Interactive Story Telling

Interactive Story Telling

An activity which practises both listening and speaking in the classroom is interactive story telling. I usually use short stories, but if you wanted to and had the time you could also tell your students the story of a whole novel, in instalments as the course progressed.

The activity works in the following way: the teacher divides the students into pairs and tells them that s/he’s going to tell them a story. At certain points in the story s/he pauses and asks them to discuss something with their partner – to decide what a character who has just been introduced looks like (a good activity if you’ve just been working on describing people) or what the place where the story takes place is like, to decide what a character is thinking about, what is going to happen next etc. After the students have had time to discuss in pairs, the teacher asks for their ideas, chooses the version which fits the story (or if there isn’t one that’s suitable says, “No, none of you have guessed. In fact…” and then provides another version before continuing. I often use adapted and updated Sufi stories (1) for this. Here’s one of my favourites, The Mexican and the Bicycle:

A policeman was working on the border between Mexico and the United States (Describe the policeman) when, one day, a Mexican arrived on a bicycle. (Describe the Mexican) The man had a large bag on his back (Describe the bag), and the policeman was sure that he was smuggling something, so he asked him to open the bag. (What do you think was inside?)

But inside the bag there was only sand. The policeman poured all the sand onto the ground, but there was nothing else in the bag, (So what did he do?) and so he let the man go.

For the next few years this happened two or three times a week. The Mexican arrived on a bicycle and was always carrying a bag of sand. The policeman became more and more convinced that the man was smuggling something, but he could never find out what it was. (Why do you think the man was always carrying the bag of sand? How do you think the policeman felt? What do you think he thought?)

Years later, after the policeman retired, he was drinking in a bar one evening (Describe the bar) when the Mexican came in. The policeman bought him a drink (What were they drinking?) and, while they were sitting and chatting together, said “Come on, you can tell me now. I’m retired and it doesn’t matter any more. I know that for all those years you were smuggling something. What was it?”

The Mexican looked at him, smiled, and said (What did he say?) “Bicycles.”

Written by Sue Swift
Sue Swift has worked in the area of ELT for nearly 30 years as a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer. She writes on EFL methodology and other issues connected with language teaching, and runs a site for EFL teachers,


  1. Sharron

    I tried this lesson and it proved to be really good fun, we had some great and funny stories which provided some laughs…

  2. Christine

    Thanks for this superb idea! I’ve tried it out – using this story and others – in several of my classes and it has never failed to energise the students. I know it has had the desired effect when I have volunteers eager to recount their own interactive stories at the next class.

  3. Dilara

    I really liked the way you tell the story but it is so regional based. I am from Turkey and I cannot adapt this story to my class. Do you have other stories like this one?

  4. Anonymous

    Dilara says that she/he cannot adapt this story because it is too regional. Actually the first time I heard this story it was presented as a middle eastern story. I am surprised that nationalities are stated in such an overt fashion. It is not necessary. The best stories are universal.

    • joker

      the best stories might become universal, they aren’t universal.

  5. Anonymous

    Actually I have used this method before… My story is: a beggar found a leather purse in a marketplace (who found a leather purse? where did he find it?) then a merchant was shouting a reward to the one who finds my leather purse (who was shouting? what was he offering?) (do you think the beggar will give the purse back to the merchant?) being an honest person the beggar handed it back saying here is your purse may I have the reward now (did the beggar give the purse to the merchant? do you think the merchant will give the reward?)

  6. Hanna

    I really love the idea of interactive story telling. I do have a problem with this particular story, however. As TEFL teachers, we are daily presented with stereotypes of Americans that we have to embrace, combat and everywhere in between. I don’t like the idea of augmenting or creating another stereotype. I don’t want the several hundred students I see each week in China to believe that Mexicans are sneaky, and are involved in illegal smuggling.

  7. Anonymous

    These warm-ups are really great, because they are communicative. Also, they can be easily modified according to a group one’s teaches. I’ve already used true/false and guess the famous person. I call the latter Find a Celebrity!

  8. Leti

    It’s a great idea to use those warmers not only with children but also with adolescents. I specifically liked “Where in the world” it makes students think and give personal opinions. You discover interesting things about their thoughts!!

  9. Cedric

    Nice one… here’s one I regularly use. It’s called “The Line Quiz”.

    Split your class into two groups, get them to form two straight lines in front of you. Explain it’s a competition. You then ask the first two students a question (based on whatever you want to review or to see if they studied or not) example: “what colour is my jumper?” The first of the two saying “your jumper is red” (or whatever colour it is) gets to go sit down. Once a line has no more student, it means they have won! It wakes them up and helps to make a quick revision… Hope you like it!

  10. Antonio Bolaños

    I have been teaching English for 19 years and I have always used warmers in my classes. They can really help set the scene for students. The book Five-minutes Activities has been very useful and helpful to me. My students enjoy the class more and so do I.

  11. Theresa

    I have been teaching for 35 years. For new classes I step out of the class as I tell my students they should be ready to tell me the names of three of their mates and what they do. I just hang around the door for three minutes. The buzz within is a pleasant beginning. The classes in Ghana are usually composed of speakers of various local languages.

  12. […] ELL students enjoy a well-told story, regardless of whether or not they understand all the words. Hopefully you already have a […]

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