A Story Paints a Million Words: Narratives in ELT

October 2015

We are all massively motivated by narratives. In our minds, the story is the main unit of intelligibility.[1] Stories are the ultimate vehicle for communication and emotion, and compared to other forms of instruction, entertainment, materials, and methods, they usually give a lot more value, while rarely growing tiresome.

But what is a story? It could be as enigmatic as Hemingway’s six-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”[2] But for language learning purposes, I feel a story is somewhat incomplete if it is missing any one of the “Journalist’s 5Ws” (+how).[3] Getting students to practice this comprehensive model of reporting is how you get them into the habit of communicating effectively, getting to the meat of matter, and conveying the facts.


“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”

The Elephant’s Child
Rudyard Kipling
Just So Stories (1902)[4]

Stories make life and learning so much easier. The old exercise (and staple of any thorough speaking class) of talking for one minute on a subject without stopping or repetition,[5] may seem hard for many students but it really is nothing if you tell a story.

But more than this, we can capture students’ imaginations by transmitting a compelling tale and by showing passion and enthusiasm for it. That passion is contagious and creates an experience in which by making their own associations, they are co-creators of the story.[6] As such, with prepared texts there are so many things teachers can do to place ownership with the learners.

  • Versions of Consequences[7] and Kim’s Game[8], and other weaving and constructivist tasks.
  • Rearranging jumbled texts, particularly in groups with emphasis on the L2 metatalk.
  • Dictations and dictoglosses, plus other listening and comprehension exercises.
  • Various performances and retellings, including collaborative script writing.
  • Creative writing tasks, including extending the characters in hypothetical replies and scenarios.
  • Or simply listening for pleasure, with subsequent discussion and analysis.

For teaching, my preferred stock of stories come from the Panchatantra,[9] a repository of Hindu fables that are at least as old as Aesop’s but far more novel and deep. Animal allegories work because animals are like us. Animals have evocative characters, personalities and behaviours, both positive and negative. Thus these associations can be a very useful method for allowing us to understand ourselves and the world better.

Animal stereotypes are easily recognisable which is why they’re ubiquitous in literature since time immemorial.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Panchatantra and apart from the obvious wisdom, enlightenment, and pleasure provided by these stories for people of all sections of society and all cultures, these stories likewise connect us to an important part of world heritage, an oral tradition, and collective memory that reaches back across millennia.

The Monkey and the Crocodile

One day a crocodile was swimming in the Ganges with his wife. The crocodile’s wife said: “Darling, I’m so hungry, please could you get me a monkey’s heart. I heard they are the most delicious food.”
The crocodile replied, “If that’s what you want then I will get it for you, my love.” and he swam to the river bank where a monkey was playing in the trees.
“What are you doing, Monkey?” he asked.
The monkey replied, “I’m eating these lovely peaches.”
“Oh, I know a place with much better peaches.” said the crocodile, “If you jump on my back, I will take you there.”
So the monkey came down from the trees and jumped on the crocodile’s back. The crocodile then swam into the middle of the river and stopped.
The monkey started to panic. “Why have you stopped here?” he asked.
“Because I’m going to kill you and eat your heart. I heard that monkeys’ hearts are delicious. And here you can’t escape.”
The monkey had to think very quickly. “Oh Crocodile,” he said, “you are only half right. Everyone knows that monkeys don’t keep their hearts in their bodies. We have our hearts hanging in the trees, just like peaches. If you take me back, I will give you my heart, plus ten more.”
The crocodile agreed and swam back to the river bank. When they arrived, the monkey quickly jumped up into the trees and laughed, “You stupid crocodile!” he said, “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”

* Keep your wits about you and think on your feet. Nowhere is being composed more necessary than in a crisis.

The Owl and the Swan

Long ago a swan lived in the forest all alone and then one day an owl came to visit her. For many days they talked and played together and they became very close friends. Eventually the owl said to the swan, “I really have to go back to my home at the Lotus Lake. But, if you are my true friend, you must come and visit me.” The swan agreed and the owl flew away.

After several days the swan began to feel deeply sad and lonely. She said to herself, “I have been in this forest all of my life and I have never left. I really should go and see my friend the owl and experience something new.” So she flew to the Lotus Lake and searched and searched for the owl. Eventually she found him hiding in a hole, shaking and looking frightened. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “I never go out during the day,” replied the owl, “If you wait until the evening, we can play then.” So the swan waited all day and that night they stayed up talking and playing once more. In the morning, the swan was very tired and fell asleep by the side of the lake.

On the other side of the lake a group of travellers were camping. The leader of the group woke up very early and blew into a large conch shell to wake everyone up. When the owl heard this sound, he replied with a hoot and quickly flew down into his hole. The leader of the travellers did not like this rude reply and felt it was very bad luck, so he asked his archer to shoot the bird that made the noise. But the archer, unable to see the owl, shot and killed the sleeping swan lying by the lake.

* Choose your friends carefully. You can’t be friends with everyone and as much as you’d like to be, some people are just too different from you to be good for you.

The Wise Crab

Long ago a huge family of cranes lived in a large banyan tree in the forest. Inside the tree was a big black snake. Every day while the parents were away collecting food, the snake would climb up the tree and eat one or two baby cranes. The cranes would come home every night and cry because their babies had been taken away and there was nothing they could do.

Then one day a crab was walking along the beach and saw some cranes in tears. He asked them what was wrong and they told him the situation. The crab hated the cranes because they were his enemies too, so he thought of a good idea.

“I know a mongoose who lives in the forest.” he said, “If you make a trail of fish leading to your tree, he will follow the fish and finally confront the snake. You know what will happen then!”

“That’s a brilliant plan!” they said, and they immediately began laying out the fish. A short time later, the mongoose began eating the fish and soon found himself at the snake’s hole. There he had a great fight with the snake and eventually killed it.

But afterwards, the mongoose decided to climb the tree where he saw the baby cranes and then he started killing them one by one. Soon, all the baby cranes were dead. After eating all this food the moongoose was so full and heavy, he fell asleep on a branch in the tree. The branch then broke and he fell to his death.

* Don’t take advice from your enemies. Even if the advice seems sensible, always consider what they have to gain from it. Meanwhile, try to solve several problems at once with one sweeping solution.

1. http://www.nifplay.org/science/pattern-play/

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/For_sale:_baby_shoes,_never_worn

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Ws

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_So_Stories

5. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006s5dp

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_the_Author

7. http://www.teflideas.com/052_A_Game_of_Consequences.html

8. See TEFL101: 33. Kim's Game

9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panchatantra

Images are in the public domain