Tell a story! (By Christina Markoulaki)

Here I am, back from a short-term holiday and ready for my summer lessons! It is customary in Greece for the winter courses in private language institutions to end around May; towards the end of June schools resume preparations to welcome those students who are willing to finish one more English-language class by taking an accelerated course in the summer months. The point is that the Greek weather is rather an impediment to studying since it is invariably scorching hot and sunny, calling for some soothingly cool sea bathing rather than having language lessons! Therefore, the question that immediately troubled me was: what can a teacher do to help these students start learning on a positive note?

What I have finally decided to do is to bring the sea into the classroom; that is, to enable the students to do so by narrating a summer story in our very first lesson. (They have already taken some short holidays themselves, so there must be something to talk about!) Which stories are better than those stemming from our direct experience? To facilitate things even more, I have decided to model the narration of a story and then ask them to act accordingly. All this will, of course, have to be eventually combined with the appropriate ‘dose’ of technology to make it even more … irresistible!

As for the students’ background, they are B1, B2 and C2-level learners, aged 14-16, so they are already familiar with all basic narrative tenses as well as linking words and phrases that are necessary for the cohesion of the text. They also have various family holiday or camp experiences, which means that they possess all the ‘material’ they need to tell their own story. The lesson could take place in a usual classroom, using a laptop to illustrate the story, or in the computer room. What is very positive about this activity is its flexibility: it can be adapted to a number of levels since the resources utilized can be quite simplified at parts, depending on the complexity of the students’ output a teacher expects.

A lesson of this kind could consist of these stages:

  1. Quickly revise past tenses and linking expressions. Refer students to a related blog post that contains a number of tips and steps to writing a story. This revision could take the form of a small competition or quiz.
  2. Urge students to imagine that they are sitting around a camp fire at night sharing personal stories. Read your story and let the music you have chosen play in the background.

This is a short story I have written after actually seeing a ‘forgotton’ flamingo on a sandy Cretan beach. A message can be derived at the end and there is the possibility of a certain extent of debate in class concerning which life philosophy students tend to favour: the active or passive, almost fatalist, stance.

3. When you finish, ask comprehension questions (about who, where when) followed by some open-ended questions (the character students identified with, the moral of the story, etc.)

4. Ask them to plan their story in class, having given them photocopies of one of the many impressive story organizers available online. The story film organizer, the branching organizer, the cake paragraph format or a more simple plan are only a few of the numerous resources that can be discovered on the web. After the learners come up with some basic ideas, they can exchange views or cooperate to find suitable endings.

5. In the next lesson or at home, students can write the full version of their story based on the planning that took place in class, publish it on the class blog and combine it with the photos or the music they like. They should be careful, though, not to disclose any personal information, as their work will be in common view.

There are already some of my students’ summer stories published on their class blogs:

Rafaela’s summer story on ‘Girl Power’ (A2+ level)

Nassia’s story on ‘Girl Power’ (A2+ level)

Helena’s summer nightmare on ‘FCE Students’ (B2 level)

Drawing in the sand’ by Izoldi on ‘FCE Students’ (B2 level)

Helen Lag’s story on ‘Literature Blog’ (C2 level)

Elen’s story on ‘Literature Blog’ (C2 level)

Much more samples of writing will be available this week. Till I publish more links in the comment section, try to share a story with your students; not only will you encourage them to speak and write, but also to bond with you! Isn’t this one indispensable ingredient of successful teaching?

Note: This article by Christina Markoulaki originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.


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10 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    What a fabulous activity, Christina! I love the way you model with a story of your own, and then help students to find their own story from within their personal experiences.

    I’m definitely going to give this a try with some of my students!

    I look forward to reading more of your students’ stories.

    Apologies to you (and your students) for the delay in publishing your excellent post!

  2. Christina Markoulaki says:

    My students will definitely be thrilled when they see the links to their stories being displayed on such a famous blog! ‘Fame’, you know, is one of the main driving forces behind every post published by a student, especially teenagers! Speaking of which, here are the links to two more stories:

    Christina’s story on ‘Girl Power’ (A2+ level):

    Summer experiences by Mary on ‘FCE Students’ (B2 level):

    Thank you, Barbara! Now I have focused all my attention on the iTDi online course!

  3. Theodora Pap says:

    A wonderful idea dear Christina. This can not only be done during summer courses but also as a starter, when students get back to school in September. Keep up the good work!!

  4. Hi Christina and Barbara

    Great ideas here for motivating students and then following and firming up on lessons/discussion. I checked out Rafaela’s post and I have to say seeing those pictures of the bahamas made me jealous ! When oh when will vacation come for a freelancer like myself ! 😉

    Thanks again for the share. Cheers, Brad

    • Christina says:

      Hi Brad, thanks for the comment!

      This is exactly the reaction I was hoping for; I meant to have the students choose the pictures they like and somehow get inspired by them in order to produce a real or imaginary story!

      I hope you like the rest of the student posts, as well! And, yes, you will have the holiday of your dreams only if you choose to leave all the rest behind just for a little while.

      After all, you will undoubtedly be a much better professional when you come back! 🙂

      Kind regards,

  5. ECPE MCQs says:

    Christina, Lovely post. I agree with Barbara that you are spot on in leading by example with a great story of your own. Your students’ work will surely be better for it. Even if you don’t highlight any aspects of the craft of storywriting, your example should help most students improve their own craft. I am thinking of one aspect/issue in particular: descriptive writing within the narrative. One of the problems I have faced in the past (especially with boys) is that the stories produced are all fast-paced narrative with little or no descriptive writing painting vivid pictures of the setting for the action. If I had the opportunity to do this kind of thing again, I guess I would get the students to do some writing (before working on the story itself) which was purely descriptive – pick a scene, think of yourself as an artist at her easel – an artist who has to paint the scene and make the most significant details as vivid as possible. Something along those lines. (There is a sub-issue here about people’s powers of observation in a point and click world where a split-second hesitation on the mouse can mean “game over”, and that might also need some remedial work – I remember lying down on the grass at night on Pilio with a group of kids on a summer camp gazing at the stars.)

    Another aspect of the craft of storytelling that your flamingo story highlights is the use of the metaphor. It is replete with metaphors (“Like a true recluse…”). Another great idea for a sub-activity.

    You will have another break for August, I imagine. Hope you have a good time.

    • Hello Michael!

      I am terribly sorry I did not reply on time, but I have not got any notifications about comments on this article- I need to adjust the RSS feed or something like that, I’ll see! (Barbara, help!!) 🙂

      Well, you have hit the nail on the head with everything you have said. However, let me remind you that all the creative activities and teachers’ explanations you have mentioned require a considerable amount of time and I am mostly talking about summer courses here; in Greece, this means finishing up a class in limited time, as you may know. So this was a rather quick activity I did with them, very close to the so-called ice breakers. It goes without saying that everything you have added can and should be incorporated in a writing class where the teacher can devote more time to the specific type of writing.

      Another thing I would like to clarify is that the compositions I usually assign to the students taking summer courses are exam-oriented (this is not necessarily good, I know!). This means that, again because of time constraints, we focus more on specific text types (usually not stories). This is also why one can see that my students have posted stories which are not so descriptive; there is a word limit and a certain paragraph pattern to follow.

      Your comment has inspired me a lot, Michael! In winter I can prepare a lesson solely about creative writing! Especially with older students, this will surely work!

      Sorry again for the delay! 🙁


      P.S. The only reason I wrote a descriptive story rather than an exam-like one is that I wanted to provide some vocabulary and ideas to the students and also create some debate in class about the two life stances. I did not expect for my style to be followed as such.

  6. Smaragda says:

    Once again Christina you have inspired all of us. I know first-hand how difficult it is to keep students motivated during summer courses when all anyone can think about is going for a swim. This is an idea I will definitely incorporate into my summer lessons!!
    Thanks again.


    P.S. I know it’s been a while since you posted this article but I’ve been away for month and am having a difficult time catching up with everything. 🙂