An ESL/EFL beginner's limited vocabulary and knowledge of
sentence structure does not constrain a good storyteller. Stories
with very few words can be relevant and humorous. Review the
elements of a good story and conventions that will help you communicate
them in easy English. Customize each other stories by changing
people and places, create additional practice materials to go
with the stories, and collect the student's stories for future
- You can tell a good story with limited vocabulary.
These stories are for reinforcement of classroom material, so
start with the subject matter you are studying in class. As a
teacher, you know the vocabulary that accompanies this subject
matter. Keep it in mind, but write your own story. Use repetition
for emphasis, such as "Her aunt is talking and talking."
This conveys that she is talking a lot or too much. You are writing
for adults so you can let them fill in between the lines. Give
them the actions and they can usually infer attitudes or emotions.
For example, depending on the story, "She is looking at
the clock." can just be an action, or it can mean that she
is late or bored. Putting these sentences together can create
a humorous situation and clarify the word "late." "Her
aunt is talking and talking. / Mary is looking at the clock.
/ She is going to be late!"
- Control the structures used in the stories. For the
beginner, try to keep the story in the present tense even if
the story is recounting something from the past. This is possible
with the "historical present" and a little creativity.
Some phrases will have to go in the past. This is not a problem;
the students can and should learn individual phrases in the past,
such as "I forgot!" Since textbooks vary in the order
in which they introduce lifeskills, choose one textbook and adapt
material from other textbooks so they are all at the same level.
Use lots of dialog. Teach the difference between direct and indirect
speech. Teach and always use the words, "says," "asks,"
replies." Keep the story to about 36-40 sentences. Also,
we use thousands of set phrases in our everyday vocabulary. Use
them! One of my stories is about Voice Mail with a phone system
that says, "Thank you for calling Med Services. If this
is an emergency, hang up and dial 911. To make an appointment,
press 1 . To ask questions about billing, press 2 ."
- Write for YOUR students. Tell them stories about your
life or everyday activities. Occasionally use their names for
the protagonist. Tell them true stories and fun fantasy. If you
know your students, you know what they struggle with and enjoy.
Write them stories about those things. We must be very careful
about racial and gender stereotypes; they are very subtle. However,
humor often involves a common mistake so we end up laughing at
- Tell a good story. Think about the structure of a
narrative. Stories for our purpose have a title or an introduction,
some background to set the scene, and then lots of action and
dialog. There is usually a problem that comes up in the story
and its resolution or a task to be accomplished. Yet a good story
often involves something unpredictable or humorous. Humor shows
up in emphatic speech, repetition, and an unexpected twist to
a familiar story line. The story below is a very beginning story,
but it still has a twist to it. When the students have a little
more language ability, you can write about lots of fun topics.
- Improve your stories. Read the story out loud. Check
for tense changes (the past keeps sneaking in), choice of vocabulary,
and the overall flow. Recheck for stereotypes. Then look at each
sentence. See if you can think of a way to picture this sentence.
That will help you keep your sentences concrete and give you
ideas for follow-up activities. Sometimes it helps to start with
a script or dialog and then write a story. Your adult audience
can pick up subtleties and intuit intent and emotions by reading
actions. This helps a lot in creating humor with limited language.
It also helps when you want to introduce new vocabulary into
a story. The sentence "Her aunt is talking and talking,"
uses repetition to convey the idea that her aunt is talking a
lot or maybe too much. Depending on the story, "She is looking
at the clock." can mean that she is late or bored. Putting
these sentences together creates a humorous situation and clarifies
the word "late." "Her aunt is talking and talking.
Mary is looking at the clock. She is going to be late!"
- Make good use of your stories in the classroom. Create
lots of practice opportunities to go with your stories. You can
even develop your entire curriculum around them! Have the students
create stories with the same theme and save the stories they
write for future classes.
- Start small, but collaborate with others. Create one
complete unit. Share an electronic copy of your unit with other
materials writers who have created similar units. You will end
up with a customized curriculum that offers a wide variety of
Sample Sentences for "Classroom Words" Unit
Open the door. Open the door to the classroom. Walk into the
classroom. Turn on the lights. Walk to the closet. Open the closet
door. Put your coat in the closet. Take the books out of the
closet. Put the books on the desk. Write your name. Sit down.
Sit at the desk. Sit at the desk in the front of the room. Walk
to the back of the room. Look for the pencil sharpener. Is the
pencil sharpener in the back of the room? Where's the pencil
sharpener? Read the name on the board. Are you ready? What am
I doing? You are opening the door to the classroom. I am walking
into the classroom. I am putting the books on the desk. I am
sharpening my pencil.
Sample Story for "Classroom Words" Unit: The
First Day of Class
Greg is opening the door to the classroom. He is walking into
the classroom. He is turning on the lights. He is walking to
the board. He is writing his name. He is sitting in at his desk
in the front of the room.
Mary is a student. She is walking into the room. She is looking
at the teacher. She is reading his name on the board. "My
name is Greg. I am your teacher. This is ESL 101."
Mary is walking to the desk in the back of the room. She is
sitting at the desk. She is looking for the pencil sharpener.
The pencil sharpener is in the front of the room. It is next
to the teacher.
Mary is walking to the front of the classroom. Mary is looking
at the pencil sharpener. She is not looking at the teacher. The
teacher says, "Hello! What's your name?"
She says, "Mary." She is walking to her desk. She
is sitting down. She is not looking at the teacher. She is looking
at her pencil. Oh no! Mary forgot!
The students are walking into the classroom. They are sitting
at the desks. They are looking at the board. They are reading
the name on the board. They are writing the name.
Mary is not writing the name. She is standing up. She is walking
to the pencil sharpener. She is sharpening her pencil. She is
sitting down in her chair. OK! Now she is writing. She is ready
for the first day of class.
Beginning students can create their own stories. Some students
will be ready to write their stories after they have had enough
practice. Others will need to be directed at first. If students
are ready to write on their own, suggest that they write about
something they have experienced. Show them how surprise and humor
adds to the story. They will have difficulty working within the
constraints of their limited language, but they will have had
- Model Whole-class Stories - Start by writing a story
together on the board. Ask questions to get the type of sentences
you need in your story. "Who is going to be in the story?"
"What happens next?" When you have studied weather,
housing, and everyday activities, write a fantasy about where
someone lives. "What's the weather like in that city?"
"Tell me about the house." Then ask the students to
write about the city they lived in as a child. They can use the
story on the board as a model.
- Stories from Pictures -I have used a picture of a
living room for activity in # 9, page 4, and followed the activity
with story writing about what the cat on the sofa did all day.
(The picture had a cat on the sofa, an open window, a goldfish
bowl, and food on the dining room table.) The stories were only
a few sentences long. They traded stories and read each other's
papers. Photos of interesting people work well. Enlarge a photo
and show it on the overhead projector. Ask questions about the
person and write a model story based on their answers. Then pass
around a variety of pictures and ask the students to answer the
same questions about their picture. Ask them to draw a floor
plan of their childhood home (homework). This will initiate a
lot of discussion and stories.
- Round-Robin Stories - Do you remember campfire stories
in which one person starts the story and others have to add on
one at a time? Stories can be created this way. Using the photos
of interesting people from the above activity, have students
write one sentence in response to your first question, then have
them pass the paper to the next person. That person reads the
first sentence and answers the second question about that new
photo. In the end, a group of six has six stories with one line
on each story from each person. See Community Spirit for
- Holiday Poems - Before students have the language
to describe events in detail, they can share some of their culture
in a poem. Ask the students questions, and have them write individual
words as directed. They will need to ask you for several words
they do not know, but that adds to the interest of the lesson.
I asked them to draw a little picture to accompany their poems
and made class sets. Line One: What is the holiday? Line two:
What do you see? Three: What do you smell? Four: What do you
hear? Five: What do you taste (eat)? Six: What do you touch?
Seven: What is the holiday? Example: New Year's/New clothes,
paper dragons/ money, flowers, fireworks/Bells, singing, Boom,
Pop/ All the food, candy/ New Year's. (A Cinquin poem is similar.
It asks for one word, two words, three words, two words, one
word. I wasn't usually successful in getting the correct number
of words from my students, so I relaxed the structure.)
- Holiday Stories - With a little more language (and
the past tense), I ask the students to write a story about an
important holiday in their life. They are told to write the story
about something that happened to them when they were children.
The audience for their story is a child they know. They need
to keep the audience in mind as they write. We make booklets
of these stories so they can give their story to a child as a
- Classroom Sets - Each year I (or a volunteer) type
up either holiday poems, holiday stories and another set of stories.
I give them a separate typed copy of their own story and a set
of all the stories. I make enough for an extra set for future
classes to read. I even have them sign a paper allowing me to
use their stories. Some years these stories are edited and rewritten.
- Letters - Letters (and emails) produce some of the
student's best writing because they are conscious of their audience,
be it the president or first lady of the United States or an
email pen pal. Letters can request information, thank a fake
benefactor, or politely complain to a fake landlady. At the end
of class I ask them to write me a letter.
Go to a chart
of lifeskill themes for
materials and stories.
Go to sample
holiday poems and a story.