Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Power of Stories in SLA

Recently, I have become more aware of the Power of Stories. Storytelling is a tool that ALL of us have available, at any given time, to help our students acquire a second language. One reason that makes Storytelling so accessible to all is that it requires absolutely no technology. In fact, in my experience, a story told using technology tends to lesson both the student interest and the impact of the story. To improve the storytelling experience, ditch the PowerPoint! Try it and watch the change in your students' listening behaviors and engagement. 

If you are hesitant to part with your your pre-made PowerPoints when telling stories and using Story Listening, then maybe an email I received from Marta Yedinak will make you reconsider. Marta asked her students to write suggestions on how to improve the story listening experience for the students. The quote in the box was written by one of her students. He clearly states that listening to the teacher tell a story, aided with a PowerPoint, is not as interesting as having the teacher draw during the story. 

Although pre-made PowerPoints may be easier for the teacher to use, it is NOT what engages the students and it's not personalized to their class. If you are serious about keeping students engaged during a story, don't take the easy way out with a PowerPoint because it will most likely lower student engagement.

Three recent experiences have made my appreciation grow for the positive impact that Storytelling (*or Story Listening) has on second language acquisition.

1. Last month, Marta Yedinak, a Spanish teacher and my good friend from Wisconsin, and I did a presentation at ACTFL entitled, "Listen UP! Engaging Students in the Story Listening Experience". The evening before our presentation, Marta shared with me in detail, how she told a particular story to her class, along with photos of the sketches she drew on her whiteboard during the story. 

The following day she did a mini-demonstration of the story in the ACTFL presentation and, WOW! I was using Story Listening with my students with newspaper articles, personal stories, Cuentos de Ensalada with felt characters, and other stories. By watching Marta give her mini demonstration, I saw areas in which I could improve.  One way that Marta engaged the students was to have them do motions with her at different parts of the story (with se lo llevó). How cool is that? I'm presenting and learning at the SAME TIME from my co-presenter - love it!

Marta's white board after telling Martina Bex's story about a squirrel

2. The first Friday in December, Krista Kovalchick (the person that has helped me improve as an educator more than any other person I know, a result of our daily conversations about teaching methods, second language acquisition, classroom management, and the list goes on forever...) and I drove to Downingtown, PA, to attend a Tri-State TCI meeting. The topic for the meeting was Story Listening. 

Krista telling a Latin legend 

Krista gave a 20-minute demonstration in Latin on Story Listening, followed by Q&A. I do not know Latin, but days later I remembered a LOT of the words she used in her story.  The power of Story Listening for language acquisition was undeniable. Krista spoke entirely in Latin, kept the pace slow for those listening to the story, wrote keywords in both languages on the whiteboard, drew sketches to clarify meaning, and used gestures and facial expressions which not only helped us to understand, but was engaging (and entertaining). After several minutes of telling the story, she paused and instructed us to tell the story to our partner in English.

3. This week I told a Guatemalan legend, Quetzal no muere nunca, to my two upper level classes. When I started teaching at PHS, I found a dozen of well-worn books, dated 1987 with the school stamp (shown to the right). The length of the stories are perfect for Story Listening.  I read and reread and reread again, the legend "Quetzal no muere nunca" beforehand to become familiar with it. 

When I told it to my classes, I put extra emphasis on slowing the pace and writing words on the board for visual support during the story. Throughout the story I provided time for students to retell the events in English to their classmate(s), as Krista had demonstrated with her latin story. As often happens, I did not set aside enough time to complete the story, so in both classes I was unable to finish the story.   

The following day, since there had been at least one student absent in both classes, I did what I usually do when someone has been absent for a story; the students that were present the previous day had to tell the story in Spanish to the student or students that were absent. The students that were absent and I are the only ones that can talk in English. It is the job of the rest of the students to tell the story in such a way that the listener(s) understands the story and can tell it to me in English. 

The students took random turns retelling parts of the story. As I listened to their retell, I  was amazed at the vocabulary and grammar structures that they were able to use in the retell after only listening to the story 1 time! In one class, when I moved away from the front of the room and sat among the students, several of the students went to the board to sketch while retelling the story. (I was so impressed with their retell and their engagement that I was hoping the principal would walk in to witness the positive effects that Story Listening has, but that didn't happen.) It was the same type of growth I felt when listening to Krista's story. The best part about both stories was it required little effort on the part of the listener, other than staying focused on the person telling the story and it was FUN for the teacher. 

The need for Story Listening Demos
The first two experiences helped me realize that maybe the best way to demonstrate the power of stories in SLA is for teachers to experience it themselves - listening to a story in a language they do not know, told by a teacher experienced in Story Listening! 

I repeat, because this is key: to experience the power of Story Listening, teachers need to experience it themselves, listening to a story in a language they do NOT know, told by a teacher experienced in Story Listening! 

I wish there were Story Listening demonstrations at the national conferences. (Hey Keith Toda or Krista Kovalchick, I think you should submit a proposal to demonstrate Story Listening in Latin at one of the national conferences!) 

Give it a try!
If you haven't tried Story Listening (or Storytelling) why not give it a try? Since we are close to Christmas, you could find a story that happens at this time of the year. As I continue to grow in my Story Listening/Storytelling skills, I found that legends have a special pull for students.

If you experiment with Story Listening, things to keep in mind are:

1. Select a legend or story that you believe will be interesting to your audience/students.

2. Become very familiar with the story. Read it several times. Practice retelling the story so as not to miss any important details

3. Write notes for yourself on an index card that you can use when telling the story. 

4. Preplan what sketches you will need. If your'e not sure how you will sketch something, google it to give you an idea. Keep it simple!

5. Use cognates when possible but remember, some students won't be able to hear the cognates so be prepared to write the words on the board.

6. RELAX when telling the story. This will help your students to relax and set the stage for acquisition of the language.

7. If you decide to ask questions during the story, keep them SIMPLE. The students' main job is to LISTEN.

8. Do not ask your students to take notes on the words used in the story. Instruct students to listen with the intent to understand.

9. After several details of the story, instruct the students to tell their partner, in English, what they have understood about the story. It gives the students a mini brain break, allows the teacher to listen to what they understood, and students feel like they have received a little treat because they can speak in English.

10. Decide if you want students to read a script of the story when finished or if you want to write a short version of the story together.

11. Ask your students to retell the story the following day, but NOT for a grade. The students will be surprised with the new words they hear themselves saying during the retell.

*Story Listening - When I mention Story Listening in this post, I am referring to the teacher telling a story while the students listen to the story. I am NOT referring to the method which requires ONLY story listening as the entire curriculum. 


  1. Hola Sra. Hitz,
    Thank you for writing about your Spanish classroom. I’m a current student teacher and I found your idea of story listening fascinating. I wonder, do you prepare your students for storytelling by starting with very short passages? I am currently on a 90-minute block schedule, and think my students would check out if we read something for the whole class, even with small, English-explanation brain breaks built in. Do you believe this is best for higher level students? Thank you again, I’ll be looking through your blog for more ideas to bring storytelling into the classroom.

    1. 1. When I do Story Listening, I do NOT read to the students. I familiarize myself very well with the stories so I can tell it without reading. Some times I have a few things jotted down on an index card to remind me of certain parts of the story.
      You are right, students WILL check out if you read to them. They'll feel you are not invested in the story if you read it to them. TELL it to them. That shows the students that you care enough about the story to know it well.
      2. Story Listening works very well with lower levels also. I suggest choosing a story that you can tell in 10 minutes. You can gradually add longer stories as you feel more comfortable and learn how to increase the student engagement during the stories.
      3. Your goal when story listening is to make it comprehensible to the students. If that doesn't happen, the students will become frustrated and/or check out which means language acquisition will not take place.
      Have Fun with it! :-)