The Power of Stories
by Emily Ibrahim
When I first began teaching elementary school Spanish, getting my students to remember vocabulary in Spanish was like pulling teeth. I only saw them once a week for forty minutes (can any other elementary school language teachers relate?!) and they were supposed to be learning, according to our curriculum, a considerable amount of words in a small amount of time. Just when they were beginning to remember some of the words, it was time to move on to the next chapter, with more new vocabulary.
The words were often random and disconnected. I tried all kinds of creative ways to help my students remember the vocabulary. I showed them pictures, we made motions, we chanted the words in rhythm, we played games. Peek in our classroom, and you may have seen everyone standing in the shape of a tree or flapping our arms like birds. Though all these strategies were helpful and fun, in and of themselves they were not enough to result in language acquisition. My students may have remembered some vocabulary for a short amount of time, yet they weren’t truly able to do much at all with the language. I was often left frustrated that my students just weren’t getting it. WHY couldn’t they remember that helado de fresa is strawberry ice cream and pájaro is bird?
Then I was introduced to the concept of comprehensible input and the magical method of storytelling for language acquisition. As I began to tell stories to my students in class, they began to remember what I was teaching them! The focus was no longer on the vocabulary, but on the message being conveyed – the story. I came to understand that the key reason my students couldn’t remember vocabulary before was because it was presented void of context. There was no true message being communicated. Once I began telling stories to my students, they could remember that árbol means tree because it was part of a message being communicated in which they were genuinely interested. When they stood like a tree, they were helping to communicate the message of the story, not just memorize vocabulary.
I quickly stopped feeling frustrated, and my kids began having a whole lot more fun in Spanish class. More importantly, they began acquiring the language, and were able to do something meaningful with it. We didn’t stop doing those fun things like motions and rhythmic chants, but now that it was done within the context of true meaning making, it stuck.
I left my position at that school last year, but recently returned to share with the students my journey in writing and illustrating Edi el Elefante. I told them that they were part of that journey, as teaching them through stories inspired me with many ideas and gave me the confidence I needed to know that I could tell a good story. To my delight and surprise, these kids remembered details from stories we had done together one or two years ago. One little third grader confidently spat out, “Hay un elefante. El elefante se llama Lolipop. Lolipop es un elefante normal. No es un elefante diferente. Es un elefante normal. Lolipop no quiere ser normal…” She used to recite this to me every time she came into class after we did this story, but that was a year ago. Needless to say, the story, and its meaning, stuck with her.
After I shared my journey as an author and illustrator with the students, I read a little bit of the book to them. Every group, kindergarten thru 5th grade, was hanging on to every word. Now, I would like to say that it’s because my book is absolutely amazing (I sure would like to think so), but it’s much more than that. It´s because kids of all ages LOVE stories! A good story will capture their attention and will stick in their heads and their hearts. As language teachers, we all desire that the target language would stick in the heads and hearts of our students, and telling stories is one great way to accomplish that. When language is taught through story, it is connected to real meaning – not simply pájaro means bird – but the meaning of a compelling message being communicated with purpose.
If you are not currently using stories in your classroom, be it via storytelling, story-asking, or story books/readers, give it a try. You may just find that you no longer have to pull teeth for your students to remember and acquire language. What a relief that would be for everyone involved – teacher and student!
Emily Ibrahim currently teaches Spanish to kids of all ages in Louisville, KY. She loves to tell stories and has recently ventured into writing and illustrating her stories, publishing her first book for young Spanish language learners, Edi el Elefante.