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Speaking through Stories

Speaking through Stories
Laura Adams, World Languages faculty

Listening actively is essential to learning, but participation, in any class, can really help to reinforce it. Dana Hall World Languages teachers understand that speaking up in class can be especially hard for students as they begin to express themselves using new sounds and structures that differ from the language that they speak on a daily basis. We know that it can feel overwhelming to recall words and be able to combine them on the spot like most real-life conversation. Even within a supportive learning environment, it takes courage and motivation to develop this important skill.

How do we help to make the experience more comfortable, spontaneous and genuine for our students? One way is by using stories and short books as essential ingredients in the curriculum. The target language is immediately available. The wording is already set up and character dialog is similar to authentic speech.

Stories provide examples and can help to create meaningful class conversation, teach cultural and historical understanding, build comradery and foster a sense of accomplishment on the part of the student. 

Captivating stories are a useful language teaching tool that can invite speaking about characters and plot details. If the story is good, and the characters are appealing and relatable, students are more engaged and likely to talk about them. They can become those characters, using approximate or even exact wording from the text to help guide them. Describing a character’s experience can also inspire students to talk about their own. Stories promote the use of scripts, interviewing, pair work, monologues, iMovie and interactive apps such as Explain Everything. 

Stories are packed with examples of grammar, idioms, and vocabulary in a real context. When students see a language concept that they have been introduced to before reading a text, it’s dynamic to see it in use and in connection with content. It becomes more automatic and natural, for instance, to use a comparative structure or a verb tense correctly because it was seen used in a story. In addition, because stories incorporate learning about other places and people, they serve as a springboard for discussions about culture, presentations about different countries and descriptions of imaginary trips.

In my seventh-grade Spanish class, for instance, we read a story that takes place in the Ecuadorian jungle and students use language concepts presented in the book to state their opinions and explain situations. Eighth-grade French students read a mystery that takes place in the Louvre, and by reflecting on the twists and turns of the story using investigative questioning, they problem-solve and create real conversation. My eighth-grade Spanish class acts out what they are reading as the characters of a book traveling through Spain and eventually describe their own pretend trip there. And, of course, reading stories provides the perfect practice of question words. I start by asking for basic information (who, what, when, where, how many, etc.), and as students become more sophisticated in their comprehension and ability to answer in more complex sentences, I add “Why?” and “How?” 

We want our students to feel inspired and at ease to answer a question, state an opinion, support a point with an example or explain something. By annotating and discussing stories, students have a way to ground their thoughts and feel equipped to communicate more confidently in the target language.

Students read books in World Language classes.
Middle School students read books in a World Languages class.
Examples of books and stories shared in a Middle School World Languages curriculum