I often use picture books with my preschool and primary students and love making story time a special occasion in my classes. However, there are some important things to bear in mind if you want to get the most out of it as a tool for teaching English!
In this post I want to focus on some of the challenges of using stories in the ESL preschool and early primary classroom, how to best use them to support teaching, and which kinds of books to look for. I’ve mainly focused on fiction and stories, but factual books are excellent resources for ESL teaching too.
Challenges of using picture books and stories in the ESL classroom
- Your young students have limited vocabulary and limited grammar
- Preschool kids have limited attention spans and get wiggly and distracted when bored
- First and second graders are too old for board books aimed at younger native kids
Setting up Story Time
Setting up your Story Time is good practice for several reasons. It helps you get the most out of the story when you start telling it. It also helps make the whole experience more of a special event, and as such means that reading a book has a positive association for your kids.
I always tie a story into whatever monthly theme I’m teaching and have usually already taught key vocabulary by the time I introduce the book. If you haven’t already done so, introduce key words before you start the story by playing some simple flashcard games, for example.
I have a large box that looks like a treasure chest, which I use as my “mystery box”. Before class I put the book, as well as a number of different items that relate to the story, inside the box. For example, if I’m going to tell the story Little Red Riding Hood, I might put a red cape, an apple, a small basket and some old glasses in the box. I have the children sit in a semi-circle and one by one show them the items in the box, eliciting the words from them. I tell them we’re going to read a story (if it’s a well-known fairy tale I ask them if they can guess which one), and then I show them the book.
At this point, I highly recommend setting up some basic “rules” for story time. It then makes it much easier to just remind them of those rules once you’ve started reading, if need be. One rule could be to leave questions until the end of the story, or you could do a chant with actions: “Ears listen! Eyes look! Bottoms sit!”
How to tell the story
To me, this is one of the most important aspects of effectively using stories in your ESL preschool or primary class. Unless you teach in a bilingual school, your young students will have very limited English vocabulary and grammar. You may only see them once a week, and that will probably be the only time they are hearing English. This means that how you deliver a story is crucial to helping them link the spoken words and their meanings.
Here are some tips to follow:
1. Keep language very simple, especially with 3 – 5 year olds
- Unless you’re using a board book with short sentences or a story book specifically aimed at ESL preschool kids, I don’t recommend just reading the text directly from the book. Re-tell the story in your own (very simple) words.
2. Point to the pictures as you emphasise key vocabulary
- This is crucial in helping children associate the spoken word and its meaning. Use repetition to reinforce key vocabulary and phrases.
3. Act out the story yourself!
- Try to use different voices for different characters – e.g. deep and gruff for the wolf, or high and squeaky for the Little Pigs
- Change the volume of your voice for dramatic effect
- Add sound effects whenever possible. Kids get a real kick out of them, and it really helps them engage!
- Exaggerate your facial expressions to express emotions
- Use physical gestures to show emotion, or help describe the appearance or actions of a character
- Use pauses for suspense and change the pace to add variety
- Encourage children to participate where appropriate with actions, sound effects, key words or phrases.
Although you may feel like you’re overdoing it, including the above steps in your storytelling will captivate your kids and help them stay engaged from beginning to end. In fact, you’ll find they often mirror your actions and repeat your words, if you keep them simple. If you just sit and flatly read a story with a lot of text that they can’t understand, you’ll find they quickly become bored, restless and distracted.
Dealing with interruptions
Naturally, most kids love to comment on the story and pictures as you’re reading! Depending on the story or the book, you may want to actively encourage and channel this by having the kids think about what will happen next, or what they think will be on the next page, or under the flap, for example. This can greatly enrich the experience and maximize opportunities for speaking English.
However, you do need to limit how much your kids chatter about unrelated things or get up and wander around during a story if you want to keep the group engaged. When one child makes a comment it usually has a snowball effect, with the rest of the group all wanting to have their say too and if you’re not careful they can go completely off-track! If this happens, ignoring any random comments and exaggerating a gasp and a “Look!” while pointing at something in the book, for example, will often be enough to bring their attention back. If it’s not, gently but firmly say “Shhh! Listen!” or tell them to save any more questions or comments until the end. This is why it’s useful to establish some rules beforehand, so you can simply remind them at this point.
To get the most out of the story, take advantage of doing some kind of related follow-up activity to reinforce the vocabulary that’s been taught. I usually do a craft activity afterwards that relates to the book. Depending on the age and level of your kids, other follow-up activities could include a story sequencing activity, or having them act out the story themselves, or with simple finger or stick puppets.
Which books to choose?
- 3 – 5 year olds (Preschool – Kindergarten)
I’ve found the best picture books for ESL preschool kids are ones that have less text, and/or a storyline that you can easily simplify into your own words. In general, choose 12 – 24 page books rather than 32 page ones.
Lift-the-flap books are also very effective as they add another level of interaction and participation, and young kids just never seem to tire of opening and shutting those flaps! Lift-the-flap books are perfect for eliciting guesses from children as to what might be underneath, which is a great opportunity for them to recall vocabulary and pronounce the word.
I’ve also found that if children are already familiar with a story it’s easier to focus on the new language. Well-known fairy tales are great because they cross many cultures and are known by most children. That means they are able to focus more on the English words for the things in the story rather than trying to figure out what’s actually happening. Classic stories include the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, or even The Very Hungry Caterpillar –they all work really well in an ESL preschool class. For this age group I also particularly love Nick Sharrat books, the Maisy Series (more for the 3-4 year olds), Pete the Cat and Eric Carle books.
- For 6 – 8 year olds (First – Second Grade)
If you teach early primary kids the problem is that they still have limited vocabulary and grammar, but they are a bit too old for simple picture and board books, which are aimed at younger native children. Depending on the country, these kids will probably be reading fairly well in their native language by this time and don’t want to be treated like babies. You still need to use books with pictures on every page to help them understand the story, but the illustration style should be more age-appropriate.
This age group should also be starting to read in English too, so story time is a great opportunity to encourage this. Have them read the title of the book, or find specific words in the text. Early reader series books are an excellent choice for early primary as the language is simple and the books are usually short. I have small groups, so I often ask them to read a sentence each. The Dolphin Reader Series by Oxford University Press has an excellent variety of fact and fiction books in 4 different levels with exercises at the end of the book that you can photocopy if you want to do a consolidation activity after reading. There are some in the series that I use for all ages (see this article for my list of recommended books), although as the books are smaller, very short and often more factual, I tend not to spend so much time “setting-up” Story Time when I use these books. However, I do find them very useful – especially for involving the 6-8 year olds in reading.
I also love the Winnie and Wilbur Series (originally called Winnie the Witch) for first and second graders. Even though they are often used in preschool and Kindergarten, I actually use the Winnie and Wilbur books more with the 6 – 8 age group, as they have a quirky and fun illustration style that I think is great for older kids. The text will be a too advanced for them, however, so you’ll still need to simplify it in your own words. The main drawback is that the books are 32 pages, so they are a little on the long side.