Sunday, December 28, 2014

Frank McCourt's "Teacher Man" / Reflections on storytelling in class

A persistent question in ELT is teacher talk time. Many teachers worry about talking too much for fear of not giving their students enough time to talk. Some, myself included, fear becoming the archetypal “sage on the stage” who monologues his way through the class. All of that teacher talk precludes any time for letting the students talk. And if they aren't talking, then their speaking skills won't be getting any better. I’ve written about the “sage on the stage” stuff before, but it’s time to approach it from another angle.

The quote below shows a case in point. It comes from Frank McCourt’s excellent memoir Teacher Man, where he writes of his early days as a teacher in New York City and how he often told stories in his classes because they held the students’ attention better than the day’s lesson.
I argue with myself, You’re telling stories and you’re supposed to be teaching.  
I am teaching. Storytelling is teaching.  
Storytelling is a waste of time.  
I can’t help it. I’m not good at lecturing. 
You’re a fraud. You’re cheating our children. 
They don’t seem to think so. 
(P.26. Link to e-text at Google Books here)
Though I’ve never kept track of how often it happened, most every class over here has included at least one story or anecdote. Many of them got told on Mondays or Fridays because those days lent themselves to that time honored topic of weekends and what people do on them. Sometimes the stories would relate to the lesson and sometimes it wouldn't. They were fun to tell and the students enjoyed them. At least, it seemed like they did. Unlike McCourt, I had some basis for telling stories because of how EPIK teachers' classes are set up. Many EPIK teachers are encouraged to tell stories from or about our home countries because it lets the students hear real live English from a real live English speaker. The students still don't have much exposure to English speakers and hearing stories and anecdotes allowed them to hone their listening skills. Indeed, sometimes I or a coteacher would stop and quiz the students while I talked, Like the aforementioned quote goes, "storytelling is teaching."

Yet as fun as it was to tell stories, I started wondering about whether it was good to do so when my EFL studies turned to TTT, or teacher talk time. Suddenly I'd think, "Hey! Let them talk!" A lingering memory of a speaker at my EPIK Orientation would come to mind. He'd said, “Your job is not to speak English to the students. Your job is to have the students speak English to each other.” Questions mounted in my mind and I'd end up arguing with myself like McCourt:
  • How will the students know what to do if they don’t have any examples?
  • What if they know what to say, but they lack the vocabulary for it?
  • What about speaking itself? Korean and English have different rhythms and timbres. Shouldn’t I be doing some modeling After all, they would need to hear examples of correct pronunciation.
  • What does all this matter if the students are enjoying the story? They're getting vocabulary and syntax, right?
These questions would go on and on until I'd think, Fine, but it was one story that lasted for 5 minutes in a 45 minute class. The kids were engaged. Let it go. And I would. I should remember that stories and anecdotes have their place in the classroom. Storytelling constitutes a form of teaching. One form, anyway. It may be teacher talk, but as long as it doesn't dominate the class, it should be fine.

*ELT = English Language Teaching. It's quite similar to EFL, or English as a Foreign Language and ESL, or English as a Second Language. Or, if you want to go longer and more detailed, TESOL, which is Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Related: ELT Rants, Reviews, Reflections: Reducing Teacher Talking Time


  1. An interesting post on a controversial topic. Back in November I went to a conference and heard a plenary speech by Nick Bilbrough on the importance of storytelling in ELT. I was amazed. On the face of it, it went contrary to what I'd learnt about teaching before. Like you say, the nagging voice somewhere at the back of my head had always kept telling me: ‘You must offer your students plenty of opportunities to speak. Keep your mouth shut’. But Nick’s speech was so interesting that my initial doubts concerning TTT were shattered to pieces. I myself learnt a lot at the lecture – actually, I can still hear Nick’s voice and the way he tells a simple story of a lonely worm. But Nick is a born storyteller and thus he’s entitled to telling stories. However, and maybe it’s because I don’t consider myself a good storyteller in my mother tongue, I tend to avoid this activity in my own English lessons. I leave this job up to native speakers and professionals, and I use various audios, such as YouTube videos, podcasts, etc.

    1. Hi!

      Thanks for mentioning Nick Bilbrough. He's a new name for me. A quick search for him brought up this page: The Cambridge Handbooks are quite good. I've picked up a few of them this year and find them quite useful for class.

      Good points about L1 and L2 and about using resources like YouTube and podcasts. Which videos and podcasts have you found success with in class? I've hardly used podcasts myself.

    2. My favourite sites at the moment are: Six Minute English
      News in levels
      I generally like sites by BBC, such as Learning English because the language is graded and comprehesible.