A picture is worth a thousand… stories!

When I did my Delta, my experimental lesson was on story-telling.  I started off a bit skeptical, to be honest, but became more enthusiastic the more I heard about all the different ways stories could be used with English language students; and after my experimental lesson turned out to be quite a success, I fell in love with using stories in the classroom.
This is the story-telling lesson I did for that experimental lesson which my students and I loved so much.  I’ve done it countless times since with different classes at all different levels (from pre-int to advanced) and it’s worked a charm every time.  It’s quite simple.  Here’s how it goes…
1. Take a picture to class.
And blow it up so everyone can see it (at least A4 size – if you can get it in colour on an interactive whiteboard, even better).  Any picture will do, as long as it includes some people (usually between 1 and 4 people is good) and isn’t too posed.  I find the ones that work best are ones that don’t show too much of the people’s faces, or perhaps have them looking out of the frame at something you can’t see.
Here are some good examples that I think would work well, taken from the ELT Pics FlickR set appropriately called “Every Picture Tells A Story“:

(original at http://flic.kr/p/9HKgxT)

(original at http://flic.kr/p/9KvTTb)

(original at http://flic.kr/p/9KtXFy)

Anything too wacky doesn’t work as well (e.g. this one http://flic.kr/p/9Kvp8J) as it tends to be too suggestive when the students come to creating their story (as follows…).

2. Tell the class they’re going to create a story.
Tell them you’re going to ask them questions and they can shout out anything and everything they want.
3. Start asking questions.
Draw out the details of the story from them.  In my experience, this can take anything from 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how your students run with it.  Point at the photo and ask “who’s this?”, “who’s that?”, “do they know each other? how?”, “how old is he/she?”, “what’s his/her name?”, “what’s his/her job?”, “how are they feeling at this moment?”, “what’s the weather like?”, “what time of year is it?”, “what country are they in?”, “what are they looking at?”, “who’s behind him/her?”, etc.
Accept anything they give you – it’s their story.  Don’t try to sway them or suggest their ideas are particularly good/bad – just grab what they throw out there!   If they say the guy in the picture is called Bob, he’s Bob.  If they say he’s called Mary, he’s called Mary!  Encourage them to give you ideas.  All ideas, any ideas.  Every few questions, repeat what you’ve just asked and get the students to repeat back to you, so they become more and more familiar with the bare facts they’ve just given you.  Just keep the questions focused on the PRESENT – what’s happening at the precise moment the photo was taken.  This snapshot will form the heart of the students’ story.
4. Split the class in two.
Tell the class that the photo represents the centre point if their story.  One half of the class needs to start the story – from how it begins to how it got to the point where the photo was taken.  They’re not allowed to go past the moment of the photo, but they can dream up anything they like to get them to that point.  The other half of the class needs to finish the story – from the point of the photo to the end.  Nothing that happened before the photo is relevant to them.  They just continue the story from the point of the photo and dream up a conclusion for the characters.
Appoint (or get the learners to appoint) one person in each group to be the group ‘secretary’.  Nothing need be written down, but the secretary needs to do what you were just doing (in step 3, above) – ensuring lots of questions are asked to draw out information for the story, and that this information is repeated by EVERYBODY in the group regularly (they’ll see why in the next step).
Monitor them as they go and just make sure they’re asking and answering questions.  You can also feed in some useful language to help them express their ideas.  I’ve found this step can take anything from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on how engaged the learners are and how determined they are to perfect their part of the story.  If one half finishes before the other seems ready, encourage them to think about the finer points of how they would tell their story (how to use their voice, how to put the events in order, etc.).  It’s actually probably better if they have less time, so there’s a greater chance they’ll forget some details and have to make them up again in the next stage (which will make their final re-tellings – step 6 below – more diverse and interesting for their partners to listen to).
5. Pair off students, one from each group.
They tell each other their story halves and join them in the middle.  If they find they forget some details in the telling, nevermind – they can just fill in the gaps with new ideas.  The only thing they must do is be true to both halves.  So if, for example, there’s a character who’s alive after the photo ‘centre point’, but who died before the photo, they’ve got to find a way to bring them back to life!
6. Pair off students again with someone from their original group.
They tell each other their story a final time, from start to finish.  For feedback afterwards, ask them what changed in the re-telling and if there were any particularly surprisingly or entertaining differences.
Note: If your class is quite large (say, 16 students or more), split them into 4 in step 2, above, with two groups coming up with different ‘pre-photo’ and ‘post-photo’ story halves.  Then at step 6, pair off students who had different ‘pre-photo’ and ‘post-photo’ stories, so what they’re hearing from their partners will be entirely new.
WHY I LOVE THIS LESSON (and my students always do, too!)
It works with any level, and is particularly great for groups with somewhat mixed abilities, as everyone can contribute something.
It encourages task repetition and repetition of language, so the students tend to feel more confident and speak more fluently with each re-telling.
It requires virtually no materials or preparation.  You don’t even technically need a photo – you could just draw a pic on the board.
The use of a photo prompt makes it feel a bit more tangible and a bit less ‘airy fairy’ than getting learners to close their eyes and imagine, which many other story-telling ideas suggest, but which some adult learners don’t really feel comfortable with.
It’s incredibly student-centred and gives students who don’t normally contribute much a chance to make their voices heard.
The students are content to work together without much teacher support (one student of mine once remarked in post-story lesson feedback, “I didn’t ask Laura anything because I was too interested in telling the story!”).
It encourages creativity of thought and language – anything goes, as long as it builds the story.
So that’s it – one of my favourite ways of using stories in the classroom.  Possible follow-ups to this lesson are: creating the sequel to the first story (orally or in writing), writing up the story for homework, creating and acting out a dialogue between the characters for some ‘scene’ in the story, writing/presenting a newspaper/TV news report on the more dramatic events of the storyline, and so on.
I can’t remember where this idea originally came to me from, but in any case, my thanks go to Michael Berman and Jeremy Harmer for both recently reminding me (via seminars on stories that they gave, and which I attended) of the value of stories in the language classroom, and therefore inadvertantly prompting me to share one of my favourite story lessons here.
More to come at some point in the future…

About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Thanks for the comment! I look forward to hearing how it went with your classes. 🙂

  2. Laura,Took me a little longer to get round to teaching your lesson but it worked well this week with a few different classes as we wrapped up for the winter vacations (southern hemisphere). However, it worked well for different reasons some of which weren't even particularly English-based.I took this picture (http://bit.ly/q4UJJJ) as my example – just funny enough but not completely wacky (as you suggested). For some of the classes, time restrictions meant that we could only really get to the pairwork sharing of the stories but for one class we managed to get all the way to the end. Two things about this class:1. They probably learned more about how to work together as a group (or at least the learned more about the difficulties of working in groups) and that might have been the biggest learning point for them in that lesson. Not specifically 'English' but certainly important experience for these 15/16 year olds.2. I asked, 'How would you assess your achievement, out of 10, of this task?' at the end of the activity. I got some honest 6s and 7s and the highest self-awarded mark being 7.5I'll certainly pick this activity up again in the next semester and for those that have done it already, I might even let them loose on #ELTpics to choose their own picture.

  3. Gordon, glad to hear it went so well!You're absolutely right about the coorperation element – that's part of what makes it such a charming lesson. The teacher doesn't have to do anything but facilitate their work. It's all about them. And I've never yet taught this lesson without the students rising to that challenge and taking their stories off in whatever direction they liked.Glad to hear it worked for you. Good idea, too, about letting them choose their own picture. Let me know if/how it works!Laura

  4. I tried this with my small class of pre entry ESOL learners this evening using (http://flic.kr/p/9HKgxT) I was not sure if this would work with such a low level class, but I thought I would give it a try. With some help from me in sentence construction they managed to develop a story about three girls on a holiday to Bulgaria and what they did there when they arrived. My learners loved it and it was good way to test and develop their language skills and they had some fun with the characters they named and created. I am going to try this with some of my higher level learners in the future. Many thanks for the idea. Michael

  5. Hi Michael,Sounds great! I also love how well this activity works even with lower-level students – it's great for building their confidence that they can be creative and speak at length.Good luck with your future story lessons!Laura

  6. Pingback: Rokus Klett Conference presentation: Demystifying creativity | Lauraahaha

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