Tell a Story, ESL style | ESL Speaking Adults

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Tell a story, in English

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.

This activity where you tell a story could be very useful for generating some interesting conversation and discussion. However, if you do it this way, 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.

  • Canada
  • best place-Banff
  • visited-family
  • tried poutine
  • saw mountains.

Once the time is up, you have a few options. If you have a small class, you can listen to everyone’s stories. 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.

Bigger Classes? Do This

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.

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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 during the activity.

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