Updated: Mar 19
In this post:
Tip: Try reading this post with Language Reactor!
Stories make us human
We connect with other people through the stories we tell. It’s through stories that we experience our lives, our family, even our nationality.
Children love stories, of course. We grow up enjoying books that our parents read to us before bedtime. Do you remember the pictures in your favorite book? Or maybe the smell of the paper, the crackle of the pages as they turn? Or maybe you remember the closeness of your parent, the melody of their voice. It’s an important bonding experience for young children.
If you like stories (and you probably do), let me tell you a story. This is a story about a teacher - me.
The teacher becomes the learner
During the pandemic, I was teaching all my lessons online like most other teachers. I quickly discovered how very different it was, how difficult it was to hold someone’s attention, especially when technology got in the way - bad sound, unstable connection, poor picture, too many people in a group, etc.
So I started looking for more effective ways to teach English in Zoom sessions. I decided to become a student myself.
I signed up for online language courses, teaching methodology workshops, and I even earned a Neurolanguage© coaching certificate. It was all a good experience for me and it opened my eyes to the limits of online learning, but also the potential.
One online workshop in particular illustrated the bad and good aspects of online courses. In the Zoom sessions there were more than 50 people attending! Only a few people could actually participate. It was difficult to sit in front of the camera and look “interested”. A lot of people simply turned off their cameras.
But the subject of the workshop was really useful. It was about using stories to teach languages.
Of course, telling stories isn’t new. Storytelling is as old as humanity itself. And language textbooks are full of stories for reading, listening to, and analyzing grammar and vocabulary.
This technique isn’t about story telling, but rather about story asking.
What is story asking?
This is a language teaching technique that builds on one of our brain’s favorite activities: telling stories.
Story asking starts with a character, a place, a desire, and a problem. Then we ask questions to discover the story. We meet more characters in the process, maybe have some adventures, and in the end we discover the solution to the problem.
That’s it! It’s so simple.
Why is it effective?
The story asking technique is basically a conversation. The first questions are simple: Who is this? What’s her name? How old is she? Where does she live? What does she want? The rest is asking and answering questions. The process of suggesting, accepting and rejecting ideas creates a discussion. Students learn cooperation, negotiation and problem solving - all conversation skills.
Learning to be conversational is one of the main aims of many language learners. And it can be one of the most difficult achievements for some.
The answers to the questions come from the students’ imaginations, not from a textbook or the teacher. There is no "correct" answer that only the teacher knows. Because they generate the story together, they in fact own it. It’s their story. We usually like things that we own. When it’s “mine” it’s a little more interesting than when it’s not mine. And interesting is good in language lessons.
Plenty of research supports the benefits of students generating their own content. This is a relatively new wave of education that may challenge traditional textbook-based curricula.
Words and grammar can be stored in the brain’s memory for a long time. But unless there is an active neural network connecting them, the information will be passive. Like a Zoom lesson, the brain works best with stable connections. When students create the stories, they have to turn ideas into language. They first check their memory for the language they need. This activates neural pathways as it accesses the database. When the new idea is expressed, maybe with the teacher’s help, this language becomes connected to the person, place or event in the story. The new connections make it easier to find and use the language next time. That is how the neural network - the path to the memory - grows. That is how a new language moves from passive to active.
The brain isn’t just a cluster of neural pathways. It’s also a hormone factory. And one hormone in particular is key to learning: dopamine. Do you remember the feeling you had when you unboxed your new phone? You got a dose of dopamine! Dopamine is a feel-good hormone that your brain delivers when you get something good: a new phone, a birthday cake, a first kiss, a good test result. It is triggered by pleasure and rewards. When a group accepts your new idea, your brain recognizes the reward and it releases a dose of dopamine. And in every step of the story building process, we stop for a moment to “celebrate!”
Story asking is suitable for all levels, even beginners. The language can be very simple and still tell a story. It can grow more complex, quickly or slowly, always depending on the skills of the students. It’s suitable for all ages, too. Personally, I've had good experiences with kids starting at the age of 9 and older. We work with texts for reading and speaking, which helps build that stronger neural network.
My story ends happily: students are learning in every lesson, and I am enjoying their growing confidence and satisfaction. I now use Story Asking in many of my group lessons, both online and face-to-face.
If you are interested in starting a story with me, I invite you to join to my mailing list today. I offer a free private consultation with me, and one free group lesson, too.
If you’re looking for another way to learn, please check out my podcast with my friend Ruth Taylor, “Grammar Conversations.”