Teaching English through storytelling and teaching General Education (GE) through English in kindergarten and primary school education programmes
Bernarda Avsenik, B. A. in English language and literature
Bičevje Primary School, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Bernarda Avsenik is an English teacher and the co-author of a number of English textbooks for children and is an active practitioner of global learning. She received many national and international awards.
Based on experimental learning for many years, through a two-decade long teaching practice in kindergarten, primary, secondary and university levels, revising the national curriculum for teaching English in first as well as second and third year of primary school, I would like to share my way, which has proved to be successful and motivating for my students and challenging and rewarding for me. The multisensory approach I use when teaching English to young learners is based on storytelling. It combines various methods and its elements include convergent pedagogy, with its emphasis on art in general, including body expression with music and drawing expression, speaking (role-play, dialogues, etc.) without neglecting reading and writing skills.
Besides, the whole concept is based on teaching English as well as teaching through English so it emphasizes the integration between all the subjects of the GE curriculum as well as CLIL, referring to teaching all the subjects through the medium of a foreign language. Being CLIL oriented, this approach demands that a teacher follows and teaches a certain amount of all the subjects from General Education (GE), while teaching the English language. This leads to a situation in which learners typically receive quite a high percentage of their overall school curriculum in the target language. It also requires from the GE teacher to use the same strategies for teaching GE subjects. The mutual planning of the teachers, their collaborations and the same methods and strategies result in a significant rise in the students’ fluency in English. (video 1 : CLIL–Mathematics, © Bernarda Avsenik).
Methodology, techniques and strategies
No matter which national curriculum teachers use, they can always take the basic principles of teaching a foreign language and adapt their teaching to their curriculum. Among the first things to come into question is how to teach a young learner a foreign language or how to teach subjects of the GE curriculum in a foreign language when a child is too young to be able to read and write? How can the child’s progress be followed?
Since foreign language teaching in the first years of a child’s learning is a great responsibility for the teacher who lays the foundations for a child’s knowledge and development and their further motivation for a foreign language and often represents a remarkable effort for the teacher, while allowing a child to use his/her imagination, it is certainly among one of the most rewarding experiences the pupil and the teacher might get.
It is of utmost importance that the teacher provides a positive classroom atmosphere and allows the child to trust him/her in order to be motivated to speak and be actively involved in the activities connected to learning a foreign language. The child should receive regular praise for their work, no matter how small the successes or improvements, as this helps him/her to build a positive self-image to function well in his/her environment. A young learner should enjoy the activities and have fun while the important strategies to reach the goals are hidden within them.
A priority for a teacher is to follow the goals he or she has set for the students (listening, speaking, and later on reading and writing and, last but not least, socialization) and systematically continue the gradation of their knowledge.
A brief review of the first three grades according to the language skills I teach would prove that in order to develop their listening skills the children mostly focus on listening to stories, nursery rhymes, instructions and eventually simple listening comprehension tasks.
As far as speaking skills are concerned, their work is mostly concentrated on simple answers, nursery rhymes, roleplay (stories, dialogues etc.) which lead to comprehension check activities, active game-playing and simple conversations.
Their reading skills are acquired through pre-reading activities, introductory reading activities (recognizing letters and words, simple picture stories, etc.), and later basic reading drills or even reading activities as well as simple comprehension tasks. (Video 2: Reading skills, © Bernarda Avsenik).
To improve their writing skills they first work extensively on pre-writing activities, then on word-based writing, rewriting activities and proceed to basic writing activities (gap fill, simple sentences, etc.) as well as introductory independent writing activities. (Video 3: Writing skills, © Bernarda Avsenik).
It represents a form of a multisensory approach, combined with various methods and strategies I have learned through the process of my education and self-studies. The creative experiments I have worked on have also proved important, as well as the opportunities for sharing the experiences and learning together with my co-teachers, trainers, English teachers, class teachers, co-workers and all whose professional way crossed my path in the past decades. The overall strategy is based on storytelling, with some innovative techniques which can be used for teaching English in kindergarten and primary school education.
Storytelling is an excellent motivation method. There are many reasons for saying this as it encourages imagination, offers children a pleasant way for dealing with their inner conflicts, enables identification with the characters in the stories, gives a sense of context, offers children a natural language rhythm, encourages development of the 4 core language skills as well as providing an opportunity for social and emotional development.
When choosing a story, attention needs to be paid on finding a story that is appropriate for the child’s age (his/her emotional and social level of development). Repetitive or cumulative types of stories are appropriate. It is also recommended that stories are chosen according to the season (various topics covered in school, festivals and holidays etc.). There are many possible ways of working with a story and I would like to share the method that has worked best for me.
When I enter the classroom I am aware that for my pupils it means that “English” has entered the classroom. This is because at that moment I represent everything that the term “English” means to them. Therefore I always start my lesson with a smile and ask my pupils how they feel. I like to suggest words such as great, super, happy, etc. to them to use as their answer. Then I ask the children to bring out their English workbooks and put them on their desks and when they are all settled I usually invite them to stand up and come to me in front of the blackboard and sit down. If they are going to listen to a story, I usually make them sit in groups, but when doing different activities in a circle or evenly everywhere in the free space of the front part of the classroom.
I make sure to incorporate a number of different facial expressions and try to attract their attention by pretending to think about something, or be shocked or find something extremely interesting or mysterious. When I am going to introduce a new story, I start by telling them that I am sure that they are going to like it. I support my prediction of their positive future feelings with my happy facial expression and by giving a “thumbs-up”.
For the introductory motivation I often use vocabulary cards and by showing and hiding them I introduce and revise the vocabulary that we have been dealing with. A good way of starting a lesson is by using a puppet or by doing a mime. I show, for example, a few animals and the children have to guess which animal I have acted out. Then some of the pupils stand up and mime another animal while the rest of the children try to guess what they are doing. (Video 4: Vocabulary cards, © Bernarda Avsenik).
I explain the story to the children by using flashcards rather than by reading a book as flashcards can be used later on for many different creative activities (e.g. sequencing, predicting the next scene in the story, guessing or changing the ending, etc.). (Video 5: Flashcards, © Bernarda Avsenik).
To achieve better listening discrimination I often speak in different pitches and tones of my voice and help them to understand the story as well as liven things up for them.
During my interpretation of the story, while using the flashcards, I keep encouraging children to be interactive with the flashcards by greeting the characters as they appear on the cards and communicate with them by repeating some short sentences from the story.
Sometimes I interrupt the story by asking them a question to check their understanding of the story so far or ask them to predict the next scene or the ending. I mostly speak English during the classes with the rare exception of specific instructions or the explanation of rules. By allowing the children to think that I am a native speaker of English who doesn’t understand much and who only knows a few words of their mother tongue, they are highly motivated to “help” me by trying their best to translate or explain to me what they want in English. They are exposed to a constant “language bath” which helps them to sink into English and those who understand English better sometimes function as interpreters for the others or explain to them what they should do.
I often pretend to be clumsy and let the flashcards fall from my hands after telling the story. The children then have to start collecting them and I encourage them to put them into the correct order. I help them by showing one of the flashcards and ask them if it was the first card in the set and they keep giving the numbers of the flashcards until they put all of them into the right order. While sequencing the flashcards I often try to find ways to connect them with our previous topics and ask questions about them as a way of revising our different subjects. By playing and having fun children don’t realize that they are working towards the aims that I have established (listening comprehension or practicing mathematics etc.) (Video 6: Sequencing, © Bernarda Avsenik).
After explaining the story we usually do some listening comprehension activities. These can be done in a range of different ways. Sometimes I tell the story with the help of flashcards again but I start changing things (such as using different characters or activities from the story or changing the word order or using different verbs) which results in a lot of fun and laughter but a constant flow of corrections from the children. They stop me by saying “No,” and giving the right word or activity.
Another useful activity for checking child’s understanding is pointing to the right flashcard. While the children are seated in front of the already sequenced flashcards, I let them listen to a CD of the story being told by native speakers, and check their comprehension by stopping the recording from time to time. They should listen very carefully in order to know which part of the story I have stopped at and they should raise their hands if they know which flashcard represents the recorded text they have just heard. Then they can come to the blackboard and point at the correct flashcard. Sometimes I just ask them questions about the story using WH questions, like “Who knocked on the door?”, or “Where does the king live?” and try to get their answers through the means of mime.
For the last ten or fifteen minutes of each lesson, the children do various activities in their workbooks, similar to the ones from GE and connected to a different subject from their GE curriculum, do graphomotor exercises, try to find a sense of orientation within a particular space, do mathematics, practice writing skills, etc.
The workbooks I use have easy, age-appropriate, cross-curricular tasks, hand-on activities, stickers for sequencing, self-evaluation pictures and colourful, age-appropriate illustrations. The first workbook exercise in each unit is usually sequencing, which they do step by step by finding the stickers at the end of their workbooks and put them in the correct order into the right-numbered boxes for each lesson.
The exercises in the workbook vary from dot to dot exercises to circle or calculate, number, copy, write, match, sing, listen and repeat etc. They are similar to the ones children are used to when dealing with the same topics in different school subjects. When done in English they use the same strategies and methodologies as for GE. This is important as allowing the children to use the same strategies means that it is much easier to switch successfully from one language to another. It is very important that we teach children useful things from their local environment which they are familiar with but it is not just the common topics which are important but the strategies for dealing with them as well.
A very important and demanding strategy/technique for teaching a foreign language is role play. It is highly recommended that the teacher of the mother tongue uses the same strategy when working with stories thus enabling children to cope more successfully with the challenge of learning a foreign language. Curriculum links, integration, CLIL and collaboration among teachers are essential. (Video 7: Roleplay, © Bernarda Avsenik).
To begin, I usually ask the children to choose their roles and let more than one child play the same role. At the same time partnering up with a more talkative/advanced pupil encourages those who are shy or are not so sure about their English to be more motivated to play their roles. Some children go through the so-called “silent period” of learning a foreign language and, as they are likely to be more confident later, they shouldn’t be forced to speak at this point but can instead have a role as a tree or some other non-speaking object or animal. When the children have chosen their roles I sometimes write them on the blackboard and add the names of the children or even draw the characters they play. Then we discuss the setting for the characters and organize the space in the classroom. We talk about where to place the different characters from the story. If there is no special setting, children usually form a circle in order to be able to move in a simple way from one character to another. This is easier for them, especially when their movement is combined with music which helps them to follow the rhythms and the gestures of the different characters.
Sometimes I give children various simple instruments which they can use to help them to differentiate the sounds and the rhythm and enable them to walk according to the sounds and rhythm of the instruments being played by the others. Mostly we use a drum, a tambourine, cymbals, maracas, clackers, tone blocks, a triangle and a xylophone. I encourage them to either connect the instruments with the characters from the story and justify their choice or use them to show the movement of different animals or other characters from the story. (Video 8: Instruments, © Bernarda Avsenik).
We can do the first roleplay without using words or in the children’s mother tongue, we can include the instruments or we can even start acting out the story in English right away. Sometimes it is necessary that the teacher makes a connection between the basic text and each picture with the children repeating their roles. Otherwise the teacher can start the roleplay by miming or speaking the dialogues for each of the characters from the story with the children miming the role and repeating after him/her. Miming and gestures help children to recall the dialogues and certain words. If we want children to concentrate and listen to the story carefully, we have to do some exercises for selective listening in advance. (Video 9: Selective listening, © Bernarda Avsenik).
Stories can often be combined with songs or nursery rhymes and action games. These are all excellent ways of teaching children rhythm, vocabulary, some basic linguistic structures and raising their awareness and knowledge of the importance of different cultures, customs and festivals. Singing should often be combined with movement and teachers should bear in mind all the different types of learners (audio, visual, aural and kinaesthetic).
When working with young learners it is important to use songs and rhymes on a regular basis. They offer lots of repetition which is essential for the successful learning of a language. They motivate children to repeat what they have heard over again, they offer lots of opportunities for movement and are excellent for memory development.
Another important activity which cannot be missed is the use of a game. Games are fun, they are an excellent method developing social skills, they offer a way to practice vocabulary and they encourage a positive classroom atmosphere. Games are also a very appropriate “break” activity. Through games children also acquire the typical vocabulary associated with the area. Games can be used either as a motivation activity, a break activity in the middle of a lesson or at the end of the language lessons. I use bingo cards, quizzes, board games, puzzles, movement games, interactive games. (Video 10: Songs, rhymes and action games, © Bernarda Avsenik).
However, children have a very short concentration span and that is why the activities must be changed frequently. Some might reject a particular activity because of the lack of knowledge or a sense of anxiety, unsociability or their feeling of an inability to do it. This means that the teacher should deal with such a child’s reaction with the utmost care and understanding.
A list of some suggested activities for listening would comprise listening to stories, rhymes, songs, various activities including music, expressing oneself by using gestures with music, following and keeping up with a rhythm, changing a rhythm, intonation, visualization, encouraging imagination, etc. They should also include drawing dictation, sequence search, responding with movements, guessing the continuation of songs, stories, etc.
The use of music delivers a tremendous result when learning languages, especially when looking at the long term. Language is nothing but rhythm and melody itself and every teacher should take this into account. Listening to and moving according to instrumental music is an excellent method of acquiring and developing the four key language skills. Children develop rhythm and learn to move in space. It offers a fun activity for children as they like to move around. It is useful for socializing as these activities are often done in pairs or groups.
With the help of various basic instruments I teach children to perform certain movements (such as moving in the shape of a circle or a “snake”) while moving freely within the space of their classrooms. After mastering this use of space in the classroom it is easier for children to deal with the space on the pages of their workbooks and to write in neat lines.
From the very beginning, I teach children to differentiate three basic rhythms and three gestures as well as three levels of body positions (standing, sitting, lying). By doing regular exercises with instruments and music they listen carefully and learn to distinguish different rhythms and walk accordingly as well as make short and fast movements, long and slow gestures and stand, sit or lie in different levels of body positions. They learn to distinguish different melodies and are able to present them in various ways by their reactions. By listening to music, they are able to distinguish some basic colours and express the feelings. They are able to transform a picture or a painting into the space. Music and instruments, when combined with roleplay, help the children to perform in a more natural way and add an extra dimension to their learning. Simple drawings connected to the music give children a chance to express their creativity as well. (Video 11: Music, body, space, © Bernarda Avsenik)
Last but not least, project work is another important way of teaching young learners. It can be carried out within one lesson, during a full week or month of classes or even as a year-long project. They are usually a product of the integration of different subjects, often either CLIL-oriented or dealing with some festivals or cultural background or some global issue. This is a meaningful way of learning for the children as they can experience different ways of learning and/or work in groups as well as peer-learning. They can also develop mutual cooperation and a sense of solidarity within their class group.
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The text presents a multisensory approach, based on storytelling with some innovative techniques, which can be used when teaching English to young learners. Through storytelling, combined with songs, nursery rhymes and action games, it explains how to use various strategies, methodologies and techniques and incorporate them into a unique and successful way of teaching. The text also deals with the use of music, rhythm, gestures, miming as well as facial expressions and space. Elements of CLIL and integration with other subjects of GE and a multicultural approach are pointed out.
multisensory approach, storytelling, integration, multicultural approach, CLIL, young learners, English
 All the activities described in the article are taken from the author’s practical work and/or publications listed in a Bibliography.