Beyond Cinderella: using stories with secondary and adult learners

Written by: Ian King

Introduction
Using stories is mostly associated with fairy stories for young learners, for older learners we often use rather artificial texts to practise specific language points. However, stories may take many forms, and can have a significant intrinsic value. A traditional and effective way of teaching, they can stimulate the imagination and bring the language alive. This presentation sets out to explore how stories may be used in practical ways to help our students to learn.

Stories have always played an important part in all cultures. One traditional role of stories is to offer an explanation of the world and our place in it; these stories have contributed towards each culture’s religion (for example, the story of Genesis) and folklore. A second role is to pass on cultural values and beliefs, in all social units: individual, couple, family, peer group, company, nation. On an individual level, every person has a life story, and each life story contains significant episodes. Couples, families and peer groups have their traditional memories of past experiences which together help to form their separate identity. Companies and organisations similarly have stories which help to define their culture. On a national level, children learn, and adults remember, episodes from history which typify and perpetuate certain national characteristics and values. An example is that of Sir Francis Drake playing bowls while awaiting the threat of the Spanish Armada. When a messenger hurries up with the news that the dreaded Armada has been sighted, Drake coolly observes that there is time to finish the game first, before venturing forth to do battle with the enemy.

That’s all very well, you might say, but how important are stories to us today, how relevant are stories to adults living their busy lives at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Let’s have a look at what we do frequently, if not every day. We read newspapers: stories. We listen to the news on the radio, or watch it on television: more stories. We meet neighbours, colleagues and friends, and exchange personal anecdotes: stories again. We read comics, short stories, or novels: yet more stories. We go to the cinema or the theatre, and watch films, series and soaps on TV: so many stories. Finally, if we work for a company, we may receive some form of in-company training, in which stories play an increasingly important part, owing to the growing recognition of the power of metaphor; a case in point here is the recent phenomenal success among business executives of a simple little story of a couple of mice who lose their supply of cheese.*

How do stories help our students to learn? First of all, they enhance the memory through the identification of patterns, the stimulation of the imagination and emotions (situated next to memory storage in our brains), the association of ideas, and the stimulation of different senses. Secondly, language is modelled and reinforced through the rich grammatical mix offered by stories, their chronological nature, the central role of context, and their rhythmic qualities. It is also important to observe that stories enable a stress-free (non-threatening) learning situation which induces an optimum state of relaxed awareness, allowing for more learning to take place, including at an unconscious level. Furthermore, stories encourage participation and student-centred learning; students may not only interact with each story through a series of right-brain activities, but stories also have an exponential quality in that they stimulate the telling of more stories. Finally, they are flexible in that they may be suitable for all types of student and with different levels (including mixed ability classes), and can practise and combine the four skills and exploit the five senses…

Stories may operate as vehicles to practise language (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation), to pass on information and ideas, to send messages (i.e., the moral), to foster certain values and beliefs, or even to transmit subliminal messages. However, we should not forget the importance of simple honest-to-goodness enjoyment, perhaps the key to the effectiveness of the story as vehicle.

The appeal of good story-telling has recently been demonstrated yet again, in the teeth of conventional wisdom, by the success of the Harry Potter books. Turning to EFL, a phenomenally successful coursebook in the 1970s, Kernel Lessons Intermediate by Robert O’Neill (Longman, 1971), contained an ongoing story, The Man Who Escaped, a well-crafted tale which not only served as a relatively unforced model for the grammatical content of each unit, but which was also a gripping adventure story, which had many students reading ahead in the book in their anxiety to know what happened next. The 80s saw the publication of the Streamline English series (Oxford University Press), in which simple and effective stories played a key role, even if today we would probably prefer to exploit them in a rather more communicative or student-centred way. If we look at recent and current TEFL practice, we find relatively few stories on the whole, in spite of the number of excellent graded readers on the market. In course books, stories often only appear as short vehicles to practise specific language, with a tendency to be irrelevant, uninspiring, childish or patronising. We can often see the result of this sort of approach (for it is symptomatic of a general approach, not only related to the use of stories) in the English language classroom: boredom, lack of interest, a negative attitude towards learning, an absence of stimulation to actively use the language and an inability to associate the classroom subject with the wider language, communication, themselves and the world. Within the limits of using stories, what solution to this problem may we propose? I would suggest giving priority to the story and its meaning, on the basis that inspiration leads to assimilation. A good story will be remembered and passed on.

What are the qualities, then, of a good story, for our purposes? It should not be just a convenient peg to hang some grammar practice on, but should appeal to the senses, have a rich vocabulary, be imaginative, have cumulative qualities to aid comprehension, memory and participation,  perhaps have some metaphorical function and possibly help us tap into our inner emotions and feelings.

We also need to recognise that stories may take many forms. Fairy tales, folk tales, fables and Zen stories are fine, but we can also make use of anecdotes, jokes, urban legends, poems and songs. With the probable exception of poetry, all these story forms are good to exploit because of their very familiarity, and because of their clear potential for enjoyment. Most students enjoy working with music, which also helps to engage their emotions. Instrumental music may tell a story, or at least set the scene for one. There are a lot of songs which tell an anecdote or explain somebody’s life in some way. One useful activity is to look at the ways on which stories existing in different forms (for example a Zen story and a pop song, a newspaper article and a folk tale, a poem and an urban legend) deal with the same basic theme, and compare and contrast them. Another stimulating classroom activity is to use the story – in whatever form – as a basis for a discussion of the issues arising from it; a story will usually provide a much more powerful springboard for this kind of discussion activity than direct questions about the issues themselves, This is partly because of the more indirect, metaphorical and subtle nature of stories, but also because the story provides a stimulus to the imagination and the emotions, as well as supplying a convenient initial frame of reference which may be readily understood and appreciated by all the participants. All forms of story may be used for this purpose, although I find Zen stories particularly suitable in terms of being short and simple while at the same time offering a veritable feast in terms of food for thought, and containing lessons which are highly relevant to all our lives. Many poems have similar qualities, and searching through the Penguin Modern Poets series, for example, will yield a rich and varied harvest. Finally, guided visualisations are a wonderful way of allowing students to give free rein to their imaginations, and enter a special world of their own, where they may discover all kinds of riches which will benefit them in and beyond the classroom. As William Wordsworth said:

“Pleasure and learning go hand in hand, but pleasure leads the way.”

Bibiography
J. Morgan and M. Rinvolucri, Once Upon a Time (Cambridge University Press, 1983)
Wright, Creating Stories with Children (Oxford University Press, 1997)
E. Taylor, Using Folktales (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
J. Revell and S. Norman, In Your Hands (Saffire Press, 1997)
J. Revell and S. Norman, Handing Over (Saffire Press, 1999)
M. Parkin, Tales for Trainers (Kogan Page, 1998)
M. Berman and D. Brown, The Power of Metaphor (Crown House Publishing, 2000)
Penguin Modern Poets series (Penguin)
*S. Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese? (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998)

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