actual words they think the characters might have used ( Jones 2007). And again, when students are telling their own stories, the teacher can monitor and be proactive, prompting them with some practical comments.

How can teachers help learners train other learners to become more active as listeners? Thornby and Slades (2006) three-way progress of exposure –instruction- practice can be helpful here. In the first stage, exposure the learners are given transcripts of dialogues containing short, contextualized bad channelling phrases. After students have had some practice with exercises, they can be invited to share their own stories about times they were angry, scared, embarrassed or happy while their partners are encouraged to show interest and make frequent responses.  One way in which this can be staged is for them to work in a group of three in which one partner tells the story, another partner makes listener responses, and the third partner acts as secretary, noting down how many and what kind of responses the interlocutor made. The human need to communicate personal experiences makes a storytelling classroom a natural way to design a lesson that helps the student develop English language skills. The ability to tell a personal anecdote in English to be able to share it with others and to react positively to other people’s stories is a great social asset. Teachers of English should devote some of their time to help their students develop this valuable skill.

Children have an innate love of stories. Stories create magic and a sense of wonder in the world. Stories teach us about life, about ourselves and about others. Storytelling classroom is a unique way for students to develop an understanding, respect and appreciation for other cultures, and can promote a positive attitude to people from different lands, races and religions. A language teacher should be delighted when a student has a story to tell and attempts to deliver it in English. It gives a rich opportunity to practice language practice. Students do not simply soak up language. Learners must understand the communication that is conveyed by their classmates and teachers. English language learners acquire language by hearing and understanding messages that are slightly above their current English language level. Research shows that English language learners need opportunities to practice language at their level of competency. (Pica et.al 1989, 1996, Swain and Lapkin 1995).

To acquire language, the learner needs a source of natural communication. Humans need to communicate personal experiences makes storytelling a natural way to design lessons that help students develop their English language skills. Raising awareness of the generic features of a conversational storytelling classroom is a first step to enable learners to share their own stories with their classmates. Various techniques add interest to the narrators and promote greater fluency. A focus on active listening creates a truly interactive environment that enhances the development of higher-order language skills. This type of learning comes from direct instruction about the rules of language. They can memorize the rules of the language and perhaps succeed on a standardized list, but they still may not have strong speaking or writing skills.

To acquire a new language students need a source of natural communication. Memorizing grammar rules will not help them learn to speak and write English quickly. All students but English language learners, in particular, need many and varied opportunities to practice their skills with assistance from the teacher as well as independently. Effective teachers have ways to provide students additional practice and a storytelling classroom proves one of them.


Eggins and Slade (1997): S. Eggins and D. Slade – Analyzing Casual Conversation, London: Cassell 1997
Nation 1989 and Newton 2009: Nation I.S.P. and Newton .J (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. Newyork, Routledge.
Tornbury and Slades (2006): Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy Scott Thornbury and Diana Slade. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York.
Pica Et al 1989, 1996: Second Language Learning Through Interaction: Multiple Perspectives Teresa Pica, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education.

About the author

Masum Billah

Masum Billah

Masum Billah works as an Education Expert in the BRAC Education Program, BRAC, and President of the English Teachers' Association of Bangladesh (ETAB), Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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