Storytelling in Practice #2: The next step is to just tell the story, right? Wrong.

TPRS/Story asking in early elementary

This is the second part of a 3 part answer to a question that was sent to me by an elementary school teacher about using storytelling in the early elementary grades. Part 1 was about pre-story activities: How do I get students ready for a new story? What kinds of activities do we do to make all of the input from the story comprehensible?

As I stated in the last post, I do not claim ownership of any of these ideas. These are all things that I have found in books and other blogs that have worked well for me in my classes. If you are reading this and one of these ideas is yours, thank you so much for sharing it because it worked super-well for me!

Part 2 of the Storytelling in Practice series is about the kinds of activities that I have found successful while telling stories. I use several different types of activities during stories to assess how much the students understand and to get them to speak in the TL about the details of the story. I definitely don’t just tell the story. Most of the things that I do are standard TPRS storytelling methods, but there is so much more!

Before we talk about that, though, I will talk about my procedures: I use Mike Peto’s procedures for stories, which I have adapted to fit my own classroom. In the younger grades, the students have a 3 strikes behavior plan: the first time I redirect them is a warning, the second is another warning, then on the third redirection, they have to move to another seat (away from their normal seat-mates). If they continue, I send a note home to their parents (our school has standardized notes that we call Behavioral Alerts).

So What do I do During Stories?

  • Lots of Circling (with a special focus on 2-option questions) – Is it a boy or a girl? Is he a girl?y/n? Is he a boy?y/n? I will sometimes use a higher-order question like, “Por qué __ está triste?” but in the early grades and with the small amount of time together, I find it can be easier to save those questions until the students have had more input (towards the middle-end of 2nd grade and into 3rd grade, in other words, after 2-3 years of 30 mins/week)
  • Circling is a great technique to learn because it serves several purposes: helping students to understand all the details of the story, getting in lots of comprehensible repeats of the words/phrases that you are targeting. (The link I have included here is from It’s a worksheet to help you to focus your circling skills. It’s all about taking apart the sentence you’re telling the kids and asking different things about it in a way that is comprehensible and compelling).
  • Actors– One of the best ways to show kids what is happening is to actually show them with one or more of their peers. This is a classic TPRS method and can be super-fun. The kids all get excited to be in the story and the audience enjoys focusing on the student, especially if the student is a bit of a ham. It is a lot of fun for everyone and, like TPR, it gives the students in the audience something more to latch onto if they don’t fully understand all the words. In other words, they still know what is happening in the story, even if there are words they don’t quite understand.
  • Dialogue – This is related to using actors, because you need to give your actors something to say to move your story along! One thing that I have found is that it can be difficult in early elementary because the students haven’t had a lot of practice with speaking yet. But, as we know, acquisition moves slowly but surely. If there is a heritage or native speaker, I will let them say their lines, but otherwise, I speak for them. I direct them to move their mouths when they hear me talk and I put my notes in front of my mouth so they can’t see me talk (although everyone knows it’s me) and I speak for them. They looooove when I use silly voices, which helps keep them engaged and interested and I direct the actors to be way over-the-top in their actions, so they exaggerate the feelings (estoy feliz involves crazed laughing, estoy triste involves shouted wails of sadness, estoy enojado involves shaking fists in the air and growling, etc).
  • Writing out the Details – As we go along, I like to write the details of the story on the board. It helps to ground the students and keep them on track as we go along adding more and more details. We can talk for 15 minutes about age or location and we can fold in lots of repetitions because I can launch to a mini-PQA session about whatever target structure we’re talking about. As long as I write on the board the official answer that we decided on for the character, the students have an anchor for remembering that detail. This is also good for helping students keep track of the details of different characters or different time lines (I like to have my parallel stories be set in the past or the future and related to the content of the story, for instance, if the character wants a new pair of pants, we can flash back to when he got his current pair of pants at the store and it can be set in the 1890s or something else that’s totally ridiculous). Then, we can refer back to the different parallel stories and compare them.
  • Writing out details also helps older students to rewrite the stories on their own. I don’t write complete sentences when I write the details, only the name, age, place where they live, etc. So the students have those particulars and need to be able to recall the high-frequency target phrases that go with them.
  • Incorporating “The Boring Stuff”– Speaking of those details, they are examples of the kinds of structures that I learned through memorization; I memorized, there was a quiz, we moved on, and I lost that information until exam time when I had to study it again. I’m talking about what some teachers call “The Boring Stuff” – greetings, goodbyes, feelings, etc. This stuff can be super boring when presented in a textbook/memorization context and it usually all comes together at the beginning of the year. Every first chapter that I have ever encountered has had this information in it. It makes sense, but this is stuff that we use every single day and I remember (as a student and as a teacher) going over it for a few weeks at the beginning of the year and then leaving it behind except for the day to day greeting and goodbye before and after class.
  • But this content doesn’t have to be boring. It can be something that the kids can have a lot of fun with. For example, with early elementary, I start the year with a “¿Cómo estás?” song from Basho and Friends (I can’t find the link to the youtube page where this video is, but there are many other you can use). I adapted it for my class and play it myself on my guitar or ukulele and the kids really like it. It teaches the feelings words and I make sure they act them out as we sing (I’m happy, sad, hungry, hot, cold, scared, tired, angry). We sing this song at the beginning of class every single day. After we finish, I go around and ask each child, “Cómo estás?” and they have the option to state it in Spanish or act it out (no English here!).
  • Another example, I haven’t explicitly taught students that age in Spanish uses the verb that means “to have” instead of “to be” (as in, “I have 30 years” instead of “I am 30 years old”). I used to spend (waste?) a lot of time drilling this into their heads. But now, I don’t have to do that anymore. I include it into descriptions of every character. I always ask, “How old is s/he?” and the students answer. There’s no fuss, there’s no memorization taking place, I just say it as many times as I can and it sticks in their heads…not very scientific language, I know, but it is what happens. It’s like magic.
  • Mid-Story Review Activities Throughout the stories, I make sure to review the vocabulary of the story. If we reach a natural stopping point in the story close to the end of class, I try to fit in games (the kinds of things that I talked about in the last post) and PQA questions relating to what we have spoken about in class. The idea is to keep the students thinking about the target words as much as possible in my short class time and get them hearing them in as many different contexts as possible so that they can build up a mental framework around them to establish and solidify their meanings in their heads.

Storytelling is the most fun part of my job as a language teacher. I get to play all day long and the kids learn better than they ever have. We have fun together and they acquire language without even realizing it.

The next post in this series will talk about post-storytelling activities. I hope that this helps and let us know of any activities that you do during your stories!


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