Volume V - 2000

ESL Student Storytellers as Cultural Diplomats
by Kim Hughes Wilhelm

         Dr. Kim Hughes Wilhelm is Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Curriculum Coordinator for the Center for English as a Second Language at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Kim also works as a curriculum consultant in the USA and abroad.

Listening to stories helps students develop their ability to understand the spoken language, become aware of cultural values different from their own, sharpen their memory skills, develop their ability to predict upcoming actions and events, and discriminate different story genres and storytelling styles.
Telling stories provides opportunities for students to speak the foreign language creatively, to integrate information and knowledge they learned from other sources, and to become more self- confident in their ability to express themselves spontaneously.
-James M. Hendrickson (1992)

         Adult students in our intensive English program have taken on the roles of storytellers, and their elementary audiences at nearby schools are delighted. The children seem to have become aware of different cultural values and to have gained empathy for non-native speakers of English. Interacting eagerly both during the story and in follow up activities, the youngsters were aware of the limited English proficiency of the storytellers, but communication was positively perceived by both. The exchange was, in fact, enhanced by the children's supplying vocabulary and gently correcting pronunciation.

         Although the adults functioned at a low intermediate level (approximate TOEFL range of 400-440), they successfully focused on the goal of teaching about their home countries and took on the roles of global awareness diplomats. They drew upon their own experiences in areas such as family life and schooling to supplement their planned activities and to respond to the children's questions. In this way, they integrated their knowledge and used English creatively and in authentic, information-sharing interactions. Perhaps most importantly, they built their self-confidence and were highly motivated to record their experiences in journal writing and to share them with their classmates and ESL teachers. This was easily seen by comparing their attitudes on the ride to the schools and on the trip back, when they were excited, animated and full of stories about their interactions with the American children.


         Videos of the school visits were presented during an end-of-term exhibit to other students in the Intensive English Program. These adults were surprisingly confident and eager to speak about their experiences with area television and newspaper reporters who came to interview them. A number of the adult students asked for copies of the videotapes and photographs of the school visits to send to relatives back home. Several commented that this experience was a treasured and unforgettable memory. One student from Taiwan said:

         I was excited to visit the children and introduce my country. However, when I went to the school, I began to feel nervous because I had never seen so many children looking at me. But during the presentation, I felt more and more comfortable....I often think about the school visit now. I learned how to introduce myself and my country in English. Then I could stand in front of many people to talk about something. That is not learned by me in my country....This is an unforgettable experience.

         The ESL adults were asked, "How much did the school trips help you improve your spoken English?" The majority responded with either "Quite a bit" or "A lot," including such comments as "You must depend on yourself to speak and sometimes to get a new word from the children," and "I can be brave to talk to many people." One commented that "the trip to the school let me talk with a lot of people and now I trust myself to talk and talk. I am confident now." One of the Korean adults commented that the visit "made me nervous...and determined to study English hard. I can't forget this school visit forever." After his first visit to a school, an adult from Panama wrote:

         Everyone has different kinds of experience in his life. Sometimes those experiences can be bad or good, but school visit #1 has been my favorite. When people are learning a new language, the dream most important to them is demonstrating all that they have learned. Visiting a school and speaking with children is a good way for demonstrating that you really are learning....I think that it is a nice idea that helps the ESL students lose fear to speak with Americans.

         Elementary school teachers commented similarly on the positive interactions and sharing that occurred. For example: The adult visitor--call him "Sam"--had a good story prepared for the children. They enjoyed it and interacted appropriately when Sam asked them questions or requested that they predict what would happen next. The children had a lot of questions to ask and were interested in the answers.

First Steps in the Project

         Orientation to the public library and selection of an appropriate traditional tale from the adult's home country were among the first steps of the project. (Excerpts are provided in the Appendix to suggest the level and content of the stories chosen.) The students then worked in the creative speaking class on pronunciation and presentation skills. They also planned and located props and materials for the cultural activities that they led during final visits to the schools. In the third week of the term, a professional storyteller visited each class to share group management and story-telling techniques. It was obvious that our adult students consciously applied techniques learned from the librarian and the storyteller as they worked on their own performances. As they became more confident, some began to intersperse story telling with story reading.

Visits to the Schools

         The first visits to the schools were about 30-45 minutes long. Second (and final) visits involved returning to the same classrooms to conduct hands-on cultural activities such as making flags, teaching language, working with maps and geography, playing a game from the adult's country, and trying on traditional clothing. As follow-up, journal writing assignments were made for the adult students: they were to reflect on their own attitudes and feelings about the project. One commented:

         I thought the children were disobeying their teachers, but really it was vice-versa. I was thinking that the teachers were so strict and impatient, but really I made an error in judgment because the teachers were kind to the children and kept the class from becoming boring. In conclusion, all what I can say is that I'm sorry for my errors in information but nobody can see or mention the differences except if they make a visit like this.

         I thought the children were disobeying their teachers, but really it was vice-versa. I was thinking that the teachers were so strict and impatient, but really I made an error in judgment because the teachers were kind to the children and kept the class from becoming boring. In conclusion, all what I can say is that I'm sorry for my errors in information but nobody can see or mention the differences except if they make a visit like this. Back at the University The TESL professors experimented with ways to debrief their adult students and discuss the school visits for further language development. Typically, two sections were combined for a large meeting after the visits, with adults from one class describing the school they had visited, their presentations, and the atmosphere of the school. Since the two sections had visited different schools and would be going the following week to the other school, this seemed to help them prepare mentally for the visit to the second school. Pictures and video clips were given to each school and also displayed at our Center's end-of-term exhibit of all student work. Some photographs from the visits were included in our web site on the internet. Our address is http://www.siu.edu/~cesl/


         In this, the third year of implementation, the school visit program continues to improve. The newest idea is to encourage adult students to volunteer as classroom reading partners for the elementary students in the weeks before their first "official" visit. They could take turns reading aloud to a partner while observing and being part of the classroom environment. This would enable them to get to know teachers and students before having to be "on stage" themselves. Another innovation is to ask the elementary school children to write or draw about the experience in the last few minutes of the final visit.

Final Comments from the Adult Students

         Global awareness and an interest in the different cultures represented were high on the list of comments from adult students. Some noted cultural similarities. A Taiwanese student said:

         I thought my country's primary school is different from American primary school before I went there. However, I knew that now it is very similar to my country. What do children like? They like singing, dancing, and playing. All of the children in the world are like them.

A Korean adult had a somewhat different reaction:

         Most of all, the atmosphere of the class is very different from Korean schools. The children are more active than Korean children. And it is very strange for me to teach American children about my country....We have very different cultures and have much cultural gap. We don't understand each other sometimes. We have to make effort to learn about other culture.

A journal entry written by one of the ESL adult students sums up the entire experience:

         After going to the elementary school, I asked myself what do I think now? I introduced my country to those children successfully. I let them know a lot of things that are happening in Taiwan. I became the communication bridge between Western and Eastern culture. Not only this, but also I have learned something from this trip. I do know that there are a lot of differences between Eastern students and Western students. Those children showed their questions and their opinions a lot more than my country's students do. And I also learned how to perform a speech in front of people bravely. I think this is the biggest thing that I've learned.
After I finished this assignment, I know that there are a lot of different cultures which exist in the world. To understand them and to compare with my country culture are a lot of fun. Next week, when I go to another elementary school, I will know how to make my speech better.


         Special thanks to Paula Tabor, Projects Coordinator, and to the other teachers who worked so hard on this project. Special thanks as well to the parents, students and principals at Parrish and Lewis Elementary Schools in Carbondale, Illinois, and to members of the International Student Association, librarians at the Carbondale Public Library, and professional storyteller Tom Hughes Wilhelm.

Story Excerpts From The White Crane
(Penguin Books Co. Ltd. Singapore. ISBN: 99751-54-751-1).

Read by an adult ESL student from Japan to second graders:

         A long, long time ago, there lived an old man and his wife in a small house in the mountains in Japan. As the old man was walking though the mountains one winter, he suddenly saw a white crane in the distance. Caught in a trap, it was struggling hard to free itself. "Oh, poor thing! Wait a minute! Here, let me help you...!" said the old man. Gently, he loosened the rope to free the white crane."Do be careful! Don't let this happen again!" said the old man as he watched the white crane fly off into the sky. After a few days, on a cold, wintry night, a young girl came knocking on the old couple's door....(Continued: the preceding is an excerpt.)

From The Turtle Goes Home by I.D. Kundra
(Syarikat Tanisa Sdn. Bhd. Malaysia, 1984. ISBN: 967-99934-1-8).

Read by an adult ESL student from Malaysia to first graders:

         It was early July. It was time for me to go far, far away. It was time to go back to my birth -place. It is a beautiful place. After many days I came to an island. I saw some fish swimming near the island. One small fish told me the name of the island. It is called "Pulau Tenggol." It is an island on the way to Rantau Abang. I swam to the beautiful island. I saw white sand and coconut trees. The water was very clear. I saw many beautiful fish and corals. After many hours I knew I was near Rantau Abang. I swam quickly. Then as the water became very shallow, I stopped swimming. The air was fresh. I took a deep breath. I felt happy and excited. I started to crawl. I reached the beach. It was night but I was able to see. The moon shone brightly. The beach was sandy. The wind blew sand into my eyes.... (Continued: the preceding is an excerpt.)


Hendrickson, James M. 1992. " Storytelling for Foreign Language Learners." ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 355 824, p. 5.

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