Teaching a Foreign Language? Tell a Story.

In my early teaching days as a foreign language teacher, I often didn’t feel good at my job. Kids were hard to control and I felt they didn’t retain anything I taught them for long. When I took a job in a school that taught level 1 through full immersion (where the teacher doesn’t speak English at all in class), my teaching hit an all-time low. I had students looking at me and begging, “Please, just tell us what you want us to do! We don’t understand you!” Ugh.

I went to a conference that summer and learned about teaching language through stories. People, it revolutionized my classroom. It turns out that teaching through Comprehensible Input, giving students stories to use as a context for understanding, made those students not only relax but also produce language on a level that astounded me.

Imagine the difference between teaching a set of vocabulary words like kitchen, bathroom, basement, garage, dining room, living room, attic, and house and teaching them a story such as:

The boy doesn’t have a pizza. He wants a pizza, but there aren’t any pizzas in Topeka, Kansas. He goes to Phoenix, Arizona and sees a girl with a pizza. He says, “Hi! I don’t have a pizza. I need a pizza. Do you have an extra pizza?” The girl says, “Yes, I have an extra pizza.” She gives the boy the pizza. The boy is happy.

Which group of vocabulary words do you think will stick best in your kids’ brains? Stories give us a hook for our everyday memories, right? They also can provide hooks in the subjects we study. History taught as a list of dates? Blech. History taught as a series of stories? Yes! I’m in! Foreign language is just the art of sharing our stories in another language. Storytelling and language study go hand in hand.

If you would like to adopt this approach in your homeschool, I guarantee your kids will have a blast.  I am teaching a homeschool co-op class to middle schoolers and high schoolers in French this year, and we’re using this book:

look i can talk

If you know the second language a bit already, the resources found at this site will work great for you. The book just includes a series of stories and comprehension questions. Grammar isn’t taught directly; it’s acquired through practice with the language. [Note: I do quick “Grammar Pop Ups” in my class where I’ll explain the difference between tu and vous, how nouns have a gender, how adjectives have to agree with nouns in number and gender, etc. They are just quick asides, though. We get back to storytelling as soon as we can, always.]

The idea is to give kids lots of chances to hear the vocabulary words and interact with them. Take the story above, for example. I introduce the first line with unknown vocabulary words written on the board in French and English. There is also a paper on the wall with question words in French. My script (with student responses in parentheses) might go something like this:

Class, there is a boy. He wants a pizza. Is there a boy or a girl? (A boy) Does the boy want a pizza? (Yes, the boy wants a pizza) Does the boy want a hamburger? (No, the boy doesn’t want a hamburger) Does the boy want a pizza or a hamburger? (He wants a pizza) Who wants a pizza? (The boy wants a pizza) What does the boy want? (He wants a pizza) Claire [class member], do you want a pizza? (Yes, I want a pizza/No, I don’t want a pizza)

And so on. It takes a while to get all the way through a short story using this question and response method. Just think of how many encounters the class gets with the words the boy, wants, a pizza, doesn’t want, and a hamburger! When we finish the story, we might draw the story cartoon-strip style, pointing to pictures as I say part of the story. They might try to tell the story in their own words using their pictures and the vocabulary. They also could write a new version of the story where the boy wants an elephant instead.

I love the way my level one students are adept at telling simple stories instead of labeling all the rooms in the house. Storytelling seems more authentic since the chance that they will tell a story in France one day is greater than the chance they’ll name the rooms of the house, right?

If you’re trying to approach foreign language with your kiddos, I invite you to make a simple story. Introduce how questions and question words work, then tell them a tale!

If you’d like to learn more about this method, this book does a nice job laying it out (though the language is chock full of education-eze; reader beware!):

fluency through tpr storytelling

While these products focus on classroom teaching, they’re easily adaptable for home use. Let’s get going telling some stories! Dust off that rusty high school French, Spanish, or German today!


Freaky Panda

This is a story about how stories can shape your life.

When my daughter was seven, she was terrified of big things. It didn’t matter if said things were “alive looking” or not. She found the stuffed polar bear at the nature center and the cardboard cutout of Wall-E at the movie theater equally menacing. I found a need to help my daughter, to connect with her about her fears. But how?

I’m not a lifelong writer. My shelves aren’t filled with journals from my childhood. In fact, I felt pretty lousy at the whole writing thing until one university professor finally declared, “Relax, Kirsten. Your writing is fine.” So writing has never been my way to interpret the world or to cope with it.

I’m not sure how it started, but I sat in the kitchen one evening and thought about Olivia’s scary experience at the movie theater. The time when she thought the cardboard Wall-E was going to “eat her, for sure.” And I decided to write about it. I told her story but twisted the end a bit to feature a courageous girl who was ready to defeat Wall-E should they have any future encounters.

I read the story to the family, and they laughed. Well, Olivia laughed, but through some tears. It had been a while, but the fear of Wall-E was still a bit too fresh, too raw. I changed Wall-E to Po the Panda from Kung Fu Panda, and suddenly, the story was funny to her. My goal was to help her get over a fear and to show her, though a humorous story, that I understood how big and scary the world could be when you were seven.

The story could have ended there, but it didn’t! Because of the “Freaky Panda” story, Olivia had the chance to launch her career as a youth storyteller. She first told this story at the Brandywine Storytelling Festival and eventually ended up at the National Youth Storytelling Showcase in Pigeon Forge, TN. As a family, we forged a connection to the storytelling community. Opportunities to tell stories and to meet fantastic tellers have shaped our family in untold ways. Stories can indeed change your life!

Here is Olivia’s rendition of “Freaky Panda,” told in Tennessee.

Can your family’s stories create new opportunities to grow and explore? Absolutely! Start by telling one at a local storytelling event.

Wizard Language Arts

Where to begin? I have so many ideas rolling around in my brain. It’s a bit messy up there in that caffeine-fueled space where I do all my thinking, let me tell you. I want to tell you about stories and the myriad of ways they fit into my life.

So the best way to start is just to start. Here’s a story I’d like to tell. Let me set a scene for you:

A small church classroom. A group of homeschoolers, ages 9-11 is gathered in front of you on the small area rug near the chalkboard. They are sprawled on the floor, bodies in various stages of sitting/lying/crawling-into-the-bookcase. Shoes are cast off, and everyone is at ease.

So, what to do? What to teach? As I got to know this particular group of homeschoolers, I learned they had one thing in common: they were all huge fans of fantasy novels. Magic. Wizards. Trolls. Dragons. Knights. This was the world where they lived in all their spare moments.

This was the genesis of my class Wizard Language Arts. I’m teaching it for the second time this year to ages 10-14, and I want to share it with you. If you have kids (at home or in a co-op) who love fantasy, why not structure your language arts time around this fabulous genre?

1. Pick a book. Or two.


This was our October book choice. I liked it because the world created was not just magic and fantasy, but had a basis in science and history. It’s a departure from your typical wizard-medieval-castle-knights-dragon fantasy story. Plus my daughter loved it, so I always take recommendations from her seriously.

2. Pillage and borrow from the Internet.

My big secret to success is the fact that there are so many great lesson ideas out there already, I hardly ever have to come up with one of my own. I assigned this book to be read at home over the month of October, and we turned our attention to writing during our in-class time. In September the kids had worked on creating their own magical world, complete with 3-D displays of their world which they presented in class. In October, I spent my time getting kids excited about writing their own novel. Yes! We decided to get involved in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I used the wonderful materials provided by the folks at NaNoWriMo to give my kids practice:

  • Developing Interesting Characters
  • Developing a Conflict
  • Planning a Plot
  • Getting Ready to Write Your Novel

Of course all the kids chose to write a fantasy novel of some sort.  So, during October, the kids read The Apothecary and prepared to write their novels during the month of November.

3. Every book talk is better with snacks.

At the beginning of November, we devoted our co-op class to book discussion on The Apothecary. My approach to book talk is pretty simple: questions, snacks, and souvenirs. I prepared a book-themed snack (in The Apothecary, birds feature prominently, so I made these). I found some discussion questions to get the chatter going, though I am always willing to let the kids talk about whatever they’re exited about/disgusted by in the book. They often have strong opinions. So much so, in fact, that for my first Wizard class, I had to pull this out on occasion:

talking hat

This was the “talking hat.” If you weren’t holding the talking hat, you had to try your best to hold your ideas in for a few seconds until it was your turn to hold on to the hat. Honestly, I only resorted to this tactic because the kids were all so excited to share their ideas that class discussion became a game of who could shout the loudest.  Ha.

Finally, I think it’s fun to do a science experiment, craft, or other hands-on activity that goes with our book theme. I’m probably one of the least crafty people I know, so I turned to my friend Mr. Inter Net to find a simple craft. The kids loved it. We made apothecary jars with these supplies:

Apothecary jars

The labels came from Etsy; everything else came from Michael’s. Glue a favorite label to a label tag, fill the jar with something delicious and chemical-looking, and tie the label on to the jar with cool string. Voilà! It was candy to go, basically, but the kids loved making them, so I was happy to sugar them up and send them on their merry way. 😉

4. Rinse and repeat.

This is the model we follow month to month. For December, we read this one:

the alchemyst

and during book talk, we used branches to make our own fancy tree houses/Yggdrasils (Norse mythology, anyone?).  I got the hubby to drill holes into wood so we could glue branches into a base. Add glue guns, small sticks, pipe cleaners, and string, and you’re good to go.


For in-class writing activities, I pull heavily from the Brave Writer methodology. We do freewrites, we play with words, we practice using all our senses to enhance descriptions, and we include improv games to enhance our storytelling abilities.

Wizard Language Arts is one way I share stories I love with kids. How do you expose your kids to the wonderful tales that make up who you are today?