Volume V- 2000

Story Grammars and Oral Fluency
by Dafne Gonzalez

         Dafne Gonzalez is Associate Professor of English at Universidad Simon Bolivar in Caracas, Venezuela. She is involved in the supervision and education of elementary and high school teachers. Her research interests include reading, methodology, evaluation, and content-based instruction. She holds a master's degree in applied linguistics.

"No queremos gramática, queremos hablar inglés! "
(We don't want grammar, we want to speak English)
- Venezuelan High School Student "

         Promoting oral fluency in EFL contexts is a difficulty faced by teachers at all levels, but it is more evident in elementary and high schools where class size is usually large. Although students develop some listening and reading comprehension abilities, they rarely acquire the ability to speak well and with ease. Since they do not have many opportunities to communicate in the target language, their motivation decreases. The use of stories--narratives and narrative discourse structures--to enhance recall seemed a viable way to increase motivation and promote oral fluency while reinforcing other skills. The first step towards implementing this approach was to convince and train the teachers. In this article, I describe the in-service training program that was designed for seventeen EFL teachers, to get them to use story grammars.

What Are Story Grammars?

         Just as a grammar is a way of describing language, so a story grammar is a way of describing a story. All languages have syntax, morphology and phonology, just as stories have settings, themes, plots and resolutions. Story grammars are tools that can be used to increase students skills in listening to and retelling stories. The description below includes the most important components of the three-session workshop attended by the teachers. Since the process that they went through to discover story grammars was a crucial precursor to their acceptance of the grammars as a useful teaching tool, the reader is asked to follow their search in these pages.

Benefits Shown in Recent Research

         Research has shown that the structure of expository and narrative texts can facilitate first and second language readers recall of events (Carrell 1984, Mandler and Johnson 1977, Meyer 1975, Ross 1986, Thorndyke 1977). Riggenbach (1990) states that discourse analysis techniques can provide opportunities for learners to engage in real communication while also focusing on form at all levels (p. 153). Palencia (1997) found that after teaching a story grammar model to a group of elementary school students of English as a foreign language, they not only increased their recall of events, but also their oral fluency. Research has also shown that content-based instruction enhances students' verbal interaction in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) contexts (Gonzalez 1996, 1997).


         The goal of the program was to motivate teachers to use story grammars in their classes, to help students develop oral fluency in English while reinforcing the other skills of the language. This was carried out by helping teachers:

(1) to reflect and become aware of
(a) the role literature has played in language teaching,
(b) the reasons for using literature in EFL, and
(c) the use of stories in EFL classrooms;
(2) to use story grammars to retell and analyze stories heard or read;
(3) to devise methodological guidelines and teaching strategies to use stories and story grammars in their classrooms; and
(4) to select, create and adapt their own classroom material.

Session One: The Motivational Power of Stories

         While sitting in a semicircle, teachers were asked:

"Have you ever seen colored mice?"
" Look at the ones in this picture; how many do you see?"
"What color are they?"

         They were asked to brainstorm about the title, "Seven Blind Mice". (Young 1992), in order to predict the content of the story. Seven Blind Mice is a fable in which seven colored mice try to identify a strange creature. Each comes with a seemingly unrelated answer until they get together and find that they were describing different parts of an elephant. The moral of the story is that wisdom comes from seeing the whole. The responses of the teachers were written on a flip chart:

"This is the story of seven mice that are blind," "it's the story of how these seven mice became blind,"
"This story is about seven mice, who after becoming blind, could not see their colors,"
"It's about seven mice who developed colors after becoming blind!"

         The teachers began to participate little by little, until everybody had given an opinion. Next, I told the story using the pictures from the book, and changing my voice to impersonate each character. I induced the audience to participate by asking questions.

"What do you think the red mouse saw?"
They replied, "The leg of an elephant," guided by the book's picture.
"But that was not what the red mouse saw; he saw a pillar!"

The teachers laughed. By the end of the story, the teachers were answering questions in chorus.

         As post-telling activities, teachers expressed their opinions about Seven Blind Mice, its title, its content, its moral, and about their initial predictions. The participants discussed how the meaning of the title was not literal, since the mice were not really blind, but "They could not see the forest for the trees". There were different perspectives about the moral:

"Don't give opinions until you know all sides of a problem,"
"Cooperation is fundamental,"
"People should work in groups."

         The teachers were amazed that a children's story had given them so many things to talk about. They discussed how the author had changed the original fable, how small children would be more interested in colored mice, and how the non-literal meaning of the title would be a topic for discussion with adolescents. At this point, the teachers' initial resistance to the training workshops had melted away.

Session Two: The Story Structure Emerges

         When the teachers arrived for the next session, they found stories, posters related to stories, and articles on the teaching of narratives. They had the opportunity to look around before the session began. While sitting in a circle, I asked the teachers to think about the books they had examined, and tell me what kinds they were. They said: fables, fairy tales, folk tales and myths. They were asked to write down something they remembered from narratives they had read. Some of the responses were:

"Once upon a time ...,"
"A long time ago...,"
"Once there was/were...,"
"....and they lived happily ever after,"
"...they got married and were very happy."

         It became evident that what they remembered most were the beginnings and endings of stories. The participants noted that there are certain patterns that repeat themselves in stories. This may be self-evident for native speakers, but language learners lack these expressions in the foreign language, which makes it very difficult for them to start telling or retelling a story. By teaching these expressions as wholes, teachers can give L2 students a tool to break the initial shyness that comes with speaking aloud in front of other people, and to graciously close their discourse.

         I then told the teachers another story, "The Farmer and His Stubborn Animals" (in Thorndyke 1977). It is about a farmer who had a stubborn donkey. In order to get it into its shed, the farmer had to get the cooperation of other animals. Each animal made a request involving yet another animal. I read it and mimed the different actions. I asked a volunteer to retell the story while the others took notes. Everybody wanted to help the volunteer when she seemed to forget parts of the story. She did not like being interrupted, and complained, "I forget the order of the story if you interrupt. Take your notes and be quiet, please." When she was finished with her version of the story, other participants added parts she had forgotten.

         It was at this moment that I introduced the possibility of using storytelling to promote oral fluency by discussing the following quotation: "Getting the class to tell stories should be seen as a fluency-based rather than an accuracy-based activity" (Zaro and Salaberry 1995). Some of the opinions expressed were:

"Stories should be used to have students speak and not to correct their grammar,"
"Remembering all the parts of the story in the correct order is not as important as telling a coherent story,"
"Students will feel freer to speak because they like to tell stories; stories have a sequence and can be told in short sentences,"
"What's important is that students use the target language; accuracy is achieved with practice,"
"When teachers or classmates interrupt to make corrections, students feel inhibited."

         The teachers recognized that they had made their peer nervous (by trying to help her retell the story).

Revisiting the Stories

         The teachers were asked to look through the notes they had taken about their peer's retelling of the Farmer's story in order to check the parts she had mentioned and forgotten. She had forgotten the location, the time, the theme and one of the episodes, underlining the notion that a story grammar is "an idealized internal representation of the parts of a typical story and the relationship among those parts" (Mandler and Johnson 1977: 111). Next, I divided the teachers into groups, and asked them to fill in on a handout (Figure 1) what they remembered from the previous session's story, Seven Blind Mice.

Figure 1. Handout on Story Summary and Analysis
Seven Blind Mice

Setting:          Characters: ______________________________________

                      Location: _________________________________________

                     Time: ____________________________________________

Theme:          Event: ____________________________________________

                     Goal: ______________________________________________

Plot:              Episode 1:                  Subgoal ____________________________

                                                      Attempt ____________________________

                                                      Outcome ___________________________

                      Episode 2:                Subgoal ____________________________

                                                     Attempt ____________________________

                                                     Outcome ___________________________

                     [. . .]

                      Episode 7:            Subgoal ____________________________

                                                  Attempt ____________________________

                                                  Outcome ___________________________

Resolution:     Action: _____________________________________________

                      State: _______________________________________________

                      Moral: ______________________________________________`

         Participants concluded that it was easier to remember the story with the outline. They still couldn't remember the order in which the colored mice appeared in the story, but decided that was not important. It was important to remember the different episodes, the setting and the resolution; if they had to retell the story, they would have more to talk about. One of the teachers put it this way: "It is like having little cells where you store the information you have heard or read." Providing students with such "maps" will enable them to recall more of a story, which in turn can help them become more fluent (utter more words/sentences with less and shorter pauses). We discussed whether this idealized structure was something that we had to learn or if it was innate. The conclusion was that we probably have some unconscious knowledge, developed through all the stories we are read or told in childhood. Only after seeing the model did the teachers understand that most stories have the same basic structure. We concluded that stories have their own discourse pattern and that students should learn these patterns.

         In groups of three, the teachers were given a jig-saw reading of "The Fox and the Crow," a simplified version of Aesop's fable (Holt, Chips and Wallace 1991). In that story, a crow drops its food to the floor while paying attention to the beautiful compliments of a clever fox. The moral is that he who listens to flattery forgets everything else. The teachers were asked to read the pieces, place them in the correct order, and analyze the story structure. During this activity, the teachers were inductively learning a different way to present stories in their own classes. Each group presented the analyzed story, and the whole group then arrived at a new composite analysis.

Figure 2: Story Grammar Handout Completed

The Fox and the Crow

Fox and Crow
Once Upon a Time
Crow found cheese, put it in mouth, flew up to tree
(Implied) To eat the cheese


Episode 1:

Get the Cheese

Flatters Crow
Opens Mouth

Gets Cheese
Cheese Drops

Fox eats the cheese
Fox is happy
Crow learned a lesson

         To sum up the teachers' understanding of story grammars, they were asked to design a graphic organizer that could be given to students to be used with any story they read. In Figure 3 is their graphic.

Figure 3: Story Grammar Model

Steps to solve it

Chatting over Coffee

         In the final activity of Session Two, each group was given a different story to read. When finished, each group took a turn retelling its story. Using the graphic the class had just designed, the listeners checked whether any part of the story structure was missing. Later, while having coffee, teachers shared their experience as storytellers and listeners. They felt it was easy to remember the top structures as a mental outline for their retelling. As a matter of fact, nobody forgot to mention setting, theme and resolution; main episodes were also easily remembered. This kind of activity is especially suitable for large classes, where it is difficult to give all students the opportunity to speak. Retelling stories in pairs or small groups is a viable and motivating alternative.

Session Three: Application of New Knowledge

         In this session, teachers were asked to sum up their learning and prepare to apply it in their classrooms. They noted: "If story grammars help us remember what we have heard or read, they may help our students retain the contents of a story, so that they have more things to say when retelling it." And, "The more elements they remember, the more they will speak." Teachers were divided into elementary and high school groups. Each group produced a detailed list of activities and procedures appropriate for students at the level they taught. These lists were shared among groups and led to the creation of general methodological guidelines. Each class includes four major phases: Motivation, Presentation, Practice, and Evaluation.

         The motivation phase consists of prereading activities to introduce a story to students. Realia, visuals, mimics and questions are recommended to introduce new vocabulary and activate students' background knowledge. In the presentation phase, the teacher tells the story using visuals and body language. Stories from different cultures should be used to give students the opportunity to discuss values and beliefs. Students are asked to retell the story, or to add what others have forgotten. Next, the teacher questions the class about beginnings and ends of stories, and introduces story grammars using visuals. Finally, students are asked to relate each part of the story they have been told to the different parts of the story grammar.

         In the practice phase, students (in groups or pairs) complete story grammar maps for different stories and use them to retell the stories. Students check their peers while they retell the stories. Teachers need to be flexible with errors and mistakes; students should not be interrupted during their retelling for linguistic corrections. In the evaluation phase, students assess themselves and their peers (through the use of rubrics or checklists; portfolios are recommended to keep students' records). These methodological guidelines served as the point of departure for a whole language project that was implemented in the 7th grade sections of the school (Gonzalez 1998). In the other grades, teachers also incorporated story grammars and retelling activities when using stories.


         This teacher training program enabled trainees to become owners of their own knowledge. The participants learned about language acquisition, literature, and the relation between them. Most importantly, different grouping techniques, activities and classroom management techniques were modeled. The teachers used what they had experienced to develop a practical methodology for their classes. This methodology is now being tested to discover the effects of story grammars on EFL students' oral fluency. Some of the teachers summarized the immediate results that they have perceived: "Students feel more motivated to speak; they are always asking when the next story class will be," and "They make copies of the stories to finish reading at home." Any reader who might be interested in trying out this approach or simply in corresponding is invited to get in touch with the author at the Universidad Simon Bolivar; Departmento de Idiomas; Edif. Estudios Generales, Piso; Sartenejas, Baruta; Caracas, Venezuela.


Carrell, P. 1984. "The Effects of Rhetorical Organization on ESL Readers." TESOL Quarterly 18.3: 441-469.

Gonzalez, D. 1996. Interaccion verbal en clases de ingles basadas en contenido: Nivel medio.Unpublished thesis for the Masters degree in Applied Linguistics at Universidad Simon Bolivar, Caracas, Venezuela.

Gonzalez, D. 1997. "Interaccion verbal en clases de ingles basadas en contenido: Nivel medio."Perfiles 18.2: 11-33.

Gonz‡lez, D. 1998. "Using Story Grammars in the EFL High School Classroom: A Whole Language Approach." English Teaching FORUM 36.1: 14-19.

Holt, D., B. Chips and D. Wallace. 1991. Cooperative Learning in the Secondary School: Maximizing Language Acquisition, Academic Achievement and Social Development. National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Mandler, J. and N. Johnson. 1977. "Remembrance of Things Parsed: Story Structure and Recall." Cognitive Psychology 9: 111-151.

Meyer, B. J. 1975. The Organization of Prose and Its Effects on Memory.Amsterdam: North Holland.

Palencia, A. 1997. La gramatica de cuentos y la fluidez oral en la ense-anza de ingles como lengua extranjera. Unpublished thesis for the Masters degree in Applied Linguistics at Universidad Simon Bolivar, Caracas, Venezuela.

Riggenbach, H. 1990. "Discourse Analysis and Spoken Language Instruction." In W. Grabe, ed., Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 11: 152-163.

Ross, S. 1986. "An Experiment With a Narrative Discourse Test." Paper presented at the Language Testing Research Colloquium, Monterey, CA.

Thorndyke, P. 1977. "Cognitive Structures in Comprehension and Memory of Narrative Discourse."Cognitive Psychology 9: 77-110.

Young, E. 1992. Seven Blind Mice. Philomel Books.

Zaro, J. and S. Salaberri. 1995. Storytelling. Oxford: Heinemann.

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