Story Listening? Oh yea!

Dr Beniko Mason.

This post encourages you to try Story Listening, and responds to objections to it.

Story Listening— SL— is a comprehensible input teaching technique developed by Beniko Mason, who taught English to Japanese Uni students, many of whom had failed first-year Uni English. Mason’s students— the “bad” ones— consistently outperformed their traditionally-taught peers, in many cases acquiring twice as quickly as other students.

SL is very simple. The teacher tells a story (ideally, a folktale or sometthing from literature) in the target language and illustrates it on the board by drawing pictures, writing key words, using arrows etc. The teacher can translate and answer any student questions. When this is done, students read the story. Some teachers have students write an summary of the story in their L1. The SL program is supplemented with as much free-choice reading as students have time for. There is no “accountability piece”: the work is done in class, there are few or no quizzes, and students’ homework— should they choose to do it—- is just…reading!

SL does not involve homework, output, grammar (or other) “practice,” grammar instruction (other than the teacher answering student questions). The instructional sequence moves from shorter, simpler stories to longer and more complex ones.

SL is a “pure input” technique, and it works. Read the research here.

Story Listening has many advantages:

  • In my experience, it’s effective, easy and fun, and I regularly use it.
  • It’s also low-prep, and you can use the stories on the https://storiesfirst.org website (you need an email to sign up). This is the least expensive SL method there is.
  • It’s low prep.
  • It generally avoids controversy, because it focuses on folktales and literature, rather than news or teachers’ experiences. People whose students have religious parents will very much appreciate this
  • It is a way for teachers to maintain their target-language skills. SL uses actual real folktales, or abbreviated literary works, so teachers are being exposed to non-learner-focused language.

Here in North America, lots of us want to use SL in our classes. But there are some biiig differences between Mason’s teaching and research context, and those of eg most North American teachers. These differences will (in my experience— your mileage may vary) pose challenges. The differences between Japan and North America— and objections to SL— include

  • Mason’s research does not look at pure beginners.
  • Mason’s students tend to be 19 and up.
  • The Japanese school system is very big on “sit, listen and learn.” In Canada and the US, uh, not so much 😜
  • English is a fairly phonetic language (unlike say Chinese).
  • Neither Mason nor her students have to be “accountable” to anything stupid, such as a set of textbook exercises, or a set of dumb and scheduled exams, etc. They get one big comprehension & writing test at the end of the course.

There have also been other comments. Here are some.

Today’s question: how do we deal with these problems and objections? Answers follow.

1. SL hasn’t been studied/tried with pure beginners. Sure. So, I don’t start with story listening until kids have had about 40 hrs of L2 input. This is enough time for them to implicitly understand sweet 16 verbs, basic sentence & question structure, and some high-freq vocab. This is the platform onto which SL builds a bigger language stack.

The idea is that a basic gut feel for the language will make adding new words easier by reducing the processing load. To illustrate processing load challenges, here are two German sentences:

1. Mark hat einen Fisch.

2. Mark ist gestern nach Hamburg mit seinem Kumpel gegangen.

You could probably figure that the first sentence means Mark has a fish. The only really new word is einen. So it’s 25% unfamiliar.

In the second— which has the two obvious words Mark and Hamburg— you have 6 totally new words, and you might have guessed that ist means “is.” So this is 66% unfamiliar words. We also have some weird word order. That sentence literally translates as “Mark is yesterday to Hamburg with his buddy gone.”

Sooo…when the new-word ratio is low, we have much easier processing

There are teachers who start SL with beginners. You can talk to them (and to Beniko Mason) on Facebook here.

2. Mason’s students are older, and have been trained to sit, listen and be quiet. Sure! So, we do a few shorter stories instead of one long one in a class. Or, we do SL for part of a class only. We have brain breaks! We do some PQA when a story is done (point to board, and ask basic questions). We can add PQA to the story. No, these modifications of Mason’s method are not ideal, but we do what works in our context.

Mason has correctly commented that anything other than C.I. isn’t helping acquisition nearly as much as does pure C.I. However, our objectives may well include generating output (for admin/observation & teacher eval purposes), and they will certainly include classroom management. So we might well have to mix other things in to SL.

3. English is fairly phonetic, so SL won’t work for non-phonetic languages. True. For F.P.I.G.S. teachers, SL works (in part) because literate L1 learners can read (and there are cognates). SL will not work for eg English L1s acquiring say Chinese. You can’t read a Chinese character, sound it out, and map that sound onto your understanding of spoken Chinese.

If you taught Thai, Hebrew or Hindi— non-Roman alphabetic languages— to English L1s, you would want to ensure a massive amount of vocab-limited input (aural and written) before you started SL, and people would have to be able to read. If ppl cannot read the board, they have problems.

4. There is no “visible accountability”— i.e. there’s no evidence the students are “doing anything” with the language— in a SL class. This is a problem for teachers being observed/tied to a specific curriculum.

If you are tied to a stupid textbook sequence, and/or have dumb grammar-focused exams, SL is not going to work that well.

If you are being observed, and your observer doesn’t understand SLA, I would do something other than SL (unless observer has an open mind 🤣🤣). If they do understand SLA, we tell them this is CI delivery, followed up with reading, and we could— during the reading phase— ask some questions to keep kids visibly focused.

If you must occasionally have kids show output, I would do some TPRS-style stories, and make (and write up) OWI stories. Especially in Levels 1 and 2, these will give kids the simple language chunks they need to throw down some stories or descriptions.

5. There is “no assessment of any kind.” This is not true. Although Mason, with her college students, can avoid tests etc until the final, we can easily do tests to assess comprehension. You can do a dictation to assess listening. You can also have students either summarise or translate the written version of the story. This can generate two marks/week.

My experience with Story Listening was at a demo with Mason herself, who told a very short story in Japanese to us (she wrore the Japaense words with Roman letters) and none of us knew any Japanese. I was lost within two minutes, because I saw pictures, and heard and read words, but they didn’t go together. I got the gist of the story but found the language hard to follow.

When she was done, I counted about 25 words. I could follow the story via pictures and I knew a couple of words— ojo (princess) and shinrin (forest)— but I would not have been able to read a Roman-alphabet version. Japanese has weird word-order and question “rules” and few cognates.

From this I concluded that SL would work best if students had some base knowledge. This would focus mental energy on new stuff, rather than having to focus on everything new all at once.

Anyway, overall, Story Listening is fun, effective, low-prep, and low-cost, and is therefore well worth learning and using. 😁😁

4 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I went to a Story LIstening training a year or two ago. I loved the idea of it being low-cost and low-prep. I love pulling out a story for those days when its an “oops forgot to plan something/make copies for today.” The kids seem to enjoy it especially when its a familiar story. I told The Three LIttle PIgs last week and even my toughest boys were engaged. I am exceptionally lucky that I am not tied to a text and can create my own curriculum as long as I am meeting standards. I am actually encouraged to think outside the box when planning as I work in an alternative school where regular school just didn’t work for my students. I have been wanting to move towards telling more stories instead of following any of the other awesome curricula because I am on a cart and travel between buildings. Too much time wasted setting up the computer to access necessary slides etc. Class flow works so much better when I come in the room, greet the student, chat a bit about whatever and move on from there. Also, dry erease marker much easier to carry than a laptop. My struggle has been how do I come up with grades for the grade book and what to do with wiggly high school students that can’t sit for more than 5 minutes. Nothing like a good old fashioned dictee .

  2. I’m a grade 7 teacher at an academically gifted boys junior high school in Japan. I have classes of almost 50 kids (35-40 is standard in Japan, my class sizes are an exception, even here). I have class three times a week and my Japanese coworker teaches grammar and translation class three times a week. I’ve been trying a mix of C.I. and non-C.I. activities in my classes to increase the input my students receive and I’ve had good results, so far, albeit with some caveats.

    I find SL often works better than TPRS at classroom management simply because with such large classes TPRS with student actors can result in a little too much excitement. I don’t use fables but an ongoing story series I write each week based on our school mascot character focused around, but not limited to, the weekly grammar points they’ve studied with my coworker. It’s kind of similar to Victorian era serials where a new episode is published each week. I’ve tried purely aural input but I find that without something in front of them many students lose attention so I usually give the written version of the story for them to follow with.

    I also use some TPRS techniques like circling, PQA and pop-up grammar through the course of the story. It’s not a pure input class, but compared to the 7 sentences dialogue they might do if they were working out of the textbook I’m providing them with 1-2 A4 pages worth of English input over a 50 minute class. There are maybe 10-20% of students who are disengaged or having side conversations and another 20-30% who are actively trying to parse everything I say into Japanese, but the majority seem to be actively listening.

    SL was great, but working the same storytelling methods into Werewolf (or Mafia if you prefer) in my class resulted even higher levels of engagement, even though it came at the expense of input quantity.

    I definitely agree that even if SL is the best method for language acquisition, my goals aren’t purely about acquisition. Classroom management and turning 12 year old beast-children into people is one goal. Having students practice public speaking, logical thinking and structured presentation of content is another. Japanese classes tend to be very lecture focused, even in junior high, with tests focused primarily on information retention. Activities like essay writing, speeches, debate, performing skits, writing poetry, etc may not be the most efficient way for increasing English fluency, but they are building important academic skills that the students may otherwise not be getting in their first language classes. I know some people might recommend that I assess those skills in English class by having them use their first language, but I’m a native English speaker, so even though I’m fluent, I’d be less confident in assessing their Japanese.

    I think it’s important for us all to try various methods and find what works best for us and our own students and our goals. One example is that I have students study vocab lists for homework and I do daily vocab tests (over 50 words/ week). Not because I think it’s the most effective use of time, but because not only do their parents expect it, but the students expect it, too. My high achieving students are motivated by quantifiable assessments, lists of information to memorize is how most of them are used to studying. Also, it gives me a list of “learnt vocab”, that even if it’s not truly “acquired”, makes introducing those items into classes later easier.

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