Founder of ESL Reads   EAL Teacher (Secondary)

The Power of Storytelling for EAL/D Students and Teachers

October 2, 2022 by Lauren Piovesan

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the power of storytelling. It has made me reflect on my students’ stories, the stories I used in the classroom, and how stories shape our understanding of the world. 
In this blog, I describe my experiences of using stories in the classroom, and in my life. I follow this up with 5 tried and trusted resources for using stories in the classroom. 

Stories & Students

Teaching through stories of real people and real experiences has always been my favourite way to teach. I have often made use of biographical stories that have affirmed experiences for students or inspired them to think about their own lives differently. The messages in these stories have provided the right amount of distance; allowing students to engage with truths in a way that is non-threatening and comfortable – as opposed to say, a conversation with your teacher.

Sometimes, the stories I chose come out of a unit theme, and other times they were chosen based on the needs and attitudes of the class in front of me. I have valued the moments when students have said, “Yes, this is what we do in my country,” or “This has happened to me,” as their faces lit up at the thought of being a little less lonely and a little more understood.

Stories & Me

Looking back, I cannot pinpoint the first time I developed an affinity with stories but one thing is certain; I became obsessed with migrant stories and change makers. I distinctly remember interviewing my nonna (grandmother) about her life story from Italy to Australia and being absolutely awe-struck by her resilience, courage and matter of fact-ness! “Could be worse,” she always said as I looked on dumbfounded while she described her hardships.

The themes of inspiring resilience and courage repeated through the stories I heard from students in Mae La Refugee Camp (border of Thailand and Myanmar) when I went there many years ago, and in the stories of my own EAL/D students when they bravely wrote and spoke about their journeys. On top of this, I buried myself in autobiographies, eager to learn about the experiences and lessons that others had to offer.

Stories & Us

I know as EAL/D teachers, we have all heard, or have read between the lines to realise amazing yet completely harrowing stories which have had a deep and profound impact on our attitudes and outlook. I think that while it can be challenging to digest some of these stories, I do feel it is a privilege to hear them and to work with the students that carry them.

Stories for the Classroom

I’d now like to share with you 5 resources I used to teach with stories in the EAL/D classroom. 

1. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
Series 1, 2 & 100 Immigrant Women Who Changed the World

What is it?

One-page biographies about inspirational women.

What level?

High post beginners to intermediate.

Who should use it?

Late primary to young adults.

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Although targeting late primary, mainstream students, I found there were so many inspiring women in this book – some from the home countries of my students. I used these in multiple ways: independent reading, guided reading and a collection of stories to support a unit of work. They are great for spring-boarding into journal writing too!

2. Boys Who Dare to be Different

What is it?

One-page biographies about inspirational men.

What level?

Intermediate +.

Who should use it?

Late primary to young adults.

boys who dare
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This is the male version of the Rebel Girls Stories but have some more complex vocabulary and sentence structures so I recommend it for intermediate students and above.

3. Little People, Big Dreams

What is it?

Short, biographical picture books about inspirational men and women.  

What level?

Post beginners +

Who should use it?

Primary to early secondary.

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Due to the picture book format, students are usually shocked when they reach the end of the story and see a timeline with real photos of the person in the book. The conversation usually goes…”Is this person real?” “Yes they are a real person!” The students love that!

4. Our Stories Series

What is it?

Short, illustrated narratives based on the experiences of refugees and migrants.

What level?

Beginners to intermediate (depending on the story you choose).

Who should use it?

Young adults & adults.

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Although these stories are not biographies, it is clear they are based on the experiences of groups of migrant and refugee background people. In particular, I found my students made strong connections with A New Life and Sunita’s Story. I used this for independent and guided reading but they could easily be used to begin a unit with the same theme. 

5. HealthWize: Health Literacy Resource for Refugee and Other ESL Students

What is it?

A textbook with worksheets and passages about personal health and the health system in Australia.

What level?

Beginners and post beginners.

Who should use it?

Secondary students & young adults. 

I enjoyed using the passages and case studies in this book when I was teaching a health topic. Again, not biographical but they very closely reflect the migrant experience. They were very relatable for students and they often laughed whilst reading because they could see themselves in them!

Other Resources

There are so many more stories I would love to trial but haven’t yet had the chance! Some that I have seen recently include the Chef’s Table Netflix episode on Cristina Martinez and Urban Lyrebirds new Sing with Me Stories. There are also some great programs which help students to tell their own stories, such as the Artful Dodger’s Speaker’s Program in Melbourne, Vic. 

I hope in reading this, it has brought some inspirational stories that you have heard, used or read to the forefront. I would love for you to share your thoughts and experiences of storytelling in the comments below. 

Please note: This is all based on my own research, recommendations from colleagues or my experiences in the classroom and is not endorsed by the authors, illustrators or companies that feature here. 

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Storytelling for EAL/D Students and Teachers”

  1. Hi Lauren, I completely relate to this post. I find my students are so interested in other people’s stories, as well as learning about how people live in different countries. I have used the first three suggested resources with my students and agree they are great. I haven’t seen number four so will check it out. Thanks! My students have enjoyed reading the Penguin ELT reader -the-extraordinary-life-of-malala-yousafzai.
    Also, have you seen the free ebooks World Vision have? One is called ‘Stories from kids who dared to dream’, and there is also ‘Stories from girls who dared to dream’.

    1. Hi Kara,
      Thank you so much for sharing. I’m really glad this is relatable. I have taught Malala’s story too and that was very powerful for my students. Wow, I haven’t heard of the World Vision books but I certainly will check this out. Thank you!

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