And the moral of the story is….?

As human beings we are programmed to make sense of the world around us through stories. In some format or other, telling or listening to stories is a principle part of the way we interact with others on a daily basis. Because of this, in homes and more formal educational settings alike, stories have been used to teach things to children since the beginnings of human speech, and all of the major religions of the world have used stories and storytelling as a way to put complex ideas into a format which is simple, accessible and inherently memorable. In many of the countries where I have worked over the past few years there seems to be a strong emphasis on discussing the moral of the story : what kind of behaviour can children learn from the message of the story? This can be powerful, but we should also remember that it’s not only the message which may be learnt through telling a story, it is also the medium itself.

In terms of second language development in classrooms, stories are one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for exposing learners to natural language, and for modelling the kind of language that learners could use themselves. Through storytelling we can help to develop learners’ listening, reading, writing and speaking skills, and we can expand their vocabularies and their grammatical and phonological awareness. We can also foster their motivation to do all of these things. In short, through storytelling we can pretty much provide everything that is needed in order to learn a language. For these reasons it makes sense to put storytelling at the centre of what we do as teachers, and to organise our teaching around it.

A few days ago I received the video below from Ghader Mater, a teacher of English in an UNRWA school in Gaza. I think Ghada does a brilliant job here of telling the traditional Palestinian story of Jbene in a way which is motivating to listen to, and accessible for learners of English. I think this could be a very useful resource to either play directly to students, or as a model for teachers to follow to tell the story themselves.

This version of Jbene is in the Stories Alive book I wrote for the British Council, and also included is a set of eight pictures to go with the story, a written summary of the story that the students can try to put in order, a chant, and a readers’ theatre script that the students could perform. All of these resources have now been uploaded to the resources section of this blog and can be downloaded from there.

My question for you is how would you use this material in class to create a lesson where the learners listen to the story but where they also maybe do some reading and vocabulary work, or develop some other skills? And when you tell the story would you do it without the pictures added (as in the first version below) or would you do it with the pictures (as in the second version)? There’s no right answer to any of these questions of course, but there might be a ‘best’ way of doing it for your learners, depending on their level, interests and needs.

17 thoughts on “And the moral of the story is….?

  1. That was really creative and impressive. I did enjoy it really much.
    As to how to stage a lesson around it, I reckon it will be fantastic to let kids play the different roles of the story. I mean why not get them fully trained and prepared.
    We can give a small bit of the story, watch them later and decide whether to let them act the whole story or just small bits.
    I am sure school learners would love to have a chance in practising English through storytelling for it sounds easier and more attractive rather than a mere grammatical lesson.


    1. Thanks for your comment Samir. So do you mean that after telling the story you would get them to perform it, or just give them the script and let them work it out how to do it on their own? I like the idea of just giving them small parts of the story to work on. In Pakistan I saw a teacher use a really nice technique. After telling the story she assigned each group of about five students a different part of the story and asked them to write a short script for that part. They then performed their scripts for the others to see. It was a really nice way to do some collaborative writing and speaking.


  2. Thanks Ghada for this interesting story .I enjoyed the two versions and the way you tell the story. This shows that you benefitted from the training and you and trying to make story telling a genuine method in your teaching practices.


    1. Thanks for your comment Mohammed. Yes Ghada and the other teachers who took part in the course are doing amazing things with storytelling in Gaza. We have a very active Facebook group where storytelling ideas are shared and discussed too. It seems Gaza is fast becoming the storytelling capital of the world 🙂


      1. Thanks alot for your comments. I really benefited from the training regarding telling stories and the follow up activities. The most challenging thing for me during the coming days is how to integrate stories in teaching grammar, reading ,etc…


  3. Hi Ghada,

    We also benefitted from having your participation on the course, and lots of teachers are going to benefit now from this great resource that you’ve created.

    Your question about how to integrate stories in teaching reading and grammar is a good one. Let’s take Jbene as an example. One thing we could do is this..

    1) Make enough copies of the cut up story summary (see below but with each line on a separate piece of paper) so that there is enough for one set per group of students. There is a better copy in the resources sections which is easier to cut up. Or you could dictate the sentences to them in a random order.

    d) There was once a couple who had a daughter called Jbene. They loved her very much.
    h) Jbene grew up to be a very beautiful young woman. Other women were jealous of her.
    a) The other women asked Jbene to pick fruit from the Christ-thorn tree with them.
    c) They lit a fire under the tree so Jbene couldn’t get down.
    b) She covered herself with soot from the fire to make herself look ugly.
    g) The owner of the land thought she was a servant and told her to go and look after the sheep.
    f) She started to cry and the sheep and the sky started crying too. The rain washed her clean.
    e) The rich landowner came back and fell in love with her.

    2) Ask each group to agree on an order for the sentences.

    3) Ask one learner to read out the sentences in the right order, or do it yourself as a way to check.

    4) Discuss with the whole class how they managed to work it out, For instance ‘There was once..’ comes at the beginning etc.

    5) In a random order, write a list of words or chunks in Arabic on the board which can be found in the text in English. You could do this to focus on a particular area of grammar such as past forms – which there are a lot of in this text (there was, had a daughter, loved her very much, Jbene grew up, etc)

    6) Ask each group to try to find the chunks as quickly as possible. The first team to find them all is the winner.

    7) Write the English equivalents on the board or ask the winning team to. Discuss the meanings with the class. Encourage them to make their own examples in English with the chunks (there was a lion, there was a princess, had a son, had a party, had a problem etc)

    This is just an idea. It might not be the best way for your class and only you will know what the best way for doing it with your class will be…..


  4. Wow, that’s really interesting. I’m learning a lot of you. Thanks for sharing Mr Nick. There’s past simple lesson with 5th grade.I explained it last week.Today I demonstrated writing a very short story for them then we disscused it and I took some ideas from them. After that I asked each group to work together to make their own story. It was really fun . They enjoyed the class n came up with some nice short stories. For a beginning I feel good n happy with their work .
    Can I make a video and send it to you ??? I would like to join you.


    1. Please do send me a video Asmaa. We haven’t really looked much at writing on this blog and writing is so important -especially since eventually they are going to be tested on it much more than speaking.


  5. Hi everyone,
    Enjoyed the comments to the lovely story. I liked Nick’s ideas of summarising the story on strips & getting the learners to put them in order. Depending on the level of the learners, you could also do this as a prediction activity pre-listening. Alternatively the pictures could be used as a pre-listening or while listening activity.
    My grammar side says that I’d have a focus on all the past simples in the story & maybe some lexical chunks as Nick also mentions. I love the idea of the learners continuing on the story – does she marry the landowner? What about her parents? What happens to the ladies of the village who encouraged her to climb up the tree & then lit a fire?
    I used to teach younger learners and never ceased to marvel at the spontaneous way they’d take to acting out stories. In my experience, I often found the learners who’d had the most difficulty generally in class would volunteer for the biggest parts, the script of rehearsed dialogue being their safety blanket; this happened over and over again but I never took it further than an observation.
    Keep up the good work – love the posts


    1. Hi Judie, Welcome to the discussion and thanks for your comment and ideas. Yes – we hadn’t really mentioned all the things that we can do before listening to the story and the pictures are a great resource for this stage- not just in terms of predicting what the story is going to be about, but also for eliciting key vocabulary that they may need in order to understand the story.

      I love your idea of getting learners to spontaneously perform the story afterwards and then turn it into a script. This kind of activity strikes the perfect balance between freedom and control in my opinion. There’s thinking, planning and a focus on accuracy but also spontaneity and genuine communication.


  6. Very nice performance Ghada . Storytelling attracts learners’ attention . What about showing pictures for each stage of the story to be associated together while narrating the story . In this way we would benefit the visual learners as well as the auditory ones .


  7. Very nice performance Ghada . What about associating your narration with acting or pictures as Mr Nick did when he presented the story of “Tunjur ” In this way we would attract the attention and meet the demands of all the learners : auditory , visual and kinaesthetic .Hope you all suceess . Go ahead .


    1. Thanks very much for your comments Khalid. You’re right – having pictures can help everyone to follow the story more easily. So if we were going to play this video to our learners we could show them the second version. Or if we were doing it face to face we could hold up the different pictures as we go along. We could also show the pictures before telling the story (as Judith mentions above) so that they start to predict what the story might be about. Or we could tell them the story without the pictures (as in the first version) and then give them the pictures to put in sequence afterwards. Or we could do without the pictures altogether, and thereby encourage the learners to create pictures in their minds. This is the beauty of storytelling -there are so many different ways to do it and the way we choose depends on the level, needs and interests of the learners, and our own particular teaching style.


  8. first, thank you so much for sharing such creativity.. It is really amazing to see that storytelling as a teaching technique has started to be focused on for all the educational and social benefits it can enhance. as much as I enjoyed the implications of the story and the adaptation of it as it seems to be an adapted version of the world classical story “Snow White”, I have certain things to say and I may be wrong. First, I think a story can be told without the use of pictures, though it is believed that the use of pictures makes the story easier to understand especially in an EFL context however, However, I think more gestures, body movements, facial expressions and a variety of vocalizations should have been used much more than the ones used here. Also, if the story is adapted to fit the Palestinian environment, shouldn’t have some details have been carefully paid attention to such as strange men inviting a beautiful lady to have a cup of tea or dinner at their houses which is culturally inappropriate? .. Regardless my comments, i think Ghada and the other teachers are doing a great job especially if they started to use it in their classes.. many thanks to you, Mr. Bilbrough for training these teachers.. many thanks to all the teachers who participate in such a great project and willing to make a change in the teaching of English language in Palestine. I am just looking forward to hearing other stories from other creative teachers.. I am here to learn..


    1. Thanks very much for your comment.

      Yes – you’re right there are similarities with ‘Snow White’ and maybe with other traditional stories, like ‘Cinderella’ too. but I don’t think that Jbene is an adapted version of these. So many cultures all over the world have stories where people are jealous of beauty and I think there are stories about this theme because it is part of our shared human experience, whether we’re in Palestine, in England, in Japan or wherever. Because Jbene is a story that has been passed down orally through generation after generation, it’s impossible to say how old it is – and whether it is actually older than Snow White. Maybe Snow white is an adaptation of Jbene!

      It’s interesting what you say about wanting there to be more gestures in the story. When we tell a story face to face to a group of people I think we instinctively know how to do it in a way that is going to be right for our audience, because we can pick up on their signals. We can’t do that when we’re telling a story to a camera of course. Having said that, the way Ghada tells the story for me is perfect. It just goes to show that we can’t entirely please all of the people all of the time :-), and, because every learner in our classes is different, they are all interpreting the story in slightly different ways.

      Thanks for your points about whether the content is culturally appropriate. I’m not Palestinian so I won’t pass judgement on that but I would just say that in the book of traditional Palestinian stories I’ve read ‘Speak Bird, Speak Again’ which have been collected by two Palestinian authors – Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana, there are much more shocking references made than this, some of which I would really not want to bring up in a class of children. I think uncensored traditional stories everywhere can be like this. I’d also say that if a story raises these issues of what is culturally appropriate it can be a good discussion starter for teenagers. What do other people think?


  9. Good evening Mr. Nick, It’s been long time since my last comment here, but you Know School days are really busy and there’s always sth to do…

    Regarding what Ghada has done up there, I think it’s really really fascinating especially that Ghada has an amazing character as a storyteller I mean I myself like to listen to her way of telling her stories. She uses her voice, hands and her facial expressions perfectly well and that exactly what a storyteller should have…

    And for what you have mentioned about focusing our stories upon teaching morals, I think this is what our culture is about and we ourselves have been brought up learning things out of stories. This doesn’t really contradicts with the idea of getting kids to accustomed language and becomes sth habitual ((day use language)), yet it needs much more focus on the the aforementioned idea…

    As for your questions, I think it’s all yours (as a teachers) when it comes for you class and your students. If I’m to tell a story without using pictures, at least I need to act it ((simple movements)) or let some students do it while telling. otherwise, which is more preferable for me, is to use pictures even if simply drawn ones. All students tend to be visually learners and pictures are rich resources for language practice so you need to let them learn…

    Thank you 🙂 🙂


    1. Hi Sahar, Thanks for finding the time to comment when I know you’re so busy. It’s interesting that you say all learners are visual learners. You’re right of course; we can all process visual data more quickly than other forms of data and we all remember visual data more easily than other forms. There’s been so much emphasis on categorising learners into different learning style groups in recent years but it’s worth repeating that whoever we are, images, whether they be shown to us by the teacher, presented in English for Palestine, or created in our minds, have an amazing ability to stick around. This fact should have a huge impact on what we do as teachers in the classroom.

      Liked by 1 person

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