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!


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