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Brad Deacon, Nanzan University


  • Key Words: Storytelling, Listening
  • Learner English Level: All levels
  • Learner Maturity Level: Any
  • Preparation Time: Varies--time needed to prepare and rehearse a story
  • Activity Time: About five or ten minutes

One morning recently I was running late for class. So I scrambled to gather my books, tapes, and other teaching materials. I ran to my classroom, entered and began to teach the students. After about five minutes I suddenly became aware that the group was staring at me rather strangely. I was confused and asked one student, Keiko, what was the matter. She paused for a moment, looked down and then up again and said something that totally shocked me. Before reading any further, what do you think she said?

What Are Split Stories (SSs)?

SSs are simply stories that are started but not immediately finished. Between the beginning and ending, students engage in a variety of activities related to the story before learning the conclusion later on. To increase students' curiosity, the stories necessarily involve pausing at a highly interesting transition point . . . a moment of suspense.

Why Tell SSs?

Most learners are interested in listening to stories, especially about their teachers' experiences; consequently the SSs build rapport. When told in split fashion they tend to increase or amplify student curiosity. Many learners become increasingly eager to hear the ending. Moreover, they are useful pedagogical tools to grab and focus students' attention. They provide motivating material for students to negotiate meaning, especially when students reformulate (repeat) what they understand and then add their input in the form of an imagined ending. As instructors we can also circulate, listen in and check student comprehension. SSs naturally lead in to many activities, such as those below, to serve a variety of learning objectives. Of course, they're also fun to tell and listen to!

How Do I Tell SSs?

Usually I carefully plan a story beforehand, ready props and pictures, and pre-teach vocabulary. I then tell the SS at the beginning of class and stop at a key turning point where the students' interest is aroused. Often the story stops specifically at a place where a character is about to disclose something crucial or where an important decision must be made. I generally wait until the end of class to finish the story. Alternatively, I may also save the ending until the next class or even tell a story with multiple splits so that it carries over across many classes.

How Do I Use SSs?

While telling a SS, I ask the students to first shadow (repeat my words silently in their heads) as they listen and then reformulate the story at the split mark. As students repeat what they understood with their partner, they also share their reactions, thoughts and ideas about the story. I often include focusing questions about the story (e.g., "What do you think I did next?" "What would you do if you were in the same situation?") and/or invite the students to ask their own questions. Finally, the students imagine and share an ending of their own with a partner. Sometimes they share their ideas in front of the group and we vote on the best ending.

In writing classes I tell SSs just before an activity called "Timed Writing" (students write for a set time limit of usually 10 minutes). Students then write a short continuation of the story and share their writing with a partner or the class. I have invited students to email me their endings too. These are just a few of the ways to tell and use SSs. Of course, SSs can be exploited in many other ways as well. Just use your imagination.

Student Thoughts on SSs

Most enjoy the technique and I can strongly sense their curiosity, especially when I use SSs often over the course of a semester. My student Kayo says, "Your stories where you don' t tell the end excite me." Maki agrees: "I wonder about the ending! Oh, I want to know the answer as soon as possible or I can' t sleep today!!! Please!" The "aaaaaahs" when I don' t conclude the story also show that students are clearly drawn into the experience. Moreover, the learners agree that collaborating with each other at the split mark is a useful way both to share their reactions to SSs and to increase their comprehension. One student admits, "I could learn a lot of things from your stories and when you stopped speaking at the middle of stories and let us repeat with our partner, it was very useful to getting used to speak English." Thus, students are finding that SSs focus their attention, increase their curiosity and provide lots of opportunities for negotiating meaning in English. A few, such as Mariko however, are rather impatient and can' t wait to hear the ending: "When you stop telling a story suddenly, I' m really impatient to listen to the continuation!" Yet, I believe this is a good sign as it shows students are eager and engaged. I have even found that if I forget to conclude the SS at the end of class, many students won' t let me go until I do! And on that note . . .

Split Story Ending

So I was waiting for my student to answer my question, "Why are the students looking at me strangely." Gathering up great courage she quietly whispered to me: "Brad this is the Spanish class!" I couldn' t believe it and while I was standing there dumbfounded the real Spanish teacher walked in, saw me and then immediately left the room again. The class erupted in laughter. I turned red and then apologized to the teacher outside and went to my own class. I told them this story and they too laughed. I am glad to say that I can now look back on this experience and laugh as well, although at the time I was quite embarrassed!