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Transforming Your Students' Thinking
With Stories

 by Nick Owen

If you could communicate ‘messages’ to your students with impact, clarity, and memorability, what difference would that make to their perception of you?  If you could make language come alive what difference would that make to your teaching?

One way to achieve this is to use a powerful and effective communication tool used by great communicators and leaders through the centuries. What is that Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Calvino, Eco, and JK Rowling have in common with Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Einstein, and Mandela? Answer: they all use the tools of metaphor, anecdote and story to explain complex messages in concrete, easy to understand, and highly memorable ways. 

Words are nothing more than abstractions. A word is merely a representation of something, not the thing itself. Without contextualisation words remain vague and hazy and open to a multiplicity of interpretations. Vague communication can create confusion and misunderstanding.

If we wish to ensure our words are understood in the way we wish, we would do well to translate concepts and ideas into concrete, tangible shared meanings. Anecdotes, stories, and metaphors are very powerful ways to do this. They translate conceptual left brain ideas into immediate and experiential right brain recognitions. Stories connect ideas with people’s lived experience. They make sense!

Three holy men from different religious communities were invited to give thanks following a fund raising dinner in New York. The Christian priest offered a prayer about tolerance. The Muslim imam offered a prayer about charity. The rabbi, however, told a story. And the story contained a ‘message’ for the diners to reflect upon. A week after the dinner, nobody could remember the prayers. But everybody remembered the rabbi’s story and the power of its message.

Stories can be used in many different contexts to achieve different results. In this short article I want to consider how stories can enrich your communication. You will find out how you can apply them in a variety of contexts, enhance your ability to give ‘messages’ and discuss values, teach language skills effectively, and encourage effective action. In whatever context you use stories, they work brilliantly and impact upon the memory of your listeners.

Enriched Communication

You can use stories for many different purposes in the classroom. They work particularly well when you ‘frame’ them. Framing means that you give the listeners a clue as to what the ‘message’ is about. It is usually better not to explain a story. When the listener has to work to find a meaning it makes more sense and is installed much more deeply in their memory.

Here’s an example of framing. Let’s say you want to encourage your students to take more responsibility for their learning and behaviour in the classroom or the sports team. You have in mind a certain set of attitudes, but rather than be directive you would prefer they work it out for themselves. So you talk generally about the kinds of people who are successful in groups and teams and you use an anecdote to explain this..

… when President Kennedy visited Cape Canaveral in the 1960s, he’d met all the top people - the astronauts, the scientists, the technicians – and he was on his way out, walking down a long narrow corridor, when he came upon an old grey haired man stooped over a mop and bucket. “What do you do here?” Kennedy asked. “Sir,” said the old man straightening up and looking the President right in the eye, “I’m doin’ exactly what all the folks here is doin’. Workin’ to put a man on the moon!” Kennedy, they say, was impressed.

Kennedy may not be an appropriate example for your students. No problem. Simply translate the story to a more appropriate context. Instead of JFK for example, use a person who will be a role model for the students.


Anecdotes, stories and metaphors can be used to reinforce almost any message you want to get across. Here are some examples: 

Motivate     Communicate a message  Give feedback
Set goals  Require responsibility Teach a language point
Introduce new ideas Challenge negative mindsets Enhance creativity
Share values  Wake people up     Change the energy level 
Get attention Make people laugh  Encourage participation
Involve people   Challenge complacency Simplify a complex idea


Give a message

Tiger Woods’ golf ball was stuck in a sandtrap.  It was a very difficult shot. He took a long time considering how to deal with it. Finally, he addressed the ball, focused all his energy and played the shot. The crowd watched as the ball hung high in the air, dropped, and then bounced twice and into the hole. “That was a real lucky shot, Tiger,” a voice shouted from the crowd. “Yeah, it was,” responded Tiger. “But you know what? The more I practice, the better I get, and the better I get, the luckier I get.”

Effective behaviour isn’t luck or chance. Success in any context depends upon discipline, practice, creativity, and a willingness to persevere through setbacks to achieve pre-set goals. Generally, people who succeed in getting what they want from life have all these characteristics.

Discuss Values

The baby mice were just a few days old. They were having fun when suddenly a large black shadow fell over them and they stopped playing. A huge tomcat was towering above them, licking his lips anticipating lunch. Quick as a flash, the mother mouse jumped over her babies, looked straight into the tomcat’s eyes, and barked: ‘WOOF! WOOF! WOOF!’ The cat was so surprised it turned and ran. “Let that be a lesson to you,” said the Mother Mouse, “Never underestimate the importance of learning a second language.”

The key to success in life is learning skills that enable you to run your own life and achieve the goals you want. Without these skills you can be sure there are plenty of people willing to take control of you, and use you to serve their ends. What is the ‘second language’ you need to learn?

Teach Language Skills


Sink                         Boat

Businessman                  Storm               Teacher

            Swim                         Grammar

                        To waste


Write this word rose on the board and check understanding of vocabulary. Ask students individually to invent a story including at least seven of these words [no writing]. After a few minutes ask students to go round telling their stories to other students. Telling at least three other students, and listening to their stories, will allow them to improve their story and to develop their speaking and listening skills. For homework they could write their story which should be easy after all the practice of telling it. You will also find they really want to listen to you reading the original story to find out how close to it their own story was. This particular story also asks them to think about grammar.

A Businessman invited his friend the Teacher to take a trip on his boat. While the Businessman steered the boat, the Teacher relaxed in a chair. “What will the weather be like?” asked the Teacher. The Businessman replied, “We’s going to have a storm.”  The Teacher corrected his friend immediately. “You can’t say that. Don’t you know grammar? You must say, ‘We are going to have a storm.’ If you don’t know grammar you’ve wasted half your life.”

The Businessman simply shrugged his shoulders and continued steering the boat. Later, just as the Businessman predicted, a big storm arrived. The wind was strong and the waves were huge. The Businessman asked his friend, “Did you ever learn to swim?” Of course not,” said the Teacher, “Why should a Teacher need to know how to swim?” “In that case,” replied the Businessman, “You’ve wasted all your life, because we’s going to sink!”

Encouraging Effective Action

Imagine a plank lying in front of you on the floor. It’s 15 metres  long, 30 centimetres wide, and 10 centimetres thick. If I offered you 100 Euro to walk along it, would you take it? Of course, you would.

Now if I tell you it’s 30 metres up in the air, suspended between two buildings, with just 60 centimetres at each end resting on the buildings, would you take it now? Probably not.

But if I said that at the other end of the plank is your six year old daughter or your baby brother, and the building where he or she is standing is on fire, would you walk it now? I guess so.

It is useful to embrace the attitude that the only thing that holds you back from achieving what you want in life is yourself. What holds your students back is themselves. Each one of us has to challenge and break the existing limiting paradigms [our patterns of behaviour] that currently prevent us connecting with our true potential. We can always do more than we think we can. Know what you want to achieve, make the decisions necessary, and fully commit your resources to it.

So now you’ve got a taste for the ease and effectiveness of using stories in your day to day work, what could possibly hold you back, now you know some ways to start using stories as a powerful communication and teaching strategy?

For more stories and ideas about how to use and tell them, read Nick Owen’s book "The Magic of Metaphor: 77 Stories for Teachers, Trainers, and Thinkers", published by Crownhouse Publishing.

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