Activity 1: Retelling Stories

▶ Duration:  25–35 min
▶ Aim:  Oral fluency practice
▶ Summary:  Students retell stories which they have just heard.

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Retelling a story in one's own words (rather than reciting a text from memory) provides oral fluency practice. Story-telling is a common human activity which can be enjoyable, especially if the material is interesting. On the other hand, when listening to a story in a foreign language it is easy to "tune out". The twist in this activity is that the listener has to be attentive because they will shortly have to retell the story that they are hearing.

Students work in pairs, but in the grander scheme of things they are organised into groups of four. Each of the four members initially receives a short written narrative which they read quietly (jokes are ideally suited to this purpose). Then they must retell this story to another group member. In the second round of story-telling, they change partners and retell the story they just heard from their previous partner. After a third round of story-telling, everyone in the group will have heard each of the stories.

Prepare four short passages (such as jokes), suited to the language level of the students. Ideally, they would be able to read the passages without needing a dictionary. Of course, if there is a word which few students are likely to know, and you can't avoid using it, then you may choose to introduce it to the class before starting the activity, or add the pronunciation and translation to the hand-out.

Clearly label the stories A, B, C, and D. Make enough copies so that each student can receive one of the four stories. The hand-outs are collected during the activity, and can be reused.

Hint: choose jokes which are genuinely in the form of stories, with several events leading to the punch line. If a lot of the detail is just embellishment, and not actually essential to the meaning of the joke, then it will be easily forgotten and the joke will probably shrink to only one or two sentences after a few retellings!

Suitable jokes can be found on the internet (although you will have to sift through many unsuitable ones). See the Resources section for examples.

  1. Organise the students into groups of four. If the number of students is not divisible by four, then see the What to do about surplus students section, below.
  2. Show them that you have prepared four different stories. Explain that you will let each member in the group read a story quietly, then you will collect the stories back again and they will have to retell the story. Explain that they don't have to remember each word, just the general meaning of the passage. Explain that they shouldn't start talking until you tell them to. If necessary, ask them not to write on the sheets. Instruction check:
  3. Distribute the stories so that each member in the group gets a different one. It's best if stories A, B, C, D go around the group like this:
  4. Give the students time to read their stories.
  5. Tell them to look at their letter, A, B, C, or D, and remember it. (Check by asking the As to put their hands up, etc).
  6. Collect the stories, by asking the students to pass the sheets to the front of the classroom.
  7. Draw a diagram on the board: the letters A, B, C, and D as the four corners of a square. Explain, and indicate on the diagram, that student A will tell their story to student B, and then B will tell their story to A. Similarly, C and D will talk to each other. Now comes the surprise: "You must listen very carefully," (point to your ear!), "Because later you will tell the story you hear to somebody else." Instruction check:
  8. While the students are talking, circulate with a copy of each story in your hand in case some students need to be reminded of the details. It may also be necessary to hurry some students along if they are going too slowly, because otherwise the rest of the class will have to wait for them.
  9. Once all the students have finished telling their stories, erase your previous scribbles from the diagram and indicate that next student A will talk to student D, while B talks to C. Instruction check: Now warn them that they will have to listen very carefully again, because they will have to retell this story too!
  10. Once the students have finished swapping stories, explain the next pairing, which is actually the same as the first: A talks to B, while C talks to D. Tell them that they must listen carefully once again, but this time because you will choose one student to tell the story they hear to the class.
  11. Carry out your threat...choose a random student to tell their story. Everybody in the class should have heard this story by now, so ask them to listen and see if the chosen student tells it correctly. Afterwards, invite comments on how the story has changed through being retold.

What to do about surplus students

Unfortunately, things get quite awkward if the number of students is not divisible by 4. I welcome suggestions on how to cope with this. This is what I tried:

Surplus 1 student
One group of 5, where two students work together: they read the same story, work together (or take turns) to retell it to another student, and both listen to the story which that other student tells them.
Surplus 2 students
One group of 6, which only receive three stories between them. Distribute them around the group in the order A, B, C, A, B, C. This group must not follow the pairings that you describe on the board, but as long as you quickly run to them and pair them up (the first A talks to the B on her left, then the C on her right, then the B on her left again) then things should go reasonably smoothly except that during the third round they will be hearing their original story again.
Surplus 3 students
One student acts as if she belongs to two groups (hence these two groups have a total of 7 students). For example, if she is student A then she tells her story to the B students from both of the groups simultaneously, and then they cooperate to tell her their story.

If the sequence of pairings described in the procedure are carried out, then each student in the group should hear each of the other three stories. But if this sequence is not followed, or if one student tells the wrong story (ie not the story they most recently heard), then students may end up listening to a story that they've already heard. This is one of the weaknesses of this activity.

A similar and perhaps superior activity is Activity 8: Retelling Jokes. A related activity is Activity 2: Retelling Personal Stories.

I found these jokes in an oral English coursebook from Nan Kai Daxue press, called Yingyu Kouyu Jiaocheng (the front cover says "You Can"). But they can also be found on the internet (here, here, here, and here), so I don't mind reproducing them.

(A) The Unsatisfied Monk

A man wanted to become a monk so he went to the monastery and talked to the head monk. The head monk said: "You must take a vow of silence and can only say two words every three years." The man agreed and after the first 3 years, the head monk came to him and said, "What are your two words?"

"Food cold!" , the man replied.

Three more years went by and the head monk came to him and said "What are your two words?"

"Robe dirty!", the man exclaimed.

Three more years went by and the head monk came to him and said "What are your two words?"

"I quit!" , said the man.

"Well," the head monk replied, "I am not surprised. You have done nothing but complain ever since you got here!"

(B) It's the Same Every Day!

Mr. Smith lived in the country, but he worked in an office in the big city, so five days a week he went to work by train every morning and came home the same way.

One morning he was reading his newspaper on the train when a man sitting behind him, who Mr. Smith had never met before, leaned forward, tapped him on the shoulder and spoke to him. The man said, "You're not leading a very interesting life, are you? You get on the same train at the same station at the same time every morning, and you always sit in the same seat and read the same newspaper."

Mr. Smith put his paper down, turned around, and said to the man angrily, "How do you know all that about me?"

"Because I'm always sitting in this seat behind you," the man answered.

(C) Flowers Sent to the Wrong Place

For a long time Dr. Jackson had wanted to get a permanent job in a certain big modem hospital, and at last he was successful. He was appointed to the particular position which he wanted, and he and his wife moved to the house which they were now to live in. The next day some beautiful flowers were delivered to them, with a note which said, 'Deepest sympathy'.

Naturally, Dr. Jackson was annoyed to receive such an extraordinary note, and telephoned the shop which had sent the flowers to find out what the note meant. When the owner of the shop heard what had happened, he apologized to Dr. Jackson for having made the mistake.

'But what really worries me much more,' he added, 'is that the flowers which ought to have gone to you were sent to a funeral, with a card which said, "Congratulations on your new position".'

(D) The Family Car

Hank lived in a small town, but then he got a job in a big city and moved there with his wife and his two children. On the first Saturday in their new home, Hank took his new red car out of the garage and was washing it when a neighbor came by. When he saw Hank's new car, the neighbor stopped and looked at it for a minute. Then Hank turned and saw him.

The neighbor said," That's a nice car. Is it yours?"

"Sometimes", Hank answered.

The neighbor was surprised. "Sometimes?" he said, "What do you mean?"

"Well", answered Hank slowly, "When there's a party in town, it belongs to my daughter, Jane. When there's a football game somewhere, it belongs to my son, Joe. When I've washed it, and it looks really nice and clean, it belongs to my wife. And when it needs gas it's mine."
Rating: 4 stars

In my experience, this activity was successful in getting the students to speak. The downside is that it's complicated (oh no! B told their story to C, instead of A!), and inevitably quite messy, especially if the number of students isn't exactly divisible by 4. That means you will be running all around, trying to fix things when they break. So don't choose this activity until you've read about Activity 8: Retelling Jokes as well!

This activity is very effective to improve students' oral English.
Xu Yan []
12.07.2005 , 14:41

"Retelling" is a good idea and I was thinking about this for quite some time. In Oral English a teacher has to see the skill of speaking rather than creative or accumulated knowledge. I am happy to note that you people are already using this idea. Thanks a lot.
02.11.2005 , 06:38