Storytelling as a tool for ESL teaching

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As a young child, you were no doubt told stories by your mother and other members of your family; now, as a trainee or novice ESL teacher – you will have to tell stories to your ESL students.

Storytelling is probably as old as the hills: it has been used worldwide as a means of passing down cultural memories, beliefs, customs, superstitions, and histories. Its use in the ESL classroom is particularly appealing to young students: those students who are below the B2 level of the CEFR. Indeed, storytelling is beneficial for all aspects of ESL learning: particularly speaking and listening. Before you can tell a story, you will have to find an appropriate book.

All the major publishing houses have a wide range of ESL graded readers, for example, Oxford University Press has a good selection in its ‘Bookworms’ series of graded readers. Visit  https://elt.oup.com/cat/subjects/graded_reading/?cc=gb&selLanguage=en. When selecting a book, make sure that it will be appealing to both male and female students: in this way you can guarantee that all the students will be interested in listening to the story. It may be more interesting for the students if you select a book that is set in a different culture to that of the students’ own culture, and don’t select a book just because you like it – the students may not share your interests.

Having selected the book, you should now read it BEFORE you read the book to the students. Familiarize yourself with all the characters, plots, sub-plots, figurative language, and vocabulary. When you come to read it in class, seat your students in a semi-circle, and read to them for about fifteen to twenty minutes: make sure that you actively involve the students. Before you start reading, get the students to explain what has happened so far in the story. While reading, ask them what they think is going to happen next. After reading, discuss any difficulties they had in understanding the story.

As a storyteller you should try to empathize with the characters in your story, and try to give each character their own voice; don’t read it as if you are reading exercises from a grammar book: a wide variety of emotions can be expressed by simply altering the sound of your voice and the use of body language. Additionally, you should always finish your storytelling sessions at a climax, for example: ‘He picked up the gun and aimed it at… Don’t forget, if you hope to captivate your students, you will need to dramatize the story. As a word of warning, the novice ESL teacher should be careful not to spoil the ‘magic’ of storytelling by transforming it into a grammar or writing activity.

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