The Origin and Evolution of Interactive Stories

Around the middle of 2000, I was teaching a sixteen-year old Japanese lad who liked John Lennon and was interested in learning English, but seemed to have trouble thinking of something to say and lacked the syntax to say anything clearly despite years of instruction in his country’s mainstream education system. It was a one-on-one class and in my search for ways to engage him and bring him in to a communicative situation I hit on the idea of what I called at the time, a guided story.

Anybody who has taught in Japan has faced the dilemma of students who nod and pretend to have understood but actually do not, and never ask questions no matter how little they understand. I began to tell the story of an imaginary rock-star and his first guitar and his first band to my student but at the end of each sentence I asked him to say “uh-huh” if he had understood and “one more time, please” or “what does ____ mean” if he wanted to hear the sentence again.

At first I simply told the story then I periodically got him to take over and continue it but since he had the syntax problem and had trouble thinking of things to say and was painfully slow, I hit on the idea of asking him questions about the story rather than getting him to make up sentences.

Again anyone who has taught in Japan will have observed the phenomenon of a student who answers : “Yes, I am” or “Yes, I do” to a question like “Have you been to Tokyo?” or “Did you watch television last night?” The inability to supply the correct auxiliary in a functional yes/no question information exchange situation can frustrate communication and I began to think about the problem.

My story would go like this:

Me: A guy goes into a café.
Student: Uh-huh
Me: He sits down.
Student: Uh-huh.
Me: Is it crowded?
Student: Yes, I do.
Me : !!!!!!!!!!

Clearly every sentence has a verb, every verb has a tense and a yes/no question and a number of WH questions can be formed from every sentence (not to mention tag questions). I began to go through the syntax of English from simple to complex and look at the ways of forming questions. I went back to the story and started at the beginning. The first part was done so simply that the only patterns I used were simple “be” verb patterns. Next came present simple then present perfect, present continuous and so on. As the story progressed I introduced more complex syntax.

So the first guided stories were oral but as I began to teach larger and larger classes who were less receptive to a constant teacher centered dynamic, I began to write the stories out so students could work through them in pairs.

A lot has been written about the order in which particular aspects of syntax are acquired as languages are learned. It seems straightforward enough to go from simple to complex so I set out to do that and I began to write stories which began with the simplest sentences (and questions) and gradually moved in to higher level patterns. Later I added other elements of grammar like comparatives.

I have been using the guided story/interactive story as the basis for most of my classes in Japan for the past four years now. They have been tremendously successful in getting students to speak and also exposing them to the rudiments of syntax in context so they are actually learning grammar in context without thinking about it. The idea continues to evolve. Please check out the free downloadable texts by clicking on the link. Try the stories with a friend if you are a student and try them in your classes if you are a teacher. Let me know how they go. Here are more things you can do with an interactive story.