Skip to main content

Tell stories


How can we make listening more enjoyable and effective for pupils? How can we turn it from a potential chore to something more memorable (and therefore more likely to stick in their long term memories)? I am of the opinion that since humans are "wired" to engage in personal listening and speaking (the expression "social brain" has been used in this context), they may be more interested and attentive when the message comes from a real person rather than a disembodied audio source. (This may or may not be relevant, but research has been carried out which demonstrates that babies pick up phonological patterns better when they listen to a caregiver rather than listen to a tape or watch a video - see here for summaries of research into this area by Patricia Kuhl.)

One easy way to make listening stimulating for pupils is to tell them easy stories in the target language. I was reminded of this while reading Penny Ur's book 100 Teaching Tips (reviewed here by the way). Penny makes the point that students tend to prick up their ears when you move away from the work at hand and tell them an anecdote from your own life. This is not surprising since it is part of human nature, isn't it, to be interested in other peoples' personal lives? Ask yourself the question: will students be more interested in the next listening activity from the textbook or something I tell them from my own experience?

Example 1

There are a number of ways you can easily do this, none of which take a great deal of preparation. For example, you could show the class some slides based on a holiday you went on. (You could even plan your photos based on this lesson idea in advance.) You might include pictures showing the journey, places you visited, activities you did, where you stayed, what you bought and what you ate and drank. In this way the typical picture sequence becomes a more engaging basis for listening and associated oral and written work.

A natural follow-up task would be to have pupils write their own accounts and recount them to a partner or the whole class. This too would provide interesting listening input (though of a lower quality in most cases.)

Once you have spoken for a few minutes, scaffolding the task with the pictures, gesture, maybe adding some invented colourful details, tell the story again, this time asking pupils to jot down notes in English or the target language. You can then turn the task into an oral one by asking them to remember as many details as possible from what you said. Students could work in pairs, making statements about what you did, in turn, until one person cannot say any more. (This competitive element adds and extra edge.)

Example 2

A second example would be to talk about your extended family, showing photos of family members. You could include the language of physical description, personality description and hobbies and interests. You can add a twist to this task, as for the one above, by telling pupils in advance that you will make two deliberately false statements. Can they spot them? You can make these as subtle or unsubtle as you like, depending on your class.

Example 3

A third example, for beginners, would be to make a video with your phone about your house or flat. You could put the commentary on "live", or perhaps better (for reasons of sound quality) show the video and add your commentary in class. You could show the short film twice, give your commentary twice, perhaps the second time getting pupils to jot down as many details as they can in the target language: "In the kitchen Miss has..., in the sitting room there is..."

With some classes you might be able to get pupils to make their own videos and commentaries which they could play to a partner and a sample of which you could show to the class. I wouldn't personally bother with a movie making app this (too time consuming); just get pupils to go round their house with permission and press record. If you are into digital sharing I am sure there are other approaches.


Whatever you do, it may be worth bearing in mind, therefore, that a listening lesson is not just about putting on the CD player and doing a comprehension exercise. Nor is it just doing technical exercises such as transcription or dictation, valuable those these tasks are. It can be built into your interactions with pupils in ways which may ultimately be not only more stimulating for all, but more memorable and therefore more effective in creating skilled, confident listeners.


  1. Very interesting article, thank you. I believe in the power of story telling and emotion in education in general and in language learning in particular. I have written a little fiction for my students to learn French. Maybe you can have a look and let me know what you think. And I hope you will like it!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…