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The first session I saw at IATEFL in Harrogate, following the TDSIG pre-conference event, was given by David Heathfield and titled ‘Student storytellers: retelling a tale using mental imagery’. Stories are something that interest me greatly and I’m keen to explore how they can be used in the language classroom, both as a means of exposing my students to the language, but also as a way of promoting creative and imaginative work with them.

David works at INTO University of Exeter, a language teaching centre with the purpose of supporting international students at the university working on developing academic study skills and high levels of language required for studying at a higher education institution in the UK. At the start of the workshop, David also mentioned his recent publication, Storytelling with Our Students, which is part of the DELTA Publishing Teacher Development Series.

David Heathfield

David started his session by telling us a few things that would feature in a story that he would tell us: 2 flocks of sheep, two shepherds, a lamb, a fence, and something unexpected (?)

I thought this was a good start, following a fairly typical lesson frame that would pique our interest (or our students’ interest, were we doing this in a language class). I like stories, and I can see a few familiar elements to this one we’re about to hear, so I’m hooked…

Then a chance to talk to the person next to us and share our ideas about what would come up in the story. These moments, especially at the beginning of a workshop session can sometimes be a bit flat – it’s the first session of the day following the plenary, so the participants are just settling down, sometimes ideas don’t spring to mind that quickly – but there was a hubbub of conversation, ended when David caught our attention again with the use of a bell.

We were then told the story by David himself, who had heard it from a friend, an Australian living in Wales: ‘There were two shepherds, and they’d grown up together since boyhood…’ (see below for the video to hear the rest of the story for yourself).

I like this story. The countryside setting (as I imagined it) and the images of shepherds and sheep for some reason seemed reminiscent of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat… I thought that David is obviously a practised storyteller, and well-versed in telling this tale in particular. I’ve dabbled a bit with storytelling in my lessons, but not to this level… I listen and let my mind wander as David narrates…

After telling the story (and receiving a smatter of well-deserved applause), we are then invited to visualise different scenes from the story, guided in this endeavour by David. He asks questions, gives us alternative, asking us to imagine the sounds, feelings and other sensations included in our imagined version of the story. We’re then invited to tell each other our imagined images, comparing them to see what is similar but more importantly, what is different.

This is familiar ground. I’ve done visualisation work with students before. This is generally a fruitful activity, since our imagined scenes, ideas, etc are going to be different as none of us has exactly the same imagination.

David then asked us to draw 6 images from the story, 6 pictures that tell the story.

Again, I like this. Drawing is a key part of my classroom repertoire. I actually really like drawing in the classroom, and I try to get my students into this mindset as well.

We’re then asked to use our images to tell each other the story as we remember it. In this way we can use the images we’ve drawn (however great our artistic talent may be) as a reminder of the different stages of the story as we tell it. We’re engaging different elements in expressing our version of what we’ve heard. Again, the room becomes a hubbub of noise.

The soul never thinks without an image


David then went on to discuss the features of using storytelling in the language classroom:

  • mental imagery is given free rein in the safe environment that this approach can foster when students listen openly to each other
  • there is building of fluency (both of language and of comfort in storytelling) as students imitate the teacher and then find their voice
  • students may make up for limitations caused by their knowledge of language by
    • using emotions
    • using body language
    • using their imagination

David then went on to ask us what we imagined as he told the story: still or moving images, in colour or monochrome, true-to-life images or cartoon-like images, etc. Did we imagine things that weren’t actually included in the original description of the story? Interesting questions and points to think about.

I wholeheartedly recommend watching David’s talk, which you can see embedded from the IATEFL Harrogate Online  website below. Why not try out storytelling in your classroom?!

David Heathfield – Student storytellers: retelling a tale using mental imagery, IATEFL 2014 Wednesday 2 April