ELTChat Summary: Spoken Narratives and Anecdotes in the Language Classroom

Kittens in a box © ELTPics

As I enjoyed writing up a previous #ELTChat summary on the use of surprise in the classroom, I decided to volunteer to write up another summary for the Twitter discussion group.  On the 19 December 2012, the discussion group #ELTChat decided to focus on the use of spoken narrative and anecdotes in the language classroom.  Upon tackling this discussion, many tweets initially questioned whether teachers incorporated anecdotes in the classroom.  Some tweets suggested there was a mixed response:

TEFLGeek: Yes, anecdotes have featured in my classes / No, not as a lesson focus per se.

LizziePinard: Good question – does anyone do it? I have – it works well with learners who enjoy speaking (e.g. Spanish).

Shaunwilden: Guess i am the same mainly used to for another purpose rather than be the whole lesson.

TheTeacherJames: Anecdotes are a fundamental part of conversation and small talk, so I guess I encourage them without realising it.

MarjorieRosenbe: I tell stories and anecdotes all the time.

At this point in the conversation, other contributors agreed that they provided anecdotes in the classroom and TheTeacherJames suggested that anecdotes were ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ and that these anecdotes or jokes were associated with a ‘natural’ context instead of a ‘traditional’ classroom.  Towards this part of the discussion, some teachers shared their experiences of anecdotes in coursebooks:

TEFLGeek: Anecdotes feature prominently in the Inside Out series, but I haven’t used that since Poland (six years ago).

LizziePinard: think also in Natural English Upper Int there’s a bit.

One point raised during the discussion related to teachers unwilling to incorporate anecdotes in the classroom due to teacher talking time, whilst another contributor suggested that teachers could encourage students to share anecdotes.  It is assumed that ‘teacher talking time’ is related to the quantity which teachers are speaking, thereby curbing ‘student talking time’ but I guess the point is related to ‘quality talking time’.

David_Boughton: Are we too discouraged to tell stories now that we are obsessed with lowering teacher talk time?

JennyJohnson10: and do we mean students anecdoting away? or teachers – seems to be what has been mentioned so far.

One contributor rose to Jenny’s assertion that most of the ELTChat focused solely on teachers providing anecdotes with their experience of getting students to share anecdotes during the lesson.  However, there was one point raised that considered the other learners in the classroom if a learner was sharing an anecdote.

BobK99: I used to get student to tell anecdote and record it. The we’d play it back, both (1:1) commenting/discussing/improving.

TEFLGeek: biggest problem with sts telling anecdotes is getting other sts to listen. One st speaking to class can be boring for others.

Another contributor highlighted that sharing anecdotes could forge rapport with the learners in the classroom.  It would also suggest that this ‘slipping off the cloak’ of a teacher would humanise the classroom and that ‘natural’ based lessons would encourage this ‘bottom-up’ focus and one good way to generate rapport and humanism in the classroom is to incorporate anecdotes in the classroom.

Steven_odonnell: my own anecdotes in the classroom let me slip off the cloak of being a teacher and become human, forging rapport with ss.

TheTeacherJames: Yes, telling anecdotes is a great way to build rapport. Breaks down barriers, makes you more accessible and real.

Nevertheless, one question raised during the discussion is what to do with teacher or learner focused anecdotes.  Some of the contributors to the discussion provided some interesting lesson ideas, with some ideas suggestions that pair-work or pyramid conversation is more beneficial than one learner sharing an anecdote to the class.

MarjorieRosenbe: Do it in small groups – have them do it as snowball effect and repeat last one they heard, etc.

Annabooklover: One solution to this is to pair them up! Then there is also more effective use of time.

TEFLGeek: I do use pairwork a lot!  But I think there needs to be a structure around the anecdote.

MarjorieRosenbe: Getting ideas here – maybe give out ‘secret’ words and they have to listen for them in anecdote. Will try it and let you know.

There was a wealth of ideas for using anecdotes during a lesson without much indication towards ‘dictagloss’ and had direct experience of telling an anecdote to a group of university lecturers about picking up the wrong passport when travelling to Romania.  Travel problems were mentioned during the discussion as potential anecdotal material:

GetAheadinEng: Anecdotes about travel problems always worked well when teaching at a school in central London!

MarjorieRosenbe: Also anecdotes about travel problems or worst presentations ever seen.

At this point in the conversation (which focused solely on speaking practice for learners and teachers sharing experiences), it was directed towards using anecdotes as listening material.

TheTeacherJames: We’ve talked a lot about anecdotes as a form of speaking, but how would you use them as a listening activity?

OyaJimbo: As L activity, draw the map or connect characters, events, timeline it.

MarjorieRosenbe: Like I mentioned – have them listen for ‘secret’ words or give oral summary and pass on to others.

ShaunWilden: Isn’t understanding the anecdote evidence of listening?

This naturally progressed to the checking of understanding, with some suggestions such as ‘dictagloss’, grammar dictation, or ask leading questions “What would you have done?”, etc.  Towards the end of the ELTChat discussion, one lesson idea was for teachers or learners to tell an anecdote and get learners to guess whether they were true or false with one final idea to steal an anecdote if it was better than yours:

Jo_Cummins: Has anyone mentioned the ‘truth, truth, lie’ game? Good for anecdotes…

TheTeacherJames: Yes, I like the idea of a mingle where you can steal someone elses anecdote if it’s better than yours.

Unfortunately, this was the end of the ELTChat discussion.  To top it off, there was a wonderful suggestion for a lesson idea or further reading to consider when referring to anecdotes in the classroom. I have added two additional books which I consider suitable for getting those learners to talk.  Finally, it was a relief to see that there was no mention of Dogme ELT in the talk and a conversation-driven approach to anecdotes but “Teaching Unplugged” would be a wonderful source for those looking at ideas to develop anecdotes in the lesson for use during classes.  Again, a big thank you to all those at ELTChat for giving me the opportunity to write up this summary and it is over to my readers:

  • How do you use, or have you ever used, anecdotes in the classroom?
  • What is the advantages/disadvantages of anecdotes during the lesson?
  • How could teachers develop anecdotes for (future) lessons?
  • Are there specific classes which anecdotes are more suitable for?

Further Reading
Thornbury, S. (2005) “How To Teach Speaking
Klippel, F. (1985) “Keep Talking: Communicative Fluency Activities for Language Teaching
Ur, P. (1981) “Discussions That Work: Task-centred Fluency Practice

Lesson Ideas
Marisa Constantinides “True Story Worksheet” 
Martin Sketchley The Wrong Passport

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