As author Lisa Cron puts it, human beings are wired for story.
We like stories. We know what makes a good story just by our human nature. And we love them. The publishing industry and success of Hollywood prove it. So how do we put our inherent love for story to use in teaching? More specifically, how do we use story to teach the nonwritten aspects of language – listening and speaking? Here are some ideas for you as you put your students’ love of story to use in their English education.
5 Fantastic Ways to Teach Listening through Story
Start with the Cover
If you are going to read a story or book to your students, start your listening lessons with the cover of the book. Project an image of the cover on your front board and ask your students to take a close look at what they see. What often seems like a simple picture at first may have many different clues as to the contents of the story you will read. Students may get a feel for the main character or characters of the book, the setting of the book, and the conflict the main character will face as well as hints at important objects and minor characters. Spend some time talking about the picture and have students make predictions about what you will read to them.
For an even more challenging activity, make copies of the cover and give one copy to every pair of students. Allow only one student to look at the cover image. Then have them describe it to their partner who can then either sketch the cover from their partner’s description or simply picture the cover in their mind. Then have students work with each other to make some predictions about what they will hear when you read the story to them.
Keep Things in Order
Stories are great opportunities to teach transitional words and phrases, and even simple stories can be especially challenging when events are told out of order. Words like before, after, and meanwhile can be easily overlooked when someone doesn’t listen closely enough to a story. But these little clues can mean all the difference when it comes to understanding what we hear. To practice listening for little words that make a big difference, try reading a story to your students that tells events out of order. Mysteries can be good for this since we don’t often know what the villain was up to until the end of the story. After listening, ask students to put the events of the story in the order they happened, not in the order they were presented in the story. If your students are able to do this, you will know that they have a good grasp on listening and how little transitional words can make a big difference in meaning.
Preview the Characters
Every character in a story should be distinct from every other character, and that includes how they talk. Choose some key quotes from each character in the story, quotes that illustrate either how the person speaks, vocabulary specific to that person, or what they believe to be true. Read the quotes to your students one at a time or one character at a time, and then ask your students to discuss that character. What are they like? What do they believe? What do they value? As you read the story, your students will be able to contrast what they hear with what they presumed about the characters.
Welcome a Trip to the Movies
Not all stories come in ink and paper. Sometimes the best stories are communicated through frames and pixels, so welcome the use of movies in your class. We sometimes think that a movie is nothing more than a reward for something accomplished – reading a book or completing a unit. But you don’t have to save the movie till the last day of school. You can use the stories presented in movies to enrich your teaching and your students’ leaning experiences. Movies can be a great way to expose your students to different accents in English. Not only can you have British and American actors in the same film, but you can also expose your students to the accents associated with the American south, specific urban areas, Australia, and others. Since you probably don’t speak to your students with these accents, movies are a great way to expand your students’ listening skills. Play a segment for your students and ask them to fill in a cloze exercise, or ask them to listen for specific words. If you have taught your students the phonetic alphabet, you may even have them transcribe the pronunciation of certain words they hear and compare them to the pronunciation they are familiar with.
Make Mystery Vocabulary a Means to an End
One struggle many English as a second language learners have when listening is panicking at an unfamiliar word and letting that pull them away from the rest of the listening material. When you play movie clips for your students or read portions of a book to them, they are almost guaranteed to encounter vocabulary word they do not know. This is a good thing. What many ESL students fail to realize is that even in our first languages we are continually making guesses at the meaning of unfamiliar words we hear. (I’ll be you didn’t know the meaning of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious before watching “Mary Poppins.”) ESL students need to do this when they hear unfamiliar English words, too. So when your story includes vocabulary your students do not already know, use it as an opportunity not to teach a new vocabulary word but to teach guessing meaning from context. It’s like the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish. To teach this skill to your students, point out the word that you want them to guess at as you read. Then read a selection containing that word two or three times. Ask students to guess, based on the context, what that word meant. Then challenge them even further and see if they can spell the word after just hearing it and not seeing it written down.
The benefits of using story in class are many.
Not only do written and filmed stories make for great listening activities, but they also engage students, keep them interested, and make class more fun. The next time you are preparing for a listening lesson, consider bringing a story to class. The words on the page may be the best way to teach the words your students hear.