An Interview with Mark White about Interactive Stories

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Aaron and Mark

An interview from 2004 with Mark White about his Interactive Stories method of language learning.

Interviewer: Good evening. My name is Aaron Campbell and I am speaking to you from Shugakuin in the north of Kyoto, Japan. I am sitting here in my room on the tatami floor with a fellow…colleague and very good friend of mine, Mark White from Australia. Mark lives here in Kyoto and is an EFL teacher in the Faculty of Intercultural Communications at Ryukoku University and tonight Mark would like to share with us one of the teaching techniques he has developed specifically for his students called Interactive Stories, also referred to as Guided Stories and this is a technique designed to stimulate conversation and imagination while teaching syntax, vocabulary and grammar.
Interviewer: So, Mark what are interactive stories and how did you come up with the idea
Mark: An interactive story is a story which includes questions so basically it is a text which tells a story and … some of the sentences are sentences and some of the sentences are questions so the listener … periodically has to take over and become the storyteller by answering the questions.
Interviewer: Good.
Mark: The way I came up with the story was I was teaching a sixteen year old Japanese lad a few years ago and he was very interested in learning but he did not have very much to say and I needed to find a way to get him to interact with the language and with me.
Interviewer: Right
Mark: We didn’t have much in common so I started to write these stories.
Interviewer: M-Hm
Mark: Where I would say like “a young guy buys a guitar.”
Interviewer: Right.
Mark: And then I would turn it on him and I would say “What kind of guitar is it”
Interviewer: M-hm.
Mark: And he had to imagine the answer. “It is a Fender” or “It is a Yamaha” but of course you cannot say “It .. Yamaha” because it is not…
Interviewer: Yeah.
Mark: So I am teaching syntax in the context of the story.
Interviewer: Yeah.
Mark: As the story got more complicated, like, things like “The guy goes to a concert.”
Interviewer: Uh-huh.
Mark: “Is it crowded?”
Interviewer: Right.
Mark: He has to say “Yes, it is” or “No, it isn’t”.
Interviewer: I see.
Mark: “How many people are there in the room?” and he will say “There are six hundred people in he concert hall.”
Interviewer: Do you think it helped him to open up a little more? And speak more?
Mark: Very much. Very much. He really enjoyed coming to class and working through the story. He was a young guy who played in a band.
Interviewer: Oh yeah.
Mark: And liked John Lennon.
Interviewer: Oh.
Mark: Yeah. He really enjoyed it. English was suddenly fun.
Interviewer: Yeah.
Mark: He was going through his high school exams and having to learn grammar and not enjoying it much but learning this in context about something that was important to his life which was music…
Interviewer: Wow! Great.
Mark: But he really had a good time.
Interviewer: Oh good. Good. Now How do you actually use this technique in your classes now?
Mark: Well the story is written out on a piece of paper in successive chapters
Interviewer: M-hm
Mark : And I do one chapter a week and I do other things in my class as well.
Interviewer: Yeah.
Mark: This is just one technique I use.
Interviewer: Right.
Mark: And I put the students into pairs. There are a lot of different ways of doing this but this is the main way.
Interviewer: Ok.
Mark: The students are in pairs.
Interviewer: Uh-huh.
Mark: One person reads the text.
Interviewer: M-hm.
Mark: One sentence at a time, pausing after each sentence and the person who is listening doesn’t have the text. They can’t see it.
Interviewer: I see.
Mark: They are forced to rely on listening comprehension.
Interviewer: Ok.
Mark: And if they understand they say “Uh-huh.” ” There is a guy.” “Uh-huh.” “He walks into a cafe.” “Uh-huh.”
Mark: “What does cafe mean?” If they don’t understand, then they are supposed to
Interviewer: Ask.
Mark: Ask a question: “What does such and such mean?”
Interviewer: Then they can do paraphrasing as well.
Mark: Exactly exactly and if neither of them knows what it mean then they volunteer: “Excuse me, Mark, in paragraph three line two what does viola mean?”
Interviewer: Ok.
Mark: Whatever the..
Interviewer: Now your students are… What level are they are they? Intermediate, basic?
Mark: They are…Generally…I have a lot of students.
Interviewer: Ok.
Mark: There are a lot of low to upper intermedate classes.
Interviewer: Ok.
Mark: And there also are some really really beginner…Although they have had seven years…
Interviewer: Sure.
Mark: …of instruction their ability to speak and to understand what is said to them is at the beginner level. Very much at the beginner level.
Interviewer: Sure. Ok.
Mark: But they quickly…Using this technique they quickly develop fluency.
Interviewer: So how do you? You say like for example “if they don’t understand something, they ask questions” How do you actually get them to do this. I mean it is not an easy thing.
Mark: I tell them that I have travelled around the world a bit. I have been to all these different countries. I have studied fourteen languages. Just as a hobby.
Interviewer: Yeah.
Mark: Not that I can speak them all well as you know. I love learning and I love languages and I try to convey the enthusiasm that I have for learning to them.
Interviewer: Yeah.
Mark: And eventually they pick up on it, some of them quicker than others.
I explain to them that if they ask a question they are going to get some information but if they don’t ask a question then things aren’t going to change. We have been living here and working here in Japan for a long time now and everybody who lives here and works here knows that this is the problem; getting people to actually engage with you.
Interviewer: Sure.
Mark: Actually ask when they don’t understand instead of just repeating something even when they don’t know what it means.
Interviewer: I have also heard you talk about how you can use these guided stories or interactive stories kind of as a spark for further activities; a base from which you can
either elaborate on or go into other types of language learning activities.
Mark: Yeah. yeah.
Interviewer: Can you give a specific example of how you might expand on something.
Mark: In a story where there is a relationship between a man and a woman and a woman might treat a guy in a particular way.
Interviewer: Uh-hm.
Mark: I will ask the students “Do you like this woman?” or “Do you like this guy?” (I)Get them to talk about the character of the people in the story and that way they can actually discuss things and practice that skill without having to divulge personal information which is something of a taboo in this culture.
Interviewer: Right.
Mark: And it takes a long time to develop the level of trust that they need to be able to give that.
Interviewer: Yeah.
Mark: So there is the discussion aspect and another technique is to stop the story at some point. Perhaps in the story there are six people on a train traveling from Paris down to Marseilles. Suddenly bang! Ok, you are from America and you are twenty-five years old and you are travelling around Europe on a Eurail pass. You are a baker from Italy.
Interviewer: It is a role-play
Mark: Exactly It is a role-play exactly. Take a situation from the story and turn it into a roleplay.
Interviewer: Now I also notice that you have written dialogs and some of those dialogs actually correspond to some of the interactive stories that you have written.
Is that how you use the dialogs?
Mark: Initially I started writing dialogues. Dialogues which told a story. Dialogue Series-es.
Interviewer: Ok.
Mark And then I moved into the Interactive Story.
Interviewer: Uh-huh.
Mark: And now I am going back and writing dialogs again, which correspond to the stories. It is an ongoing, evolving thing. And now we are trying to see how we can do it on the internet. It is very interesting.
Interviewer: Interesting. Do you have any advice that you might want to give any educators or trainers or teachers, who might be interested in using these stories with their students, either writing by themselves or taking the material that you are posting on the internet and doing something with it?
Mark: How to create one …I want to get to that later on and post that because it is quite complicated and it will take a lot of time. And I have to think through it and get it into steps. How to use them at this stage: download the text and photocopy it. Give a copy to all the students and put them in pairs. Make sure they understand the technique.
Interviewer: Ok.
Mark: It is all explained. A sentence. “Uh-huh” if you understand.
Interviewer: Right.
Mark: What does such and such mean if you don’t.
Interviewer: I got it.
Mark: If it is a question, answer with the correct syntax. So if somebody says have you been to China, the answer is not “Yes, I am”.
Interviewer: Right.
Mark: It is: “Yes, I have.” or “No, I haven’t”.
Interviewer: “No, I haven’t” or “Not yet.”
Mark: Or something like that. Exactly Exactly.
Interviewer: Interesting . And what would you say might be the biggest challenge that either you have faced with these interactive stories or that teachers might face using them for the first time?
Mark: The main problem … and this is a technique developed in Japan specifically for Japanese students…and I would be very interested to hear if anybody anywhere else in the world tries it. Some feedback
Interviewer: That would be great.
Mark: I have taught Italians in Australia and they talk so much. It is not like you need to get them to talk and yeah and the beauty of this technique is that it gets people to talk and making sure that making sure in the Japanese situation making sure that the students understand they cannot just say “Uh-huh” . “Uh-huh” “Uh-huh” regardless of whether or not they have understand what has just been said to them.
Interviewer: I see. Only when they understand.
Mark: That is the problem. You have got to watch them. Somebody will say: “There is man.” “Uh-huh.” He goes into a coffee shop.” “Uh-huh.” “Is it crowded?” “Uh-huh.” “He orders a cup of coffee.” “Uh-huh.”
Interviewer: And there are dioxiribo-nucleic acid strands sitting on the table behind him.
Mark: “Uh-huh.”
Interviewer: Like this.
Mark: Right exactly. Exactly. Just this automatism.
Interviewer: So you gotta watch out.
Mark: Yeah. Going through the motions.
Interviewer: And it is easy to miss it I would imagine.
Mark: Yeah and it takes time for the students to get used to the technique but once they do it runs itself. It is great. You can just sit there and just listen and just monitor
and occasionally someone will call out “Excuse me, Mark in paragraph three line two, what does ribonucleic acid mean?”
Interviewer: Right. Right. Right.
Mark: And they are actually starting to ask questions, which is… If I can teach them only one thing..
Interviewer: Hey that is a lot. That is where it is at. Asking questions.
Mark: And they are having a good time. You know they laugh. The story goes on twelve thirteen episodes and we are just finishing first semester here and It is really nice to hand out the thirteenth part.
Interviewer: Uh-huh.
Mark: Because what we do is each lesson we do last week’s story in past tense because the stories are told in present tense because we have the two narrative styles.
Interviewer: Sure.
Mark: And it is really nice to see them; they get the old one and they are doing the old one they are given the new one and they want to look at it to see what is going to happen next.
Interviewer: So it keeps them engaged and looking forward to the next episode. That’s cool.
Mark: And. Not all of them of course.
Interviewer: Sure.
Mark: Some students are not interested. But generally speaking it is one of the more successful techniques that I have used in the Japanese teaching environment.
Interviewer: I am sure that many of them appreciate it more than the standard textbooks, which they are used to using.
Mark: I think so. Yeah.
Interviewer: Which are not written for them specifically, whereas this is.
Mark: Exactly.
Interviewer: And that is why every educator who is interested in using these ought to strongly consider using them. What do you love most about these interactive stories and about teaching in general ?
Mark: People. Engaging with people day in day out. Day in day out spending your time in the classsroom. Getting to know the people. This is a technique that I have used here When I was teaching in Australia, groups of people from all over the world I would just interact and we pulled our material out of the relationship; the dialogue between ourselves. This is different where a lot of these students don’t respond postively to a group environment. They don’t volunteer information.
Interviewer: That is for sure.
Mark: So they can work together in pairs. Working in Japan is not the most fun teaching for me.
Interviewer: Sure.
Mark: It is much more interesting to work in a multi-cultural environment because I like to engage with the people. I want to know “who are you?” “where are you from and where are you going?” “what do you think?” “What do you have to teach me and what do I have to teach you?”
Interviewer: Communion. Yeah. That is the way should be. That is great. So. Yeah. Many people would ask the question “what about evaluation?” How do you evaluate the students during this activity because that is an important part of institutionalized education.We need to evaluate the students as they are learning in class and during the activities that they are doing. How do you evaluate something like this?
Mark: By observation. At the beginning of the term they won’t talk. They don’t understand that language is a process of communication and now as the semester is closing many of the students are talking to each other and as I hand out the story I say “Ok you talk to the person next to you about anything and if you want to do the story, you can do the story and if you don’t, we can do it next week. I don’t care. I want you to talk to the person next to you” because we learn by doing and by having a good time and… Yeah.
Interviewer: Good. Good….To learn more about interactive stories, download story texts and listen to examples, please visit the pod-cast site: (note new URL)

This has been Aaron Campbell and Mark White in Kyoto, Japan. May all who listen experience great happiness, joy and peace. Good night.