Improving the stories we tell

Judith Liskin-Gasparro Skyped into our PLC meeting in Sarah’s room on Friday, sharing the presentation she’d made at ACTFL about changes in student narratives after short-term study. Many students who study abroad now do so for business, rather than for language study. That changes goals quite a bit, and the focus of research after short trips (seven weeks or less) has been not so much on language as on cultural sensitivity. I can understand that, but Judith and a grad student were able to show linguistic gains in terms of narratives. Their conclusions offered ways teachers could use the information in classes. I admit to liking research for its own sake, but it’s especially exciting when it can help direct language acquisition.

The students who traveled had all finished their second semester at college. Their improvement was in how they learned to “fill out” a story narrative in such a way as to hold listeners’ interest. The process to elicit the narratives was that they were given cards with emotions on them, and asked to let those named emotions trigger a memory of an event. They told the researchers the stories at the beginning and end of their stay.

I’d intended to try several things with my classes because of this presentation, and we talked about some of those. One was to have more upper-level students record narratives of events that had happened to them and let lower-level students analyze them for the abstract, the narration/description/elaboration, and the summary, or cultural truism that usually ends a story. It is possible to teach students several elements that people use to slow down and make their narratives hold their listeners’ interest; they already do it (or annoy others by not doing it) in their first language. We also thought that sharing narratives could be a declamation event, rather than giving students role-plays. Those of us with IB classes realized we could help students frame the discussion of the pictures that they plan to use for their orals.

Another idea that I’d wanted to try, but had forgotten, was to give students graphic organizers for oral presentations, not just for written ones. Carrie Toth shared one such graphic organizer that her students used for a debate, and Judith suggested that we could give them to students as they prepared to share a narrative. They wouldn’t use it during their telling, but it could help them structure their tale, coming up with the sort of elaboration that they need.

This idea of adding elaboration – sharing emotion, dialogue, and repetition of key phrases – is what teachers do as we prepare embedded readings for our classes. The first version is just exactly what happened, the skeleton of what we want students to get for sure. The next versions fill in the sandwich, so to speak, sometimes putting a crazy flourish on top at the very end, making the reading/story more interesting each time it gets deeper.

As with many CI-supportive ideas, the research and classroom suggestions fit nicely into what we are already doing. It gives us a way to improve storytelling at the upper levels and stretch it a bit into the personal narrative where students will start to reach for higher proficiency. I loved hearing that at this point of intermediate proficiency, the students will not have their verbs right, but we could potentially correct verbs as we transcribe, or when students turn in transcriptions, and that way they could see the correct forms as they discuss the content.

It just occurred to me that analyzing the parts of an oral narrative in this manner is similar to what teachers do at the beginning stages of analyzing a paragraph or short passage in Structuring Literacy. There, we’re usually picking a piece of writing that fulfills a structural or descriptive need, but if students are practiced there, this could be a complement to the activity and a way to compare entire pieces with a short oral narrative.

Judith Liskin-Gasparro is a genius, as well as being a talented language instructor and researcher. I recommend attending any presentation she might make. Lucky linguists at University of Iowa!

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5 responses to “Improving the stories we tell

  1. You mean University of Iowa, right? Judy was there when we were there in the 90s. Can’t imagine she’d jump ship to our state rivals! I love seeing this intersection of two of my language-teaching lives. I worked with Sue Otto at Iowa as she and Judy and others were developing Iowa’s FLARE (Foreign Language Acquisition Research and Education) program. Since discovering TPRS and CI, I have worried that I am no longer in sync with what these former cherished colleagues are doing. Leave it to you, Michele, to find the points of overlap and shared purpose. Thanks for helping keep my worlds in harmony!

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  2. Wow. Thanks for the catch, Anny! I think all of us might be surprised by what our heroes at the university levels are doing. Times are changing, and Judy for one is leading the way.

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  3. Rita in Oregon

    Michelle, I lead a TPRS PLC in Portland, Oregon. We have been meeting for several years and need to change up what we do. I have been inspired by your posts about your PLC in Alaska. I wish I could visit! I would love to get some advice from you about organizing what we do at our monthly meetings.

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    • Well…come up for our Sept 19 conference!!

      Or wait just a few weeks until I’ve overcome jet lag and the beginning of school, and I’d be happy to chat with you. Going home tonight (leaving at 10:30 pm, arriving home 42 hours later…trying to have a good attitude about this!)

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  4. I just got home from China last week–I thought our trip was a long one, but you take the prize! I will look forward to chatting after you get back into the swing of school. Save travels!

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