Teachers often wonder if students could possibly acquire the grammar of a second language through storytelling. They traditionally “learn” it through grammar rules which are well within teachers’ comfort zone. The problem is that learning structure through grammar rules has repeatedly proved ineffective in some cases.  

Grammar was invented when people felt the need to explain language and teach it. Language was broken down to its components and its mechanics were studied and described through what we call “grammar”. Grammar rules were formed to serve the needs of mass education. They help us recognize the grammar structure and syntax in sentences. Yet, the effectiveness of learning through rules is nowhere near that of learning through experiencing and communicating.

Text by: Zafi Mandali

Scott  Thornbury  writes You can say very little with grammar, but you can say almost anything with words. Grammar is the engine and vocabulary is the fuel”.   I could not agree more. If I say “tomorrow go bank, get money, shop food, cook, serve guests” you know that tomorrow, I will go to the bank to get money to buy food and cook for my guests.  At a very fundamental level, we need little grammar to figure out meaning. Lexis carry most of the meaning. Yet, in class we lose proportion and fixate over grammar; possibly because without it one has fewer chance of passing exams or getting certificates. Personally I carry Scott Thornbury’s saying “Vocabulary acquisition is the most important task facing a language learner. Studying the system of rules, morphology and syntax is secondary”.

Explicit or immersion acquisition tactics?                                                 

 The question is whether grammar knowledge in second language acquisition is better achieved through explicit grammar teaching or through imitating natural immersion acquisition tactics.  

One side of the coin challenges the dogma of learning through grammar rules contending that native speakers and children in particular, pick-up language in unstructured ways; yet, their communication displays understanding of grammar.   Storytelling, the argument goes mimics the process through which native speakers learn their own language. Extensive story reading and story listening is implicit learning.  Steven Crashen is often quoted because he has researched and justified The Natural Approach learning hypothesis. He strongly advises that learners take themselves out of the education system constraints, adopt extensive reading habits and compelling comprehensible input. His research proves that those who focus on understanding what's going on in the story or text they are reading or listening to, eventually decode the language structure and accurately communicate their messages when speaking or writing.   

The other side of the coin argues that learners in general, and adults in particular, need rules to rationalize and explain to themselves what they are learning. Also, learning a second language through Natural Approach methods takes too long. Children need over a decade to acquire their own native language grammar, let alone a second. So, teachers need to shortcut the period of second language learning through grammar teaching.  They can’t afford the luxury of Storytelling. The method of acquiring language through stories or extensive reading is abandoned. The problem is that far too long class time is spent on grammar rules and nowhere near enough time on language input! My practice has shown me that the answer lies somewhere in the middle of these language learning approaches.

Bridging implicit and explicit methods of learning.                          

If you want to teach language, teach something else” said Phil Bail, trainer and author and the Natural Input-based learning is doing just this. In this free process, kids listen to or read a lot of suitable to their language level stories and while focusing on the plot, notice grammar. As the story unfolds and confidence in understanding is gained, mental space is created and they notice what is happening with words, how they change and arrange themselves, how they twist their form to refer to different time periods, how prepositions combine with certain words and avoid others.  In short, one’s natural curiosity is triggered and one starts spotting recurrent grammar patterns. It is at this stage that the teacher can bring in grammar rules to explain the mechanics of language. Story based grammar description throws light on language behaviour and speeds up the learning process. As learners focus on what they are reading or listening to and as they start noticing grammar patterns and figure out what's going on, grammar clarification helps explain  the language system.      

When Baby Bear cries out “Somebody has eaten my porridge” and «somebody has broken my chair” and Papa Bear says “somebody has been sitting in my chair” and Mama Bear says “Somebody has been sleeping in my bed” we have Present Perfect tenses at work. 

Young children learning through stories do not feel tense about their tenses. They just acquire the forms by focusing on the story, noticing the repeated structures and recurrent word arrangements.  They do not need rules.  Yet, If the teacher personalises the pattern by asking questions like: “What has mum been doing all morning”? and “who have you been playing with all afternoon”? and “have you been to the sea”? the learning process of a second language could speed up through ergonomic and personalised grammar practice.  

Teaching grammar through storytelling.

Teachers can’t teach grammar through storytelling unless they know stories at different language levels and have categorized them according to the grammar points they lend themselves to.  Neither can they teach grammar through storytelling if they do not systematically use stories alongside their staple teaching material. If these conditions are met, teachers can plan storytelling sessions. The lessons will revolve around short, age and language appropriate stories, preferably known ones, which lend themselves to the specific grammar concepts and structures in mind. For example, when the Troll roars from under the bridge:

 'Who is trip trapping over my bridge?'                                                                                      and the small, frightened Billy-goat Gruff replies, “I'm going to the other side of the hill to eat some grass”, and the Troll replies, 'No, no, I'm coming to gobble you up',

the students see the use and meaning of Present Continuous in action. And when the little Billy Goat whispers,

 “I'm too little, wait a bit until the second Billy-goat Gruff comes, he's much bigger.'

the students meet the “too” and comparison structures. Stories provide us with constant repetition of words, phrases and structures. The language chunks and lexical phrases in stories, sometimes rhythmic, are in fact grammar ingredients. Students start noticing them unconsciously and independent mental processes get in motion and pave the way to understanding, processing and remembering what we call “use of language”. Story punchlines and regularly repeated structures stay in our memory because of their narrative structure, their context and their emotional power. So, this is implicit learning. But to speed up the learning process we can use stories ergonomically, for explicit learning too. We can use their punchlines as raw material and vehicles for explicit focus on language structure.                                                                           

 How to teach grammar through stories.

Before starting the story, we pave the way for the grammar structures of interest and provide visuals (pictures or illustrations) to support the story and aid comprehension.  Then we use the story to direct and control what we teach. While telling, we emphasize the target grammar structures used by the story characters to make learners aware of them in context. We pause at certain points and ask questions related to the grammar points. We eventually make the telling interactive by encouraging students to use the target structures in their responses. We have the learners retell the story paying attention to the targeted grammar structures. We round it off with prepared activities and grammar type of exercises to reinforce their understanding. But if we use stories merely to produce grammar or particular lexical areas of functions, children lose their faith in what teachers mean by the word “story”. When focusing on features of the language, teachers should be careful not to lose the magic of the story altogether”. Andrew Write in his book “Storytelling with Children”

The story “We are going on a bear Hunt”  has a repeated punchline which is adjusted to fit the various story stages but always contains Present Continuous, adjectives and prepositions. It goes like: 

 “We are going on a bear Hunt. What a beautiful day. We are not scared. Oh, oh!  A river. A big, deep river. We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it”.  

Children prefer learning through story to learning through rules. In fact, children are defeated and deflated when presented with dry rules. They don’t see the point. But rules in story context make sense. Blending rules and story content bridges the gap; particularly for older kids. 

“The more familiar students become with the structures of good narratives, the easier it will be for them to structure their own stories in speaking and in writing” Jeremy Harmer and Herbert Puchta in their book, Story-based language teaching.

Teachers could use the rhyming story “Five little lions all in a row” to explicitly teach  past tenses, participles and gerunds.

Five little lions all in a row. One ran away. Where did he go?

Four little lions left to play. One went home; he could not stay.

Three little lions chasing one another. One went to the jungle to find her mother.

Two little lions loudly roaring.  One fell asleep and now he’s snoring.

One little lion without a friend, left to eat supper back at the den.


By getting the child to see the difference of the form of the verb ‘’go” for now and “went” for when we talk of something that happened in the past, we are actually using grammar type instruction. Learners understand the much-repeated structures in less time. But since pushing knowledge to long term memory means rehearsing students must be encouraged to retell the story. Retrieving the story helps deeper encoding and strengthens the learning pathways.     

Compromising Natural acquisition through the use of grammar type instruction helps  because a child’s ability to acquire language implicitly weakens through and past adolescence. With the development of abstract thinking, most of us tend to need some information about what we are learning. As Zoltan Dornyei suggests “while implicit learning/knowledge does such a great job in generating native-speaker L1 proficiency in infants, it does not seem to work efficiently when we want to master an L2 at a later stage in our lives” (Dornyei, 2013, 163)

In conclusion

Linking grammar type instruction to story punchlines and refrains simplifies learning the mechanics of language. The whole person is engaged through the motivational, emotional and captivating power of chunks and lexical phrases contained in stories. When grammar type of explaining is associated with favourite language patterns, structures are embedded more quickly. Noticing grammar in action and illuminating patterns in context is far better to reading grammar rules and doing grammar exercises mechanically. Knowing grammar rules and doing drilling or gap fill exercises is no guarantee of actually being able to use the language correctly.  So, teachers who use stories in their teaching material are suggested to combine implicit and explicit methods. Using story chunks when explaining grammar patterns helps students develop deeper, quicker and more meaningful understanding of language.     


  • Story-Based Language teaching by Jeremy Harmer ,Herbert Puchta, Helbling
  • Collins, R. and Cooper, P.J.(1997) The Power of Story: Teaching Through Storytelling 2nd Edition , Allyn & Bacon
  • S (1985) The input hypothesis: Issues and implications, Longman
  • A (1995) Storytelling with Children, Oxford University Press.
  • Egan, K (1988) Teaching as Storytelling: An Alternative Approach to Teaching and the Curriculum. Routledge


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