How to Ask a Story


We want to engage our students so that the stories we create with them become THEIR stories. When we are successful, they will develop a class culture with favorite characters that constantly pop up in the stories. Students will come to class excited to collaborate with you, adding creativity and humor to a recipe for success. In order to do this, we do not tell a story, we ask it, so that it truly belongs to the students. Here are a few tips to help you when you start out.

1. Before you ask a story, you should have mastered using PQA and circling with your students. They must have learned how to participate in a Comprehensible Input class, that is: to be attentive and to use the target language to answer your questions.

2. Decide whether your story will have targeted structures or not. With first year students you may want to start with the seven super verbs, or very basic structures that are going to be necessary all year long. With more advanced students, you may want to trust to serendipity and use the structures that come up in the course of the story and appear helpful. When you first start asking stories, one structure is enough. As you become more skillful, you may add one or even two more structures.

3. Find a hero. It may be an imaginary character or a famous person. If you have a student who is comfortable with being the hero, use them. Begin by asking questions about the hero and learning as much as possible about them.

4. Don’t take the first answer you’re given. Or the second or the third. Think about their suggestions and their possibilities for humor. In general, Bizarre, Exaggerated and Personalized details are good because they will be remembered.

5. Find a problem. A hero always has a problem. Ask your class what your hero’s problem is. What does he want/need that he doesn’t have? Or what does he have that he doesn’t want/need? If you are using a targeted structure, the problem and/or its solution should naturally involve the structure you have targeted.

6. Try to find a solution. Again, ask the class to suggest solutions. But learn to milk their ideas for details. If they say that the hero goes to Paris, ask how does he go? By car, by helicopter, by train, by dog sled? What color is the helicopter? Who or what is piloting the helicopter? How long does it take them? Where do they land? At Charles de Gaulle or at the Elysée? A good story creates pictures in our minds. Pictures need details.

7. As the students give you information about the hero and his problem select the ideas that help to carry the story along and circle each statement that you agree on. Ideally, you are circling your target structures, but you are also helping the students to grasp the story as it unfolds.

8. In story worlds, heroes always get three chances. (Which means three opportunities for repetition of the structures you are working on.) The hero goes somewhere, tries something, asks someone for something, and the first and second time he fails. The third time, if he fails your story is a tragedy. If he succeeds it’s a happy ending. Let your class decide, but if the hero is one of your students they will always succeed.

9. You can ask a star student (who perhaps is in danger of getting bored) to write the story as it grows. This saves you having to remember all the details and can be used to produce a reading for the next day.

10. As the story develops, to give you and the students some thinking time, ask for retells. If your students aren’t used to doing retells, tell them that you want to recapitulate the story so far, then pretend to forget everything, so they are correcting you or completing your statements. Retells mean more repetitions, which is the name of the game.

11. Remember that even as the story follows their ideas and suggestions, you are the boss. You decide what to accept and what to save for another day. You can always say, “That’s another story.” Never accept anything negative that could hurt or humiliate a student. (If you have students that shout out negative comments, treat it as a major breach of discipline. Students who do not feel safe will never play the game.)

12. Enjoy yourself. Have fun. Laugh at their funny ideas. When they see you smiling, sincerely appreciating their creativity and jokes, they will begin to trust you. That’s how homerun stories are made.

There are 2 comments

  1. Fabio Carvalho

    Thanks for the article. Since I started reading The Natural Approach, I’ve fallen in love with language acquisition, and, even having worked as a ESL teacher (I’m from Rio, Brazil, by the way) I feel like this has become a game-changer to me I have used a bunch of different methodologies and there has been a crucial point in which students con’t go forward. And that is learning the language instead of acquring it.

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