Nicole Brun-Mercer holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, and has taught English and trained teachers in the United States, France, Switzerland, Russia, and Guinea. Her research interests include grammar, vocabulary, corpus linguistics, reading, and composition. In this article, Nicole shares strategies for using storytelling to teach grammar.
The power of stories
Stories can be a powerful tool in and out of the classroom. In addition to teaching us and helping us remember information, stories can connect us to new ideas and new people. When stories reflect our own experiences and backgrounds, they can make us feel recognized and heard. When stories are inspirational, they can motivate and empower us.
Stories can be about historical people and events, fictional characters and narratives, or students and their own lives. Incorporating stories into grammar practice is particularly effective because students can (1) see how grammar is used in authentic contexts, (2) remember the grammar more easily than with discrete sentences on unrelated topics, (3) develop their creativity, (4) learn about important people and events, both past and present, (5) feel recognized and empowered when classroom stories mirror or—or even are about–their own experiences, and (6) be inspired to learn more or to take action on a subject of particular importance to them.
How stories can teach grammar
With a little creativity, stories can be used to teach nearly any grammatical structure. In this section, I provide a few examples for four frequently taught grammar topics: simple past, relative clauses, time-order words and structures, and modals of prediction and possibility.
A story is a natural place to use verbs in the simple past, and the number and variety of activities to practice this in the classroom are staggering.
1. Fill in the blank: Students read a historical or fictional passage where some of the verbs are missing and fill in the verbs in the correct tense, with or without a proposed list of possibilities. (See the downloadable page for an example.)
2. Jigsaw: Students work in pairs. Student A and Student B have different information about an important but not universally known person (eg, Wangari Maathai, Kenyan winner of the Nobel Peace Prize). They must work together to complete a text.
3. Student presentations: Students share pictures of a key event in their lives (birthday, graduation, marriage, birth of a child) and answer questions from the class about what happened during the event.
Another frequent grammar topic in stories is the relative clause. At high beginning and intermediate levels, students can work on who, which, and that. At high intermediate levels, they can work on whose and restrictive versus nonrestrictive relative clauses.
1. Matching: Student pairs are given the first half of 3-5 sentences (eg, Junko Tabei was a Japanese mountaineer…). They walk around the classroom trying to find index cards on which the second half of their sentences have been written using a relative clause (eg, who is most famous for being the first woman to climb the highest peak on every continent).
2. Trivia time: Read the name of a historical figure (eg, Mario Molina). In teams, students race to use a relative clause to describe who the person is (eg, Mario Molina was a Mexican scientist whose work on chlorofluorocarbon gases and the ozone layer led to his Nobel Prize in Chemistry).
3. Guess who: Students bring pictures of their family members and create a family tree. They talk about members of their family in small groups using relative clauses without naming the person (eg, This is the person who helped me get my first job). Members of their group must guess which person is being described.
Time-order words and structures
Stories are a great way to work on time-order words. Beginners might focus on simple sentences using, for instance, first, next, then, and finally. High beginning and intermediate learners are ready for complex sentences with after, before, when, and while. As learners become more proficient with time-order words, they can gradually move on to new verb tenses. For example, a high beginner might understand and use the simple past in sentences such as When Bessie Coleman was a child, schools were still segregated. High intermediate and advanced learners would be ready for more complicated structures such as Bessie Coleman became famous for her stunts as a pilot, but she was killed while flying at the age of 34.
1. Sequencing sentence strips: Students are given sentence strips. In groups, they must find the correct order of the sentences to make a logical story. They rewrite or retell the story using time order words such as first, next, and finally. Stories can be either fictional or historical.
2. Role-play: Students role-play interviews with famous people or witnesses of a key historical event using time order words and structures to find out What happened next?
3. Book creationStudents create paper or electronic books about a real or imagined event in their lives using time order words and structures.
Modals of prediction and possibility
1. Predicting story endings: Students read or listen to the first half of a real or fictional story. They predict how the story ends using modals (eg, They might live happily ever after.)
2. Who did it?: Students are given ten pictures of historical figures (with or without the name of the person) and ten descriptions of achievements. They match the figures and the achievements using modals of prediction and possibility (eg, Naguib Mahfouz must have won the Nobel Prize in Literature).
3. Improve-our-community project: After discussing important leaders who have helped bring about changes in the world, students brainstorm local problems and how they could work to improve their communities. They present their project as a story of how they plan to enact change or describe it as if they had already successfully completed the project.
Use this downloadable to give your students practice building stories.
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