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.

7 Responses to “The Origin and Evolution of Interactive Stories”

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  1. peter orad says:

    Hi Mark
    thank a lot for your sending us English conversation , and I wish your continuing to help us by this way because I want to fortify my English language

  2. jersy says:

    I have the same opinion as given by Shin as the students can learn the accent and pronounciation.

  3. apc33 says:

    Hi Jin….

    We have not recorded any of the Interactive Stories in full – only some examples. Maybe in the future we can do this. I think it would be interesting.


  4. Shin says:

    Hi, Mark,

    I want to get the audio file of interactive stories.
    In this web site, I can find the some audio file(example).

    Can I get the all audio file about your full script??

    Jin wook (

  5. chandrappa says:

    Can you provide me soft copy so that i can learn english easily because i felt very easy the way you teach english..

  6. mark white says:

    Hi Andrew

    I have not had time to work on interactive stories for a while but yeah you can make up your own story or use one of mine.
    If you use one of mine there are a whole bunch of ways to use it in the “howtouse” section.

    If you want to make your own story, do it as a group with one example student and keep it simple to get the technique down first. Then put them in pairs.

    Let me know if you have any problems or just how it went.

    If you do your own story and you WRITE the story out as a pair exercise be wary of asking questions like:

    Where did the plane go?

    Because if the student says “It went to China” but the story continues in India, then we are in trouble.

    The questions you ask in the interactive story must be ancilary to the plot. eg “What colour is here nair?” is ok but not “Where is she going?” if the story stipulates where she goes in the next sentence. Though a Q like “Where are you going is fine for a minor character who will not appear again.

    anyway lemme know how it goes
    Cheers Mark

  7. A Burger says:

    Hello Mark,

    Been wandering through your and Allan’s site. Great stuff…particularly like the guided interactive story technique.

    I arrived in Japan a little over a month ago though I had a reasonable amount of “Japan” knowledge having worked for a major Japanese bank in New York City in another lifetime, lemme see, that’d be about 14 years now since I left.

    I’m teaching in the classroom at Hosei U. Tama and hope to try some interactive story writing-telling soon. Any helpful suggestions as to how to structure this for a medium-sized class of around 15 would be much appreciated.

    I have access to a media deck w/overhead projector and can jack a laptop into it. I’m thinking along the lines of somehow having the story grow in text in front of the student’s eyes via the overhead….

    Andrew Burger