Short Stories to Increase Paraphrasing Skills

Frank Tuzi , Tokyo Christian University


  • Key Words: Extensive reading, Speaking, Fluency tasks, Accuracy tasks
  • Learner English Level: False beginner to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: High school to Adult
  • Preparation Time: 1 hour to select stories
  • Activity Time: 30-45 minutes

Often in lower and intermediate level speaking classes, students become bored with the standard drills and conversation dialogs in most ESL texts. As an ESL teacher, it is frustrating to see students with tremendous potential stymied by non-motivating materials. Additionally, I have noticed that many students have difficulty relating events and stories to other speakers because they have had little chance to express their ideas in a fluid pattern. Many students can parcel out bits of a story, but presenting a story is more difficult to package in their own words. Finally, and most importantly, many of my students revert to Japanese to express a word or phrase that they don't know in English, or they open up a dictionary to try to find an appropriate word. They lack an understanding of what circumlocution is and how it is accomplished.

To address these problems, I created an activity that has my entire class engrossed in speaking only English during the entire class period. My students read short stories and then re-tell the stories to other students. The procedure for setting up this activity is really simple.


The first step in setting up this activity is to select appropriate materials. The stories need to be short enough for the students to read in under 20 minutes. It is a good idea to have material at a variety of reading levels to accommodate different students' reading abilities. Additionally, it is wise to collect stories on a variety of topics in order to pique the interest of more students. If your school has access to an SRA reading lab, I would highly recommend using it. It contains excellent short stories with a variety of reading levels and a multitude of topics.

After collecting the materials, allow each student to preview the stories and select one to read and retell. This means you must have quite a few more stories available than students in the class. The students should then take the stories home and read them for homework. This will allow them to look up any words they don't know and allow the teacher to save class time.

When the students return the following class, they find a partner and share their story. Students are not allowed to show their partner their story. All communication must be verbal or gestural. All explanations must be in the students' own words. Students are not allowed to read from the story itself. While a student is telling the story, the partner takes notes on it. These notes will be collected at the end of class. Anytime the partner doesn't understand, the speaker must rephrase the idea, thus practicing circumlocution and paraphrasing skills.

As the students are telling stories to each other, the teacher walks around the class listening to the students' speech and answering questions that students might have. After students become motivated (which doesn't take long at all), the teacher can begin to correct the students' spoken language. One language correction technique is to repeat a student's speech act, replacing the error with the correct structure. For example:

  • Speaker: Then the Emily go to the hospital.
  • Teacher: Really? Emily went to the hospital?
  • Speaker: Yes. She went to the hospital.

Another technique is asking students a question about what they said:

  • Speaker: Then the Emily go to the hospital.
  • Teacher: You mean Emily went to the hospital?
  • Speaker: Yes. She went to the hospital.

After the first storyteller finishes, the partner begins to tell his or her story. The storytelling process is repeated.


My students enjoyed this activity from the time I first introduced it. They were glad to choose their own reading assignment, happy to be telling a story that was of interest to them, excited to actively communicate with another person, and conscious of their success in communicating in English. Usually, there is not a class that goes by that I do not hear some Japanese: however, when this activity was initiated, all students performed in English. Real-life dialog activities, including checking for understanding, stopping a conversation to ask for clarity, and circumlocution, spontaneously occurred in class. Students began to ask for help from other students in English. The response was also in English. It was exciting to see students communicating, and having fun doing it.

Many of the students spend hours working on their story in spite of the fact that I tell them not to spend more than 25 minutes reading and studying their story. These students were motivated: they wanted to tell their story.


Not all teachers have access to the SRA stories in Japan, but if you are connected to the Internet, there is an almost unlimited supply of stories in public domain. Here is just a sample of the sites on the Net that have short stories:
Master Card Stories at


This was a great activity that can easily be adapted to all sorts of materials. Students can practice paraphrasing and circumlocution skills and at the same time develop the confidence to communicate effectively in English.