- If you are unfamiliar with Story Listening, I recommend you visit the Story Listening page to get a general idea of what it it involves.
- The primary person responsible for developing this particular methodology as well as the research behind it is Dr. Beniko Mason, who teaches English to her Japanese students exclusively through Story Listening supported by Free Voluntary Reading. I highly recommend reading this post, where Dr. Mason details Story Listening in her own words. It is worth noting that Dr. Mason is successfully using this method to teach her students to listen, read, write, and speak a non-cognate language with a different form of writing. Moreover, English is not a phonetic language, presenting additional challenges for reading and writing.
- Finally, there will be those who say that this is "nothing new". Of course storytelling is not new. We've been telling stories since the beginning of human history. That in and of itself should be compelling enough information to consider using more stories in education. We are wired for language and stories. However, using it in an academic classroom with specific learning goals and timelines is a new concept, as are the specific techniques and behaviors that accompany Story Listening that Dr. Mason applied and researched extensively with a variety of students. I am excited to see this research grow as more teachers with different circumstances and students test this method in their own classrooms. Finally, using Story Listening is a new frontier for me as a teacher, as I imagine it will be for others. I share my own insights on this, as with anything else, so that teachers who might wish to explore this frontier might be able to do so productively and meaningfully.
For the last three weeks, I've been trying out Story Listening for the first time in my classes. I was struggling with the Story Asking as we would get stuck, I had trouble choosing details that kept everyone engaged, and many of my students were getting lost in the chaos or frustrated with the "flow" of the story. My "low" kids weren't understanding what was happening. My "high" kids wanted to keep moving. And my "easily distracted" kids were off in their world. I wouldn't say it was a hot mess, but it was close. The kids were learning, but I didn't feel like we were going anywhere fast and I was frustrated and exhausted. I'll readily admit that there are people more talented at "Asking a Story" than I am - but it just hasn't really ever "clicked" for me. So, after a particularly rough first period, I decided I would let myself off the hook and simply tell a story to the next class. I knew I had to pick something interesting, and the first thing that came to my mind was "La Llorona". I found a quick summary of the story online to refresh my memory, printed it out, and "told" it. Despite the minimal preparation, it was a hit! I didn't do any drawing - I just put the words they needed help with on the board with the English translation. After that, I pre-drew my pictures and vocabulary and told the story of "La Llorona" to my remaining classes with the pictures under the projector. After each class, I asked the students to show me how they felt about the activity by holding up fingers. A "3" meant they learned about the same, a "1" meant they learned a lot less, and a "5" meant they learned a lot more. Even with my minimal understanding of Story Listening and almost no practice, every student in every class rated the activity as a "4" or a "5"! I was sold! I've made a number of adjustments since that first week and would like to share my "beginners guide" to getting started with Story Listening.
First, it's very important to understand exactly what Story Listening is and is not. It is not simply storytelling. Storytelling puts the emphasis on what the teacher is doing and will likely not meet the acquisition needs of students, whereas Story Listening is focused on the person who is listening to the story and responsive to what they need. In order for story listening to be effective, the following conditions must be met:
- The story chosen must be compelling. This is perhaps the most difficult part of Story Listening - accurately predicting which students will best engage students
- The story chosen must be at the appropriate level. The content of the story must be easy to follow for the level of students you are telling (generally speaking, concrete, logical, and straightforward stories are easier to understand than abstract, nonsensical, and/or complex stories - silliness is perfectly fine, but it's usually easier to follow a logical train of thought and rationale for events). You must also be able to tell the story with language at the i+1 level.
- The teacher must be skilled at measuring whether the story is compelling and comprehensible at all times and be able to adjust the story and their strategies for delivering it when needed in order to meet the first two conditions.
It is also helpful to understand the potential similarities and differences between Story Listening and other methods of CI Instruction. NOTE: I use the word "potential" because CI instruction can take many forms. Almost all language teachers agree that we must actually use the language for students to learn it. In some cases, this takes the form of stating sentences that the students understand. Most traditional classes use the language in order to give instructions, although this use is incidental to the "real" instruction (i.e. vocabulary, grammar, worksheets, comprehension questions, etc. taking place.) For this particular list of similarities and differences, I'm going to narrow the list to items that differ between Story Listening and other methods that are grounded in the idea that the instruction itself should be through CI and focused on meaning and proficiency rather than skills and vocabulary. Even here, however, we find a lot of variance in how teachers instruct and the strategies they use, and and almost strategy has the potential to be used similarly or differently than the strategies employed in Story Listening.
- The bottom line for using CI methods (which includes many different strategies for delivering CI) is that students learn through listening to and reading the language at a comprehensible level. Story Listening addresses the "listening" aspect.
- CI strategies
- Story Listening and other CI methods are intended to get students listening to, processing, negotiating meaning through interaction, and enjoying the language.
- CI methods must be compelling, meaning that students are so interested that they are intrinsically motivated to attend to meaning.
- Story Listening and other methods are student-centered as they respond to what students find interesting and what is comprehensible to them.
Potential Differences: (many of these items overlap, so I apologize for any repetition)
- Many CI methods ask for explicit, verbal feedback and interaction to measure student comprehension and/or master of the language being used. For example, teachers might "circle" a particular word until all students are able to respond accurately and confidently with little to no hesitation. While this may be helpful to some teachers and students, this is only one form of student interaction and feedback for the teacher. When doing Story Listening, teachers use primarily non-explicit forms of interaction and feedback to judge comprehension and interest, such as student body language, pre-established signals, and authentic reactions to the input (gasps, excitement, comments about the story, etc.).
- Many CI Methods attempt to get students engaged and make the information compelling by including student suggestions and ideas. Story Listening gets students engaged and makes the information compelling by careful selection of a story based on its appeal to students. Often, the best stories are those that have stood the test of time and transcended generations and even cultures, such as fairy tales and legends. Once teachers know their students well, they may wish to find more modern stories or even write original stories that will interest their students.
- Students are not expected to master anything in particular. They are only expected to listen and enjoy the story. Moreover, the teacher does not "teach" the story. The story is used just enough to be meaningful to students and instruction moves on before students lose interest in it. Teachers may or may not choose to reinforce what students heard by reading the story. However, these activities are viewed in the lens of providing additional compelling input and opportunities to negotiate meaning at a deeper level. Thus, just telling the story is often "enough" and teachers should avoid over-working any particular story.
- Similarly, Story Listening is untargeted The stories told are not selected for any "content" value, such as vocabulary or grammatical patterns. The teacher uses rich language at the appropriate level for students to understand what is happening. The teacher may "target for meaning" (in other words, use the word just enough times to ensure that students understand what is happening), but does not continue to target anything more than needed to facilitate telling the story.
- Building upon these last two points, students are not held accountable for anything in Story Listening. There is no quiz and the teacher does not assess the students with comprehension questions (although the teacher might ask an occasional question "in the moment" in order to make sure students are ready to move on to the next piece of information). Students are simply expected to listen with the intent to understand and signal to the teacher if they become confused.
- Questions are asked with different intent. Some methods ask questions intended to check comprehension, get repetitions of a particular language chunk, or otherwise aimed at "teaching" students something. With Story Listening, questions asked are intended purely to clarify meaning (What does ____ mean?) or simply because it is an interesting question. There are no hidden motives - the teacher is simply communicating authentically with his or her students. As with any communication, these honest questions and responses do indicate comprehension although that is not necessarily their intent.
- Story Listening uses rich language. Students are exposed to the grammar and vocabulary needed to tell the story at a comprehensible level. As students are exposed to this wide variety of language, they acquire vocabulary and grammar at their own pace along the natural order of acquisition. Thus, stories are inherently differentiated, as some students are focused on "understanding" a particular chunk of language while other students are acquiring the language at a deeper level that will eventually lead to mastery.
- Story Listening is predictable for the teacher. The teacher knows what language will be used and can use if effectively. Moreover, because I know what is going to happen with the story, I can pay more attention to whether or not students are actually comprehending the story and be responsive to their needs. I imagine I am not the only teacher who has felt overwhelmed with simultaneously creating a story and ensuring that all students are comprehending the story (not to mention the other things teachers must attend to as they teach!).
- Story Listening gives students more structure. Because students have clearly defined roles and know what will be happening, they are able to feel more secure in that role. Although it may not be true for all students, many of my students appreciate knowing all they have to do is listen to the story and react naturally to it (including letting me know they are confused). They don't feel pressure to speak up in order to get their ideas included in a story, to compete with other students, or to demonstrate that they comprehend. Consequently, most of my students feel more secure with Story Listening and feel that they get more out of class with the richer language and increased "flow".
- "Flow", or when students are so absorbed in the experience and meaning of what is happening in class, takes top priority in Story Listening. There are fewer interruptions to the story by things like deciding on a detail, "targeting" a particular word or phrase, checking comprehension, extensive circling, etc. Instead, the story flows at a pace that maintains interest.
Finally, I'd like to touch on a few differences in my personal preference for various strategies:
- I do not get tunnel vision - I can focus on my kids because I already know the story and can anticipate what my students need to make it compelling and comprehensible.
- Class is calmer and more secure for my students.
- I am able to provide better language, both in quantity and quality.
- My students enjoy these stories more. They're happier, more interested, and have indicated that they feel they are learning more. Consequently, almost all behavior issues and student frustrations have disappeared.
- It's just easier for me. We each have our own styles, and with Story Listening my voice is better, I'm not tired, and I enjoy it more.
So, if you'd like to get started with Story Listening, here are a few tips from my personal experience:
- Read MANY stories - and sit on them a few days before you choose one to tell your class. Be sure to consider a wide variety of stories your students might be interested in, including content, emotional affect, themes, etc.
- Know your story inside and out so that you can focus on telling it in an engaging manner and responding to your students with regard to how compelling and comprehensible your story is.
- Practice telling the story - and tell it out loud until you are comfortable. What words will you use? How will you make them comprehensible? Especially for non-native teachers, are you comfortable using the language you want to tell the story with (yes, this is an opportunity for you to grow, too!)
- Draw live. This slows you down and builds interest. I'm a terrible artist. My creativity lies in how to adequately illustrate a story with stick figures. I think they like my drawings better because they are *so* bad, yet they get the point across.
- Plan your drawings. You can do this mentally, but at least consider what images you will draw in order to make the meaning clear. I recommend including key vocabulary with your drawings and connecting them to the images - you will also want to plan this.
- Get dramatic. The kids LOVE to see adults do crazy things. I yell, beg, sing, smack items, use gestures and facial expressions. Each story is a little more dramatic than the rest. I love entertaining my kids. Like with my drawings, I'm a terrible actress - but my kids give me credit for trying. They know I'm giving them my best and putting it all on the line for them, so they really want to see me succeed and make me feel good, too.
- Get student feedback about what students like. My students have started giving me "story requests" - today my students made me promise to write a story about the Chupacabra.
- This is just a personal preference, but I teach my students transition words with rejoiners. For instance, I say "así que" in a certain way, often with a hand gesture (especially at the beginning) and my students are trained to respond "sooooo" in the same way that I said it in Spanish. Other words include "but", "however", "therefore", "then", "before", "after", "although", etc. Add one word at a time and train yourself to say the word the same way and use the gesture every time. Practice it a few times and then use them in your stories! This will give a little extra "flair" to your students' vocabularies, increase interaction, and help connect the ideas in the story.
- Most importantly, DON'T GIVE UP! If a story fails, ask yourself why. Was the story itself simply not compelling? What about how you told it? Was the language too difficult? Was there anything that interrupted "flow" - both of the language and of the story?
Good luck with your Story Listening! I would love to hear from more teachers trying this in their classrooms and will continue to post videos regularly of my own.