The Importance of Teaching Stories to ESL Students

Early childhood English learners often have little to no prior English language experience, which can pose a pretty rough challenge for us English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers! Young kids really need their teachers to not only be supportive and patient, but also be full of short, fun activities geared to utilize their short attention span and seemingly boundless supply of energy. I’m a huge proponent of stories as a learning-tool in this regard.

If you take the time to sit in any primary classroom, or even just with a youngster, off the bat you might notice that young children lack the attention span older children have for busy desk work. They might sit nicely for a little bit to humor you, but then they may start to squirm and kick, bounce in place, slide down their seat or simply leave their chair when the urge takes them. It can be an incredibly chaotic and frustrating experience for those wanting them to quietly sit still and learn.  

Plus, who really wants to sit still ALLLL day!?

Why Stories?

In my experience, I’ve learned the hard way that kids NEED lots of visuals and physical movement, which, when incorporated by the teacher into a lesson plan, can be used to one’s advantage in teaching basic English.

Even my baby learners have gotten a kick out of basic repetition and acting.

Stories, especially story-telling and story-making, all provide a plethora of great options for familiarizing early learners with English sounds, words, and basic sentence structures. Stories also give young children a much-needed outlet for creativity and cross-cultural learning in addition to building their English language listening skills.

When telling a story, I may use a picture book, flashcards, pictures on a PowerPoint, or even a short silent video clip as I read a story to them. While reading, I act out roles and exaggerate heavily, changing my intonation and voice for different characters and have students repeat certain words with me or back to me.

An example of this would be my following lesson centered on the folk tale of The Three Little Pigs. Note that this lesson is geared more for Pre-school-upper elementary learners. See my suggestions for more advanced learners at the bottom of this post.

Three Little Pigs

With early childhood learners, many students at that level are just starting to read and may not even be familiar with the English alphabet yet. Rather than relying heavily on text for The Three Little Pigs, I choose instead to utilize visuals and the human voice.

  • Materials needed:
    • Paper
    • Color Pencils/ Markers/Crayons
    • Scissors (helps if the students bring their own)
    • String or glue and Popsicle sticks (if you decide to make masks)
    • Chalk and a chalk board or dry erase board and dry erase marker
    • A copy of the tale (if needed for reference).
      • I sometimes like to put pictures on a slide show to add visual cues to a tale, but I realize that not all classrooms have access to computers or a big screen. Pictures and a script can be made or printed out if you wish to aid the students!
I love having kids draw and letting their creativity flow!
  • Beginning (Engage):
    • Ask students to name various animals they know and make animals sounds as you draw pictures of the animals on the board
      • An alternate idea is to use flashcards with animals on them and play a short flashcard guessing game with the class divided into teams or individual students. You can even have them make their own flashcards!
    • Have the students march or crawl around the room acting as various animals, making sure to relate the sounds to the English names of the animals. This also teaches English animal sounds!
  • Middle (Activate):
    • Introduce the characters of “The Three Little Pigs” and a few verbs or key words as vocabulary, such as the words “pig, wolf, count to three, huff and puff, and blow” etc.
    • Tell the students the story, with clear, slow emphasis on the animals and the actions of the wolf huffing and puffing houses down.
      • Divide students into groups to practice acting out their version of the story. Encourage them to make changes if they’d like! They can even draw their own masks for the characters or parts of the house. I’ve had some hilarious takes on the story ensue with a little out of the box encouragement.
  • End (Study and Practice):
    • Have students act out the story in front of their peers using animal masks they’ve made or you’ve printed out plus any other props in the classroom. This can be a next-day activity if they need more time to practice.
    • Older kids can be required to grade each other’s group work OR other groups’ performances if you so choose – just be sure to give them a general rubric
    • For homework, or as another activity if there is time, have students make up their own stories or tell/draw what happened after to the three pigs.

Feel free to change this lesson to make it your own!

Creativity, Cooperation, and Blunders Encouraged!

As you can see with my example of the Three Little Pigs, stories can appeal to early childhood listeners beginning language abilities in so many different and creative ways. Telling and acting out stories encourages young learners to listen to the words being used (vocabulary, syllables, intonation) and become familiar with new words, sounds, and sentence structures. It also can promote creativity and cooperation when the teacher asks for volunteers to help tell a story or have students reenact or make their own stories!

Be sure to stand back and let the students take the reins!

It’s important to note that mistakes in grammar and speaking are to be expected- and encouraged! It’s OK for kids not to get things right away. That’s a crucial part of the learning process!

As a teacher, we need to embolden young students to feel comfortable enough to speak out loud- and have fun doing so! This takes loads of patience and repetition on your part as a teacher. With time and practice, your students’ self-esteem will build and you’ll be so proud when they have the confidence to try to communicate out loud in English, not only with you, but with each other using the new skills you’ve taught.

Tolerance, Empathy, and Pop Culture

Another added benefit of using stories as a learning-tool in the classroom is an exposure to other cultures. I can’t reiterate enough the importance of cross-cultural learning to open children’s eyes to new ways of thinking, leading them to be more understanding of cultures different from their own.

One idea I like to bring up is the use of classic English nursery rhymes and fairy tales in the classroom. Through teaching ESL learners stories that their counterparts in native English countries might already be familiar with, you are building their ability to connect references in the future that they may come across in their English-speaking journey. Such stories with themes that recur again and again in pop culture are those like Goldilocks, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc. Familiarizing students early on with popular tales helps them to grasp the meaning behind similar references much faster than students unfamiliar with the stories.

Story ideas

Ultimately, using stories in lesson plans for early childhood learners is a great resource in the classroom as it can be customized in a wide variety of ways to suit the needs of the students and teachers. Story-telling and story-making are good ways to introduce and incorporate new English words, practice vocabulary, and have students hone their listening skills. Furthermore, stories are a wonderful way for teachers to encourage student creativity, cooperation, and even expose students to other cultures.

Stories I’ve used or adapted to young readers in the past include:

  • Aladdin
  • Cinderella
  • Goldilocks
  • Hansel and Gretel
  • Little Red Riding Hood
  • Snow White
  • The Little Mermaid
  • The Princess and The Pea
  • Three Billy Goats Gruff

There’s so many more stories you could use! Even showing a video clip and having students act it out can lead to loads of fun times with learning English. I encourage you to look online for more ideas and references.

Older kids can definitely benefit from learning stories like fairy tales, too! Just be sure to tweak your lesson plans to be much more challenging. Perhaps having them do a research project on the countries where the fairy tales originate from or the people the stories are based off of would be a fun writing and presentation assignment. You could even make a library field trip out of it! Another idea would be for them to write their own short story or song based off an English folk tale and have them film it. They could even do an opinion paper comparing and contrasting fairy tale themes to real life. There’s so much you could do with incorporating stories in your lesson plans!

Below are some pictures from a rendition of Snow White my advanced English club at the Lishui Experimental Middle School performed in the Spring of 2018. They had great fun and won first place at their end-of-year-talent show!

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