ETAS Journal 21/1 Winter 2003
What’s in a Story?
There are, of course, innumerable advantages to using stories (particularly authentic storybooks) with
young learners of English. To name just a few:
• Stories are fun and foster a positive attitude towards the foreign language.
• When carefully selected, stories contain comprehensible input that is slightly above the actual language
level of the children (cf. Krashen, i+1).
• The children learn words in context and whole phrases.
• The frequent repetitions in stories help children remember.
• Story-based lessons cater to different learning styles and different intelligences.
• The pictures help them guess at the meaning of a text.
• The children realize that they do not have to understand every single word in order to make sense of the
• Stories trigger their imagination.
• Storytelling, done sitting in a circle close together, creates a bond among the children as they share
laughter, suspense and surprise.
• In some stories, the children learn other things besides language (e.g. what animals eat or things about
the foreign culture).
In most classrooms, storybooks are used occasionally besides the regular coursebook, but it is also
possible to base the whole curriculum on stories (Ellis and Brewster, 2002). The main difficulty is finding
stories where the language is more or less comprehensible for the children and yet where the story and/or
the pictures are not too childish for the age level.
Selection criteria for a story
Careful selection of the story is crucial and some of the points to consider are:
• Do you like the story and can you convey it with enthusiasm?
• Is the story suitable for the age level?
• Will both girls and boys enjoy the story?
• Are the pictures appealing?
• Is the storybook big enough so that all the children can see?
• Is the text sufficiently illustrated by the pictures?
• Are the pictures and the text synchronized?
• Is the language more or less comprehensible for the children?
Two features which are usually very effective are:
They help the children make predictions and the stories become more memorable. Moreover, the children
simply seem to enjoy such elements. Every night, I invent a little story for my three-year-old son. He has
made me realize the power of repetition; at the first repetition of a particular phrase, the corners of his
mouth start to twitch, and with every following repetition, his mouth gradually widens into a big smile - a
smile that expresses amusement and satisfaction.
A few pieces of advice:
• Show a storybook rather than simply tell a story (visual support)!
• Use authentic storybooks rather than adapted ones!
• Tell the story rather than read it!
• Have the children sit around you in a circle rather than at their desks!
• Use ‘big books’ rather than regular-sized ones (e.g. by Penguin - bigger than A3)!
Some ideas on what to do with a story
For some of the following activities, you might have to allow the children to express themselves in their
mother tongue, otherwise you will not get any spontaneous reactions (e.g. predicting).
a. Before telling the story
• Personalise by asking the children personal questions on the theme of the story (e.g. who has got a pet at
• Show part of the cover illustration, have the children guess at what is hidden, slowly reveal more and
more of the cover
• Show the whole cover illustration at once, let them name things they already know
• Make a colour copy of the book cover and cut it up into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, have the children put
it back together
• Give them a few words from the story, have them guess the content
• Bring along some objects which will appear in the story, have the children guess what role they will play
in the story
• Collect what the children already know on the theme (e.g. bears)
• Sing a song that is relevant to the theme of the story
• Show flashcards of the new words
• Show objects and teach the words
• Mime some words
• Play memory with pictures and words
• Have the children match pictures and words on a sheet
• Brainstorm all the words they know on a particular theme from the book (e.g. in the form of a word web)
b. While telling the story
• Stop and have the children make predictions
• Stop and have them make predictions by choosing one of the cards that lie on the floor
• ‘Listen and identify’: the children point to the corresponding part of the picture
• ‘Listen and repeat’: the children repeat certain phrases, e.g. repetitions
• ‘Listen and mime’: the children mime the actions of some characters (either all together or one child per
• Ask questions about the content
• Stop and see if the children can remember what
• Give a card to each child (a picture, a word or a phrase). They have to hold up their card when
their word appears in the story and maybe even say that word or phrase
• Put copies of the pictures of the story on the floor in the wrong order. As you retell the story
(without showing the pictures this time), the children either have to point to the corresponding picture on
the floor or put the pictures in the correct order
• Retell the story with some mistakes in it, the children have to shout ‘no’ whenever they detect a mistake
• Give each child a sentence from the story on a slip of paper, they retell the story as you turn the pages
While looking at a particular picture:
• Name something and the children point to it
• Point to something and the children say the word
• Have the children name all the things that are green/big/that move, etc.
• Make true/false statements
c. After telling the story
Revising new vocabulary:
• Give the children some empty cards on which they write a word from the story and draw a picture of it
next to the word. Then they cut their cards in half and put everything in the middle. The class has to put
the correct pictures and words together again
• Play memory with these cards or with cards you make yourself
• A child chooses one card with a picture and mimes it, the others guess
• Have each child draw some of the new words on a sheet and label them
• Distribute flashcards with the new words throughout the classroom, call out one word and the children
have to run to the corresponding flashcard
• Describe an animal or something else from the story, the children have to guess what is being described
• Play bingo
• Play dominoes with pictures and words
• Play Chinese whispers
• Ask the children comprehension questions
• Photocopy all the pictures of the story (or a sequence, depending on the number of children) and give
one to each child. Then have the children put the pictures in the correct order. After that, you can let each
child take a slip of paper with the text of one picture and they (or you) read it out loud and the children put
it below the corresponding picture
• Frozen picture: one child chooses a picture and represents it with some other children without speaking
or moving, the rest of the class guesses which picture it is
• True/false statements, either created by you or the children
• Teach them a chant
• Cut up sentences in half, the children put them back together
• Open the book on any page, have the children say what happens there
• Have the children act out the story. You can make the task much easier by telling the story yourself and
having the children only mime the action
• Have the children colour a page from the book
• Each child draws a card with the name of a character and either mimes it or says something about that
character (e.g. I am small and I eat cheese), the others have to guess
Creating a product
• Make a book (‘normal’ book, lift-the-flap book, pop-up book, zig-zag book, a big book, etc.)
Either each child makes a book or they simply create one page of a class copy
• Prepare an exhibition of the books they have made
• Make puppets (e.g. stick cardboard figures onto wooden sticks)
• Make a mask
• Create a chant or a song
• Make an object that appears in the story
• Make a poster
• Create a new book cover
In both of the following examples, the children can retell the story themselves at the end without looking
at the book.
a. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do you See?
(Martin and Carle, 1995)
• Have the children sit in a circle around you
• Revise the colours that are going to appear in the book by holding up a coloured sheet of paper
(A4) for each colour, then put them down on the floor
• Revise the animals of the story with flashcards, put them down on the floor, too
• Start telling the story with the storybook and, for each page, ask the children to put the animal
flashcard on the corresponding colour, e.g. the bear on the brown sheet of paper
• As you tell the children the story a second time, they must put the animals with their colour into the
correct order. (To make it more difficult, see if they can do it first without looking at the book, then check
the order by going through the book)
• Put the book away. Now the children can tell the whole story word for word just by looking at the
series of pictures! This gives them a great sense of achievement
b. Dear Zoo (a lift-the-flap book) (Campbell, 1984)
• Begin with the song ‘Going to the Zoo’ (cf. CD A Little More English, Linda Schlener and Lois
• Have the children talk about their experience of zoos
• Collect names of animals in the zoo
• Pre-teach all the animals from the story with flashcards
• Start telling the story. Before a child lifts a flap, they have to guess the animal hidden underneath.
Very quickly, the children will join in with ‘So they sent me ...’
• Retell the story, this time have one half of the class read the page on the left and the other half the page
on the right
• Then have the children put the animals on the flashcards in the correct order without looking at the book,
then check the order with them
• Have a child draw a slip of paper with an adjective from the story (too big, too tall, etc.), mime it if
necessary and the children have to putthe adjective next to the corresponding animal
• Let the children retell the story simply by looking at the flashcards and the adjectives
• Have the children continue the story with other animals and adjectives (maybe show them a
selection of both)
References and Sources
Several ideas in my article have been taken from the sources below:
Campbell, Rod (1984): Dear Zoo, Puffin Books
Ellis, Gail/Brewster, Jean (2002): Tell it Again! The New
Storytelling Handbook for Primary Teachers, Penguin
Martin Bill Jr./Carle Eric (1995): Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do
you See? Puffin Books
Mourao, Sandie (2003): Realbooks in the Primary Classroom,
Slattery, Mary/ Willis, Jane (2001): English for Primary Teachers,
Two teacher training courses with Patricia Angelil at The Language Company in Zug
Talk by Gail Ellis at the IATEFL Young Learners conference in Bonn, 31 May/1 June 2002
*) Sylvia Nadig is currently teaching English to children at The Language Company (English for
Youngsters)Smeets-Cowan & Co. in Zug. She also prepares future primary teachers for the CAE exam at
the Seminar St.Michael in Zug. She previously taught English andFrench at various Gymnasien and was
lecturer for English Didactics at the Höheres Lehramt of theUniversity of Berne.