Conversation Class Storybuilding

19 May

I’ve been trying to crack the nut of getting some effective storytelling out of my B2/C1 conversation class for a while now and with limited success.  Here’s an activity I tried about a week or so ago and unfortunately it didn’t work as well as I had hoped.

So here’s what I did

The idea was that I would have a list of pictures (see the slide show link below) to help put my students into the right frame of mind.  I should make it clear here that my students are all great and that I do have a lot of fun with them but they aren’t very good when it comes to doing anything they perceive as work.  Having spent several years going through English classes and preparing and sitting KET, PET and FCE exams (and passing all of them very well) they are now taking this class as something a little less serious, less driven and more conversational.  This drives me nuts because it ends up being a fight to get them to even pick up a pencil and take a note!

Anyway, I digress.  The students had a picture and I then provided them with a prompt.  An ending or middle to a story that would spark some ideas and would be something they could work towards when building up their story.

The story lines were as follows:

  • You are in the desert and about to start fighting with your best friend.  Why?
  • You are in your bedroom and very angry.  Why?
  • You are in the supermarket and you’ve got the giggles.  Why?
  • You answer a knock at the door and there is a giraffe outside.  What happened?
  • A woman storms into a restaurant and slaps you hard in the face.  Why?
  • You have a cut on your face and you are out of breath.  What just happened?
  • You start crying when you find out the cinema has run out of ice-cream.  Why is it so important to you?
  • You throw a set of keys off a bridge and into a river.  Why?

So here’s why I did it

I wanted to have a collaborative storytelling exercise that would make the students listen to each other, repeat each other, build on what they had said and all learn and use the reformulations I would insert into their story as and when needed.

So where did it go wrong?

Pacing.  It came down to pacing.  Since the students weren’t taking notes and this was being done as a class exercise we quickly had a long and not very interesting story to tell again and again from the start.  In a class of 9 students this turned into minutes upon minutes of inaction and boredom for many of them.  While there was some benefit to listening again and again and getting ready to retell the story it had really not been scaffolded well enough and for those students who had already told their part of the story, there was nothing to keep them active as the exercise continued.

And what was the outcome?

Seeing that the activity was not going to pan out as I had hoped, we quickly moved on to another story beginning.  Moving from the desert story to the restaurant/face-slap story, this quickly got a lively debate going between the boys and the girls of the class about whether the man (as they decided the protagonist would be) had done something wrong or whether the woman who made the scene had jumped to conclusions and overreacted.  This probably saved the class but not the lesson.

So would I do this activity again?

Good question.  Probably yes, but with a lot of alterations to the structure.

So what would I do differently next time?

Smaller groups that can be left to their own devices while the teacher can sit in for a couple of minutes and monitor language.  This would almost certainly be a more effective arrangement.

I’m not convinced that there was enough structured motivation for this exercise however.  Making up a story and being creative on demand is difficult in general.  Making up a story for the sake of making up a story probably isn’t motivation enough for most students.  I’m sure that more guidance, leading the learners to the conclusion that story-telling skills are important and need to be improved whenever possible, would have produced a far more energized, more focused group of learners.

At the moment I’m not sure how I would guide the learners to this conclusion but I’m sure that more immediate, clearer learning goals would also have made things easier.  Something like “use these phrases in your story” or “please include three women and two men in this story”.

On top of this, a more tangible finished product, such as a written story or a audio recording of a student-made story would be something that would help students by giving them something to work towards and focus on producing.

My feeling is that this ended up being that more ‘deviant/winging it’ side of Dogme where I had wanted to let the stories and students go with the flow but that ultimately this handed over too much control with not enough guidance or understood/agreed-upon lesson targets.

Hmm… still trying to think this one through.


Posted by on May 19, 2011 in Reflections


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7 responses to “Conversation Class Storybuilding

  1. Alejandra

    May 19, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Hi Gordon,

    Assuming that teenagers are usually not so creative as we expect, I would have prepared two more pictures for each story, at least to guide them and give them some idea as how to go on if they got stuck in the middle. Perhaps the idea of repetition was good, but if intead of repeating everyhting again, they only had to listen and add another sentence, the activity wouldn´t have been so demanding to them.

    o stop them before the story finishes could be good for them to provide different possible ends.

    I liked the activity and if I were you, I´d try it again as it could work better with a different group.

    • Gordon Scruton

      May 20, 2011 at 10:10 pm


      Thanks for the suggestion. As I mentioned in the post, this is a group that doesn’t really like writing but if I’d just let them build the story more naturally orally (without all the repetition) and then moved it to a group writing activity where they would have had to draw on their memory of the class-built story and commit it to paper, that might have worked much better.

      These stories also touched on interactions with people. Making up the dialogue for a discussion, thus going into much closer detail for one ‘scene’ of the story might also have been more successful.

  2. kylieliz

    May 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Gordon! It’s interesting to hear your reflections on your own lesson. In my own position, I also feel like I cannot leave lessons to my students imaginations. I’m not sure if that is the same for you, but my students are not super imaginative . . . so, I need to work with some more solid ideas. Sadly, I just end up steering away from these types of activities, because I can foresee the resistance before I even arrive at school! Hope you have a more successful session in the near future, and I look forward to reading about it!!

    • Gordon Scruton

      May 20, 2011 at 10:05 pm

      Yeah… student creativity and imagination, it’s almost like an ice-cube where if you try to hold on to it and use it for too long it will melt right out of your grasp. It will pop up naturally in some of the most unlikely of activities and exercises, yet when we try to plan around their creativity, it can very often be a failure.

      I find I’m having exactly the same problem as you, Kylie, in so far as I can think of a dozen different and creative things to do with a class or a resource when I’m asked for help by another teacher but as soon as I start considering and planning for my own classes, I immediately see the problems, the resistance and the future failure. Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy where I feel that it probably won’t work, so that’s where I subconsciously end up steering the class? Who knows.

      Nonetheless, I will continue to try activities like these but I think the imagination, like the rest of the learner brain, needs scaffolding. To echo Alejandra’s comments, a couple more pictures to help guide the activity might give the learners that extra support they need.

      • María Alejandra Latuf

        June 28, 2011 at 4:27 pm

        I was thinking it over… and remembered. Some years ago, (many in fact) I was teaching the same level in two different groups and what I did was just to show them verbs, big, in cards, one after the other and each group (of three students) had to discuss for 20 seconds or so and decided to build a story based on it… going to the next group I showed them another word they used to follow the story.

        As the verbs had not much to do, they invented funny and crazy stories. (though quite logical) and that was the name they gave to the activity. That worked well in both groups and the stories (with the same series of verbs) were completely different but equally nice.


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