Almost every culture of the world includes fables in its literature bank. These short stories using animals, forces of nature or plants and other inanimate objects are meant to teach us lessons that are universally applicable. Besides their moral value, fables can be useful in the ESL classroom because of their simplicity and their ability to draw the reader in regardless of culture. Here are some activities you can do with fables that will benefit your ESL students.
HOWTO: Using and Writing Fables in Your ESL Classroom
Animals in the Midst
One characteristic of a fable is that it uses animal characters to portray human characteristics. Each particular animal will act in a human way. For example, the fox will be a crafty or sly animal. The lion will be a brave individual. Before reading any fables in your classroom, take some time as a class to brainstorm a list of animals and the characteristic for which they are best known. Encourage your students to notice if these characteristics apply across cultures or whether each culture views a particular animal in a different way. You may also want to talk about specific animals which will appear in the fable or fables you plan to read with your class. Ask each of your students to choose one of these animals which he or she thinks is most representative of himself or herself as a person and write a description of himself as that animal.
A Moral to the Story
Since the point of a fable is to teach a moral or a lesson to the reader, have your students start this activity by talking about what it means to give advice. In groups of three or four students, have your class discuss the following questions. What are some situations in which you might want advice? What are some situations in which you would not want advice from another person? What would you do if you wanted to give advice to a friend but he or she did not want any advice? How can you communicate your opinions without giving advice?
Explain to your class that a moral is a general truth or piece of advice that is generally true. Ask your class to think of stories they have read or heard that have a moral or give advice. Make a list on the board of these stories. Have groups of students then work together to make a list of lessons that they have learned or lessons that they have been taught using the list of stories on the board for inspiration. This would also be a good opportunity to introduce the concept of a proverb to your class since they are often the moral of a fable.
A Classic Tale
One fable that many of your students may already know is the tale of the tortoise and the hare. In this story, the hare is so confident in his own abilities that he makes poor choices and ends up losing a footrace with the tortoise. Read this story to your class two times and then ask the following questions. Who are the characters in the story? What is the problem? How does the story end? What is the moral or lesson of the story? Now give your students a chance to retell the story. Have your class arrange their chairs in a circle. Start the story by telling one sentence in your own words. Have your students continue telling the story, one sentence and one person at a time, until you make it all the way around the circle. At logical points in the story, ask your students how the characters probably felt, and have your class make faces to show these feelings.
After your students have finished retelling the story, tell your students how stories or dramas were communicated in ancient Greece – through theater. Actors used masks of happy and sad faces to communicate the character’s feelings to the audiences. Give your class a chance to make their own theater masks that they will use to retell the fable. Give each person two paper plates and two tongue depressors. Allow your students to decorate their masks – one happy and one sad - using whatever art supplies you have available and then tape a tongue depressor to each mask. Once all the masks are finished, get in your circle again and have your students retell the story. This time instead of making faces to show how the characters feel, let your students hold up the appropriate mask. If desired, you can have your students decorate their masks even further to represent either of the main characters of the story.
A Modern Perspective
Though the morals that fables teach are universal, the stories through which those morals are taught do not necessarily correspond with life in the modern world. In this activity, your students will take a universal moral and apply it to a modern situation. Start by dividing your class into groups of five students, and assign one fable to each group. You can find hundreds of fables free online. One site where you can find these stories is aesopfables.com which has over 650 fables, some in audio files as well as text files. Have each group read their fable and then discuss how the story can be modified to portray a more modern or contemporary story. Working together, your students should rewrite the story in a modern way. After the group rewrites the story, give them some class time to practice two dramatic presentations of the story, one the original version and one the rewritten version. Have each group then perform their skits: one as the traditional story and the second as their modernized version. After each presentation, ask your class what the moral of the story was and how it was communicated in each version. Have a short discussion on the similarities and differences between the two versions. Then take a vote as to whether the class liked the traditional or the modernized version better.
Because fables are short stories with universally applicable morals, they are a good way to include literature in the ESL classroom.
Your students can have fun learning, telling stories and acting out original tales that carry a deeper message. A bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush, but a fable in the classroom may be worth an entire volume in the library. Try one with your ESL class and you just might see how useful fables can be!