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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!


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