An activity that involves collaboration with the whole class to write a story that uses the target language. In the example we’re looking at non-defining relative clauses with a B1+ teen class, but adaptions for other grammar points and levels are discussed at the end. This is intended to be the production stage of a lesson.
I tell my class that we’re going to write a fairy tale and I ask them how the story should start. This usually elicits ‘Once upon a time…’ but other openers are fine. I write on the board and I ask questions to generate a simple, short story from the class, writing their suggestions as I go.
Who is our hero? Where did the story take place/happen? Who was our hero’s friend/ally? When did it happen? What did he/she do? What happened next? How does the story end? (The questions were chosen to help elicit different non-defining relative clauses in the next stage).
I help the students correct their mistakes and ensure I’m taking suggestions from different students until we have our simple story. The example below is taken from a real class:
Once we’ve finished I add red numbers to any parts where non-defining relative clauses could be added. I write an example and ask the students to choose any five numbers and write five clauses in pairs (early finishers are asked to write more). I monitor and assist.
Once every pair has written at least four clauses we start the feedback. I read the story, pausing at every number to hear suggestions from the class. I encourage students to listen to each other and we don’t move on until every suggestion has been heard. I then ask students to close their books and retell the story in pairs remembering an answer they, or someone else said, for every number.
The completed story below shows some of what students came up with. Finally, I would encourage students to write the completed story in their books, filling in the parts they didn’t answer themselves with their classmates’ suggestions. As a follow up in the next lesson you can rewrite the first part of the story on the board and ask students to retell the full story in groups of three or four, adding in the parts they remember.
We can use a similar process to help students write a story on their own. Write the same questions from the previous activity on the board:
Who is our hero? Where did the story take place/happen? Who was our hero’s friend/ally? When did it happen? What did he/she do? What happened next? How does the story end?
Ask students to write a single sentence for each question and only write on every other line. Students can discuss their stories in pairs to help generate ideas.
When they’ve finished ask students to write a non-defining relative clause on each line that was left blank. Monitor and assist, discussing both the language their ideas.
Early finishers sit in a group swapping their stories, checking their work for errors.
I like these activities for a couple of reasons. First, it shows the benefits of planning and allows students to plan their writing in stages while bypassing their normal reluctance to plan.
Secondly, it demonstrates the purpose of the target language without having to explain it to students directly (the story becomes more interesting to read as we build on it with non-defining relative clauses). This also means that students are more likely to use the target language in the future, because they’ve seen it as a natural part of writing a story.
Adapting the activities
These activities will work well for any language used in writing stories which add detail and complexity to something initially written in past simple. Grammar structures such as past continuous and past perfect, adjectives, linking words etc.
You could help students build a story with a few layers, rather than just with a single grammar point. This would be especially useful for exam practice with PET or First for schools candidates.
Links and references
Thanks for reading. For another activity that helps students generate stories have a look at this post on circle writing with Story Cubes.
The two activities above have built up over time with various classes and at various levels. My approach to teaching grammar owes a lot to sessions that were run by Pavla Milerski at ILC IH Brno, as well as TD sessions with a number of other excellent and influential teachers there, and at IH Newcastle.