Learning English through stories

cute ESL story picture

Do you want to start using stories in the preschool ESL classroom but do not know where to start?

Stories are such a powerful teaching tool, you’d be mad not to include them in your mix of fun games, songs, role-plays, and more.

Children are captivated by stories and can internalise vocabulary and the structure of language while listening to them.  Whether you are reading a classic book, making up a story as you go along or designing a story specifically for a particular lesson, you will want to be sure to include stories in the preschool ESL class every day.

One of the reasons why stories work so well in the ESL preschool classroom has to do with intrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is the theory that people are motivated by internal factors. Simply put this means that preschool children must enjoy your classes or they will not be motivated to participate and learn.

As children already love stories listening to stories, you are half way there to intrinsically motivating them.  The rest depends on how good the story is, how interesting and colourful the illustrations are, and how you tell it.

Ways to use stories in the classroom

There are so many ways to use stories in the classroom that the possibilities are practically endless.  Here are some ideas and tips to help you effectively use stories in your preschool ESL classroom:

Teach Vocabulary

Before you use a story in the ESL preschool classroom, it is beneficial to teach the students the key vocabulary words to help them follow the story.  The story can therefore serve as a basis for learning vocabulary words.  It goes deeper than that, however.  The students will not just “learn” the words, they will immediately see how the words are used and hear them in context of the language.  This is so much more beneficial to the students than simply memorizing a list of words.

Be Creative

Whenever you tell a story allow your creativity to show through.  Have fun with it and go with the flow. Make animal sounds, change your voice, sing little songs and, most of all, use gestures.  Have the children join in with you when it comes to animal sounds, songs and gestures, or give them props to touch during the story telling.  This is known as total physical response or TPR, which engages the children fully and allows them to feel or relate more deeply to the words, so they are more likely to remember them.

Add Variety

Stories create variety and can be the focal point of a lesson.

As preschoolers have short attention spans spending five minutes on a story is a way to add variety.  A story is also calming after a more boisterous physical activity so you can use it to allow everyone enough time to settle down before moving onto something else.   You can tailor your lesson using a story as the theme.  Pre-teach or revise vocabulary using games that will be used in the story, read the story and then play games and activities that relate to the story.

Choose Suitable Stories

The language should be super simple with few words and repetitive language patterns.  The illustrations should depict the events in the story clearly and colourfully to help the children understand and to engage them visually.   Please see for a free story ideal for preschoolers learning English.

Introduce Other Activities

Stories are a great jumping board for other activities.  You can create activities and games based on the theme and vocabulary in the story to give the children more opportunity to practise the language. 
 Here is just a sampling of activities you could do following a story:

  1. Give each student a picture that depicts the events of the story and have them line up in order of the events.
  2. Have the students come up with a title for the story.  Allow as many titles as the students come up with.
  3. Repeat quotes from the story and ask the students “Who said it?”
  4. Leave off the ending of the story and have the students predict what they think will happen.  Then, read the ending of the story.
  5. Encourage the children to look for patterns in the story.  Have them guess, for example, what the character will say if there is a pattern in what the character says.
  6. Teach them a song that goes along with the theme of the story, or make up a chant or song yourself.  Chant different sentences from the story using rhythm and clapping.  Keep the chants simple and repeat them often in different voices, and encourage the children to join in.  If the children only join in with the clapping at first that is a good start.
  7. Teach them actions to go along with the songs.
  8. Let them act out parts of the story.
  9. Set up stations that allow them to dress up like characters in the story and do things the characters in the story did.  So, if the characters in the story decorated cookies, give them some time to decorate cookies provided you have plenty of time.
  10. Tell a story to introduce a new unit.
  11. Give the students three events in the story and ask them what came first.
  12. Have the students draw a picture about their favourite part of the story and then explain it to the class, simply in English or more fully in the child’s L1.
  13. Let the students tell about a similar experience they might have had.

What if you do not speak the children’s Native Language?

If you are teaching in China and you do not speak Chinese for example, everything in this article still applies to you.  Remember to reassure the children by smiling at them and look happy and confident.  If you look like you know what you are doing the children will believe you.

Use simple words and short sentences to explain basic actions that you will need the children to understand such as “sit on the floor” or “make a circle”.  Use chanting, singing, clapping while you repeat the command over and over.  Use demonstration so the children know what you mean.

Stick to those words and phrases over time and build on them.  Use games with simple rules that you can demonstrate, pre-teach single vocabulary words that occur in the story and make sure all children can clearly see the illustrations when you tell the story to help them understand.

There are so many things you can do with stories in the ESL classroom.  Just let your imagination go and soon so will the imaginations of your students!  If you would like ideal games and ready made illustrated stories please visit the link in the about the author box here below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelley Vernon has inspired thousands of ESL / TESOL teachers with her games. Try her free games and receive a free story with activities written especially for preschool and primary school children learning English.  Order her story teaching kits to save time and be a successful teacher. 

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