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BBC interview on, 'Stories in Language Teaching'
Andrew Wright

The BBC have sent me the following questions related to a new series on the use of stories in language teaching to be broadcast in the coming months and these are my notes for guiding my responses during the interview.

What is a story?
A story, for me, is any description containing an element of drama. And drama, for me, always contains a seed of conflict or problem to be overcome.
Responding in another way, I believe that stories offer ways to live in the face of the constant and chaotic onslaught of daily experience. Some of those 'ways to live' are good roads to travel on and others are blind alleys and lead us nowhere.
Just as I rejoice in Rembrandt's drawings as well as his great paintings so do I rejoice in bits of stories, bright descriptions of people and places, fresh and revealing metaphors.
Descriptions containing drama can be found in the BBC news, indeed, the news readers often say, 'The top stories today are...'. They can also be found in daily anecdotes, modern literature, as well as in traditional stories and legends.

Why use stories to teach English?
Everybody needs stories, not just children. Stories are usually communicated verbally: spoken or in writing. Here is something which everybody wants based on verbal language! Can stories not be central to language teaching?
Stories are particularly good at helping learners to experience the meanings of language and not just study them. And stories are particularly good at offering an experience of a river of flowing and sustained language use as opposed to conversational turn taking in which the learner experiences only short bursts of language.
Everybody wants stories. They give experience of language in use. They are free!

What is the difference between reading and telling stories?
Salt and pepper are both on every cook's shelf. It is not that one is better than the other. The advantage of reading stories to learners is that you don't have to learn them to the same extent and you can be confident that the English is correct. Also learners experience the powerful potential of books as rich resources.
When you tell a story you give someone a present. It is very personal. Telling also allows us to adapt the story to the listeners and the context of telling more easily and telling allows us to mime more readily and to make eye contact with the listeners. Telling is part of a most ancient tradition and this is moving in itself.

How could a teacher begin to introduce stories for language development?
If a teacher has not used stories in her teaching before then I would suggest that she begins by using relatively short stories, either traditional or from her own life. She might like to use the story at the end of the lesson so that she can be 'saved by the bell' if things go wrong!

How might you build the story in to a lesson?
The practical way of preparing activities and materials related to the story is to think of: before, during and after. Also to think of before, during and after not only the first telling but subsequent re-tellings.
Before the story the teacher might like to prepare the learners minds, to create 'story readiness'. For example, arranging the seating.
During the story the teacher might like to see if the learners are understanding the language of the story and might ask them to mime what is going on.
After the story the students might re-tell the story from a particular protagonist's point of view.
These are just some of the ways of integrating the story into the lesson as a whole.

What if a teacher is self conscious and feels they are not a performer?
There are many ways of being a good teacher just as there are many ways of being a good storyteller. For both it is best to just do it as well as you can and in your own way. Grace Hallworth doesn't leap about when she does her storytelling (at least, I have never seen her do so) but tells her stories with quiet dignity.
I would suggest that in art generally you must be yourself but more so. If you are quiet and ordered then be very quiet and ordered in your telling.
We need stories. We need a storyteller who is going to lead us along the path of the story. Do so confidentally, clearly and never apologetically through voice, words or body.

Do you have to use traditional stories only? Do anecdotes and jokes count?
If people are going to spend part of their precious lives together why on earth try to limit the way they share their experiences? Jokes may contain a 'seed of drama' and in that sense they belong to the world of stories. However, they tend not to express the personal and emotional commitment of the storyteller and this distancing separates them from the world of stories. Jokes have a role in language teaching but only a minor potential role in a session of storytelling. Being funny by responding humorously to what is going on or being funny through funny stories is very much a part of the storytelling world.
Anecdotes are a central part of storytelling for many people.
I cannot speak for other people but for me the blend between traditional stories and the recounting of personal experiences is magical because of the weaving of past wisdoms with contemporary experience.

How can the orally told story be extended into the written form?
This is a concern of many language teachers who are preparing their students for written examinations. There has been an ancient link between the spoken and the written story and between spoken stories and written responses and extensions.
First of all, however, I think it is important to recognise that there is as much value in a story left in the oral form as there is in a written up version of it. In recent years society has come to give value to spoken forms of language and linguists have now established spoken grammars.
However, the need to involve writing is important to most language teachers and here are some examples of how this can be done:

  • Rewriting the story and placing it in a different time and setting.
  • Rewriting the story from a protagonist's point of view.
  • Writing and exchanging letters between protagonists.
  • Preparing the story for production in a different form, for example, as a dramatised audio recording or as a book.

What is the value of children telling stories and not just the teachers?
The more we can help children or indeed older people to be able to sustain oral delivery clearly and engagingly, the better, of course! It takes time and energy but it also requires the teacher to give these qualities value. Teachers tend to be blinkered by their responsibilities for getting their students through the exams which tend to give more importance to grammatical accuracy than to expressive clarity.

Assessment can you assess stories? Is fluency more important than accuracy?
Getting through the exam may be very important indeed and conventionally estimated accuracy of language at that moment is therefore important to the people concerned. However, grammatical accuracy is not the first concern of people in most situations where language is being used. Fortunately, there is not necessarily a total clash between fluency and accuracy. No storyteller wants to stray disturbingly from the conventions of the dialect he or she feels comfortable with. No publisher wants to have a single spelling mistake in 100,000 words! At the same time, what storytellers and their listeners and what publishers and their readers want is 'expressive clarity' not just something which is grammatically correct. In the out of the classroom world what language users usually do is to concentrate on what they want to say first and having drafted it as well as they can then to clean it up so there are no bits which might distract listeners and readers away from what matters.
I would suggest that teachers respond to the degree of expressive clarity achieved by the student, above all. The teacher should help the student to drive these two qualities as far as he or she can. Then, when this is achieved, the tidying up can take place. Indeed you can use a different coloured pen to hack into all the 'naughties' which deviate from the norms you are training the students to achieve.

What are some of the do's and don't's?
Above all respond as a full human being to the stories and to the tellings and to the expression of ideas, feelings, personality and relationships much more than to the relatively minor issues of grammatical accuracy, spelling, punctuation, etc.

The language teacher must not destroy the story or destroy the student's engagement in the storytelling and listening by over enthusiasm for the language teaching potential of the story. It would be mad to kill the goose which lays the golden eggs!

Can you tell us a two minute story?
A girl was out walking when she heard and then she saw a tiger! She ran away from the tiger as fast as she could. She came to a cliff. The tiger was behind her. There was a vine growing down the cliff. She quickly climbed down the vine and escaped from the tiger. The tiger looked down at her and growled and roared. Then it fell asleep.
Everything was quiet, for a moment.
Then she heard a tiger roar. She looked up but the tiger above her was still sleeping. She looked down and saw a tiger below her!
She hung on to the vine. Then she heard a gnawing sound. She looked up and saw that the vine passed in front of a mouse hole and she saw a mouse gnawing at the vine so that it could get out of its hole.
Up above was a tiger and down below her was a tiger and a mouse was slowly gnawing through the vine. Then she felt the warmth of the sun on her back and the warmth of the cliff, and she saw the leaves of the vine tremouring in the breeze and she saw a bunch of grapes hanging nearby. She reached out and broke off a fat grape and ate it slowly, enjoying the succulent fruity liquid against her lips and cooling her mouth and throat.