Everyone loves a good story.
In traditional cultures, oral stories define people’s way of life and impart important messages.
In contemporary society, stories are still extremely commonplace, highly valued and serve many purposes.
For example: to entertain, to educate, to communicate or just to catch a break from real life!
To some extent, we all learn languages—be it our first language or an additional one—through stories.
After all, why do you think every Harry Potter title made it to the top of the reading charts when it was released? People never tire of a good story.
Likewise, your ESL students will have the motivation to pick up language quickly through written narratives. Using stories in the classroom provides them the special opportunity to deepen their understanding of language through a particular situation and characters.
So let’s talk about how to do that! In this post, we’ll cover all facets of using stories to teach ESL for any level, including ideas for presenting them in class and online resources you can use to find appropriate material.
We’ll start at the very beginning: what to think about when choosing a story.
How to Choose a Good Story for Your ESL Class
So in the context of teaching ESL, what is a good story? A good story is simply one that’s appropriate for your students.
So before you select a story for your lesson, consider the factors below.
Ensure that the story of your choice contains the right vocabulary level for your class. For example, if you’re teaching an intermediate class, the vocabulary should not be so familiar that it lacks challenge or so unfamiliar that it may kill students’ interest.
You can make the search for level-appropriate classroom material easier by checking out FluentU, an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. You can browse videos by difficulty (beginner to native), topic (arts and entertainment, health and lifestyle, etc.) and format (video blog, news, shows, etc.).
What story you choose should depend on your students’ ability to read and access a given text. For beginning level students, choose a short and simple text that’s easy enough for them to comprehend. Consider the sentence structure, language features, vocabulary and story line. The more competent the reading level of your students, the longer the text and the more complex the vocabulary, language features, sentence structure and plot can be.
Genre and theme
Horror, adventure, comedy, romance, fantasy, science-fiction. The list goes on. The genre of the text you select for your class should interest the majority of students. It’s important to choose a story that suits the demographics and personality of the class. For example, selecting a narrative that’s gender-biased may catch the interest of one gender and switch the other off. So be very mindful of this and make sure that the story you select has mass appeal or will appeal specifically to your class.
Incorporation of thinking skills
Another thing to consider when you’re selecting a text is how you can incorporate thinking skills when discussing it. You may want to first consider what thinking skills are relevant for the level you’re teaching.
For a beginner class, for example, think about selecting a text that you can use to touch on skills of prediction before, during and after reading. Simple inference can also be used at certain points in the text.
For intermediate and advanced level classes, you can consider using higher order thinking skills such as comparison, deduction and inference to help your students understand the text better.
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Reading for Gist
So once you’ve selected a story, how are you going to use it to teach your students? One way to use stories effectively in ESL classes is by teaching for gist. Let’s look at how you can teach reading for gist for any level.
Before getting your students to read the text for the first time, get them to guess what the story is about just by reading the title. If the passage comes with an illustration, be sure to utilize this as a discussion point.
Who, what, where and when questions
Move on to the introduction and discuss the “W” questions with your students.
You can lead the discussion by asking:
“Who is mentioned?”
“What is happening?”
“Where is the story set?”
“When does the story take place?”
Discussing the “W” questions will give students an idea of the topic and what to expect in the story. Confirm the answers to the “W” questions by going through the whole story so that students get the gist of the plot.
To give your students an idea of where your story is set, it’s a good idea to get them to identify word associations. For example, before pointing out a scene set in a city, get your students to identify common word associations such as “traffic lights,” “traffic,” “vehicles,” “noise,” “office workers,” “tall buildings,” etc.
Reading for Meaning: Small Picture and Big Picture
As a teacher, you already know that reading a story once isn’t enough. A second reading will help students to understand the story better by reflecting on the elements of a narrative through a more comprehensive discussion. This outcome can be achieved at two levels: small picture and big picture, discussed below.
The small picture
Anyone will agree that a narrative without a conflict will be bland, predictable and fail to sustain readers’ interest. A good story that manages to capture a reader’s attention is one that contains a problem. The best way to discuss conflict in a story is to ask students if there’s a problem in the narrative.
You can focus on vocabulary by asking students to identify words and phrases associated with the problem. For example, if the problem has to do with a character losing money at the casino, words that point to the problem will be as follows: “debt,” “lost,” “gamble,” “high stake,” etc. This of course depends on how the writer presents the story, too.
You’d agree that characterization is an integral part of a narrative, wouldn’t you? It’s best to discuss the main character in the story first. The easiest way to teach characterization is to start by getting your students to describe how the character looks. Get them to identify any adjectives used. After that, you can proceed to a deeper discussion of the character’s qualities.
You can explore the following ways of teaching characterization:
- Drawing. One effective method is to get students to draw the main character or any supporting character in the story based on adjectives and word associations that are presented. This will give them an opportunity to visualize the character in their mind’s eye and present them on paper. This will also present you with a chance to discuss perception, in the sense that different people perceive things differently. Have fun with the different interpretations of the same character through visual representation.
- Thought bubble. Another way to teach characterization at a deeper level is to encourage students to imagine what the target character is thinking at a particular point in a story. This activity can be conducted using speech bubbles, in pairs or individually. You can explore a range of questioning techniques to encourage the use of higher order skills such as inference, deduction, prediction and analyzing. Some good examples would be: “If Susan is guilty for telling lies, what will run through her thoughts now?” or “What will Laura’s thoughts be about the future now that she knows she is expecting a baby?”
- Inference through dialogue. Inference is a skill that’s mastered through practice. Teaching students to infer a character’s qualities through dialogue is challenging, as they’re required to think through the information at many levels. As an example, let’s look at this dialogue between a mother and son:
Mother: I told you to empty the trash can, didn’t I?
Son: Yeah. I’ll do it later, Mom. Got something to do now.
Mother: I hope I don’t have to end up doing it.
Son: No, I will do it. Just not now.
Mother: Don’t keep me waiting. My patience is running out.
Son: As soon as this is done. I need to get the highest score for this one.
Whoa, there are so many ways to discuss characterization here. You can start with:
“What kind of character do you think the son is?”
“Why do you say so?”
“Which phrase tells you that the son will perform a chore on his own terms?”
With prompting and the right questioning techniques, you will steer your students in the right direction and lead them to talking about the key characteristics of the main character.
For every conflict, there must be a resolution of some sort. To increase your students’ awareness of the resolution in a story, direct them to the last few paragraphs of the narrative. Extract words or phrases that depict a solution to a problem.
General examples are:
- The police arrived.
- The robber was arrested.
- He aggressively put the fire out with a wet blanket and carried the child to safety.
A good way of explaining a resolution is driving home the point that it brings closure to the story. Good triumphs over evil, the feeling of safety is made more prominent or success is achieved after a period of hardship. Tell your students that when the story shifts to take on a positive note, the resolution begins.
The big picture
Now that you’ve discussed the elements of the story, it’s time to get your students to see the story as a whole rather than in bits and pieces. An effective method for this is to use a graphic organizer such as a story map to help understand the story better. The website everythingESL has a good story map that is user-friendly and simply presented.
For a more detailed story discussion, using a plot diagram is recommended. This is especially good for advanced level students. Terms specific to the story, such as protagonist, antagonist, theme and genre can be introduced. Also, you can perform a more extensive study of the story with your class through looking at rising and falling action to understand the plot even better.
To test students’ understanding of the story, why not get them to write a summary of the main events in chronological order? Students get better at summary writing with practice.
Recommended Resources by Level
So now that you know what factors to consider in choosing a story and how you can teach it, it’s time to find stories your students will love! You can use the stories below in your classes or use them as examples for finding even more stories.
The stories featured below are suitable for beginner level students. You can conduct basic discussion on “W” questions and the setting. Though these stories do not always feature obvious problems and solutions, it’s still a good idea to discuss these concepts briefly.
“Charles Is Going to the Supermarket” on Stickyball.net
This passage is a good example of a simple narrative containing a simple problem and solution. The passage has accompanying questions and extension activities that may be useful for your reading lesson.
“What’s in the Box?” on rong-chang.com
The passage featured here is lengthier than the previous one but contains simple vocabulary. It contains dialogue, which adds a bit of challenge for your beginner level students. There’s enough scope for using prediction skills to elicit the conflict and resolution in the story.
This website contains an extensive selection of short passages for beginners. It’s a good resource to use for a start, before exposing students to more challenging passages.
The stories presented below contain problems and solutions that can be discussed. Where stories do not have an obvious resolution, you can get students to predict using the skill of inference. There’s also enough scope to talk about characterization in these stories due to their more elaborate structures.
This Is America: Mini-novels for English Learners on rong-chang.com
This section of rong-chang.com contains an extensive collection of passages suitable for intermediate students. The stories here cover a variety of genres.
“The Alien Story” on ESL Lounge
This story is comprised of jumbled up paragraphs. Students can rearrange them in order. This is a good activity to use to show sequence in narratives with reference to the conflict, climax and resolution.
“Melissa Moves House” from Free Teacher Worksheets
This story features narrative with accompanying questions. It has scope for lots of discussion on vocabulary and word associations.
“Zombies at the Door” from Free Teacher Worksheets
This is a good passage to choose if you plan to discuss sensory details and suspense. This passage is also accompanied with questions to test students’ understanding.
The stories below are longer and more comprehensive, containing dialogue. These provide excellent platforms for discussing the elements of a narrative and language features. Take the opportunity to get your students to predict the resolution in stories containing open-ended endings.
“The Car” on Linguapress.com
This is a story with dialogue. It’s a good one to choose for character discussion. There are some colloquial expressions used that you may want to explain.
“One Foggy Night” on Linguapress.com
Here’s a story that has an open-ended conclusion that gives opportunity for prediction. It also contains dialogue that may be useful for character study or discussion on plot development.
“Jacob the Great” from ereadingworksheets.com
This link will take you to a story that is suitable for character study. It also has an open-ended conclusion, and is followed by extension activities.
Teaching stories for reading comprehension in ESL can be made interesting through fun and meaningful activities.
Conduct thorough planning and select relevant resources that are level-appropriate, and make stories come alive for your students through varied activities that promote high engagement.
Use narratives in your class whenever you can, because this provides a language-rich platform for students to explore and create meaning.
Never forget, stories are a very effective learning resource!
Emmie Sahlan has been teaching English Language and Literature for ten years and ESL for the past five years.
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