Asking a story is the heart of comprehensible input.
It's the primary way we teach vocabulary and grammar in context and it's the primary way that students acquire language.
Just like children learn their native language, the first exposure to language is aural. Parents sing and talk to their babies about the world around them. They keep vocabulary simple, but they don't shelter their grammar. They use whatever grammar is necessary to communicate their message.
This is not different from what we do when we ask a story. We focus on the students, we keep the vocabulary simple, but we use the grammar we need to use to communicate correctly.
This is how they acquire the language, the vocabulary, and the grammar in context.
Asking a Story
Asking a story is the second step in the Immediate Immersion Way.
We use stories to expose students to vocabulary and grammar in context.
Why ask a story rather than tell it?
That's simple. Telling a story is a passive activity. Students will sit and listen and it's difficult to know if they are comprehending or not.
On the other hand, ASKING a story is active. Students are actively engaged in the creation of the story and whether or not students answer your questions during the creation of the story will tell you if they are comprehending or not. It's informal formative assessment at its best.
Many teachers find that telling a story with some student-choice elements is much easier than co-creating an entire story with their students. And yes, this is the easy route, it's safe, but they're sacrificing a lot. Students will be less engaged because the story is not entirely theirs. And unless you are an adept storyteller, it's difficult to have a true homerun story with a pre-written story.
Co-creating an entire story may be scary the first few times you do it as you have to give up control and trust your students to "play the game." But, I promise you, you'll get much better stories, much more engagement, and more home-run stories that your students will be talking about.
But once you do it a few times and start with a solid framework, you'll find that there's no better way to ask a story.
Building a Character
I generally take at least two days to ask a story. The first day is focused on the main character and the second day is focused on the plot. If the plot is going strong and students are still actively engaged in the story, we may stretch the plot to a second day.
So the first step is to create a character with your students. This is generally my favorite part because we often create characters that we reuse in future stories.
You'll want to take your time with creating a character so that you can make it as real as possible while you're practicing language.
I start by asking my students in the target language what kind of character they want: person, object, or animal. I prefer objects over people or animals because it's easier to stay away from stereotypes with objects. But go with whatever your students choose.
Once we have what our character is, I start asking leading questions to build its foundation: size, color, age, where it lives, name, hobbies, family, friends, etc.
I ask all of these questions in the target language. I allow shout-out answers to start the flow of ideas, but then I'll also ask a few individual students what their thoughts are. I do this to engage some of the quieter students and also to check for understanding.
We generally go with a consensus, but if it's not clear, we will have a vote. This is a great way to get the subjunctive in if you teach a language where it's prevalent. For example in Spanish I would ask, "¿Quieren ustedes que el personaje sea rojo o azul?" (Do you guys want that the character be red or blue?). I do this even in level 1. I don't explain that it's the subjunctive, but it gets them used to hearing it.
Some teachers, like la Maestra Loca, don't like voting, so they often will roll a die to determine the answers to the questions. If they roll a 1, then it's one answer, if they roll a 2, it's another. I sometimes do this, but most often vote with my students.
During this process, constant review is important. You need to constantly ask questions reviewing the facts of the story both to the class as a whole and to individual students. We do this so that students hear repetition in a natural way and to assess whether or not they are understanding the story up to that point.
I call this scaffolded, differentiated questions because they are scaffolded (yes/no, either/or, and question-word), but also differentiated as you ask the right question to the right student at the right time.
What I mean by this is that students who are slower processors I would stick with yes/no and either/or questions. For my average processors, I would ask concrete who, what, when, and where questions. And for my fast processors, I would ask how and why questions because they require more language and it allows these students to show me what they know.
Once we have the character completely described and as three-dimensional as possible, I move on to establishing a conflict.
What's the Problem?
There's no story without conflict.
I like to end the first ask-a-story day by setting the stage for the problem. I don't go into depth with the problem, but just get one established before the bell rings.
Again, I do this by asking leading questions in the target language.
Once we have our problem, it usually is right at the bell or just before it, so I will end the story for the day. I may give my students the last couple of minutes to fill out an exit ticket with three things they remember from the story so far and turn it in before they leave for their next class.
On the second day, I take a few minutes to review the facts so far and get back to the problem where we left off the day before. I only want to spend a few minutes doing the review because today is all about the plot.
After the short review period, I ask a few more questions about the problem to get a full description of the problem the character has and why it's important.
Remember to continue to ask scaffolded, differentiated questions along the way to review all facts of the story. It makes it a lot easier for students to acquire the language when it's repetitive and asking a variety of questions throughout the entire process makes this relatively easy.
Try, Try Again
Now that we have our character and we have a problem, I ask for a student volunteer to play the character. I want a student who will play the game without trying to steal the show. The whole purpose of the actor is to aid in comprehension and to have someone to interact with when it comes to dialogue.
Once I have the actor chosen, I will bring them up to the front of the room and give them a chair to sit in. They fidget less when they're seated. And they'll only get up from the chair when they're actually doing something.
I start by reviewing the facts with the actor in real time. What do I mean by "real time"? I mean whichever verb tense is logical for the conversation. If I'm asking them about the past, then it's in the past. If I'm asking them about the future, it's in the future tense. Otherwise, it's generally in the present.
I want the students to hear this dialogue because it's the best way to teach verbs. As I ask the student a question in second person, I will write the second-person form of the verb on the board with its translation. I immediately write the first-person form with its translation as well so that the student can use it to formulate their answer. If I'm not confident the student can formulate their own answer, I'll feed them the answer and have them repeat after me.
I want their answer to be in a complete sentence. I know in real life that we don't often don't speak in complete sentences, but these dialogues are for the sole purpose of teaching how verbs work and students need to hear the complete sentences to acquire the forms in context.
I'll repeat the actor's answer back in second person and then I'll ask the question in the PAST tense to the class. As I do this, I'll write the past tense form of the verb with its translation on the board. I don't tell them that the verbs are in past and present, I just let the translation speak for itself. I'll often ask the same question referring to me so that they can hear the first-person past tense as well. And as always, I write any new forms on the board as they come up.
It's important NOT to write all the forms up at once or to write them in the form of a chart. That's not how the brain works. Write them up there only as you use them in the order that you use them. Let the translations express the meaning and the tense. Don't explain anything unless a student asks.
Once I've reviewed the facts so far in dialogue form with the actor, I ask the class how does the character TRY to solve its problem in the target language. I listen to all the answers and choose the best one that I can work with.
We don't want the character to solve its problem here or our story will end. So this is an attempt to solve the problem.
Whatever the class decides, have the actor act out the scene. Bring in other student volunteers to play any other roles needed. Remember to constantly review with scaffolded, differentiated questions and to engage the actors in dialogue with you and with each other as you go along. Dialogue is the KEY to teaching verb conjugations. Without it, your students will be stuck in third person forever.
Once the scene is over, sit your main actor back down and send your other actors back to their seats. Too many students in the front of the room can cause disruption, so it's best to limit how many students are up and in the front of the room as much as possible.
When your main actor is seated, again ask them direct questions about what just happened in real time, writing the verbs on the board as needed and coaching them to answer in complete sentences.
Afterward, ask the class about what happened in PAST tense.
Now you're ready to solve the problem.
You'll do everything you did in the last step except that this time you'll actually solve the problem.
Be sure to ask the class how the character is going to solve the problem.
Have the actor act out the scene with other actors as necessary including a ton of dialogue.
Return the extra students to their seats after the scene and have your main actor sit back down.
Review the scene with the actor in real time (usually present tense) writing down the verbs on the board as necessary.
Review the scene with the class in past tense.
Now that you've asked your first story, here are some pro tips to make it easier.
Use actors to maximize engagement.
Actors are extremely important to keep the students engaged and to aid in comprehension. But you'll want to limit their use. Only keep the actors on "stage" for the actual time they are needed and have them sit back down once they're done. Look for student volunteers that will ham it up but not steal the show. And don't be afraid to "fire" actors if they're not working out.
Add a ton of dialogue to teach verbs.
This is the best way to teach verbs and verb conjugation in comprehensible-input-based classrooms. Students will hear the verbs over and over again in context attached to their meaning in their home language. After hearing them over and over again dozens if not hundreds of times, they will begin to acquire them correctly and in context. Classrooms that lack in dialogue generally have students who are limited to the third person.
Teach story over multiple days.
Take your time teaching a story. I love to do it over multiple days so I have the character on the first day and the plot on the second. This allows me to maximize aural input and stretch a story naturally over multiple days. In the past, I've tried to end a class period with a cliffhanger thinking this would lead to the next day's lesson, but more often than not, it wasn't enough to keep students' interest. Breaking up the story into character and plot is a logical break with logical stopping points. The character is done on the first day and we haven't started the plot, so we're not trying to just continue where we left off. The second day is when something actually happens.
Use a story framework.
You may or may not have noticed that I lead you through my simple, 4-step framework of story asking.
This simple framework is what I go into class with on story days. I don't know what the character is going to be or what their problem is. I just trust that with my asking leading questions and the creativity of my students, we'll come up with something that will work.
So that's story asking. I know it's a lot, so I've created an easy-to-follow guide below. Just click the button to download your copy.
I'd love to hear your story asking goes in your classroom. Please share in the comments!