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The Power of Narrative, Part 1

by Terry Phillips


Why should we use narratives with language learners? The use of continuing stories in ELT coursebooks has fallen out of fashion since I came into the business – sorry, profession – in the 1970s. This seems to me to be a great shame. Narratives are very powerful as a language learning tool, in so many ways.


Developing reading and listening skills

Let’s deal with the obvious first. Narratives are perfect vehicles for practising prediction, the key receptive skill. In L1, a reader or listener is always ahead of the text. Receivers predict, in their heads, what is coming next, read or listen to the next section and correct their hypothesis accordingly. This is the definition of active reading and listening. We must develop this skill in our ELT students, and narratives enable the teacher to constantly check that students are, indeed, ahead of the text, allowing focus to move from next word to next phrase to next sentence to next discourse point.


Recruitment to learning

A second powerful benefit of narratives is that, by definition, they have a story arc, which means that we can provide hooks, e.g., What happens next? to keep the learner interested in reading on. We know that reading in a foreign language can make a valuable contribution to independent learning, so the motivational power of narrative is important. A good narrative draws the reader or listener into the events of the story, and, if well-written, into the lives of the central characters. Students want to know how the action evolves, and what the protagonist and antagonist do next. It is rare in the emotional desert of the ELT classroom that students are genuinely involved in presentation or practice activities, but this involvement is a natural by-product of using narratives.



To be continued next time. Meanwhile, find Innova Press Readers and other ways to get children reading and enjoying it at!

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