Three myths about Story Listening, debunked

At our last local TCI meeting, I was pleased to hear most teachers share that Story Listening had been a win for them this past school year. Whether they used it occasionally or exclusively, everyone thought it had enriched their teaching craft. It has certainly enriched mine.

Yet, I continue to hear misconceptions about this method. So, I am going to attempt to debunk three common myths about Story Listening. Please note, I am not a master Story Listening teacher, I am just a teacher who has experimented A LOT with this method in the past two years. So, fasten your seat belts, keep an open-mind, and here we go!

MYTH 1: When a teacher tells a story using Story Listening supplementation, students are passive. They don’t get opportunities to interact with the story, the teacher, or each other.

I have so many anecdotes about my students interacting with the story, me, or each other, I don’t even know where to start.  So here are a few memorable ones:

  • I write the word “maison” under my drawing of a house. Mason (1st grade) exclaims “Wow, it is almost written like my name!”
  • The city mouse leaves the country mouse’s home after making a few condescending comments about the size of the house and the simplicity of the meal. Leyla (1st grade) exclaims “Are they still friends?”
  • The wolf comes, the boy cries wolf but no one shows up in The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Ethan (7th grade) says under his breath “il est mort” (he is dead). He had apparently memorized that phrase from our first story of the year: Romeo and Juliet.
  • The main character of the Green Collar gets sick. Jackson (7th grade) exclaims “Oh no, she is sick!”
  • The main character’s head falls off in the Green Collar and my entire class of 5th grade yells “Ewwww!”
  • I just finished a story, I am about to say “And it’s the end of the story” in French. David (1st grade) exclaims: “Et c’est la fin de l’histoire!”
  • Little Rabbit says “Je n’aime pas les carottes” (I don’t like carrots) in Simon Lapin veut des pâtes. McKinley (1st grade) exclaims “J’aime carottes”. I answer: “Tu aimes les carottes? Moi aussi! Qui aime les carottes?” And then we went back to the story.

These interactions are spontaneous, they are student-driven, they are not organized by the teacher. The language sticks better because these interactions are compelling to students.

For more examples of interactions (predictions, connection to self, and other relevant comments), feel free to watch the unedited videos of some of the stories I told in various classes. If you don’t have time, just watch THIS.

MYTH 2: When telling a story using  Story Listening supplementation, the teacher does not check for understanding. How do you know students are even listening?

First of, there is a lot of preparation that goes into telling a story, as I adapt a story to the level of my learners. Next, I use the supplementation toolkit to make sure I stay comprehensible during the delivery of the story. Then, when I tell a story, I teach to the eyes of my students and I pause a lot, just like I would if I were doing Story Asking. But I have found that with Story Listening, I go even slower than with Story Asking. That is because I am following the pace of my students and watching their reactions. I don’t have to think on my feet like I do with Story Asking, so I can really focus on my students.

Furthermore, my students’ reactions are invaluable clues as to whether or not they are listening and understanding.

Finally, for older students, we do a written retell in English after the story and for the Elementary students, I ask 1-2 questions in English at the end of the story.  The question could be “who was your favorite character? Why?” so the students can demonstrate another level of understanding of the story.

After a few stories, I ran an anonymous survey of my 7th graders and asked: “When Madame Lainé tells a story while drawing/writing on the board…”

I always comprehend the main idea(s) of the story
I comprehend the main idea(s) of the story most of the time
I sometimes comprehend the main idea(s) of the story
I rarely comprehend the main idea(s) of the story

With the help of the written retells, it was clear who the two students were and I made some interventions (having them seating closer to the board, closer to me, making more eye contact with them especially when I am pointing at a word in English on the board, reminding them to watch the board to enhance their comprehension, etc.)

Can we miss some students’ understanding  with Story Listening? Absolutely. But no more or no less than with any other language method I know of.

MYTH 3: There is not enough repetition of language in Story Listening to make the language stick.

To be honest, I was worried about the same thing when I first started using this method.So, I ran my own amateur action research. It is not perfect, but it yields some interesting results.

Four to seven weeks after our first 3 stories, I tested my 7th graders on the main “vocabulary” of the stories. I had told 3 familiar stories using the Story Listening supplementation toolkit and I had let my students read the stories the next day. I was quite impressed with how much they had retained four to seven weeks later (8.25 new words gained):

Table 1

I then ran the same kind of test with the next 3 stories, but this time I removed the reading. I was expecting a lower retention rate because students had not had access to the written text (7.85 new words gained), but if you look at the rate per minute, it is actually better! So, Story Listening alone seems to be very efficient for vocabulary acquisition. 

Table 2

Of course, Dr. Mason has been saying this for years and showing impressive results in her research where she compares Story Listening to what she calls “Story Plus”, i.e. a Story plus other activities.

One important caveat: the teacher does not have as much control over the vocabulary the students will retain. So, if you are constrained by a grammar-based curriculum, it might be difficult to use Story Listening exclusively.


This past year, I could not use Story Listening exclusively with my 5th grade class because they had never learned how to listen productively; I chose to use Story Listening once a week with my 7th graders, and continued using some Story Asking and Comprehensible Cultural Units for variety of input and topics; and I had a magical experience using Story Listening exclusively with my K and 1st graders.

Different classes, different teaching choices and experiences. In other words, using a comprehension-based method that works for you and your students = OK. Propagating myths about Story Listening = NOT OK 🙂


  1. This is actually my first introduction to Story Listening–I’ll have to read up on it. I’ve always loved the idea of teaching through stories anyway, so this would be a great technique to add to my arsenal… thanks!

  2. Thank you, Cécile. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of your experiences.

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