published by HLT April 2011

Stories and Change in Language Teaching

Andrew Wright, Hungary

Andrew Wright lives in Godollo, Hungary, near Budapest. Andrew and his wife Julia run a private language school in Godollo and Budapest doing mainly company teaching. Julia is the director of the company. Andrew spends most of his time writing books and travelling in order to work with teachers. Andrew’s books include: ‘Games for Language Learning’. CUP, ‘Creating Stories with Children’. OUP, ‘1000 Pictures for Teachers to Copy’. Longman Pearson, ‘Writing Stories’. Helbling Languages. E-mail:,


Message from Andrew

Why do we need stories?

Infinite complexity

Storying the stars

What do I mean by stories?

Storying in contemporary societies: What the media say about stories

Soap opera on radio and television


Elections in Britain

9/11 New York disaster…


We story ourselves and other people: We story and we are storied

Storying our day by day lives

The right stories

Times of change

As individuals

The human race

Future change

Dealing with the challenge of change

Change in language teaching

Postscript: A brief look at the potential of stories in language teaching

References and further reading

Message from Andrew

Dear Colleague Language Teacher,

In this article, please don’t expect to read ideas on the use of stories in language teaching.  Stories are offered here as the foundations of the house of language teaching…not the rooms,  beds and breakfast tables.


Why do we need stories?

More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Theseus in Midsummer Nights Dream Act V Scene 1

Infinite complexity

My mother’s family comes from Whitby which is a small fishing port on the North East coast of England.   We still have a family house there on the harbour side.  Captain Cook, the explorer, (pirate/plunderer – each word tells a different story depending from whose point of view the story is told),  sailed from Whitby, out into the North Sea on his way around the world.  A hundred years later the two-masted sailing ship in Bram Stoker’s book, ‘Dracula’, sailed into the harbour one wild and stormy night, crashing on the shore next to our family house; a great bloodhound leapt off the deck and ran up the199 steps to the cemetery on the cliff top where my ancestors are buried.

A little town full of stories.

One summer’s evening my son, Tom who was eight at the time, left the house and wandered along the pier.  We didn’t worry about him being alone.

But it began to get dark and Tom didn’t re-appear.  I went out into the darkness.  It was a starry night; there was no moon.  I could see the great slabs of sandstone on the surface of the pier and I could hear the waves tumbling and splashing below.  At the end of the pier there was a big coil of ropes and there was Tom, lying motionless, in this nest of ropes, looking up at the stars.

Tom!  I said. ‘‘What are you doing?’’

‘’I am looking at the stars and I am trembling.’’

‘’Why are you trembling?’’

‘’Because there are so many of them and they are so far away.’’

‘’I am not surprised you are trembling.  You have been staring in the face of infinity for one hour.  That is more than most humans can do for one second.

‘’There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on every beach and in every desert in the world.  It’s awesome…enough to make humanity tremble.

‘’Many years ago my mother showed me the Plough.  Look, there it is, to the North.  There are the three stars of the handle and the four stars of the blade of the plough.  Now look at the two stars at the end of the blade.  The lower one is called Merak…and the other Dubhe.  Multiply the distance between them five times and you will find the North Star, the Polar Star.  My mom told me that, here in Whitby, when I was your age. And I am sure that her dad told her.

‘’We look for patterns and we name them.  It’s comforting.  You don’t need to tremble if you can name something…well that is what people think. And we can pass on these stories about the patterns we find.

‘’The funny thing is that those stars, which seem to draw the shape of a plough so well, are not the same distance from us.  They are not lying on a piece of paper above us.  Dubhe is 79 million light years away and Merak is 124 million light years away:  a light year is, 9.5 million, million kilometres.  Furthermore, several of the stars we see as single stars are galaxies of stars and galaxies contain from  ten million to a trillion stars!

‘’Because we find a pattern which looks like a plough does not mean it is a plough!  We reduce this infinite complexity to a simple, ‘plough’. But it is comforting to do so!’’

Tom got up and  came back to the house, had his supper and went to bed.  ‘’Tom!’’   I whispered to his sleeping face, ‘’Find patterns but don’t forget they are only a way of coping with what you have so bravely faced.’’

We are all storying creatures.


Storying the stars


The Plough, also called the Big Dipper is part of the constellation called the ‘Great Bear’, Ursa Major.  It is made of/comprises seven stars.  The Ancients believed that seven must be significant:

There are:

Seven stars in the Plough

Seven planets in the sky

Seven continents

Seven seas

Seven deadly sins

Seven wonders of the world

Seven colours in the rainbow

Seven notes in the heptotonic scale

Seven days in the week

And four x seven days in a lunar month

Following my biggest commission as a teacher trainer, many years ago, in which I had worked with 450 teachers of French for one week in Vancouver, my employer told me, when it was all over, ‘’I knew it would be successful.’’

‘’Why were you so sure?’’

‘’ It had to be!  450 teachers from all over BC (British Columbia)!  You in the Vancouver Hotel, with a front door and a back door!  It had to be successful!’’

‘’But how could you know it would be?’’

‘’I had your name checked out.’’

‘’You mean…my reputation…my books?’’

‘’Sure!  But that was not enough!  I had your name checked out by a numerologist and you have got so many goddam sevens in your name I knew I couldn’t fail!’’

There are hundreds of stories about the stars.  Storying is just an extension of naming.  And just as there are many different names for the Plough, for example, the Big Dipper, so there are many different stories for each of the most identifiable patterns of stars.  Each culture produces its own stories.

The Song of the Stars

Algonquin Canada

We are the stars which sing,

We sing with our light:

We are the birds of fire,

We fly over the sky.

Our light is our voice;

We make roads for spirits,

For spirits to pass over.

Among us are three hunters

Who chase a bear;

There never was a time

When they were not hunting.

We look down on the mountains.

This is the song of the stars.


What is in common in all cultures is the desire to name and the desire to find stories.

We are storying creatures.

What do I mean by stories?


The way I am using the word, ‘story’ includes:

1. ‘Proper’ stories fictional or non fictional

A description of a series of events which contains drama and feelings and struggles to overcome problems and one which has a beginning, a middle and an end.  This description might be of events which actually happened (non-fiction, e.g., the story of Tom in the nest of ropes) or it might be a series of imagined events (fiction, e.g., the story of the Great Bear).

Fictional stories include: myths, legends, fables, fairy stories, author fiction

Non-fictional stories include: anecdotes and descriptions of real life events: teacher, family, community, news, historical tales

2. Everyday life as a story

We all know that Shakespeare regarded us as strutting about on the stage of life, acting out our parts.

We can be influenced by ALL the bits of behaviour (and the values and perceptions they manifest) which we see and hear all around us.  These bits of storying are around us every moment of the day:

‘The Iron Lady’ was a term used about Mrs Thatcher, the former British prime minister.  This name, coined for her by the Russians, has stuck with us, for better or for worse!  We cannot forget it because it contains the grit of drama, like the grit in the oyster which becomes a pearl.  A difficulty, a mismatch, a problem are seeds of stories offering themselves for germination.

There is a dramatic tension between the two words, ‘iron’ and ‘lady’.  This is part of the world of poetry.

‘Iron lady’ is obviously a part of the storytelling world but so is the way we choose to greet each other, responding as we do to our notions of values, perceptions and behaviours which we live by.

The way we treat a boy because he is a boy, or a girl because she is a girl, is part of non verbal storytelling: the colours we clothe them in, the toys we give them, the expectations we have of them.  In the story about Tom, the independence we gave Tom to wander and to think is a manifestation of values, perceptions and behaviours which came from the story world and fed back into his life story map.

The typographic design of the M of MacDonald’s is very different to the typographic design of the R of Rolls Royce.  The M of MacDonald’s is part of the storytelling of MacDonald’s…a company which purports to be informal and cheerful and warm and good natured.  And the ‘copper plate’ writing of the R of Rolls Royce?   A reputation built of many, many years of the very highest standards and traditions and supplying products to the ‘higher classes’ of society.

The way you walk into the classroom, the arrangement of the tables, your greeting…every single thing you do is part of storying.

Non-verbal behaviour is SO important that political leaders have teams of ‘story tellers’ who tell them how to dress, how to smile, when to put their hand on the shoulder of the visiting president and, of course, what to say and how to say it.

A film maker must choose the right place to film, must get the costume right and must prepare the actors to speak, walk, eat their dinner in the right way for their part.  In a very similar, way we are directors of our own life films: we choose our clothes and what we want to eat and the way we move and what we say.  We act out ourselves or the selves we would like to be and, to a certain extent, we choose and modify the settings in which we live, to express our personalities.

3. Story maps which guide us in dealing with experience

More abstractly, but more fundamentally to our lives, I use the world story and sometimes, ‘story map’ to mean the values, perceptions and behaviours which guide us in our moment by moment response to the experience of living.  These values, perceptions and behaviours derive partly from the stories we are told and which we read or see in films but also derive from the verbal and non-verbal behaviour, in our daily lives, of people around us.


Food makes our bodies.  Stories make our minds.

Storying in contemporary societies: What the media say about stories


BBC and CNN often say, ‘The top stories today are….’


I have witnessed:

Hearts in despair

Eyes hard with anger

Jaws set with determination

Eyes wide with fear

Desperation and injustice!

His father is dying and his mother is infected.  What will happen to him?

It’s illegal and it’s deadly but they do it for fun!

The world’s untold stories with CNN!

Follow the story behind the news with CNN!

Follow where the story leads to next with CNN!

‘CNN tells the stories which shape the world in which you live.’

The media, select from infinite complexity and make the world for and in your imagination.  Furthermore, in creating our perception of experience they actually affect the things which really happen.

Story and life become indivisible.


Soap opera on radio and television

In every country millions of people choose to watch the storying of contemporary life in soap operas. Twenty or so years ago a leading actor, in a Brazilian soap opera, killed the leading actress in a car, in a car park, by stabbing her to death…in real life!  The media reported the story using the soap opera names.  Brazil became paralysed, not knowing if it was true in the soap opera or true in life and experiencing that the soap opera experience was indivisible from their experience of their own daily lives.

This interweaving of story and life continued: the scriptwriter of this soap opera had to write in to the next episode the death of the actress and the absence of the actor, in order to explain their absence in terms of the soap opera…and the screen writer was the mother of the actress who had been killed!  No wonder that we say, ‘truth can be stranger than fiction’.


Of course, politics is very much about the practical running of the societies we live in.  But, once more, stories and life can become indivisible.


Elections in Britain

In the first months of 2010 there was an election in the UK.  Big issues had to be dealt with by the prospective government, not least the biggest deficit in British history.  A few weeks before election day, David Cameron, the leader of the main opposition party, released photos of his wife looking very attractive…just a glimpse of shapely legs and an engaging smile.  Nick Clegg from the Liberal Democrats  then made sure that his wife was seen in public and Gordon Brown, the prime minister did the same.  None of the wives was invited to make any serious comments on the state of the country but all of them were placed in the public eye as attractive and supportive wives.  Then David Cameron trumped the other two by releasing, to the media, that his wife was pregnant.


We were clearly being invited to vote for the leader who was young, vigorous and fertile…like any other young gorilla thumping his chest and challenging the existing gorilla leader for social dominance.

It is worth noting that the leadership of the ‘oldest democracy in the world’ was being partly determined by the mating habits of gorillas.

This is storying through behaviour with the explicit aim of affecting the perceptions and behaviour of voters.

9/11 New York disaster…

Faced with this disaster, the most powerful man in the world walked towards the television cameras with his elbows slightly crooked, his hands hovering over imaginary gun holsters and said, ‘We are going to hunt ‘em down and smoke ‘em out.Faced with this utterly appalling happening he fell back into his rudimentary  story map and acted out the role of a sheriff.  He divided the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.  ‘You are either for us or against us…the Axis of Evil.’

One problem is that Bin Laden looks like a nice, gentle man and Bush looks like a strutting cockerel.  They are both telling stories from incompatible maps; maps which affect the daily lives of half the world’s population.

Stories are fundamental.



Stephen Denning was responsible for the whole of Africa for the IMF.  This is one of the many things he has said about stories in his work and in society as a whole:

‘It’s (management and organisation) a world almost totally focussed on analysis and abstractions.  The virtues of sharpness, rigor, clarity, explicitness and crispness are celebrated  everywhere.  It’s a world that is heavy with practical import: the fate of nations and indeed the economic welfare of the entire human race are said to rest on the effectiveness of this discourse.’

‘Having spent my life believing in the dream of reason, I was startled when I stumbled on the discovery that an appropriately told story had the power to do what rigorous analysis couldn’t – to communicate a strange new idea easily and naturally and quickly in order to get people into enthusiastic action.’


We story ourselves and other people: We story and we are storied

My father was always ‘on the go’.  He loved local history and spent hours sifting through historical documents and he wrote a history of our village.  He experimented with photography, basket making, pen and ink drawing and stamp collecting.  My mother was always curious about birds, flowers, trees, the formation of landscapes and about family history.

The values, perceptions and behaviours in my story map were partly planted there by my mother’s and my father’s daily life.

In addition,  my mother told me stories about events in her life and about  the lives of our ancestors.  She told me that my great-grandfather went to St Petersburg with his family for five years, from 1888 to 1893 and worked on the building of a steel factory in Kolpinol.  As a child I lay on a wolf skin they brought back and I still have a carved wooden hen which bobs up and down to peck corn as I wriggle it about.

During the Second World War, when my father was away as a soldier for six years, I told my mother that my toy car was broken.  She looked at the bottom of the car and read, ’‘Made in Germany’’.  My mother said, ‘‘We should be mending children’s toys; not fighting each other.’’  Bombs were dropping every night.  The house next door disappeared.  We only received three letters from my father in six years.  But my mother showed no anger; only deep regret.

How many foundation stones in my being were laid firmly in place by my parents?  Isn’t it the same for you?

I was also storied by the State and by the Church.

Who said, ‘‘I am going outside.  I might be some time?’’ It was Captain Oates, a member of The Scott Expedition to the South Pole.  The party were on their way back to base camp.  Oates was sick and knew he was slowing his companions down and knew that they might never arrive safely back at base camp.  One stormy night, in the tent, he said, ‘‘I am going outside.  I might be some time.’’  He went out and never came back.

And, from the Church,  I learned the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help someone from an enemy tribe.

We are largely compliant in this storying process, however, we do take an active role in this construction of our sense of identity through storying, as well.   I believe this active role increases around the age of eight/nine and continues through the teenage years as we endeavour to decide who we are and what our story map will be like.

Stories are who we are.


Storying our day by day lives

Most of us have a regularly repeating pattern in our everyday lives.  We get up, get dressed, have  breakfast, go to work and so on.  The Present Habitual tense is specially designed for us to talk about this regularity.

We have expectations about each part of our day.  Most of us have the ability to adapt to minor changes, for example, our train is late and we are late for work.  But supposing it is the date of the annual audit of the office and all the staff and line managers are tense.  Being late could be serious and be the beginning of the end of our reputation in the office.

Here is another unexpected blip.  We meet an old friend on the train, not seen for years.  At school he was a nobody but we find that he has had a much more interesting life than we have.  This disturbs us and makes us question the wisdom of taking the path we took all those years ago.

And another unexpected experience: we see an old woman knocked down.  She looks like our mother.  We introspect wondering whether we have appreciated our mother enough, whether we have given her the support that she might well have appreciated.  We start to make much more effort to be in contact.

Each one of these unexpected experiences can adjust our path by one degree of deviation from our patterned path of day by day expectations.  Any deviation, not running parallel can soon lead to a disturbing difference between our new perceptions and concerns and our previous patterned existence.

It is change, the special event, the special person,  which brings about change, not the constant averaging story of experience.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written a book which takes this notion that it is not the averaging of experience which brings about change but the experience which is NOT expected.  He refers to this idea as, ‘black swan’ because we expect swans to be white.  As I understand his thesis many events and experiences do re-occur more or less in the same way.  But it is the ones which are unexpected which are much more significant in our lives.

It is unlikely that you expected to meet your life partner when you did.  It was probably a chance circumstance which lead to your meeting and yet it brought about one of the biggest changes of path in your life and possibly lead to new lives being born.

As a young man, I was interviewed for a job  as an English teacher assistant in France.  I had failed French at school.  The unexpected happened.  My interviewer told me that she had to select graduates with mother tongue English and another language.  She said, ‘You have been to the Slade School of Fine Art.  That means you can draw.  Drawing is a language.  I’m sending you.’

My life since that time has been in the world of language teaching and I am writing this article based on some of my thinking about this experience.


The right stories

Given the analogy of the story map then it is reasonable to suggest that the right stories are the ones which produce the right map for dealing with experience in an appropriate way.  If we have the wrong map then we may respond in a way which does not make us or people around us, happy.

There are many different maps of London.  The map of the underground is a prize- winning classic.   However, this  map of the underground would not be useful if you wanted to walk around in central London to see the sights.  It’s a good map but the wrong one for walkers.

When I travelled across Hungary recently I was using an old map.  I suddenly came across a motorway which was not shown on my map.  I stopped in the first petrol station and bought an up-to-date map so that I could respond to the new realities.

When the plane fell on the little village of Locherbie many people were traumatised.  Their storymaps  did not offer a way of dealing with the utterly unexpected…a plane falling out of the sky as they were having afternoon tea and putting the baby to bed.  Therapists were employed to help some village residents to make a new story map in which the shock of the unexpected could be dealt with..

There is a tragic traditional story from the Native Americans, about a great hunter who takes his son for initiation ceremony in order to become a great hunter, like his father.  Unfortunately, the boy is not ‘cut out to be’ a great hunter, dies and becomes a robin but sings to his father every day.  Sometimes, the story we want to give to other people is plain wrong…for them as individuals or because of the different circumstances they are in.

Alida Gersie and some other psychiatrists and therapists essentially work with people whose story map is wrong for the circumstances they are in. The aim of the therapist is to help their clients to modify or change their story map and to help them to build in a positive attitude to the unexpected rather than seeing the unexpected as a threat to their fundamental existence.

Times of change


Change is constant and complex and being part of infinite complexity we need naming and stories to cope with it.


As individuals

If this article takes you 20 minutes to read, during that time, 1200 million cell connections will have changed in your brain.  You will not be the person you were when you began the article…at least, not in all respects!

I used to be a cross country runner but now, due to heart problems, I can only walk.

I used to have a phobia about phones but now I carry a mobile.


So many changes and yet I always introduce myself as, Andrew Wright and say, ‘I am…’.

The present simple can only ever describe an ethereal state of affairs…it means, ‘at this instant’.  It is another example of the crudity of naming.

King Canute was revered by his followers.  They said he could even stop the sea from rising with the tide.  He decided to prove them wrong.  He went to the beach, held up his hand and said, ‘Stop!’  And got his feet wet.


The human race

Stories accepting the Darwinian notion of change consider that our ancestors crawled out of some salty sea several million years ago.  The cerebellum brain of that crawling creature is still snuggled in the centre of our brain and still affects many of our fundamental behaviours.  But we have changed since then!  We’ve learned to stand up and walk, to make fire, to make stone tools and then metal tools, to farm instead of to hunt…and so on during the ages.

Change is so complex that it is centrally a part of the infinite complexity which is why we so urgently need to story experience and, I submit, to be ready to modify or even change our storymaps as life and the universe changes around us.

My storymap has changed: I have, for example, become much more committed to women being able to share the same potentials as men.  I reflect this in my storytelling often making the key protagonist into a woman rather than a man as in more traditional story telling. Disney’s latest film of the ‘Princess and the Frog’ has an Afro -American as the princess AND she is a determined young woman…not sleeping and waiting to be kissed and saved by a man.


Future change?

I have just bought a lap top which weighs 1300 grams…that is exactly the weight of my brain.  My laptop is wonderful but utterly outclassed by my brain.  Nevertheless, technology IS improving and to such an extent that neuro-scientists can now look into the brain from the outside and are able to focus on the most minute workings of individual brain cells.  The prospect of modifying the brain offers one of the most startling prospects for human change!  Perhaps the brain could be changed so that we would no longer need stories? Difficult to imagine.

Dealing with the challenge of change


Copernicus, in the sixteenth century, came up with something which changed the world of ideas, explosively!  He snookered the earth from its central position in the contemporary idea of God’s universe to being subject to the domination of the Sun.  Copernicus delayed publication of his book fearing controversy.  On publication it was met with a very mixed reception which included:


‘Some people believe that it is excellent and correct to work out a thing as absurd as did that Polish astronomer who moves the earth and stops the sun. Indeed, wise rulers should have curbed such light-mindedness.’

(Melanchthon. Quoted in Wikipedia)


Later, in the 1600s, Galileo,  publicly supported the heliocentric perception of the universe in which the Earth moves around the Sun, rather than the geocentric idea, still widely held, that the Sun moved around the Earth.  Galileo was warned by the church that heliocentrism was ‘false and contrary to Scripture’.  He was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty and forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

In their prosecution case, the Inquisition quoted various parts of the Bible story, for example, Psalm 104:5, ‘the Lord set the Earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.’  Also, Ecclesiastes 1:5, ‘And the Sun rises and sets and returns to its place,..’  Galileo tried to take Augustine’s position on the Scriptures: not to take every passage literally, particularly when the scripture in question is a book of poetry and songs.  His argument didn’t get him anywhere!  Stories are difficult to change!


Later, in the nineteenth century, Darwin snookered mankind from being a God created creature into being a result of millions of years of evolution.


It took the Catholic Church hundreds of years to modify its story map and some  branches of the Churches are still unwilling to do so.


We need time to adjust to change.


One way of helping us to adjust to change is to retain as much as possible from the past.  European immigrants to America took the names of their towns and villages with them. Early cars were designed to look like horse carriages.

Left and right on a plane are, ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ and we are invited to ‘stow’ our luggage under the seat in front of us…all nautical terms.  Microsoft has used traditional terminology from the world of graphic design and office practice…’folders’ and ‘files’, ‘cut and paste’. Christianity placed the Bible story of the resurrection of Jesus at Easter coinciding with the Spring equinox  and the resurrection of nature which had been celebrated for thousands of years beforehand.

Many language teachers experience great difficulty in accepting change.  As children they were successful in tests and exams; getting ten out of ten for their vocabulary tests and making no mistakes in their grammar.  It was perhaps a natural step to begin to identify themselves as, ‘the one who is good at English…doesn’t make mistakes!’ .  Having built a sense of self on the notion of accuracy in foreign language reproduction, it is then very disturbing to be told that accuracy is far less important than effective communication.  Some teachers may well respond,  ‘But accuracy is me. You are saying that accuracy is not so important?  You are saying that I am not so important?’

Change in language teaching


This article, so far, has focussed on the fundamental need for human beings to deal with experience through stories. In this final and short section I would like to show how fundamental stories are and can be to all aspects of language teaching.


The reasons for learning languages, the reasons for determining purpose and aims and the reasons for choosing methodologies are all to be found in the values, perceptions and behaviours in the societies in which we live at any one moment.  These vary from one generation to the next.


I went to the Slade School of Fine Art, in London.  My professor of the History of Art was the celebrated scholar, E. H. Gombrich.  I was so lucky to spend every Monday afternoon with him for four years.  One of the most important ideas I learned from him was illustrated in his description of the introduction of the pointed arch, in architecture, in France…I think it was in St Denis which is opposite La Notre Dame, about 1150.  Gombrich said, the pointed arch is a much more efficient form of engineering than the round arch of the previous Romanesque architecture.  The pointed arch allows the weight of the roof to be directed to particular points which can then be reinforced with buttresses.  This means that less stone is used, greater heights can be achieved, more light can be introduced by making much bigger windows.

But the question is, was the pointed arch introduced because it was more efficient or because society was changing and wanted to express their revised values and perceptions in a new way?  Politically, socially and commercially Europe was beginning to settle down and the Dark Ages were over, in the twelfth century,.  Perhaps the philosophers and the Church were beginning to say, ‘Can we now look up to God?  Can we now have a building which is full of the light and radiance of God?.  Perhaps the architects were able to say, ‘Well we can do you a pointed arch.  The pointed arch has been around for ages in the Arabic world.  We were just waiting for you to ask. ‘ (This flippant addition is mine, not Professor Gombrich’s!!)


What comes first, efficiency or values and perceptions?  Maybe both but certainly values and perceptions have played a major part in determining what happens.


When I was a boy I went to Grammar School.  What an honest and accurate bit of naming that was!  We were taught the grammar of French as if it were a dead language.  I crawled myopically along sentences in Maupassant, shocked like a caterpillar when I reached a full stop.

These grammar translation techniques were a reflection of society’s belief that the classical tradition manifested the values, perceptions and behaviours of, vaguely, ‘classical times’ and provided the proper upbringing for 15% of the children expected, subsequently, to run the country in one way or another.


After the Second World War it was felt, in Britain, that it would be sensible for its citizens to learn more foreign languages.  This notion was responded to with the widely held belief, at that time, in global solutions.  Various methods of language teaching were developed…audio lingual and audio visual…which would, it was believed, ensure the successful learning of languages by everyone, not just the select few in the grammar schools.   I worked in the first audio visual team in Britain, En Avant, in the 1960s.  This change of language teaching method was not guided by the notion of greater efficiency so much as a change of storymap of perceptions in society.


A few years later, in 1968,  there were revolutions in the universities in North America and Northern Europe.  People violently rejected global solutions and demanded recognition of the different needs of individuals. Hippies went to India and the Beatles created their river of original songs and spoke with Liverpool accents.


David Wilkins was not a thrower of cobble stones in violent insurrections  but a linguist.  His values, perceptions and behaviours were not those of the dominant trend setters of the previous decades.  He asked, ‘Why do we need to describe language formally and prescriptively.?  Why cannot we describe what ordinary people want to do with language in their everyday lives?  And he launched the notional functional description of language.  (Published and co-authored with John Trim, Van Ek and Louis Alexander, first of all by the Council of Europe and then by Pergamon Press)

Change!  The Notional Functional description of language was born demanding that ‘use’ rather than ‘usage’ be taken into account.  This led to the Communicative Approach and, in the hands of some teachers, into a livelier experience of language by their students.


I was a child of those times (though a grown-up!) and learned, in the late sixties, to reject the idea of the audio-visual method and to conceive of language teaching as being a reflection of people being together, doing things which interest them, using the foreign language in order to take part in real communication and learning the foreign language as a bi-product of this involvement.   I wrote and published with David Betteridge and Nicolas Hawkes, the first project based language course: Kaleidoscope.  To give you an example from Kaleidoscope, one unit was called, ‘Visual Perception’.  The children explored visual perception, carrying out experiments and using language in order to take part in the activities.

(University of York. Kaleidoscope. Macmillan Education. 1976.)


This new venture was brought about, not because it was more efficient but because there had been a significant change in social values and perceptions and this course reflected that change.


I was asked, by the British Council, to take these topic based ideas and ideas about the ‘communicative approach’ and offer them in countries far away from Western Europe. These new methods and their underlying storymaps, didn’t always fit the countries I was sent to!


Here are some incidents which occurred during these journeys.  I want to emphasise that the different values, perceptions and behaviours, held in different societies, are not wrong for being different!


During one session with teachers, a teacher’s pencil fell on the floor, at my feet, as I was giving my talk.  I bent down, picked it up, gave it to her with a smile, and continued.  At the break the three local trainers questioned me, almost aggressively:

‘’Why did you pick up that woman’s pencil?’’

‘’Because she dropped it.’’

‘’But you are a visiting professor!’’

‘’I am here to serve her and all of you, if I am able to do so.  I am her servant.  My view of the communicative approach is not that it is an efficient technique to impose on people but a reflection of a way of thinking based on sharing and supporting.’’

Later in the day, one of the trainers came to me and said:

‘’I have been thinking about what you said. I want to tell you something. When I became a teacher in my village, I could walk down the street with pride.  I wasn’t paid much but I felt pride.  Then I became a teacher in the local town and people in my village looked on me with amazement.  Then I became a part time trainer and that was beyond them.  Then you, who are a visiting professor and more important than professors in any of our great cities because you have flown a long way, say, you are that woman’s servant.  In which case, what am I?’’


In another country, during a break between sessions, I said to the local trainer:

‘’I love this approach to teaching because it is really about helping and sharing and I learn so much from the learners.’’

He stood up, ground his new cigarette into a tortured white grub and said:

‘’When I walk into a classroom, I represent two thousand years of learning and expect total respect.’’


Of course, the adoption of any approach and method does not mean that the storymap which it reflects coincides with the storymap of the individual teacher using it.

Here is what happened during a lesson I was observing in Hungary, where I live now.  The teacher had obviously taught the simple past tense in the previous lesson and he began the new lesson by asking what the students had done at the weekend.

‘’Attila, what did you do at the weekend?’

‘’We go to my mother’s house.’’



‘’Sandor, what did you do at the weekend?’’

‘’I swim across Lake Balaton.  I do butterfly.’’

‘’Swam. Did’’

‘’Swam. Did.’’

After the lesson I asked the teacher, ‘’Did you hear what Sandor tried to tell you?

He said he swam across the biggest lake in Central Europe, the Balaton!  And doing butterfly!  That’s amazing!’’

‘’Yes, you are right but I was concentrating on his use of the past tense.’’

‘’But you could have said, Wow! Amazing! And then corrected him.’’


Some teachers can appear to be following a humanistic and communicative approach to teaching but remain guided by their inner storymap which may belong to a different way of naming and storying.


Who, what and how we help other people to learn languages is, significantly, a reflection of our inner story map.


We are storied creatures.



Postscript: A brief look at the potential of stories in language teaching


Given that words often play a key role in stories then stories offer an obvious central path for language learning at any level and for any age.  Stories are used in language teaching but I want to submit that their role can be far more extensive.

Potential benefits include: Sharing and bonding in the class.  Experiencing language rather than studying it.  All four skills.  Introducing and recycling language points. Spin off activities.

For more on the subject of stories in language teaching you might like to see my three books listed under, ‘References and further reading’, below.

Professor Stephen Krashen has published a very wide ranging summary of research into the effectiveness of reading and listening.  The conclusions are that there is no better way of developing language awareness and skills and that includes accuracy, than by reading and listening…and stories are his preferred medium.


References and further reading

Stoker, B.  (1897)   Dracula.  by Archibald Constable and Co  (first edition)

Denning,  S.  (2005) The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: mastering the art and discipline of business narrative.  Jossey-Bass books.  San Francisco.

Gersie, A.  (1997) Reflections on Therapeutic Storymaking.   Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

Gombrich, E.H. ( 1950 ) The Story of Art. Phaidon.  (now in its fourteenth edition)

Krashen, S.  website


Taleb, N.N. (2007)  The Black Swan. The impact of the highly improbable.  Penguin.

University of York.  (1976)  Kaleidoscope.  Macmillan Education.

Wilkins, D. A.  (1973)  ‘’The Linguistic and Situational Content of the Common Core in a Unit/Credit System.” In Systems Development in Adult Language Learning . Ed. J. L. M. Trim, R. Richterich, J. A. van Ek, and D. A. Wilkins. Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1973. 129–45.

Wright, A.   (2008 )   Storytelling with Children.  Oxford University Press

Wright, A.  (1997 )   Creating stories with Children. Oxford University Press

Wright, A. and Hill, D.A.  (2008)   Writing Stories. Helbling Languages

Wright, A.  website


The  Creative Methodology for the Classroom course can be viewed here.




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