5 ESL Story Ideas

Computer brains use ones and zeros to organize and process information. But human brains use stories.

Don’t believe me? Read The Storytelling Animal for an entertaining and insightful look at this phenomenon; read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World if you want a mind-blowing novel on the same topic.

If you teach English as a second language, you should be using stories in your classes. Not only are they the ideal information-delivery mechanism for the brain, they’re also fun and interesting. And we all know English learners need to be entertained.

In this article, I’ll list a few activities that can be done in class to incorporate stories. I’ll explain how to do the activity, what materials you should use, and why it’s beneficial for learning.

Let’s get started.

1. Reading Easy Short Stories

How to do it in class

There are many ways to get students to read short stories in class. You can:

  • assign the reading as homework and discuss it the next day
  • read a story in small groups
  • take turns reading the story as a whole class and discuss it as you go along

To get the most out of the stories, you really need good materials. For current news stories that have been modified for English speakers, Breaking News English is consistently fantastic. The articles are all about the same length, always interesting, and there’s tons of supplemental materials (and it’s all free!).

If you want your class to have a textbook, the True Stories series is great. The stories in these books are also carefully selected and edited for different ability levels. My students have enjoyed every story we’ve read from this book. They’re easy to understand and are written in a consistent narrative style, often with a twist or big surprise at the end, which of course the students love.

Why it helps students

The best way to improve reading fluency is by giving students texts that they can understand. The resources I posted above are modified so that the vocabulary and grammar are simple. The True Stories books have familiar storylines, so students are able to use their pre-existing background knowledge.

And most importantly, these short stories are interesting. Each one of them is compelling, but since there are so many, you can choose certain stories based on who your students are. The more interested your students are in a story, the more they’re willing to learn English to find out what happens at the end.

2. Book Clubs

How to do it in class

In my opinion, the best way to do this is to get a series of leveled readers for your class. I prefer the Pearson English Active Readers because they’re broken up into sections with a few activities between each one. I’ve also used Penguin Readers, which have pre-reading and comprehension questions at the back of the book. If your institution has the funds, they’re a great investment. Another place you can get leveled readers is the dollar store! I saw a few different ones in the books aisle of my local Dollar Tree. They’re designed for children who are native speakers of English, so they might not be as useful as Penguin or Pearson, but it’s a good alternative if you want a (much) cheaper option.

You should have enough different leveled readers so that students can choose which books they like. To set up the book clubs, I handed out the books so that students could look at them briefly and see which ones they were interested in. Then I had them rank the books from favorite to least favorite. I made book club groups based on their rankings. Because I wanted a balanced number in each group, not everyone got their first choice, but none of them were reading a book they weren’t interested in at all.

There are several ways to evaluate the students in your book clubs. You can have them give a group presentation or write book reviews/reports. Most leveled readers, like the ones I linked above, also have multiple-choice and short answer questions that students can complete and hand in (just make sure they don’t write in the books if it’s a class set).

Why it helps students

In my last blog post, I wrote about how cooperation improves creativity, but it also improves comprehension. If you have a class of sixteen students reading four different books at different speeds, you’re not going to be able too  offer support to all of them. But if they’re in a group, they can help each other by sharing their understanding. If the group can’t come to a consensus on what vocabulary word or difficult sentence means, they can call the teacher over and to help them.

And again, the key here is that the stories are interesting. If you have good books and the students get to choose them, they will want to keep reading them over the span of a few days.

3. Writing with Story Dice

How to do it in class

The focus in this activity is on story production rather comprehension. You’ll need story dice. There are many different genres and styles you can buy. And it’s easy to make your own.

One way to implement this is as a whole class activity, which you can do with just one set of dice. You or one lucky student rolls the dice and then each student to write his/her own story based on the images on the dice. This could be a good warm-up to practice writing fluency, or it could last the whole class and you could have students take turns reading their stories at the end. Students will enjoy hearing the different (or similar) ways in which their classmates interpreted and wrote about the dice.

If you have multiple sets of dice, you can break the class into groups and give a set to each group. They could write the story together and share it with the class.

Why it helps students

My writing classes, like most IEP writing classes, are focused almost exclusively on the five paragraph essay, thesis statements, topic sentences, support, etc. Students definitely need this if they’re entering an American university: it helps with the structure of their writing drastically and gives them the confidence to tackle several different types of writing assignments.

But there are two problems with only teaching the five paragraph academic essay:

  1. It’s boring.
  2. It’s not the only thing that students will write at university.

Writing with story dice address both of these problems. It’s fun to do and students don’t need to over think it. It also gives students the confidence to write in other formats. What if their ancient civilization professor asks them to write a myth? Or what if they’re in a creative writing class? The practice they have with writing compare/contrast or cause/effect essays won’t help them in those cases.

4. Team Story Writing

How to do it in class

Another small group activity. Get students into groups of at least three but no more than six or seven.

The activity is simple: there is one piece of paper that is passed around. Each student writes a sentence in the story and then passes it to the next student. This continues until the story is finished.

You can prompt the story in a few different ways. You can give each group or the whole class a theme (horror, sci-fi, romance, etc.) or you can start them off with a first sentence (“It was a dark and stormy night when…).

Why it helps students

The benefits are very similar to the ones from the story dice described above. This type of team story writing also helps students be adaptable and think creatively. They won’t know what the student before them will write, so they have to think on their feet.

This is also a good way for students to give feedback to each other. If a student writes an incomprehensible sentence, the next student who reads it will say “Wait, what is this? How can I write the next sentence in the story if I don’t understand this one?” Everyone in the group has to be communicating well, which in this case means they will have to be writing well.

5. A Story with Every Word

How to do it in class

This activity is for developing vocabulary and I have to be honest and say that I haven’t used it in my classes. But I do think it’s a good idea especially for lower level or intermediate classes that are learning a lot of vocabulary.

Ask students to write a short story incorporating the vocabulary words they’re learning in class. Tell them to be creative and crazy – the more ridiculous the better. As an example, come up with your own story that uses a few vocabulary words several times and share it with your students so they get the idea.

This short writing activity can be done as a review before a vocabulary quiz or just as a warm up for a longer piece of writing.

Why it helps students

I got this idea from reading Fluent in 3 Months. The author of that book has an explanation of this approach on his website. He believes that making a long story with each vocabulary word is the best way to memorize them, and I agree that it’s very effective: like I mentioned earlier, our brains remember stories, and the more ridiculous the better. But it’s not particularly efficient. Asking students to think of a story for each and every vocabulary words is too time consuming.

However, the activity I describe above is both a good writing activity and incorporates the same ideas from Fluent in 3 Months in a slightly more efficient way.

Conclusion: Use the Power of Stories in Your Class

I have yet to meet someone who is completely uninterested in stories. Sure, some of your more serious adult students might demand “academic” English that isn’t “just for fun”. But give them a story related to their field or something that they’re interested in and see how captivated they become.

Be creative as a teacher and see how many different ways you can sprinkle the magic of stories over your lessons.

Thanks for reading

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Featured Image Credit: wackystuff

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