Teaching young learners through stories: the development of a handy parallel syllabus

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By Ntinou Loukia, M.Ed. in TESOL


Ntinou Loukia is a teacher of English in primary schools in the city of Volos, Greece. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature and a Masters of Education Degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Οther Languages (M.Ed. in TESOL). She has participated in a number of teacher training programs organized by the Council of Europe and seminars conducted in Greece and Europe. She has published articles in Greek and American journals and has made presentations in seminars and Congresses. Her main field of interest is innovative ways in the teaching of English Language to young learners and specializes in teaching the language through stories. Her second field of interest is using educational technology in promoting collaboration between schools and their students. ldinou@sch.gr


The paper is based on the conviction that stories, apart from being every young child’s bedtime friend, can become every young learner’s school time treasure. Moving within the context of English language teaching in Primary schools in Greece through a compulsory course book, the paper identifies a mismatch between what is considered as good primary practice and what is realized in practice through the use of stories inside the course book. A parallel, story based syllabus is developed, which aims to cater for the problems conceived, and the theory behind it is presented in order to justify the selection of both the framework and the materials. Andrews (2000:3) uses the term “framework” to ‘refer to a diagrammatic representation of a course outline or plan’ and this is also the view of “framework” adopted in this paper. The paper also analytically presents seven teaching sessions within the framework and alternative assessment for one. The framework will be presented and evaluated in relation to the theories about how children think and learn and about acquisition/learning of L1 and L2. Suggestions will be made for improving and further developing the framework.

The teaching situation
The Greek State’s policy regarding foreign language education is reflected in the Comprehensive 6-year Curriculum for the Teaching of English (1997:65-66). English as a foreign language to be taught to and learned by Greek students is given “first priority”, one main reason being that
‘ ...it is the mother tongue of several largely populated countries ...whose peoples enjoy a high level of technological, economic and cultural development’.
In practice the situation is as follows: English is not the principal language in the country but it holds a prominent position (it is a strong asset for getting a job, it is a language of communication in tourism and business). The children do not hear it used much around them in everyday situations as subject teaching/learning is conducted in L1. However, the media and technology (computers, computer games, CD’s) provide increasingly more chances for children to contact the language.

Teaching English in the private language school sector has been an industry for many decades and, for the past decade, English as a foreign language is being taught within the State school system also. The lessons come in 50-minute periods three times a week. The teacher of English does not teach other subjects and uses an ELT syllabus for which the textbook is the main provider and very often the only resource. The materials used for instruction is the series Fun Way (1, 2, 3 for the 4th, 5th, 6th grades respectively) which consist of a Student’s book, a Workbook, a Teacher’s book and an audio cassette. The books are written by Greek authors. They are provided to the students by the State; the teachers are not restricted to the use of extra material, provided they find the resources to generate or reproduce it.

Getting to the framework

Identifying an area in need of adaptation/ development
For a course to have a coherence of purpose, it is impertinent that the aims and objectives of the Syllabus ‘are not contradicted at the classroom level’ (Nunan 1988:96). Therefore, in order to identify an area in the teaching material that would need further development, a cross reference had to be made between The Comprehensive 6-year Curriculum for the Teaching of English, the Syllabus Document requirements and the way these are realized in the textbooks and Teacher’s Book. Three steps were taken to this end:

  1. The leading Syllabus aims were isolated. These were identified as follows: a. the Syllabus Document adopts a communicative framework where ‘knowledge is a learning experience ... that results from a process which requires the activation of cognitive, social and functional skills’ (Syllabus Document: 71-72), b. a learner centered teaching/learning approach is adopted and considerable attention is given to the conceptual and psychological development of the target audience.

  1. A story incorporated in the course book was examined, “Bong’s story”, first as a story in itself and, then, as a story used for instruction. The course book writers, being aware of the importance of stories as a tool in teaching the language in a context familiar to the child, decided to realize the State aims by incorporating this story in Fun Way 1.

  1. The comparative analysis, between the Syllabus demands and the way these could be developed through a story-based syllabus, provided the rationale for the development of the parallel syllabus that is presented in the paper.

Target group, class profile
The series of observed lessons were conducted with the 4th grade class of the 2nd Public Primary School of Volos. The class consists of twenty native Greek 10-year-old students all of which are monolingual. Sixteen of the students have also been learning English in a private language school for 1 or even 2 years. Two students study English only at school.
The way these learners are taught the different subjects at school in their mother tongue reflects an attitude towards learning the language and not learning through language. Unavoidably this attitude becomes deeply rooted and forms their expectations in learning the second language also. Teaching contextualized language and developing cognitive awareness through stories is not considered as an effective language teaching methodology for Greek subjects. Literary texts in general are used as a basis for teaching structure and developing grammar drills.
Teaching children of this age is not easy, but it is certainly challenging. Brewster insists that one of the seven main features of good primary practice is ‘reading literature for enjoyment, responding to it critically and using that reading for learning’ (1991:5). However “comforting” it might be for the teachers to be ‘in charge of the proceedings’ (Skehan 1996:17) with a traditional model of teaching, they should not ignore that stories are made for children and that young learners are also children. An area, therefore, which is less developed, is the possibility of using children’s stories for the production of a wide variety of language and learning activities. These can lay the foundations for the development of more positive attitudes towards the foreign language and language learning.

Why use stories?

Ellis and Brewster (1991) give several reasons why teachers should use storybooks.

  • Storybooks can enrich the pupils’ learning experience. Stories are motivating and fun and can help develop positive attitudes towards the foreign language.

  • Stories exercise the imagination and are a useful tool in linking fantasy and the imagination with the child’s real world.

  • Listening to stories in class is a shared social experience.

  • Children enjoy listening to stories over and over gain. This repetition allows language items to be acquired and reinforced.

  • Listening to stories develops the child’s listening and concentrating skills.

  • Stories create opportunities for developing continuity in children’s learning (among others, school subjects across the curriculum)

(Adapted from Ellis and Brewster 1991:1-2)

The question arises, then, of what we mean by “stories”. Children have already formed their schema of what a story is since early childhood. Within the family environment children have had opportunities to listen to stories being read to them, hold and discover the world of the colorful pictures and, later, make efforts to “decode” the letters and sounds until they make sense to them as words and sentences. Teachers can choose from a wide range of storybooks of this kind: traditional stories and fairy tales common in most European cultures (Snow White or Little Red Riding Hood for example); picture stories where children can build up their own version of the story; fantasy stories; animal stories. Alternatively, many authentic storybooks written for English speaking children are suitable for use in an EFL classroom. The advantage is that they bring the ‘real’ world in the classroom and they are an excellent opportunity for providing our students with examples of authentic language use. For the story-based syllabus, which will supplement the existing framework, three stories were selected: Where’s Spot, Spot’s Birthday, by Hill E., and Meg and Mog by Nicoll E. and Pienkowski J.,

There are several criteria a teacher could use for selecting a story accessible and relevant for the learners. The successful choice, however, is not enough to ensure the good use of a story in class. The activities designed for each story and the exploitation of the rich material in the story itself are very important also. The table below shows which of the criteria for selecting stories “Bong’s story” fulfills, and which of these criteria are actually exploited by the way this story is to be taught if we follow the writers’ guidelines in the Teacher’s Book.

Criteria for the selection of stories

Bong’s story



appropriate language level (vocabulary, structures, notions/ functions)

content (interesting, fun, motivating, memorable, encourages participation)

visuals (attractive, potential to work with, size)

pronunciation (intonation, rhythm, repetition)

motivation (develop imagination, arouse curiosity, draw on personal experience)

Language learning potential (skills development, language practice, recycling, prediction, other strategies)

potential in terms of learning other subjects, target/other culture, metacognition

The table reveals that “Bong’s story” has great potential for use in class but this potential is not exploited. To cover up for the lack of using a story productively, the parallel syllabus will prove extremely handy.

The story-based framework in class

The selection of stories and their position in the parallel syllabus
The three stories selected are authentic ones, in the sense that they were originally written for English speaking children. The language is not selected or graded; however, they contain language traditionally found in most beginner syllabuses. Each story has different aims to accomplish within the parallel syllabus depending on its content, language features and activities. The two syllabuses, main and parallel, need to run in tandem, since the parallel syllabus is used as supplementary to the main. For this reason the stories have a rather fixed position within the main syllabus of the class, the position dictated by the amount of language, skills and strategies developed up to the point each story is introduced. The decision was made that children would not have to work extensively on acquiring new language and structure (the course book does plenty on this!), but would focus on other -more ‘original’- aspects of language learning through stories.

The diagram shows the interweaving of the two syllabuses. First, the number of English sessions per year were calculated; then the two syllabuses were considered in detail in order to find the points where the parallel syllabus could best fit in; after that, the sessions were estimated that should be devoted to each Unit of instruction in Fun Way 1; last the whole syllabus was put together as a year-plan for the specific group of learners. This organizing of the teaching material does not imply that it is rigid. The teacher may predict possible problems and provide for them in advance, but one may not predict everything. If such an unpredictable situation should arrive, the teacher can make any amendments necessary.

The first story, Where’s Spot, is an easy one and appears as soon as students have acquired the basic language to work with it.

The story-based parallel syllabus

Description and rationale for the framework

The story-based framework is designed to show students how the language, they have already learnt, is used in a different context alternative to the course book. It aims to create a productive environment where the students will develop their whole personality. Learners are expected to start developing a more positive attitude to learning the foreign language for the following reasons:

  1. The stories are memorable, as the language is repeated, and this encourages students to participate. This recycling of patterns incites students to predict what is coming next in the story and, at the same time, exercises their imagination.

  1. The pictures are closely related to the text, sometimes they even structure the text (see Meg and Mog going down the stairs, where the text appears going down the stairs also). This can support the learners’ understanding. The strategy of inferring meaning of words from the text is also supported by the illustrations. The colors, the simple shapes and figures do not distract the learners but rather guide them to key points of the texts. Another merit of this kind of illustrations is that they are easy to imitate or copy, so it comes natural for many creative activities to fit in the framework.

  1. The stories are expected to motivate the learners and arouse their curiosity about the target language and its culture. The fact that Spot’s stories are also well known in Greece (they have been translated and published), indicates that some of the children may have read them in their mother tongue. This, far from being discouraging for the selection of the stories, was actually one of the reasons for choosing them: making such associations with the children of the other culture is welcoming, so that learners discover by themselves that they can have many things in common.

The activities follow guidelines in their design. The development of the guidelines are based on the theories of how children think and learn and owe much to the work of Wood (1998) and the edition of Teaching English to children by Brumfit, Moon and Tongue (1995).



they are enjoyable/motivating

create a desire to continue learning

they exercise imagination

development of useful strategies (predicting, hypothesizing, planning, sequencing, classifying)

they exemplify language features in use

real life use of language

they allow frequent repetition

language items are acquired/reinforced

they build up the child’s confidence

  • non-threatening context for learning

  • familiar genre raises background knowledge

they encourage social interaction/social skills

pair/group work, cooperation/sharing

they present/practice through concrete objects, following the child’s conceptual development

illustrations, visuals, touch-and-see things enhance comprehension/long term memory

they exploit the child’s enormous amount of physical energy

action games, action songs, creative activities are ways to learn-by doing

they consider the short concentration span of a child at this age

planning feasible lessons, good management of the class

This story-based syllabus places a lot of attention to the development of areas which are rather neglected in the main syllabus for the class. An area that can prove a source of wealth for our learners is that of “learning to learn”. Ellis insists that ‘in order to develop an awareness of learning and learner responsibility, learning-to-learn should be built into the curriculum in an explicit and systematic way’ (Ellis, 1991:191). Learners can be guided to reflect on the process of learning even if they are young. Students of the age of 8-10 are beginning to develop greater self-awareness and can take responsibility of their learning. Small scale Portfolios, simple questionnaires or learners’ diaries can be designed to increase the students’ metacognitive awareness and could also serve as ways of alternative assessment/evaluation of both the students’ achievements and the program’s effectiveness. The parallel syllabus makes an effort to link the stories with cross-thematic learning. There are many areas in the curriculum where links can be made. Telling the time, counting, numbers, shapes, relate to Mathematics; the life cycle of animals, outer space, understanding the passing of time relate to Science; food, Nature relate to Environmental Education; action songs and games relate to Physical Education.

The story-based syllabus can raise cultural awareness issues. A carefully selected story can give information about life in the target language. In this syllabus Spot’s birthday and Meg and Mog inform about birthday celebrations and Halloween in the target language culture. Discussions can be held (probably in the mother tongue), projects and surveys among other community members of the target culture can be arranged. In this way learners become aware that learning can be an experience of their everyday life, which is not confined to the school environment only.

The lesson plans illustrate in practice the use made of each story.

Where’s Spot Two teaching sessions


Main concept : spatial context


Let’s meet Spot (session 1)

Spot in our class! (session 2)

Structural/ Functional aims

Simple present


Interrogative forms (yes/no questions)

Wh- questions

Statements with the verb to be


Listening to the story, to instructions and statements, questions and answers, games

Responding to instructions/prompts

Reading: words and sentences

Listening to the story, to instructions and statements, questions and answers

Speaking: asking and answering questions, games, role-play

Reading: retelling the story with prompts

Writing: copying games, gap-filling

Language features

Verbs: imperative. Simple present of the verb to be

Yes/No questions (interrogative)

negative-affirmative answers

prepositions of place (on, in, inside, under, behind, in front of)



Animals: revision (dog, puppy, bear, snake, lion, monkey, crocodile); new (hippopotamus, tortoise)

Birds: revision (penguin)

Furniture: revision (armchair, door, wardrobe, bed, table)

Objects: revision (box, basket, telephone); new (clock, piano, stairs, rug, vase)

Recycling vocabulary

Creative activities

Drawing, singing

Drawing, dramatization (role-play)

Learning to learn

Predicting, developing memory

sequencing pictures, developing memory

Curriculum links

Environment: life of a pet


Introducing/revising vocabulary: listen and arrange pictures of animals

Miming and discovering animals

“What’s missing” game with furniture

Action game: following instructions with prepositions (e.g. Stand on the chair)

Practice/production of key structures

* follow up for action game: Ss take positions in class and T guesses

* work with story pictures: gradually develop memory (e.g. Is Spot in the wardrobe?) and prediction skills (e.g. Who is behind the wardrobe?)

Song (Hockey Cockey)
Worksheet (room with furniture/objects)

Follow instructions and draw the animals in their place in the room

Group work: Sequencing game/listening/ memory: Ss put pictures of the story in the right order, then T reads and Ss verify/ correct their sequence

Pair work/information gap activity: Worksheet (pictures of furniture, one S has the complete pictures): Ss ask/answer and draw the animals in the right place according to their peer’s instructions

Writing: copying game: Ss choose from lists on the board and complete worksheet

Retelling of story T uses prompts on the board and Ss reconstruct the story by relating the pictures in the story book to the questions/prompts on the board

Optional: Role-play: Roles: child, mother and dog. Child can’t find his dog and asks questions to mother.

Spot’s birthday Two teaching sessions

Main concepts: numbers months days


Oops! Spot again (session 1)

What a party! (session 2)

Structural/ Functional aims

Imperative, possessives, articles



Listening to story/instructions, questions, answers

Speaking: interviewing, questions and answers

Reading chart (birthday dates0

Writing completing chart

Listening to words in Bingo game

Speaking: singing birthday song, party reception

Reading invitations

Language features

Simple present, simple past,

Interrogative, Yes/No questions

Prepositions (in, on, inside, under)

Simple present, simple past


Prepositions (behind, in front of)


Animals, house places (recycling from Where’s Spot: rug, curtain, door, plant, cupboard, bath, coat)

Numbers (cardinals and ordinals),Months, days


Creative activities

Make birthday cards/invitations for the party

Put party decorations

Learning to learn

Preparing a party-discussion/decision-making


Making arrangements, following plans

Cultural elements

Celebrating birthdays in two countries

Celebrating the ‘English’ way

Curriculum links

Maths: numbers and quantity,

Music: singing songs

Dramatization of the story: real life party/activities

Physical education: moving around, understanding spatial context


Interview: Ss find out peers’ birthdays, list them as for each month and closest birthdays

Sing ‘Happy Birthday’

Prepare birthday party (decide number of people for the party, make invitations, preparations for food, drinks

Bingo game, party games: action games, Simon says…, find the treasure

Meg and Mog Three teaching sessions

Main concepts: colors, size and shape, time


Let’s meet Meg, Mog and the Owl (session 1)

Poor Meg!!! (session 2)

Poor me!!!! (session 3)

Structural/ Functional aims

Asking for and giving information using Yes/No and Wh-questions

Describing clothes, people

Giving instructions

Asking for and telling the time

Telling the time


Listening for general understanding using visual clues

Speaking; asking and answering questions, describing

Reading: word flashcards

Listening to instructions

Speaking: imitating spells

Reading: dictionary

Writing: copying, recipes

Listen to the story on the cassette and follow book

Listening to instructions

Speaking: giving instructions

Reading: food package, recipes

Writing: copying

Language features

Adjectives (big, black, long, tall, striped, straight, curly)-word order

Verbs (hook, make or chant a spell)

Recycling of first session, further practice

Recycling and transferring to another context (food recipe)


Food: revision (eggs, bread, milk, jam); new (kipper, cocoa)

Animals: revision (cat, spider, frog, bat, mouse); new (beetle, worm)

Clothes: revision (shoes, hat, stocking); new (cloak),Broomstick, cauldron

Recycling of first session, further practice

Recycling and extension

Creative activities


Drawing, puppet making

Making a cake

Learning to learn

Classifying, sequencing

Predicting, hypothesizing, using dictionary

Memory training

Cultural elements

The image of witches in the two cultures

Food in another country (breakfast ingredients)

Curriculum links

Science: life cycle of animals

Mathematics: telling the time

Environment: food


Revise vocabulary: clothes: ask and answer about clothes pupils wear

Animals: describe your pet

Food: what’s your favorite food

Picture dictation: Meg’s picture to describe

Listening dictation: listen and draw Meg

Use puppets: to retell the story, to make prompts for writing a small version of the story

Rebus: give sentences with words at random order, Ss put them in order

Listen to the story on the tape

Visit the school canteen and make the cake!

The activities within a learner centered environment

Brewster rightfully claims that ‘inclusion of a variety of teaching styles is a realistic reflection of what actually goes on in primary schools’ (Brewster, 1991:5). The story itself and the activities, built within the corpus of the text, are the structuring components of the lesson. The stages of the lesson, where extra activities can be inserted, are clearly defined. In this way, the context assumes great importance; young learners can more readily make associations between the language needed and the language produced, because we provide them with a coherent context, where language and structures are not used for their own sake but have a target. Children can thus store new knowledge more easily and retrieve it when they find themselves in a similar context.

The different activities for each session act as a guide for the organization of individual/pair/group work. Children’s stages of development, according to Piaget, play an important role in how they learn. The target group for the sessions exemplified have just gone beyond the beginnings of the “operational stage” (where the social instinct starts developing) and which occurs ‘towards the age of 7 or 8’ (Wood 1998: 28, see also Brumfit 1991:2). These learners are now at the stage where in Vygotsky’s view, ‘speech comes to form the higher mental processes which are culturally formed in social interaction’ (Brewster 1991:3). Therefore, in order to follow the children’s conceptual development, the teacher must provide for alternative organizational patters for her class. Not all children develop at the same speed and it is certain that each child has a different style in learning and a unique personality.
The different stages were designed with Halliwell’s suggestion in mind that ‘children cannot concentrate on one thing for a long period and lessons should, therefore, be divided into series of activities lasting no longer than 5 or 10 minutes’ (Halliwell 1992:27). The projects and surveys suggested may last much longer. Students can work alone or in groups outside the school in their free time; this reinforces the idea that learning English is not restricted to the classroom environment but connects to their everyday life.

The pictures have a central role to play in the story-based syllabus and the learning-to-learn process. They can be a stimulus for forming hypothesis, predicting, sequencing and exercising memory. Words are better associated with pictures. In addition, a story is more memorable if it can be related to a sequence of pictures. This quality of theirs makes pictures a useful tool for the design of activities, especially oral or written ones. They can help in practicing speaking and writings skills: the story can be reconstructed orally or on paper (guided tasks) with the help of key-visuals from the storybook. Moreover, they can provide high face and content validity as stimuli for pure writing or speaking tasks in a conventional testing situation (if the teacher chooses this kind of assessment).

What about a useful piece of advice to teachers?

Don’t forget the stories as soon as you have worked with them, they have even more to offer. Begin certain sessions (the first of each week for example) with a re-reading of the story as a warm up activity. Children enjoy reading over and over again the same stories. Have a copy of the book handy, so that the students can read and touch it in their free time. This may make their relationship with books stronger.

A story-based framework of teaching and learning can become a very powerful tool in the hands of a teacher. A well-organized story session can intrigue the students and make them want to explore many features of the language. As teachers, we want to make our students autonomous, lifelong learners. We will have made a large step towards this aim if we make them learn consciously and assume responsibility for their learning.

Brewster, J., (1991), «What is good primary practice?» in Brumfit C, Moon J, Tongue R (eds) Teaching English to Children. From Practice to Principle, edition published by Longman Group Ltd, 1995

Brumfit C., Moon J., Tongue R. (eds) (1991) Teaching English to Children. From Practice to Principle, edition published by Longman Group Ltd, 1995

Ellis, G. & Brewster, J., (1991), The Storytelling Handbook for Primary Teachers, Penguin

Ellis, G., (1999), «Children’s literature as a means of developing metacognitive awareness» in Literature and the Young Learner IATEFL Young Learners SIG Newsletter, Whitstable: IATEFL Publications.

ELT Curriculum Design Committee, (1997), The Comprehensive 6-year Curriculum for the Teaching of English, Pedagogical Institute, Athens, Greece

European Council, (1996), A Common European Framework of Reference, Modern Languages Department, http://culture.coe.fr/lang/eng/eedu2.4.html

Halliwell, S., (1992), Teaching English in the Primary Classroom, UK, Longman

Little, D. & Perclova, R., (2000), The European Language Portfolio: a Guide for teachers and teacher trainers, document number DGIV/EDU/LANG (2000) 28, Modern Languages Division, Strasbourg, Council of Europe.

Nunan, D., (1988), Syllabus Design, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Skehan, P., (1996), «Second language acquisition research and task-based instruction», in Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, Jane Willis & Dave Willis (eds), Heinemann, pp. 17-30.

Vygotsky, L.S., (1978), Mind in society, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., 1998), How Children Think and Learn, U.K., Blackwell


Hill, E., (1980), Where’s Spot, first published by Heinemann Ltd, this publication by Puffin Books, Harmondsworth, 1985

Hill, E., (1982), Spot’s Birthday, first published by Heinemann Ltd, this publication by Puffin Books, Harmondsworth, 1985

Nicoll, E. and Pienkowski, J., (1972), Meg and Mog, first published by Heinemann Ltd, this publication by Puffin Books, Harmondsworth, 1975.

Course book

Pedagogical Institute, (2004), Fun Way 1, ΟΕDΒ, Athens

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