Amanda: We’ll show you some stories first, written to fit student levels, and then you can go to the last page of this section to see my suggestions for using them!
A Walk by the Ocean (High beginner)
Adapted from ancient desert fable: Open-ended so good for discussion.
One day, two friends were walking along the beach. They began to argue. They became angrier and angrier, until the bigger friend hit the smaller friend. The smaller friend became quiet. She didn’t say anything. Then, she picked up a stick and wrote this in the sand: “Today, my best friend hit me.”
They kept on walking next to the ocean, but they didn’t say anything. Then, the smaller friend stepped on a wet rock, and she slipped. She fell into the ocean. A big wave pulled her out to sea. She could not swim, so she was drowning. The bigger friend jumped into the ocean and saved her. The smaller friend became quiet. She didn’t say anything. Then, she took out a knife and wrote this on a stone: “Today, my best friend saved my life.”
The bigger friend was surprised. She asked, “Before, you wrote what I did in the sand, but this time, you wrote it on a stone. Why?”
Alice and the Bug (high beginner)
Curtis Kelly: This is about my daughter.
My daughter, Alice, was three. I thought carefully about what kind of girl I wanted her to be. Good at school? No. Instead, I wanted her to have a warm heart. So, every night, I told her a heart-warming bedtime story, stories I made up myself. I told her about making friends with a monster. I told her about sharing her cookie with her kindergarten classmates. I told her about how her favorite toy, a bunny, used to live in America.
Were these stories making her a kinder person? I was not sure. But then one day, something happened. My wife screamed and came running down the stairs. Four-year old Alice was right behind her. My wife shouted, “There is a big bug upstairs!” I knew it was not so big. It never is. But my wife hates bugs.
I said “Okay.” I took a tissue and started to go upstairs. Then Alice looked upset. I told her, “Don’t worry. I’ll get the bug.” She replied, “But Daddy, you are carrying a tissue. That means you are going to kill it. “
“But Daddy, that bug has a mommy and daddy too!”
Then, I knew. The stories were working.
So, together we went upstairs. We gently helped the little bug climb onto the tissue. Then, we set it free outside.
Animal Lover (low intermediate)
Adapted from Elias’ own comments.
A long time ago, there was a boy. His name was Walter Elias. He lived in Chicago, in America. When he was seven, his family moved to a farm in the country. He was happy, because he loved animals. Every day, he went for walks and looked for animals.
One day, he saw an unusual bird. It was an owl. It was sleeping in a tree. Walter remembered what his father said, “Owls fly at night, so they sleep in the daytime.” The owl was sleeping on a low branch, and Walter thought, “Maybe I can catch it. That owl would make a great pet.” So, very slowly, very quietly, he walked under the tree. Quietly. slowly. Then, he reached up and grabbed the owl’s legs.
The owl woke up and tried to escape. It flapped its wings. It tried to bite Walter. It tried to scratch Walter with its feet. Walter was so scared. He did not know what to do. Instead of letting go, he threw the bird to the ground, and killed it with his foot.
Then, he looked down at the poor bird. “Oh. How could I do such a terrible thing to this beautiful bird?” He began to cry. He went back to the house and got a shovel. He came back and made a hole, and put the bird in it. He was crying the whole time.
Walter did not tell anyone about the bird until many years later, but he thought about it every day. So, he decided two things: First, he would never kill another animal, and he never did. Second, he decided it was wrong for people to keep animals and use them. He didn’t even like zoos. And yet, Walter loved animals. He wanted to teach children about them. That was his dream. But how could he do that unless he kept animals? Well, his dream came true. He became an artist and drew pictures of animals. In fact, you know this boy. His whole name is “Walter Elias Disney,” Walt Disney.
A Memory – 59 Years Later (low intermediate)
Marc Helgesen: A lot of my students are going to be elementary school teachers. I always tell them this story.
In elementary school, I lived one block from my school, so I usually went home for lunch. But one time when I was in second grade, my mother was away for a few days so I ate lunch at school sitting at my desk. I brought a sandwich from home. I ordered a small bottle of milk for each day I was doing that. The first day, I knocked over the bottle. It made a mess of my desk and the milk ended up inside the desk, soaking my papers, schoolbooks, and everything.
The next day, when the teacher was passing out the milk bottles, she said, in a voice that everyone could hear, “I hope you don’t spill your milk again today, Marc.”
I was really embarrassed.
Now here’s the interesting part. I can remember the names of my elementary school teachers: Miss Hurd (Kindergarten), Miss Scott (1st grade), Mrs. Overbee (3rd), Miss Bryant (4th), Miss Maurice (5th), Mrs. Sessler (6th). I can even remember the names of the “extra teachers”: Miss Hansen (art), Mrs. Hanson (music), Mr. Beyers (PE. He said, “like ‘beer’ with a ‘y’ in the middle. We thought that was pretty funny.).
But I have no idea what my second-grade teacher’s name was. Or what she looked like.
I’m sure she had forgotten her “don’t spill your milk” comment by the end of the day. Here I am, 59 years later. I still remember it.
I’m reminded of that internet meme: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”
Memories are made of this (intermediate)
Skye Playsted: After I finish, I play the song. Make your own story about something from the past, or a song, for your learners!
I’m saving up to buy myself an old LP record player. I know they are out of date now and, because they aren’t very common any more, the older ones cost quite a lot of money.
Why in the world do you think I’d want one of these old things?
I’ll tell you why: a special moment.
One day when I was young, I was visiting my grandparents, and I heard 1950s’ music coming from the living room where my grandad’s old LP record player was. He was sitting in his brown leather armchair, tapping his fingers, and smiling as he sang along to Dean Martin’s “Memories are Made of This.” “Your grandmother and I used to dance to this song,” he told me. “What kind of dance did you do?” I asked. My grandad stood up, motioned to me to join him, and put my hand on his shoulder. Soon I was being whisked around the living room floor, laughing, and doing my best to follow my grandad’s feet as he expertly guided me in the Quickstep!
I can’t remember how to dance the Quickstep anymore, but I still smile at the memory of my grandad teaching me to dance. And I would love to have an old LP record player to remind me of him. Maybe one day I will find that old Dean Martin LP, too.
Live the Life that Made You Proud (intermediate)
David Scott Bowyer: I tell this story to my students at the beginning of each year and ask them to think about their own future old self, then to share a little bit of what they saw with their partners. I can’t tell you if it works, but I can tell you that everyone seems to appreciate taking that time to just sit and think about, not what they can or can’t do, but what it means to them to lead a meaningful life.
Like most children, when I was little I wanted to be about ten thousand different things when I grew up. I was expecting to become some combination of pro-wrestler, policeman, and Spiderman. Also like most other children, these dreams faded away in the harsh glare of reality. Pro-wrestler? Not strong enough. Policeman? Not strict enough. Spiderman? Not bitten by radioactive spiders enough. At one point around the age of seventeen I settled on becoming a veterinarian, but dropped the idea after comparing myself to a friend who had the same dream. She was interning at a local clinic and working her ass off. “There’s no way I can compete with that,” I thought. And so, I went to university having lost the idea of what I wanted to become. Constantly comparing myself to others had slowly drained away my self-belief.
After moving to Japan, I spent the next couple of years watching motivational TED talks, listening to podcasts, and reading. For a long time, nothing happened, but then one day I had the most incredibly surreal vision. I saw myself as an old man lying on my deathbed, surrounded by my family. In this vision I was proudly looking back on my life and all the amazing, meaningful things that I’d done. I won’t share with you what I’d done, because, frankly, it’s too personal. But that vision of old Scott lying there reminiscing on his life has given me the motivation and clarity of vision that was lost for a long time. I know what I need to do to give that old man the memories he deserves. I also know that he doesn’t care if I fail; he’s just happy that he gave it his all.
Some Story Retelling Ideas
Amanda: I am lucky to teach an Extensive Reading course which requires students to read lots of stories inside and outside the classroom. Extensive Reading is based on the behavioural science finding that spaced repetition reinforces memory, but it can be rather hit and miss in terms of the frequency with which students encounter valuable vocabulary and grammatical structures if they only read each story once. The trick is to provide ample opportunity for memory-building repetition while maintaining the students’ attention and interest, which are also intrinsic to learning. Memory-building repetition means re-reading, something students tend to be reluctant to do, but here are some activities the embed the re-reading in ways that will hold their interest and focus their attention.
- Retelling the story in their own words and adding a new ending (this can be done as a speaking or writing activity—and the new endings are often far more interesting than the originals)
- Retelling a story as a written news article (works best with adventure/crime/ non-fiction genres) or as a spoken TV/radio news broadcast
- Retelling a story through the eyes of one of the characters (in diary form or as a live or recorded spoken monologue)
- Making written texts visual by creating manga and/or storyboards (read on for explanation)
Story structure in the visual media is often different from plots in conventional fiction. Audiences are shown flashbacks of what has already happened or flashforwards to what will happen, to catch their attention and hold their interest. Students are aware of these conventions on big and small screens and enjoy rising to the challenge of converting a story they have read into a TV drama, or a non-fiction text into a short documentary.
My students use nine-panel storyboards in groups. This activity creates a natural need to return to the original text to re-read and think about the main points, the highlights, and the way in which they want to structure their own version of this story.
An alternative shorter task would be to use the storyboard to create a trailer for a TV drama or documentary.
By using great stories for language review, we are on to a winner. The retelling provides opportunities for fun and creativity while strengthening neural pathways.
Amanda Gillis-Furutaka (PhD) is a professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, where she teaches reading, media studies, popular culture and British culture. Her guilty pleasures are novels on her Kindle and TV dramas on Netflix.