It seems like every ESL textbook has a unit where students have to tell a story. It’s usually in the unit on past tense. It’s often kind of a throwaway activity and I used to do it as kind of an afterthought.
However, it doesn’t have to be this kind of thing. Keep on reading for everything you need to know about making this activity far more interesting (and useful) for your students. It turns up from purely a speaking activity to a listening and conversation one.
Tell a Story, the Bad Way
In almost all general, 4-skills ESL textbooks such as Smart Choice, or World Link there are usually pages with discussion starters that require students to tell a story of some kind. You can most often find this activity in the unit related to the past verb tenses.
A big problem with telling stories in class is that most students will not do a very good job of it if they are given no time to prepare. It’s pretty boring to listen to quite often, especially with lower level students. Their “story” of their best vacation for example, will sound like:
“I went Japan. We ate sushi. I saw temple. I swam ocean.”
But the grammar is usually worse! And many of the students will say the exact same thing.
You go around the class and everyone says a few sentences. Then, it’s done and you move onto the next thing.
This activity where you tell a story could be very useful for generating some interesting conversation and discussion. However, if you do it the way that I’ve just described, it can be over in only a couple of minutes.
Tell a Story, the Better Way
A better way to get students to tell a story is to give them 2-5 minutes of preparation time before they have to tell their story. The amount of time depends on the level of students.
I emphasize to the students that it is a speaking activity and not a writing activity, so while they can jot down a few words, they cannot write full sentences. I give an example of this beforehand.
- best place-Banff
- tried poutine
- saw mountains
Once the thinking time is up, you have a few options. If you have a small class, you can listen to everyone’s stories together. This is usually not my favourite option because it becomes quite teacher-centred (as opposed to student-centred).
However, in a class of only 2-4 students, it’s often unavoidable. If you have a very small class like this, you can require that each person (including you) ask at least 1-2 follow-up questions. This gives the other students a reason to listen and helps everyone to participate equally in class.
Bigger Classes? Do This Variation for Telling a Story
Put the students in groups of 3 or 4 to tell their story. Each person goes in turn telling their story and every other person listening will have to ask them 1 question.
Emphasize that everyone is to listen carefully to the story and think of 1 interesting question to ask the student and not just to think about their own story.
You can review the “W” questions for low level students, if required (who, what, when, why, where and how) and also give some examples of good and bad questions.
Hint: The best questions are open-ended, and not yes/no ones.
At the end of the activity, I choose one person from each group and get them to tell me 1-2 interesting things that they learned about their classmates during the activity.
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Learn How to Tell a Story in English
You can even show your students this short video about telling a story below to get them started. It’s a fun introduction to this activity and the results are usually better stories overall. Combine that with some thinking time at the beginning, and you’ll find that you often have some great results!
Do you need more ideas for teaching about the past? Check out: ESL Past Tense Games. They’ll help you get beyond the standard stuff in the textbook and make your English classes more fun and engaging. Which of course, equals more learning!
Have your Say about this ESL Speaking Activity
What are your thoughts about this more interesting way to tell a story for ESL/EFL Students? Or, do you have a go-to activity for getting students to tell a story? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you.
Also be sure to give this activity a share on social media. It’ll help other English teachers, like yourself find this useful teaching resource.