Ghost Stories: 3 Great Storytelling Tricks to Treat Your ESL Students This Halloween

Halloween has crept up on us once again.

On the 31st of October we mark this ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, when the veil between this world of the living and the realm of the dead drops. A time for ghostly voices to whisper their tales in castles, crypts and classrooms alike.

Let me take you, Dear Reader, on a journey through the twists and turns of storytelling. In a time-honored ritual that echoes the traditions of my own Gaelic forefathers, we will look at how we can help our ghoulish students to tell tales in this strange tongue they are apprenticed to.

What better way to mark the beginnings of this, the dark half of the year, than to engage in this most ancient of arts. Whether around a hearth or hillside, at sghoul or at play, timeless oral traditions will not only survive, but they will thrive, on the tongues of our students.

Indulge me, Kind Reader, while I introduce myself.

My name is Shane Mac Donnchaidh, of the Ulster clan of the brown-haired warrior, and I will be your guide. A Gael that hails from the ancient home of Halloween, I was myself born on the 31st of October, sometime in the last century.

My youth was spent by the fireside, sitting at the feet of grandparents, listening to tales told of ghostly deeds done. I spent those years absorbing haunting accounts of the slipping of that flimsy veil that barely divides our worlds.

These tales, and the craft and artistry of the tellers, linger within me still. Please, Generous Reader, sit back as I share three tale-telling tricks to treat your students to this All Hallow’s Eve.

Ghost Stories: 3 Scary Good Storytelling Tricks to Treat Your ESL Students

1. “I see dead people…They’re everywhere.”

[Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense”]

Seeing the dead would be a neat trick indeed. The goal of this first trick, however, is to get your students to “see the dead” in their own culture.

The undead are not contained by the physical borders that you and I experience. Whether in the dense primary rainforests of Brunei, the arid kingdoms of the Middle East, or some snowy northern land, whether called ghosts, djin or pee, the spirits from the other side exist side by side us all.

And while this fact may disturb us if dwelt upon for too long, it does aid our students greatly in finding sources for their own spooky tales. To nurture this ancient art among your students, encourage them to go digging in their own gardens for the bones of their stories.

An activity I often find useful is to send my students off as “story archaeologists.” While many of our students are engrossed in the entertainments of this most modern of ages, they often neglect the tales of their ancestors. Often these tales have stood the test of time for very sound reasons.

Send them back to their own wells for water. Have them ask parents, grandparents and neighbors for ghost stories from their youth. Often these tales will have elements of the traditional folktales running through them. Tales that have been passed on by word of mouth and easily lend themselves to oral retelling.

The challenge to the students will be to retell these stories to their classmates in English. This will involve a process of translation that will draw not only on the students understanding of English vocabulary and grammar, but require a creative interaction with the material to produce their own “cover version” in the target language. A fruitful enterprise for any young ghost-hunter and a surefire way to recognize the worth of their mother tongue in the English language classroom.

2. Channel spirits from the other side.

While your ESL students won’t necessarily be bringing spirits into the world of the living, this ESL trick will have them “channeling” the right storytelling spirit for telling scary tales.

Oral telling of ghost stories has more in common with poetry and drama than written literary forms. Voice is essential, especially a ghostly voice…

Nothing brings a ghost story more to life (or should that be death?) than drama. When rehearsing their story, have your students work on role-playing the characters in their tale. Dialogue is a hugely important aspect here. Students should develop voices and mannerisms, distinct characteristics for each of the entities inhabiting their yarn.

A technique I find particularly effective with younger children is to have them lie down on the carpet and close their eyes. This helps them imagine the scene as you describe it. The windows are blacked out with card and the lights are off. I have my assistant stand by the light switches as I begin setting the scene.

A young boy walking in the forest, my voice lilting, light even. A bright summer’s day. As the day wears on in my narrative, my assistant begins turning off the light switches. My voice takes on a more sinister tone, dipping low, a suggestion of fear in its quivering tones.

As soon it is dark, the assistant has turned off all the lights. My voice is quavering now as the little-boy-lost in my tale himself quavers beneath a tree. By this stage the kids on the carpet cling to each other in that delicious mix of giggly terror and anticipation. Then the storm arrives, my assistant flickers on and off the lights to simulate lightning, maybe she pulls at a little leg on the carpet, causing screams of delight, as I bang on a mix of percussion instruments to create thunderous sound effects

There’s lots we can do to bring our tales to life, so encourage your students to take their cues from the world of drama. Telling a supernatural story or two to your students, with all the bells and whistles, will not only be a lot of fun for them, but will also provide a model of how it can be done when their turn comes up in class.

3. Teach the language of the dead.

If your students are employing the relics they have unearthed in their archaeological digs to build their stories, they will need to translate the idioms and expressions used in their tales for an English speaking audience. They need to capture the ambiance of the story, convey the fear and add some drama. This can be a great opportunity to build in some lessons about English language idioms and oratorical devices.

While cliche can be anathema to originality, idiom, when used imaginatively, can greatly enhance the “veracity” of story-telling. It puts an authentic vernacular into the mouths of the characters which assists in bringing them to life in the imagination of the listener. Your students will sound more like natives than ever once they can employ idioms in conversation and storytelling.

Many English idioms are particular to spoken English, so storytelling can the perfect medium to practice using them. Classmates, too, will avail of a great listening opportunity.

So how can our students weave idioms into their work? There are a number of ways to teach idioms effectively. It may be useful for your student to analyze their story by themes, for example for weather related idioms. A great resource to help students browse for suitable idioms can be found here.

Another way of bringing idiomatic spoken English to a ghastly tale-telling is through the use of the tried and tested phrase that draws the listener in, orientating him or her to the genre. Examples of these are phrases such, “It was on a night just like this,” “her blood ran cold,” “she was a bundle of nerves” or, when introducing the protagonist,”she was about your age, with long brown hair just like Miew’s and butterflies in her stomach.” Teach anything that can draw the scene closer to the listeners, whether by physical description or the choosing of locations, proximity is key for setting the mood.

It is important for the students to remember that the closer they bring their listeners to the feelings of the protagonist, the more terror they will experience!

A final word of warning…

Please take care, Gentle Reader, the power of a well-told tale is formidable indeed and oft-underestimated. With the right instruction and application, your students will have developed an enviable ability. But, with this power comes a heavy burden. You must instill the importance of using this gift judiciously. Indeed, sparingly. Take care that your students do not use this newly-found force of their oratory to terrorize others, particularly their younger siblings.

For if the tales of the Otherworld teach us anything, they teach us that, in the end, we all get what we deserve.

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