Once upon a time…

Reading and Writing Stories in the World Language Classroom

presented at the Maryland Foreign Language Association Fall Conference, October 13th, 2012.

[download: Presentation SlidesPresentation Notes]

Why do we use storytelling in the language classroom?

Stories are a natural fit for the language classroom.  More than any other activity, they encapsulate the ideas of communication and community that are at the center of language.  In addition to engaging students, they offer a lens through which to examine not only grammar and vocabulary, but also culture and values.  As a teaching tool, they give a highly structured environment in which we can play with new language and ideas.

What do the students say?

I spent a class-period speaking with my Latin IV class about their experience with story-based activities.  What were the things that they liked or didn’t like?  What things were helpful?  They had some tremendous insight into the learning process.

  • Students enjoy acting out parts of stories, and putting them into different words.
  • Comprehension increases when the teacher is reading a selection aloud, because students are able to make inferences based on the teacher’s intonation; comprehension decreases when the sentences are broken up for choral repetition.
  • Stories about animals doing everyday activities were particularly engaging – a bear going to different places in a city, for instance, was more relevant to students than “water skiing.”
  • It has been helpful to practice structures as a class, and then apply them in small groups.
  • Annotating the story in the target language facilitates comprehension without translation.
  • Opportunities to write things down help students feel grounded in the material.

Texts and systems that include stories as one of their essential elements

A number of current popular Latin texts use an ongoing story to provide continuity and structure.  This can be an effective way to engage students, teach about culture in context (rather than as a separate topic, addressed in English), and provide structure.  Authors of these texts have also worked to include vocabulary and language that appear in the works of classical authors.  It is of course up to individual teachers to evaluate these texts and determine if they best fit their curriculum’s goals.

TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) is a popular teaching methodology, which uses community storytelling as a mode of instruction.  Workshops are available periodically throughout the year, by various presenters.  One of the elements of TPRS that I have found very applicable to many different situations is the use of a “question circle,” a series of questions that provide rapid repetition.

Structuring Story-Based Activities

Here are four simple ways to approach stories which will help you structure your classroom activities effectively.

  • Set-up
  • Questioning
  • Templates/Scaffolding.
  • Same Conversation

Before beginning a reading, give students an anticipatory set-up of the language that they will encounter.  This could be in the form of pictures, skits or games, or anything else that will provide practice and repetition.

Effective questions allow you to check comprehension in the target language, as well as giving students experience with real communication.  Questions can also be a good way to address new grammatical concepts.  Don’t forget to have students ask questions as well.

At all costs, avoid just saying to students “Write a story.”  In most people, this is almost guaranteed to produce writer’s block.  Instead, I like to use a layered book to provide a template, writing one sentence on each flap, which students add to, in order to write their story.  In addition, putting the story in book form, rather than just writing on a piece of paper really motivates students to take ownership of their work.  There are many other ways you can provide structure for students, to make the writing task more manageable.

If you read many children’s stories, you’ll find that often times they use a repetitive three-part structure.  (The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Rumplestiltskin are all good examples.)  Using this kind of repetitive structure make writing stories simple, is familiar to students, and after the first iteration gives them confidence, because they know what to expect.

Some Concrete Examples

Epistula Alberti is a letter written for use in a Latin III class.  The general story was developed in class, cooperatively with the students.  I then filled it out, and put it into letter form.  It includes the three-part structure, in which the main character is trying to solve a problem, which is solved at the end.  Putting the story in letter form exposes students to the Roman style of letter writing, including the customary salutation and other pleasantries.  Finally, it gives students practice mixing first, second and third persons, and dealing with different tenses.

This year in my Latin IV class, we have been working on the story of Saint George and the Dragon, from the Legenda Aurea.  The Latin in this passage is easier than classical selections, but includes vocabulary and structures that students will encounter when reading classical authors.  In addition to doing a number of set-up activities, we have started using a modified form of Cornell Notes, to help students process and understand the story, in the target language.

The story of Niceros and the Werewolf is a selection from the Satiricon by Petronius, a modified version of which is found in the Ecce Romani textbook series.  In preparation for the story, I told a parallel story, replacing the original characters with characters from Winnie the Pooh.  Having some familiar elements drew students into the story.  After they students were familiar with the plot, we read the version found in the textbook.  Students worked in small groups to story-board the selection, re-write it in their own words, then create a digital story project, including narration.

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