Rocco’s Day: A student-generated story activity for literacy practice

Though experience and through language we learn. Experience needs language to give it form. Language needs experience to give it content.

~Walter Loban

Children learning English as a foreign language tend to develop oral language skills before they become literate. In countries like Japan, where the grammar structure and writing system of English is so different from students’ first language, students can sit in English class for years before having to deal with anything beyond the ABC song.

This foundation of spoken language is the perfect base from which to begin reading and writing. If students have a good teacher and/or a good course book, then the language they have learned helps them talk about the things that interest them, which means they can learn to write about the things that interest them, and can practice reading things that interest them. It’s a winning situation!

In the future, I’ll share writing and reading activities appropriate for pre-literate learners, and those who have conquered the mechanics of writing (but still need work on accuracy and fluency). Today, I want to share a very simple  activity I use with emergent readers and writers.

I see my students one hour each week, so this work was spread over several weeks. Small bouts of literacy work spread over time are more effective (in my experience) than an entire hour dedicated to writing. While this is an example of one story created by one of my students, you can easily do the same thing with an entire class, or with groups within a class.

Step One: Find something to talk about

I know Riri loves animals, so I brought in multiple pictures of a cat I found on Morgue File (a public image archive). Actually, I downloaded the photos last year for another class, but everything is recycled in my lessons 🙂

I printed out the photos so they would be easier to arrange and discuss, and we started by describing what Rocco the Cat was doing in each of the pictures. Riri used the words she knew, and I added the ones she wanted but didn’t know in English.

Riri: He’s sleeping.

Me: Do you think he sleeps a lot?

Riri: Yes. He sleeps a lot.

Me: What’s he doing here?

Riri: He’s….eat……denwa co-do

Me: He’s eating a telephone cord?

Riri: Yes. He’s eating a telephone cord.

Step Two: Choose pictures for the story, put them in order, and talk about the story

In the next class, we pulled the pictures out again and began by talking about them to activate the language we’d built during the previous class. Then, I asked Riri to put them in order so we could tell a story about Rocco. She deleted some of the photos and put the remaining pictures into an order that made sense to her.

Riri decided her story would be about Rocco’s day. While Riri can write, she finds it frustrating because her writing skills are still far below her ability to express herself in English. She told her story orally, and I wrote it down. After each sentence, I’d read back what I thought she was trying to say. Sometimes she corrected me for misunderstanding her intent. Then, she’d read the new sentence back to me, and then the entire story including the new addition. It was a lot of reading practice, but because they were Riri’s own words, it didn’t feel like work to her. She was checking that my words matched her ideas.

Riri: Rocco wake up

Me: Rocco wakes up. When does he wake up?

Riri: Rocco wakes up in the morning.

Me: (writing Riri’s sentence and then reading): Rocco wakes up in the morning. Is that what you want to say?

Riri: Yes. (Riri then reads the sentence) Rocco wakes up in the morning.

Step Three: Expand on the story

To begin our next session, I brought out the draft of her story, and she read it from start to finish. Then, I cut the sentences apart because the physical separation makes the idea of expansion easier to understand without a lot of explanation.

I taped the sentence on a new piece of paper, and asked Riri to think of something to add to her original sentence. We followed the same approach as before, clarifying Riri’s idea, writing them down, and reading it back. In this way we added at least one new sentence for each picture, and Riri got a lot more practice reading.

Step Four: Publish the story

Publishing student work accomplishes several few good things:

  • It legitimizes student efforts–their ideas are good enough to keep.
  • It reinforces the idea that writing is for an audience–it’s not just English practice.
  • It creates something that can be recycled as reading practice for other students and can be shared with parents.
  • If you use a tool like Power Point to create your book, then you can add the student’s voice reading their story, which allows you to exploit the same language one more time.

I put the pictures and typed in the text for Riri’s story between classes. I showed her the story in slideshow mode, and–you guessed it!– she read the story to me again. Then, I brought out a digital recorder and recorded her reading her story. Since the recordings are in mp3 files, it’s simply a matter of plugging the recorder into the USB port on my laptop and dragging each file onto the matching page in the story.

I hope you enjoy Riri’s story, and I hope you give this activity a try in your own classes. If you do, I hope you’ll share your experience, and your students’ stories!

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7 Responses

  1. Lana says:

    I found your entry quite interesting and very relevant to what I am doing with a Japanese student who came to school a week ago with barely any English. I did some similar activities with her but not in a form of a book which I really like the idea of and will definitely try it next week… The only difference I did was ask her to write her sentence in Japanese… focusing on noun, the subject, a verb, when, where and why… she would then explain it to me as best she could in English… using her electronic dictionary if she wished and I would write the sentence for her… she would read it and let me know fit hat was what she meant… I think she is ready for a set of pictures and a story… thank you for providing me with a great idea… which might spike up her interest and motivate her to learn English.

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Lana! I’m glad you found it useful. One thing I like about these kinds of activities is that students tend to keep them at their own interest and ability levels. Plus, if they become interested in communicating about the pictures, they stop focusing on English and relax (which generally helps improve the English, too!).

      Hope this works for you, too. I’d love to hear how it goes!


  2. @greenesl says:

    Thanks for blogging about this in such a detailed way Barbara. It was great to read how your student was able to succeed in publishing their writing. I also follow a similar structure with a group of grade one students that I support. They are in a mainstream international school setting (90% of the class is EFL) with limited English. They really require a lot of individualised structure and scaffolding to be able to achieve the mainstream learning targets. Our school follows the Writers Workshop model, so we started off with a mentor text and then the students reinterpreted it to write their own books. To publish their books we used voicethread, which they then shared with other students! It is so lovely to see them feeling great about themselves and succeed alongside their peers!

    • Barbara says:

      I love voicethread for publishing, and have used that before, too, particularly with collaborative books. I’m impressed that you are able to use mentor texts with your students! For my younger students, I use the reading passages from their course book as writing models, since most are designed to provide an outline to support student writing.

      Another technique I like to bring in from my own workshop days is freewriting. The goal is still to write without stopping, but when they don’t know the word they’re looking for in English, they write it in Japanese. Afterward, we go back and see which words they need to be able to express what they’re trying to say.

      Now I’m excited to try using mentor texts with them, too! Thanks for the idea!


  3. Leahn says:

    What a lovely idea. I love the idea of getting them to write in English and Japanese (freewriting) and then look at the words they need afterwards!

    Very nice!

    Thanks Barb.

  4. Ann Foreman says:

    Hi Barbara,

    Just added a link to this and How Context Matters on TeachingEnglish facebook page, if you’d like to check for comments.



  1. May 2, 2011

    […] Barbara Sakamoto’s Teaching Village blog, she reminds us in her post, Rocco’s Day: A Student-generated Story Activity for Literacy Practice: This foundation of spoken language is the perfect base from which to begin reading and writing. If […]