It’s no secret that one of the most effective ways of learning a new language is by listening to it. Just think about it – how did you learn your mother tongue? It definitely wasn’t through classes, as most people can communicate at least at a basic level before they go to school. You also didn’t do it through writing, as usually, you learn to write in kindergarten.
So, how did you do it? The answer is by listening to it. You were surrounded by people who spoke that language, be that your parents, grandparents, or other loved ones, and you were encouraged to say words in that language. You heard them communicate in that language, and your brain did the rest.
That’s one of the reasons why using storytelling is so effective – it’s natural. If you have a student who has difficulties learning grammar or vocabulary despite continuously doing exercises regarding the topic they’re having trouble with, using storytelling might turn out to be the ideal solution.
Spanish TPRS, or Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling, is a teaching method that involves teaching Spanish to students via telling stories in Spanish, among other things. Below, you will find a deeper dive into why Spanish storytelling, or actually storytelling in general, is a powerful teaching tool.
Why Learn Spanish Through Storytelling?
In order to understand why storytelling is so powerful, let’s imagine this scenario. You are a college student who’s taking two classes led by two different professors with different teaching methods.
The first one always has a PowerPoint presentation ready, and during class, he typically reads off the slides, only adding new information every once in a while. Sounds boring, doesn’t it?
There’s a reason why the saying “death by PowerPoint” exists. While at least you have materials to learn from, learning things from such a class can be not only exhausting but also time-consuming, as you have to go through every single topic on your own again, often having to use additional learning aids.
Now, the second class has a professor who does not use presentations at all. He might show a picture or a diagram sometimes, but it’s not a regular occurrence. However, instead of reading off the script, he’s teaching by telling stories about the subject in a way that draws you in and makes you want to listen. Instead of giving you definitions and expecting you to memorize them, they explain concepts using storytelling.
In most cases, when revising material before the final exam, you will realize that you know more than you thought and only need to freshen up your knowledge on a few things.
Storytelling was, is, and always will be one of the easiest ways of learning anything simply because of the fact that it’s the most natural way of acquiring new information for humans. And languages are no exception.
Benefits of Using Storytelling to Teach a Language
Let’s talk a bit more about why you should consider incorporating storytelling into your teaching if you haven’t done it already:
- Stories engage your audience. As humans, we are wired to want to listen when someone is telling a story. And since we’re doing it out of our free will, we are more likely to actively listen and pay attention to what is being said, which, in turn, results in better learning outcomes than when you feel like you are being forced to participate.
- Stories provide context. This is especially helpful when it comes to learning new words. When you try to learn by simply memorizing a word in a foreign language, you might have a hard time understanding how to use it later on in a sentence, especially if it’s a word that doesn’t exist in your own language. This is not to mention that this way, a student is being exposed to a lot more words than they would if they were to just follow a list.
- Stories allow you to absorb new information and deduct meaning from context more efficiently. When you listen to a story, you don’t focus on understanding every single word that is being said – instead, you focus on what is actually happening in a story. Even if you don’t know what something means, you try to make sense of it by using context clues. This also helps in improving their listening and comprehension skills – they have to listen in order to understand.
- Stories help you in learning grammar. Stories allow you to learn things like grammar and syntax more naturally – rather than memorize them, you become familiar with how they’re used in context, and you start to associate specific uses with specific grammatical structures.
- Stories improve the students’ creativity. Storytelling can go both ways – the teacher can tell a story, but they might also decide to pass the baton to the students. When faced with a task that requires quite a bit of thinking, they are encouraged to use the part of their brain responsible for creativity. You’d be surprised at what they might come up with when given the opportunity.
How to Involve Storytelling Into Teaching
Since you now understand the “why”, let’s move on to the “how” – how can you incorporate storytelling into your teaching? Here are a few ideas – some of them involve you being the storyteller, while others encourage your students to tell their own stories.
Tell a Story Out of Order
Select a story in the language of your class – a fairytale from a country that speaks the language you’re teaching; in this case, Spanish will work great for that. Depending on the length of your story, divide it into parts, where each part is a sentence or a paragraph.
During class, present the story to your students, but in a random order. Their task will be to guess the correct order of the events in it. If you want to make it easier for them, instead of reading the story, you can print it out and cut it into parts. Divide the class into smaller groups and give each group a story to complete – you can opt for the same one for all of them, or you can choose a different story for each group.
Bring Some Props
Bring a few random objects into class and divide the kids into small groups. Give each group one prop (or more, depending on how many you brought) and make them tell you a story involving it. Whether the prop will be the main character, side character, or just an object within the story will be completely up to them.
Give them a few minutes to come up with an engaging adventure in Spanish, and let each group present what they came up with to the rest of the class. If you want to, you can even bring some “awards” for the winning team, like candy or stickers.
Give Only the Beginning of the Story
Now, this activity is best done individually rather than in groups. Start telling a story in Spanish and pass the baton to one of the kids. Each student should then add one sentence to the story until it’s complete.
This one might be a good activity for more advanced groups. Divide your class into pairs. Prepare a few different scenarios that your students might be forced to face when visiting a foreign country, for example, asking for directions, visiting the doctor’s office, checking into a hotel and more.
If you want to make it easier on them, you can provide them with examples of a conversation and let them use them as a base. You can also make a list of helpful words that they might find useful.
Describe the Pictures
Select a few pictures – depending on how advanced the group you’re teaching is, opt for more or less detailed ones. Divide your class into a few smaller groups and give each group one picture. Give them a few minutes to get familiar with what is shown on them, and then, one by one, let them describe those pictures to you.
A fun variation of this activity would be to provide four pictures that are somehow similar to each other; for example, they all include an image of a person. Pick one of them and describe it to your students – their task will be to decide which picture you’re talking about. For more advanced groups, the students can be the ones to describe one photo to their peers.
Pick a story and prepare a list of exercises that involve knowing what happened in it in order to be solved. It can be in the form of multiple-choice questions, a crossword puzzle, or whatever else you feel will be a good fit for your students.
Create an Interactive Story
Prepare a story in which, at various points, your students will have to make a decision about how to proceed, which will affect how the story goes. If you want to have some fun with it, you can opt for two serious options and one completely ridiculous one (which, let’s be honest, your students will probably pick). Just be sure that you prepare for all possible scenarios.
Digital Storytelling – Is It Helpful?
We know that traditional storytelling works. But what about when storytelling is combined with the wonders of the digital world? Could digital storytelling be the next step in teaching? It seems so!
However, there has to be balance in how we’re using electronic teaching aids. According to research conducted by Dr John Hutton, there seems to be a “Goldilocks effect” as far as digital storytelling goes. What it means is that there are certain storytelling types that are “too cold” for a child to enjoy, while others are “too hot”.
For example, while listening to a story on audio, the children were engaged for some time, but they quickly lost interest and had a harder time processing the story. This type of storytelling was “too cold” for them. Another type of storytelling tested was cartoons, which turned out to be “too hot” – the children were overstimulated and had the worst comprehension of the story.
So, which one turned out to be “just right”? There had to be one, right? There was, and it involved illustrated story books. Their story comprehension was the most notable one, as they didn’t direct all of their attention to words – they also used images as clues.
Now, what about then you take those illustrated books and digitize them?
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University conducted an experiment that showed digital storybooks that animate upon the child’s appropriate vocalization might create beneficial learning opportunities due to lower recall. They came to this conclusion via three comparisons:
- First, they compared an adult reading to a child from a traditional book vs from a digital book. The recall was lower for the digital book.
- Then, they compared two digital books, one static and one animated. The recall was lower in the case of the animated one.
- Finally, they compared two digital animated books – one animated at the start of the page while the other upon the appropriate vocalization. The recall was lower in the second case.
More research is still needed, but there’s no doubt that digital storytelling, just like traditional storytelling, can be of great help as far as teaching goes, foreign language teaching included.
The Bottom Line
Learning a new language can be difficult for many kids. However, as a teacher, you can make it at least slightly easier for them by using different teaching methods – storytelling is one of them.
There are several benefits of doing so, not to mention the many ways in which you can incorporate storytelling into teaching Spanish, some of which we have included above.
So, next time you’re thinking about what to do with your class, consider choosing one of the storytelling exercises. You might be surprised at how many things your students will remember after the class.