To learn to communicate in a new language, students must be extensively exposed to it. That means they must hear it and read it as much as possible, before being asked to perform. So, how to we keep a classroom full of teenagers engaged and listening? We build stories together. Stories that are simple, funny, focused on only a handful of new grammatical structures at a time, and most importantly -- stories that involve the students, both in creative development and plot.
Think about it. What would be more engaging to you, as a language student? Memorizing forty new vocabulary words from a labeled textbook illustration from the 1970s? Or using that vocabulary to create a funny story about people you know?
HOW TO STORYBUILD
"Questions are the key to storybuilding. This is partly based on Eric Jensen’s book, Brain-Based Learning, in which he says that asking questions elicits deeper thinking... better yet, questions help to camouflage repetition so that students don’t get bored. The content of a story can come from many different places. For example, you could use a cultural legend, a previously-planned “hook” to get students’ attention, or students’ answers given during PQA. Remember that while students can guess the details of the story, the teacher is the one who chooses the detail to include. When you are rejecting a student’s answer, avoid making them feel bad by conveying that although their answer was a great idea, that is just not how it happened in the story.
Once you have selected the content, plan your story by selecting 1-3 structures, depending on the age of the students. Focus on what is cognitively possible. In other words, keep in mind how much new info students can actually handle. Next, create and select a character. You can use students, celebrities, animals, or even students’ family members. As a guideline, try to use 1-2 characters or more as the story/grammar requires.
Always keep in mind the purpose of the story – to teach the structure(s). Use them right from the beginning of the story. Remember that while details are fun and interesting, and they allow you to move the story forward and keep the students’ interest, you should ensure that you don’t go off on a tangent. Only continue adding details if the students are still engaged and are still getting repetitions. Don’t forget to go slowly and deliberately. The goal is not to finish, it is to engage students and get repetitions of the structures. By getting students to listen, they are able to acquire the language.
When co-building a story with students, it is important to LISTEN to them. Start by acknowledging their response – smile, nod, repeat it to the class, shake hands, laugh, or ask the class to give them a round of applause. Reiterate the information and attempt to encourage more responses. You can do this by asking the question, then selecting students to answer. Tell the class that so-and-so “thinks it’s possible that…” Always ask for input from students even if you have the detail already planned out. After several students have responded, select the best answer or give your own. Try to make it a NOVEL idea – something that is perhaps the opposite of what is expected. As you continue to ask the story, designate a different space in the classroom for each location in the story. Get the students up to act out the different parts and coach them to act so that they can act to the best of their ability.
...using previous knowledge that you have gained about the students in stories... adds personalization and thus creates interest on the part of the students. Only write down enrichment words on the board which are going to be used a lot in a story. If you write down every new word, it gets confusing for the students. When writing structures on the board, save the use of subjects for students in higher levels and underline the ending and the subject to show the relationship.
Try to use one prop that has some sort of emotional tie to the students (ie. a well-known local person). One of my favourite tips was to use a “dialogue of the day”. Plan it in advance and have it written on the board so that it is ready for students to use.
Most importantly of all, remember that if you don’t make the story COMPLETELY COMPREHENSIBLE, half the students will simply check out."
Circling is the instructional practice of asking a series of prescribed questions in the target language about a statement in the target language. It is used to provide students with contextualized repetitions of target structures.
I am still figuring out the best way to implement storybuilding in my classes, while making sure to align with my department's grammar-based curriculum and objectives. Storybuilding was intimidating at first, and admittedly I'm more successful some days than others, but I'm already seeing very positive results! This is what I've come up with so far:
Stories are based on unit themes, with a heavy focus on a small selection of vocabulary and the grammatical structures to be taught. I make sure to recycle vocabulary and structures from previous units.
Basic story scripts are written ahead of time by me, but I leave lots of space for student embellishment and personalization (character names and descriptions, locations, etc.). The wackier the characters/locations/plots, the better.
Stories are divided into three or four manageable chunks. We only do one chunk per class.
Students help to act out each scene, with simple dialogue included to model different points of view/verb forms. I provide lots of silly props for this - wigs, scarves, glasses, hats... and designate different areas of the classroom as different locations in the story.
I only switch into English for short "pop-up grammar commercials". This is when a student shows me they are recognizing a structural pattern and want to understand the rule.
I use tons of circling with each sentence, making sure students get as many repetitions of the target structure as possible. More advanced students can handle more advanced questioning - if they're starting to look bored, the questions are too easy.
I speak slowly and clearly, and make constant eye contact. Even if many students seem to be grasping the target structure, I try to remember to check with my 'barometer students' (students who typically take a little longer) for understanding before moving on.
Students are responsible for retelling the story orally with a partner after every story chunk.
Students are responsible for writing down the new vocabulary, provided by me, before we storybuild. I currently provide them with a specific sheet for this (labeled "Vocabulario importante").
Students are responsible for writing down the new story chunk at the end of a storybuilding session. I currently provide them with a specific sheet for this (labeled "La historia completa").
We always spend the beginning of a storybuilding session retelling as much of the story as we have. Then we move on to the new chunk.
At the end of the storybuilding session, we do a whole-class retell. We pass a ball around, and each student who receives the ball must add a sentence to the story. They are free to add new details or mix up sentences. I want them to throw each other off; making the next student think on their feet. The goal is communication and creativity, not memorization! I always tell them "extra points if you make me laugh" (it never seems to matter that I don't actually grade with "points").
Adriana Ramirez has graciously shared a series of videos demonstrating how she conducts her TPRS-based classroom in a typical week. Check them out: