Telling Tales Together – Storytelling with Little Un’s

A blog from Hands Up Project volunteer and storyteller, Cassandra Wye, full of brilliant ideas for storytelling with young learners. Thanks, Cassandra!

Why Tell Stories?

Stories introduce young audiences to the sounds of the English language. 

They may not fully understand the story but they can enjoy the experience of hearing a language spoken.

How can we make the sound of English exciting?

We can use our voices to help the teaching and learning of “phonics” – the sounds of English language

You can:

  • Elongate the sound of a word. 
  • Enunciate every syllable
  • Exaggerate the sounds in every word. 

Try making the sound of rain – plip, plop. 

How can you exaggerate that sound? 

So that the children can hear both the “pl” and the “op”?

We can use sound effects – to help the children understand a new word.

For example “Splish splash” – to emphasise the sound of the verb “swim”

We can use rhythm. Make patterns of sounds and words that are repeated over and over  so the children can recognise and join in with them.

We can use the MINIMUM of words to MAXIMUM effect.

Make a story short and simple. 

Then, it is easy to say and easy to remember – for both you and your children

But – we don’t have to use words at all

Storytelling communicates meaning with the minimum of shared language knowledge. I can work with audiences of 1000’s – 90% of whom do not speak English

How can I communicate a story without words?

Body language! 

We can use the whole of our body to communicate meaning. 

This is essential for young or new learners. 

If you show them the meaning of a word – it is much easier for them to understand.

  • SHOW how to swim with your arms
  • SHOW how to jump with your hands
  • SHOW how the rain falls with your finger-tips. 

Find a movement that shows the meaning of every word. 

  • Repeat the movement every time you say that word. 
  • Better still, as the children get more confident, ask them to suggest a movement.
  • Research has shown that combining a movement with a sound or word, improves a child’s ability to remember.
  • Asking them to suggest a movement for a new word – passes the ownership of the story onto them, putting them in control of the development of the tale

Working across modes of communicate reinforces learning

  • Small children learn through their bodies – so harness the power of movement to help develop their vocal and verbal skills. 
  • This is especially important for children with delayed language development

Repetition, repetition, repetition 

  • I use a LOT of repetition – of sounds, words and movement. 
  • This gives young children the cues they need to recognise a new word, understand its meaning and to join in. 
Another way that children can actively participate in a story

Active participation rather than passive listening

Encouraging children to join in – helps them to gain the confidence to speak aloud in English, WITHOUT pressure

  • First they follow you. 
  • Then they start to anticipate and say it before you do. 
  • Then they take over – and begin to tell the story without you. 

Grow Your Own Stories

You can guide children through the process of listening, joining in, taking over and creating their own version of a story heard- step by step over the course of your lessons  

It is a really effective way of helping children develop their story-making skills- without having to write.

There are so many ways very young children can be actively involved in language learning through storytelling.

  • Even beginners can come up with an idea for a new character, a new movement, a new sound effect.
  • Even a shy child can say or show “Yes” or “No”
  • Even a toddler can join in with the actions

    Why not give it a go – it is easier than you think!

Cassandra Wye is live on Facebook with Hands Up Project every Friday at 10am Palestine time . Come and join her demonstrating these techniques every week!

Story follow up activities

If you go to this playlist on youtube you’ll find lots of ideas for things that can be done in online sessions with the young people that we serve. But there aren’t so many examples there of whole 45 minute or one hour sessions (apart from this brilliant example by Alex and Sahar)

Our new volunteers understandably have lots of questions about what a whole session might look like?

-What kinds of activities might happen during a 45 minute period?
-How can we link activities together in a session?
-How can we involve everyone in the class in activities?
-How does an online session fit with what has happened before in previous sessions, or with their regular classes?
-What is the role of the classroom teacher in the process?
-How do the students generally respond to what we do?

In the video below you can see a sequence of activities that I did a few days ago with a small group of around 15 girls from Beach Elementary Co-Ed UNRWA school in Gaza. In the previous week’s session I’d told them the story of Juha and the Meat. It’s certainly not a model lesson by any means but I think it does provide some possible answers to the questions above. Above all I think it shows how nice the kids are to work with!

Please feel free to ask questions or post comments below..


Worth a thousand words


Despite all the hype about learning styles in recent years, it’s a well known fact, backed up by research, that our ability to remember images outperforms our ability to remember other forms of data, such as written words, sounds, or smells. In one study, cited in Medina (2008), people were shown 2500 different images – each one for just 10 seconds. Several days later they managed to remember which images they’d seen with 90% accuracy. After a year the recall rate was still very high at 63%.

I think that one of our jobs as language teachers is to make use of this fact as much as possible. We can do this through exploiting the pictures in the coursebook wherever we can, and by linking them to the words, chunks and grammar that we want the students to learn or practice. We can also do it by bringing in other images to class and doing lots of language related activities with them.

Here are a few pictures from different stories from the Stories Alive material. Before telling the story to the class, I’d suggest that there are lots of activities that we might do using pictures like these, with the purpose of both helping them to follow the story later, and to develop and practice their English. Below are five different ideas. In the Stories alive notes for teachers at the back of the book, you’ll find many more.


Elicitation of key language

Look at the pictures, one by one but not necessarily in the correct order, with the whole class together – either as large blown up flash cards (preferably A2 size), or using a data projector if available. Elicit vocabulary from the class about what they can see in the picture. You could ask the children to call out suggestions for what they can see, or alternatively ask them to put their hands up and take suggestions one by one. Whichever way you do it, it is really important to make sure that everyone is clear about which element of the picture is being referred to so that they can learn vocabulary from their peers. A good way to do this is to point at the part of the picture they are talking about as the learners say the words.

The questions that we ask during elicitation can provide a lot of support for learners. So we could ask for example, ‘What’s this person doing?’ to get the response ‘Leaving’ but with lower level learners we could provide even more support when it’s needed by using a closed question, like ‘Is he arriving or leaving?’

For example:

Teacher: What can you see in this picture?
Student: Person.
Teacher: A person or some people
Student: Some people
Teacher: What’s this man doing?
Teacher: Is he arriving or is he leaving?
Students: Leaving            etc…


02.G colour copy


Picture visualisation

Choose one picture which shows one of the key moments in the story. Look at it yourself but keep it hidden from the students. Describe one element of the picture and then try to engage the students in dialogue to get more information about it. For example…

Teacher: There’s a boy sitting. He’s not sitting on a chair. Where do you think he’s sitting?
Student: ….Table….. Sofa
Teacher: No not a table or a sofa. He’s not inside. He’s …..
Student: …Outside
Teacher: Yes. He’s outside. He’s sitting outside on …..
Student: شو يعني أرض با نجليزي؟ 
Teacher: Yes that’s right he’s sitting on the ground. (mimes) He’s sitting on the ground in front of a….
Student: house
Teacher: No, not a house
Student: Tree.  شجرة  صح؟
Teacher: Yes a tree.  He’s sitting on the ground in front of a tree. He doesn’t look happy. He looks sad. Why? Why does he look sad? etc etc.


When you feel you’ve got as far as you go with this, show them the picture so that the students can see how it compares with what they imagined. In this kind of dialogue with the class you are trying to provide a safe ‘scaffold’ in which the students can notice and experiment with new language. You want them to understand what you are saying but at the same time you’re trying to push them a little to work at the limits of their abilities and to engage with new language. There is potentially a lot of learning that can happen in such a situation.


Remembering detail

Choose one of the pictures from a story and display it so that everyone can see it clearly. Tell the class that they should look at it for a minute and try to remember as much detail as they can. Now take the picture away and start to ask questions about the detail to see how much they can remember. For example

There are two animals in the picture. True or false?
The crow is on the left. True or False?
Is there an apple in the picture?
How many flowers are there in the picture?
Where is the chicken? etc

You could do this as a memory competition with one side of the class competing against the other. With a low level class it’s a good idea to write some of these question types mentioned above on the board to use as a model. You could now do the same activity the other way around. That is, the class can see another picture from the same story but it is hidden from your view. They ask questions to you to see how much you can remember. You score a point for each question you answer correctly. They score a point for each question you answer incorrectly. Finally the same activity can be done in groups with the remaining pictures from a story. After studying their picture, one learner from each group asks questions to the other people in her group to test their memories. They can swap pictures with a different group if they finish quickly.


lion and mouse image

Whole class sequencing of the pictures

Six or eight different learners come to the front of the class and each is given one of the large pictures from the story in a jumbled order. They hold the pictures up in a line so that everyone can see them. The teacher now discusses with the rest of the class what the order of the pictures could be. The students at the front change their position according to the order that is agreed. For example..

Teacher: So which picture do you think goes first? Faten?

Student: Khadija picture
Teacher: Why do you think it’s Khadija’s picture that goes first Faten?
Student: Because man and boy looking to mountain.
Teacher: Because the man and the boy are looking at the mountain? Do you agree everyone? Students: Yes
Teacher: OK Khadija. Can you please move to the front of the line? Now which one is next? Etc..

This activity could either be done before listening to the story (as a way to generate ideas and vocabulary, and make the listening process easier) or after listening to the story (as a way of checking that they understood it). By doing it with the whole class together you are providing a very useful model of the kind of language that students can use if they do the same sequencing activity in groups using the smaller versions of the pictures.



Something beginning with…

Display all of the large pictures at the front of the class by sticking them to the board, or use a projector if one is available. Think of something that can be seen in one of the pictures. Tell the class the first letter of the object and see if they can guess what it is. You could use the line ‘ I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…’ to introduce each word that they have to guess. When you’ve done a few examples the students can do the same activity in groups. This activity works well as a follow up to elicitation. For an extra challenge you can play the game using two words instead of one. So it would be ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with b h  (blue hat) ’ or ‘I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with o j (orange juice)’.


How do you use pictures in your classes with your students. Please add a comment below and let’s start sharing ideas.


Medina, J (2008) Brain Rules; Pear Press

Every picture tells a story

Kamishibai, literally ‘paper theatre’, is a form of storytelling that originated in Ancient Japan. It became very popular in the twentieth century when the Kamishibai man would travel around on his bicycle with a set of brightly coloured images to go with each of his stories. As he told the story to groups of eager children, he would show the pictures that went with it, one by one.

It seems to me that this form of storytelling is a useful way of working with children who are learning English as a foreign language. In the same way that mime is a powerful way to clarify meaning, so too are pictures. In fact, with a good set of pictures, children could imagine a story even without understanding anything at all of what is spoken.

Now I’m not a Kamishibai man, (and I don’t even have a bicycle!), but I’ve made a video to demonstrate how the technique might work using my version of the traditional Palestinian story Tunjur! Tunjur!


If you want to use the kamishibai technique in class, and you have a projector available, you could simply display pictures for the story and click through them as you tell it. Alternatively, large versions of the pictures could be printed off and shown instead.  On the resources page of this blog, I’ve added the pictures that were used for Tunjur! Tunjur!, as well as the pictures for the much simpler story – The lion and the mouse. Also included is a script for both these stories. These can be used as models for telling the stories, but they can also be performed by the students working in groups, with different learners taking on different roles.

Kamishibai is also a technique that could be developed as a class storytelling project, with students telling their own stories, using pictures that they’ve drawn themselves. This is something that I’m looking forward to trying out when my online sessions restart in the next few weeks. Is this something that could also be done in your classes?