Once Upon a Time: Using Stories to Teach ESL

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When I was a student in elementary school, I used to love “story time.” Some of my earliest and fondest memories as a child were sitting around in a circle and having the teacher read stories to the class. I’ll never forget the time my Kindergarten teacher cried while reading us “Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. Stories are powerful. Story time was the best!

I love stories, whether they be novels, movies, or a friend’s adventure. So, naturally, as a teacher I like using stories in my classes.

Here are a few examples of how I have used stories as an ESL Teacher.

 1. Stories to Teach Receptive Language Skills: Listening and Reading

I once made up a story for my class where I became the character “Keith the Koala”. I created the story in a Power Point presentation, and added one sentence and picture per slide. For example, Slide 1: Once upon a time, there was a Koala named Keith. Slide 2: One day, Keith the Koala fell from his tree. Slide 3: What do you predict will happen next? Slide 4: Next, Keith the Koala started crying. Slide 5: Then, a tiger in the distance heard Keith the Koala crying. Slide 6: The tiger started approaching Keith the Koala. Slide 7: What do you predict will happen next? And so on…

I asked the students to read each sentence in turn. They were practicing their reading and listening skills. They were also practicing the skills of listening and reading to make predictions. Some of their predictions were hilarious. In the end, it turns out the tiger heard Keith the Koala crying, and just came to help him get back up his tree. They all lived happily ever after. Bet you didn’t see that coming!

2. Stories to Teach Productive Skills: Speaking and Writing

      One way I have used stories to get students to practice their speaking skills is to have them find pictures on their social media of a significant day in their lives, turn to a partner, and recount the story behind the picture. This activity has gotten my students talking about everything from their wedding day, to a time they won a sports trophy, to their first day in Canada.

A way I have used stories to get students practicing their writing skills is to get them to write about a time they overcame a challenge. In one class, I told the story of how I had to miss two weeks of TESL college because I needed to get nose surgery. It set me back, and I had to fight hard to make up for the time I missed. I eventually overcame this challenge. Then, I turned the question to the students. I asked them to free-write about a time they overcame a challenge in their life. The stories they shared with me were incredible and inspirational.


Story time was always my favourite time as a student in elementary school. However, I don’t think story time should just be limited to teaching children. I feel stories are a powerful educational tool, no matter the age or level of your students. Use stories to teach ESL, and you’ll live happily ever after!

Have you ever used storytelling to teach ESL? How so?

Hello! My name is Keith Hunt. I have been teaching ESL on various contracts for about four years now. I still consider myself somewhat of a rookie, but hope to one day become a veteran ESL teacher. Over the course of these past four years, I have had the pleasure of having the world come to me; I have worked with amazing international students from Mexico, China, Brazil, South Korea, India, Saudi Arabia, Panama, and Yemen. Sometimes I am a rockstar teacher, and other times I fall flat on my face. I try to learn from both experiences by writing reflections on my successes and failures as an ESL Teacher. I have decided to turn these reflections into blogs, in hopes that my insights may also prove useful to the TESL Ontario community at large. I look forward to starting a virtual dialogue with all of you: my fellow TESL Ontario colleagues!

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