Story-based learning in the ESL classroom: the underrated treasure trove

 (Note to reader:  this blog post is a follow-up on the one I wrote previously, entitled “An alternative to textbooks“.  The previous blog gives general background ideas, while this one dives deeper into the concrete way I dealt with “Elmer in the Snow” with my ESL class)

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Whenever I reached into my big blue bag during the English lesson, the question flashing through the children’s minds was always about what was going to come back out?  A puppet?  Some flashcards?  Some song cards?  Or… maybe… a new story?

A new story marked the beginning of a new adventure for the class.  Where would we be going this time?  Would we follow the very hungry caterpillar into its cocoon, or help the very busy spider make her web?

Once, we learned about Elmer and his friends as they traveled up the mountain, into the snow, and the fun they had there.  After the story, the fun began.  We built a paper-maché mountain on the tabletop, adding jungle trees, flowers, and animals.  We built rivers and bridges, so our toy cars could enter Elmer’s world.  Pine trees, snow, snowballs and icey ponds joined the landscape, and the children made their own finger-puppet elephants so they could re-enact the story.  Some, of course, just enjoyed the feeling of the gooey wallpaper paste we used to build the mountain, spending much of the lesson making circles in the paste with their hands flat on the table.

The entire time, the children were naming things, and talking about our construction.  What did we have to build, why, where would it go?  How would we reconstruct Elmer’s world on our tabletop?  Who could tell the story, while the others joined in?  Would the elephants hide in the cave we’d just built?  Would they slide down the mountainside?  What a rich, unexpected way to build their vocabulary and their language experience!

Of course, we took a few liberties with the original story while constructing our own, but that was half the fun for the children in my class.  They practiced saying things like “We go up the mountain,” or “We go down the mountain,” or “Where are you hiding?”  The more advanced children made up short stories while the others played along with their puppets.  After a month, however, the mountain and its jungle had grown quite tired after so much use.  It was time to tear it down, and start with a new story.

It is my experience that children learn many things from a good story.  Stories have so much to offer in ESL/EFL programs, and yet there has yet to be a single ESL/EFL textbook published in which the teacher is encouraged to get a book and read it aloud to the class.  Never have I found a course that requires teachers to step out of the textbook and into children’s literature, and that, in my opinion, is a challenge that needs to be picked up on by publishers of ESL/EFL materials.

There are so many reasons to use children’s literature in the ESL classroom.  Children’s literature is motivational, offers authentic language, fosters academic development, and offers a window through which children can view other cultures.  There is an excellent article written on this very topic, to be found here.  It’s concisely written and highly informational, so it’s well-worth the detour to read.

Besides re-enacting the story with puppets and scenery, there are other things one can do with children’s stories.  Here, I’ll try connecting stories to activities that activate the various intelligences:  (of course, this list is only a start, and I’m sure you’ll have more ideas of your own!)

  • Visual-spatial:  Draw pictures that match the story, make up your own pictures and re-create the scenery in the building corner
  • Logicalmathematical: ordering story cards
  • Musical: are there any songs you can think of, related to the topic?  Do you hear any rhyme or repetition in the story?
  • Natural: where does the story take place?  What kind of environment do you notice?  Is the environment like our own, or is it different?
  • Interpersonal:  Interview each other about the story, or  make up a new ending.
  • Intrapersonal:  What if you were one of the characters?  Which one would you be, and why?   How would you feel?  What would you do?
  • Verballinguistic: What rhymes do you hear in the story?  What new words can you find?  What language patterns do you hear?
  • Bodilykinesthetic:  re-enacting the story with puppets or with a role play

Of course, it’s important to choose children’s books wisely.  What are the kinds of things I kept in mind when choosing books?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Topic: does the topic match what you are trying to teach the children?  For instance, when teaching about clothing, The Very Hungry Caterpillar might not be such a good choice, while Aliens Love Underpants would fit better.  If you google the title of your book and “lesson activities”, you’ll find all sorts of interesting ideas.  Example:  aliens love underpants + lesson activities will get you here.
  • Topic (continued): of course, it’s always a good idea to make sure the story isn’t “babyish” for the older learners.
  • Level of language: for beginner learners, a simple story with lots of repetition is really useful.  I’ve also taken really easy books for older learners, and after I tell them their task, they’re quite gung-ho about listening to the story, so they can make an even better version on their own to read aloud to the little kids in their school.
  • Pictures: these have to be visually appealing, clear, and explain what the story is about.

There are other things to look at as well, but this is a good place to start.  I’m curious, what children’s books do you know about, that you might use in your own classroom?

for further reading:  “Four good reasons to use literature in primary school ELT” article: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.476.2159&rep=rep1&type=pdf

 

 

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