Unlocking the door of Storytelling


People and storytelling: People have been telling stories since we could speak. Storytelling possesses this great power to connect people on a deeper emotional level. As teachers, it is our task to guide our students in how to write and tell stories. It is, without a shadow of doubt, a daunting task. Students often struggle to put their ideas together, or even worse the ideas are not there to start with..! However, we should try to open up those new venues of expression, bridge that gap and help them discover their natural ability to tell stories. The first steps are often the most difficult ones.

by Joanna Charalambous - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

We are all storytellers: As I see it, we are already storytellers whether we realize it or not. A typical example of this, is when someone asks you “What happened?”; in this case that person is actually asking you to tell a story. We narrate stories around the campfire, when we get together with friends, we write short stories, we keep diaries and the list goes on. It is also often the case that as soon as students walk into the classroom they often go “Miss.. Miss .. you will never guess what happened at school today”. It is something we all do naturally. So the first goal is to help our students realise that Storytelling is not a privilege that only a few gifted people have, but it is an innate ability that we all share .

Exploiting opportunities: To do this, we need to take advantage of the “Miss… Miss let me tell you what happened to me today” thing. That is, we should encourage students to write about something that they already know. Why about something they know? Well, because this way they will put into it something from their life; things they have seen, emotions they have experienced, - it makes the whole thing real and personal. Their challenge should be (and we should “sell” it as a challenge) to get their audience (their classmates & the teacher) to experience the same feeling. The story will come alive and it will not just be a boring, ‘textbook-dictated’ story.

Stories and emotions: This brings me to my second point. Stories can make us laugh and/or cry. They generate feelings; they engage us emotionally. In fact, what sets great stories apart from an ordinary recitation of events, are the details and the dialogues which allow the reader to gain insights into how the characters are feeling. So even though there are many ways to tell a story there is one thing we should focus on: making sure that students articulate their emotions, their feelings. How can this be accomplished? Through the use of “Transformation Vocabulary”. Let me give you an idea of what I mean.

Supporting students: What I refer to as ‘transformational vocabulary’ is a notebook in which students will record examples of several words/sentences which they need to use in order to express their emotional state. It is at the same time a simple and yet a truly profound tool. The vocabulary should be divided into two categories: Positive Emotions and Negative Emotions. To take it a step further, next to each positive or negative word students should record new words/expressions that could increase or decrease the intensity of these emotions. For example, ‘I am feeling anxious’ vs ‘I am feeling a bit concerned’ or ‘I am feeling confident’ vs ‘I am feeling unstoppable’. The more we as teachers help students with this vocabulary, the more they will be able to put their stories into words.

Making it personal: So here is an exercise you can use with your students in class: ‘Personal experiences’. You can start by asking your students ‘When was the last time you felt curious, confident, irritated? What had happened? Think about a memory you had. It could be embarrassing or frightening. Why do you remember this so well?’ Then you can probe them further with additional questions (‘What had happened before that?’ / ‘What was it about his question that upset you?’) There is something unique in personal experiences because no two people experience life the same way and no two people will tell a story the same way. Only the particular individual concerned can see the world in this, particular way and this is the one superpower we all possess.

Songs and stories: Another thing we can do to generate emotions and get students to create a story is through songs. Songs and video clips constitute the perfect medium for them to create a story. The vividness of music and images has can pull us into another world; you can get lost into your memories, and experience thousands of thoughts and thousands of what ifs ….? Students love listening to music and they certainly do not see this experience as “having a lesson”. The best part about all this (for us, language teachers) is that students can use the lyrics of the song along with the visual and audio elements to create scenes and sequences in their mind’s eye and the events as they unfold through time (e.g. think of Adele’s ‘Someone like You’).

Customising the task: Next, you can ask students to write down two or three of their favourite stories. Give them the following questions: What kind of stories makes an impression on you? How is your own life or your own experiences connected to these stories? Do these stories have something in common? What kind of emotions do you experience through those stories? Identify worlds and characters in the stories. Is there a character you identify with? This way you can help them discover things about themselves as well.

Stories and creativity: Lastly, you can ask students to reframe the stories in terms of what if….? This is just a question and yet a very empowering question. Invite students to try and mix up the characters and worlds or change the course of events. See what happens. Invite students into a new story to explore the various possibilities when characters and worlds become interconnected. Let them experiment by being crazy and foolish in their writing (What if Harry Potter were to take SnowWhite to the ball on his broomstick?!). The aim is to get them wonder, shut down the logical part of the brain and open up the door to a dreamy world, a world where everything is possible. •


Joanna Charalambous graduated from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 2010. She has a degree in English Literature. She has been teaching English as a second language for the past 8 years. She is also an oral examiner for Pearson. She has a passion for the English language and is interested in making language acquisition a fun process. In her free time she loves reading and exercising.

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