Storytelling Basics: A Weekly Structure

Find increased freedom through intentional planning.

Using storytelling to teach language dramatically reshaped the the structure of my courses. A progressively complex series of stories now anchor my lesson plans, instead of being shackled to the “communicative” activities in the textbook and its grammar-driven agenda. In addition, storytelling freed me from hours of lesson planning, since the stories we tell contain all the elements of the language I need students to learn. The mere act of telling and retelling a story (and later reading a story) affords learners the comprehensible input necessary for acquisition to take place.

Since I know that everything I need to teach is embedded in the stories we co-create, retell and read, I learned to systematize the way I plan my lessons. After I make a tentative calendar of the course before the term starts, I barely have to think of how I’m going to fill the lesson plan with activities. This alone can save you ten hours during the quarter, and more if you are on semesters.

Allow me to detail a sample week in my Spanish 101 course.

The Goal

It’s essential to start with a goal in mind, some activity you want students to be able to do by the end of the week.

My primary objective for the week is for students to write a summary of a story in L2 that they helped co-create, listened to, read several versions of, and discussed at length in class (See Friday).

Secondary objective: Have a class discussion about the most complicated version of the text (see Thursday).

Monday

Below you will see a numbered list and details of my lesson plan for a typical Monday. Something I learned from working at a high school for a semester (it was the longest six months of my life, but a great learning experience) is to write an abbreviated version of this plan on the board in L2. It keeps me zoned into the plan and allows students to see where today’s lesson is going.

1. Routine Items

An essential way to talk about simple (and often boring) things. Things that need repetition to acquire, but that don’t make much sense to talk about in every single story. I mix and match these to keep them fresh.

  • The date
  • Months
  • Days of the Week
  • The Weather
  • Interrogative words (I have a little song that I do to help them memorize, although they do this during stories, too)
  • Tongue twisters
  • TPR (Total Physical Response) words/phrases that aren’t easy for me to work into every story. Prepositions of place (next to, near to, far from, etc.), indefinite/negative words, etc.
  • What did you do last weekend?
  • Body Parts
  • Short songs that don’t target anything in particular, but help students remember the language in a natural context (a natural way to introduce subjunctive, by the way).
  • Anything else that can be routinized

1A. Free Voluntary Reading (FVR)

2. TPR New Phrases

I take 3 – 6 phrases/words out of the script for this week’s story that I think the students won’t know very well. These are the anchor phrases that will help us scaffold into telling a comprehensible story. Without these phrases, the story will be too incomprehensible to maximize the potential of the input. By pre-teaching these phrases we ensure that the essence of the story be comprehensible.

I know my students and their level, so I can confidently guess what they know and what they don’t. These phrases will help scaffold lower-level students to each progressively difficult version of the story.

I write the phrases on the board and explain what they mean, one by one in English, a mix of Spanish/English, or a mix of Spanish/drawings/photos depending on the level of the class. This weeks target phrases:

  • he likes to celebrate
  • he receives a package
  • it’s moving
  • he’s afraid of
  • Can you open it?

We make up gestures for each phrase and I “quiz” them on these gestures. I say a word/phrase, and they show me the answer. After a few days of this, I might show them a gesture and ask them to say the word in Spanish.

As I discussed in an earlier post, TPR is a great way to reduce L1 in your classroom after Monday. The next day I don’t tell them what things mean in English, I just do the gesture.

3. The Hero’s Journey

I use Mondays (depending on the week) to continue the Epic Hero’s Adventure based on our co-created heroes. I use Storylistening as a primary way to recap the story with students, and I use TPRS© to co-create the next phase of the story.

While students are listening, I ask them to draw what happens in the story to help them stay focused on processing the information. I don’t collect this,  though, and they could just listen along, and I would be content. Really it’s just a way to stop people from being on their phones (I hate smart phones in class – learning a new language requires deep mental work with limited distractions).

You can make this phase last as long as you need.

Mondays are not fundays for most college students. Some are coming in sluggish from a weekend out partying, while others are dreading getting back into the swing of things after a relaxing weekend (or not so relaxing, depending on the student). With this in mind, Mondays should mostly be listening days. Get their ears used to hearing L2 again, and you will be rewarded with students who are more prepared to think and talk in L2 throughout the rest of the week.

Tuesday

1. Routine Items

Keep on trucking with these. They pay dividends in the long run.

1A. FVR

2. Review TPR Phrases from Yesterday

If you used L1 to establish meaning yesterday, now is the time to go right to L2. Most will not need it on this day, and by removing L1 you are showing students the importance of L2 in your classroom.

3. Co-create the Story

Here is the bread and butter of storytelling in a language classroom. I introduce a character and build a story from there using many circular questions (fewer for upper-level classes, since I mainly use this technique to introduce new vocabulary). Students decide many details about the character as they would in a OWI (i.e. hair color, height, intelligence, nationality, etc.).

Next, I follow the story script (I always have this with me so I can refer back to it) and guide the story along until the next detail I let them decide (e.g. Where does the character go?,  Who sent the package?, Why is the character afraid?, etc.). After each unique detail (sometimes called a surprise detail in the TPRS© community), I continue on with the script until we have reached a good stopping place or if we run out of time in the class period.

In this way, each class has its own unique story generated from the same script. They all have the target phrases in them, but each story has the potential to be wildly different from the others. This is what personalized instruction looks like in a storytelling classroom. It beats the hell out of a cookie-cutter and textbook-heavy approach.

Some Bonus Tips

  1. When you get to a target phrase or structure, cue students to do the appropriate gesture. This will help cement the phrase and gesture in a communicative context.
  2. During the co-creation of the story, I have a student write a brief listening quiz based on today’s story.
  3. Also during the co-creation of the story, I have a student draw out the events of the story on a giant sticky note. Four-six frames usually works perfect for this. Look at Wednesday’s plan for more details on what I do with this.
An example of student artwork on a giant sticky note.

4. Summarize the Story

Usually we have discussed a lot of information during the class period, so it’s nice to review what you’ve told. Some storytellers I know like to write up a brief summary of the story in a word document with the help of students. I would call that an efficient and beneficial use of time.

Full disclosure, I don’t always do this. I like students to hear the language a number of times before they see it.

5. Listening Quiz (if There’s Time)

There’s probably not going to be time today, unless it’s the beginning of the quarter. When students are less proficient, there’s more time for assessments like this because they can’t sustain the necessary conversation as easily (yet).

Wednesday

1. Routine Items

Stick with the same routine items until you sense it gets boring. Students need more repetition than they let on, and doing things like talking about the date or weather goes a long way towards acquisition of those items. I would do those even if they’re boring. Routine is a powerful thing.

1A. FVR

2. Review TPR Phrases

Try quizzing students by showing them the gestures and having them say the word/phrase in L2. Mix up the order of the words. Really make sure they know these phrases since they anchor this week’s text.

3. Retell the Co-created Story with Student Artwork

Student artwork from a different class.

Remember the artwork from Tuesday? Here’s where this comes into play. After reviewing the TPR phrases again, I put the giant sticky on the board and let the students process the artwork for the first time. This lets students see the story visually and it puts them in the right frame of mind (read: activates schema) to hear the story again.

Now I begin to retell the story that we made up yesterday. This artwork is important for me too, since I have four classes and can easily jumble stories together Did that happen in the 8am class or the 11am class? – I don’t have to remember (thankfully). I just have to look at the artwork to jog my memory.

I do a blend of storytelling and story asking here.

Me: Class, there is a _____.

Student: man.

Me: There is a man. What does he call himself?

Student: Chuy.

Me: Yes, he calls himself Chuy. Where is Chuy from? Is he from Ecuador?

Student: No.

Me: No, he’s not from Ecuador. Where’s he from?

Student: He’s Spanish.

Me: Yes, he’s Spanish. He’s from Spain. Is Chuy handsome?

Student: Oh yeah.

Me: Oh, yes. Chuy is very handsome.

Me: One day, Chuy receives a package for his birthday. He likes to celebrate his birthday. He loves to celebrate his birthday.

Back and forth we go, recounting the events we made up yesterday. We can do this for 5-15 minutes, depending on the complexity of the story and the quality of the conversation. The important part is that students are mentally processing all the input I’m giving them, which primes the pump of acquisition.

I started doing this part of the storytelling process more regularly last fall when I found a pad of giant stickies in my classroom. What a stroke of good fortune.

4. Read Version A of the Story Silently

I break the story into three readings, each increasing in complexity.  I have students read Version A silently for a 2-5 minutes, depending on the length of the story. Before they read, I instruct them to read for fluency. If they come across a word they don’t know, they should quickly try to figure it out from context. If they can’t do that in 2-3 seconds, they underline and move on. Consider an example of a Version A reading below:

After students have read the text, we come together as a class for students to do a self-assessment of comprehension. We do this via a “choral translation” or a translation done as a group. I read a little bit in L2, and the class responds out loud with a translation into L1. 

Occasionally I will throw in a brief (under 30 seconds) grammar explanation in L1 here, or use colors and underlining in a Word Document projected on the screen to highlight meaning (e.g. He drinks the milk >>> He drinks it).

A lot of people feel very strongly about never doing a translation in a language classroom, perhaps because we know how inefficient and ineffective the grammar-translation method is for language acquisition.

Personally, I don’t think we should throw out any tool completely (even the textbook-style activities).

That being said, I think it’s important to note that this activity is not the grammar-translation method. It is a way for students to self-assess comprehension and for me to get a feel on their level of comprehension.

In all honesty, if I wasn’t confident this was a beneficial activity, I would not hesitate throw it out. I truly believe this is worth the five-ten minutes we spend on it per week.

5. Read Version B of the story à la TPRS© with a Volleyball Translation

Another translation activity? Yes. This one is also worth the 10 minutes per week we spend on it.

Students form two lines and make sure they have a partner across from them. They read Version B of the story in the following way:

  1. Student A reads a sentence of the story in L2.
  2. Student B translates that sentence into L1 and reads the next sentence in L2.
  3. Student A translates that sentence into L1 and reads the next sentence in L2.
  4. The partners volley back and forth from L2 and L1, with the goal of getting back to L2 as quickly as possible.
  5. After two minutes, I yell for students to switch and one line rotates so that everyone has a new partner (Note: If there is an odd number of students I like to have a group of three at the front of the lines where one member rotates out each round).
  6. After switching, students pick up where the person that got the least far left off. For example, if student A got to line 4 and Student B got to line 6, they would start at line 4. That way each student gets a chance to get through the whole reading.
  7. If students finish Version B, I have them start again from the top. I’d love it if they could get through it at least 3 times, though often it doesn’t happen. 
  8. Repeat until you want them to stop. I usually let them go for at least ten minutes, but rarely more than 15.

Students love this activity because it helps them build confidence speaking the language. I love this activity because students help each other out, and it allows them to hear a number of different voices.

Below is an example of a Version B

I first learned about this technique at a TPRS© workshop I attended in Vancouver, BC. At the workshop, Von Ray presented a German story and a French story, and we did a volleyball translation. The act of participating made me realize how valuable this activity is. It’s not really a translation activity at all, but rather a comprehension-based reading where the students assess their own understanding. Totally different things.

If you’re not convinced by my explanation and advocacy for this activity, you need to try it in a language with which you are not familiar. You will be convinced that it has nothing to do with the grammar-translation approach, even though translation is involved.

Attend one of these workshops, by the way. It’s well worth the three days. Von Ray was fantastic as a presenter. Mike Coxon is another great presenter. I am not an affiliate of theirs – I just think they are awesome at what they do).

6. Listening Quiz (If there’s time)

Sometimes there is time on Wednesday for a listening quiz. I write it on the board, but I’m not heart-broken if we don’t get to it today. That just means that our comprehensible input lasted the whole class period. That’s more important for acquisition than squeezing in a quiz.

7. Retells in groups (if there’s time)

If you still have time left over, now’s a good time to do a retell. Pair off students and have them retell the story in L2 for one minute each. Put the artwork back on the board if you took it down. This will help students remember more details.

Thursday

1. Routine Items

Same as previous days. There’s something comforting about a routine. It also helps you focus the class on a common theme to start the class. Make sure students are all participating. Call them out by name or they will start to use their cell phones. (Cell phones are the bane of my existence as a professor of a subject that requires deep focus).

1A. FVR

2. Review TPR Phrases

I keep a running list of TPR Phrases on Canvas, my school’s LMS. On a typical Thursday we go through the whole list.

At the end of the term I give a significant quiz (~5% of the overall grade) based entirely on this vocabulary. Reviewing it once per week helps keep it fresh in their minds.

3. Retell story with student artwork

Another repetition of the story using the artwork. Today I ask more questions and do less telling of the story. Students are starting to build confidence in their knowledge of the story and remember most details at this point. 

4. Read Version C of the story and Discuss

As a class we read Version C, the longest and most complex version of the story. I read out loud in L2 while students listen and read along. There are two goals with this activity:

  1. I want students to hear and read (and comprehend) the text. It gives them an opportunity to simultaneously hear how the text sounds and how it looks on the page.
  2. I want students to discuss the themes of the story in L2.

As I read out loud, students follow along in their copy of the text. I read until I find something interesting to talk about, and then I start asking questions. In the example of Version C (see below), there’s no coffee at Kevin’s house. It’s a problem because he has an important chemistry exam that day. I might ask the class something like this:

Class, where do you all go when there’s no coffee at your house?

If someone answers, great. Ask follow up questions in L2 that are interesting and keep the language flowing.  Build up your students and don’t correct them if they make mistakes. Any output is good, and we don’t want to scare them away from speaking.

If no one answers, that’s fine. Now’s the time to do a quick conversation with their “elbow partner”.

With your elbow partner, ask this question: Where do you go when there’s no coffee at your house?

I usually write the beginning of a potential answer on the board to keep the conversation going. (i.e. When there’s no coffee at my house, I go to…). After a brief conversation in groups, I call the attention back to the front of the classroom and ask the question again. Now I look for volunteers to share their answers with the class. Once the mojo has been used up for that particular set of questions (read the room), I keep reading the text and find a new line of questioning.

An example of Version C of a story.

Continue this as long as possible. If you do this right, the conversation can spill over into Friday’s class.

5. Listening Quiz

This is usually the day where we end up taking the listening quiz, although if the conversation is really good during Version C of the story, perhaps not. It’s possible that you need to continue the Version C exercise on Friday. If so, that’s great! I’d much rather have a real conversation in L2 than do a listening quiz.

6. Oral retells in groups

If there’s time you can have them practice retelling in groups. However, there shouldn’t be time if you played your cards right during the class conversation based on Version C of the story.

Friday

1. Routine Items

This is my first quarter using this as a way to start the class on a regular basis. I’m shocked at how good it is, and upset I didn’t try this earlier. Make a routine for the beginning of your class if you haven’t already.

1A. FVR

2. What are you doing this weekend?

This is an easy discussion you can throw in the mix each Friday. Share your plans for the weekend with your students, and have them ask their elbow partner what they are going to do. Circulate around the room while they are talking and select a few students to hold a conversation with.

After a few minutes, return to the front of the class and ask for volunteers to tell you their plans. This conversation could last 5-25 minutes, depending on the quality of the conversation. I think it’s better to hold an interesting, un-targeted conversation than to do just about anything else in the language.

2a. Do the listening quiz if you didn’t get to it yet.

I mean, you need to evaluate their listening skills at some point. Right? This also has the side benefit of reminding students think that there could be a listening quiz on any day, making them less likely to miss class. (Maybe?).

3. Review TPR Phrases

Go back to just the target phrases from this week. You don’t need to review the whole list each day, just enough to help it stay fresh in learners’ minds.

3a. Continue Version C Discussion (If Desired)

Did you have more story to read through/more discussion to get to in the Version C of the story? Now’s a good time to do that if you want,. but don’t feel pressured to read each and every word of the story. You don’t want to beat a dead horse.

5. Timed-Write Summary of the Story/In-Class Essay

This is the primary goal of the week. Students probably studied their story at home last night, and now they should feel fairly confident in their abilities to write a summary in L2.

6. Presentation of art, music, or culture, short videos, textbook activities, etc.

What are the things you’re passionate about when it comes to the cultures surrounding  L2? Art? Music? History? Culture? Politics? The textbook? Whatever it is at the moment, I have a good chunk of time reserved for those topics and activities here on Friday. I like to pick the activity out in advance so I know how much time to I have to spend on the other important items on Friday (i.e. timed-write summary). 

Even though I use a textbook in my class on occasion, it is not my primary vehicle for delivering CI. It is a tool I can use when desired (which is not often). I use it on a typical Friday, but only if there’s time.

Conclusions

This weekly plan is a stelar template for storytelling. It’s a system I have in place that allows me to spend virtually zero time making a lesson plan. If something isn’t working, it’s just a slight modification to the plan and I’m back in business.

Developing this lesson plan system (parts of which are borrowed from quién sabe dónde) is one of the most important steps for me as a storyteller. The structure helps me stay focused on what matters most: delivering quality CI to students in a variety of ways.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

2 Replies to “Storytelling Basics: A Weekly Structure”

  1. Just found this blog through a link on the IFLT CI teaching FB page. Hope to find time to read more carefully. I teach at a small liberal arts college and have a lot of autonomy with my Span 101 and 201 sections. I am really interested in trying TPRS more frequently in class. I have done 2-3 stories each semester the last couple years along with some of the Fluency Matters novels.

    1. Sounds like you’ve got your feet wet already! For me, that was the hardest part. I love storytelling, and I firmly believe it’s the most natural way to teach languages.

      Thank you for your comment, and please let me know if I can be of any help!

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