Meaning Matters

Guiding the development of young readers through the use of meaningful literacy experiences


Finding Your Voice in America: Storytelling with ELL Students

Posted by meaningmatters on November 23, 2014 at 7:30 PM

Stories are the core of what our relationships are founded on. They connect us and help us relate to other people. Think about when you are sitting around the table with a group of friends, you share personal experiences, recount someone else’s story, tell jokes, all which can be thought of as a form of storytelling. Without the voice to tell a story, a social piece would be missing. Storytelling in my classroom has not only benefited all of the children in my class, it has given the English Language Learners (ELL) in my class a safe environment within which to practice a new language, connect with peers and listen to examples of story language. I believe that the motivation to share stories with one's peers has been the key component to the rate in which one child’s English has flourished in my class.

What advantages does storytelling offer English Language Learners?

·   Safe 1:1 interaction- It is much safer for a child to practice English and take risks with their language in a 1:1 setting

·   No consequence for miscommunicated information- Stories can be true or fictitious therefore there is no ramification if the message being told is miscommunicated, unlike if they can’t get across their message that they need to use the bathroom

·   An opportunity to share one's story without having to voice it first hand- Children can tell their story and know that the teacher will read it to the class and factors such as accent and mispronunciation won’t be a factor

·   A means through which to share pieces of one's true personal information- Children often infuse some of their real life events into their fictitious stories. This way they can begin to connect with their peers and share personal information about themselves

·   An intrinsically engaging opportunity to listen to language- Children are genuinely interested in listening to the stories being told because they are stories from their peers


A Little Girl's Journey from Silence to Dialogue

Vilde is a little girl in my classroom who moved from Norway to the US in August of 2011.  Upon arriving in the US she spoke very little English and her parents said that most of her experiences with English came from television and a PC game that focused mainly on vocabulary. Vilde’s parents said that they were quite liberal with the amount of time she watched TV, however she would get frustrated and demand translation. They said that when Vilde started kindergarten they think she “knew quite a few words -- but didn't have the clue how to use them to create meaning.”

Kindergarten began the first week of September and before long Vilde, like all of the children in the class, would run to get her story journal. Vilde clutched her stuffed animal and used mainly gestures to communicate her needs. On September 22, Vilde began using her story journal and looking at her journal from then to now reveals an amazing account of her language development from single words to stories that have complex structure and dialogue.

Even when Vilde was hesitant to use language with her peers and was in what is referred to as the silent stage (Stephen Krashen), she would raise her hand with enthusiasm to have her story journals shared. Here is an account of the progression of Vilde's language in her story journal. It is followed by the exact sample and a short video where you hear her spoken language.

9/22 Single Words- numbers (three-3)

10/13 Simple sentences nouns and adjectives (mouse-purple)

10/14 Pronouns and adjectives (She is small. She is yellow. She is young)

11/3 Rote Story phrases ("Once upon a time," and, "The End"), complete sentences, Story structure

11/4 Story with clear beginning, middle, and end

1/5 Begins to use dialogue in stories (the girl said, “I love dogs”;)

1/13 Begins to self-correct language in stories

1/13 Shares her own story orally, reading her journal to the class


9/22/10 (Nine, five, three, ten, four)

  10/13/11 (I have a dog. Mouse-purple, bear-yellow, bee-black, cat-pink)

  10/14/11 (Fifo- My dog at home. She is yellow. She is small. She is quiet. She is young than me. )

10/20/11 (Once night I went outside. I went to the playground. I played with my friend. we went on the slide and monkey bars. We ate fish and pizza for dinner. Then we went to bed.)

  11/3/11 (Once upon a time there was a little girl. The little girl was walking to her house. In the house there was two dogs. These dogs were really fun and sweet. And the little girl was me. The End)


( I apologize if the video link doesn't work. I have had trouble uploading on Webs and will get it resolved soon.

I am not saying that overnight these skills are learned. I know there is a learning curve and that Vilde may have had these language skills long before she shared them in her stories. But what is exciting to me is that over a period of days she increasingly showed progress in the language she was using in her stories. Storytelling provided an arena for her to practice her language in a meaningful way. It has also provided a fabulous and authentic language sample. 

The more frequent a child tells a story, the more easily and fluently he or she speaks. Storytelling has provided a daily opportunity for English Language Learners in my classroom to practice speaking and listening skills and increase not only aural comprehension but also oral fluency and expressiveness. Because storytelling is engaging and non-threatening I believe it increases a child’s motivation, risk-taking, and ability to learn.

Vilde enthusiastically chose to have every single one of her stories shared with her peers. On January 13th she asked to share her own story and she stood with pride in front of her friends and read her complex story.



Categories: Storytelling

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