A story to remember

Rosa-Maria Cives-Enriquez explains why she puts story-telling at the centre of her language classroom

As a linguist and trainer, I am all too aware of the investment – financial and emotional – that organisations and individuals make to acquire new competencies and language skills. It therefore makes sense for me to do everything possible to try to fulfill some, if not all, of those expectations and do everything in my power to give my learners the tools to help them remember, recall and apply what they have learned. 

Over the years, I have blended my own methods with research from leaders and pioneers in language education. Stephen Krashen and Steven Pinker promoted natural language acquisition – communication and immersion over traditional grammar and drilling. Blaine Ray invented TPR Storytelling in the 1990s – a story-based method that rapidly gained popularity among teachers worldwide. The concept of multiple intelligences was devised by Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, who identified eight strengths or intelligences in which we each excel to differing degrees.1 I refer to these constantly in the planning of my multisensory learning environment.

In addition, I draw inspiration from Management Theory and my work as a Learning and Development (L&D) professional. I feel there is an overlap in the work of language and L&D professionals when we invest in “a person’s fundamental human needs”2 by creating an environment where individuals thrive. At the recent conferences I have attended in the UK and abroad there has been much talk of meaning-focused materials for L2 (second language) learners3 and, with that, an old familiar friend keeps making an appearance: CLIL (content and language integrated learning).

Good practice model

I find it quite surprising that CLIL didn’t gain its deserved momentum as a way of encouraging plurilingualism/ multilingualism until the beginning of the millennium. This is the way I was taught Spanish (at an immersive Spanish school) in the UK in the mid 1970s, and the way I, too, have taught Spanish for many years. The term was coined by David Marsh at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland only in 1994: “CLIL where subjects, or parts of subjects, are taught through a foreign language with dual-focused aims, namely the learning of content and the simultaneous learning of a foreign language.”4 Through CLIL, students use a language as they learn; their thinking skills are engaged through successful methodologies from the start. Students are learning in a very active and challenging way.

The CLIL methodology is considered a model of good practice in many European countries. It has been adopted by a large number of infant and primary schools in Spain, including the schools in the Bilingual Project in Madrid. Spain is rapidly becoming one of the European leaders in CLIL practice and research. According to Do Coyle, “The richness of its cultural and linguistic diversity has led to a wide variety of CLIL policies and practices which provide us with many examples of CLIL in different stages of development that are applicable to contexts both within and beyond Spain.”5 CLIL also appears to have been embraced in pockets of the UK over the years, and while results have been positive, the jury is still out.

Advances in brain-imaging technology are revealing how we learn in more detail than ever before. This helps trainers and teachers to create environments that enhance the student learning experience and, in turn, increase levels of retention and application. We now know that learning changes the physical structure of the brain (neuroplasticity); when we learn something, neurons fire and connect in a new pattern. This learning is then stored – first in our short-term memory, then in our long-term memory over a period of time. The interesting aspect here is that the new memories that are created are compared with and ‘bolted onto’ existing memories and life experiences. If the new information isn’t novel enough then the most recent information is discarded in favour of the ‘old’ information. So in addition to making information novel, it’s important to make it relevant and engaging to every individual.

Telling stories

I believe poetry and/or storytelling is a fantastic way of encouraging learners to think outside the box, and assist with memory recall and retention, and application. My aim is to create character-led stories that make my students feel something, because it is the emotion produced by a story/journey that makes it memorable and ensures its message ‘sticks’. A great deal of research and current literature reviews point to the beneficial role of poetry in all the major aspects of second-language acquisition,7 including:

  • Accuracy of pronunciation: poetry helps students to notice sounds (phonetics and phonology) of a foreign/second language.
  • Development of L2 complex syntax and vocabulary: students notice grammar structures and unusual grammatical usage, and focus on form and meaning.
  • Development of understanding of the L2 discourse.
  • Development of an appreciation for language meaning and application in the target language.
  • Cultural awareness and the promotion of multiculturalism: poetry and storytelling go beyond the benefits of linguistic interpretations, and can raise awareness of the target culture and create a personal understanding/connection with target-language sociocultural issues.
  • Deepening of the language learners’ ways of self-expression and self-realisation: students are not learning language and grammar ‘dryly’. Instead, the language becomes a powerful communication tool that is transformed into a medium of creative self-expression. When an individual connects on a personal level it stops being a mechanical exercise; it evokes emotion, which enhances learning.
  • Increasing student motivation.

Some of my students have likened the process to ‘painting with words’ or ‘firing the imagination’. We remember stories seven times more than facts and data, according to Clare Edwards.8 They enhance learning as each story is uniquely interpreted by each learner’s individual view of the world.

I believe in putting human stories (through poetry, storytelling and authentic texts) at the heart of my lesson content because, in my opinion, it is one of the most effective ways to create relevance, engage learners and deliver messages that aid language acquisition.

CLIL promotes situational adaptability; it gives students the skills to adapt themselves, their communication and their thinking to different contexts. In addition, it promotes flexibility of the mind; it encourages students to look at things from different perspectives, as well as helping them to develop their problem-solving skills. Nevertheless, it does not come without its challenges. CLIL is still very much in its ‘embryonic stage’ in the UK, and needs far more development and investment, including materials, teacher training, application and evaluation.


This article is based on Rosa-Maria Cives-Enriquez’s Meaning-focused Materials for Language Teaching, due to be published by Cambridge Scholars UK in 2018.



1 Gardner, H (1983) Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books

2 Freemantle, D (2001) The Stimulus Factor: The new dimension in motivating your people, your customers and yourself, Financial Times/Prentice Hall

3 Masuhara, H, Mishan, F and Tomlinson, B (2017) Practice and Theory for Materials Development in L2 Learning. Cambridge Scholars Publishing

4 Marsh, D (1994) ‘Bilingual Education & Content and Language Integrated Learning’, International Association for Cross-Cultural Communication, Language Teaching in the Member States of the European Union (Lingua) University of Sorbonne, Paris

5 Coyle, D (2010) ‘Foreword’. In Lasagabaster, D and Ruiz de Zarobe, Y, CLIL in Spain: Implementation, results and teacher training. Cambridge Scholars Publishing

6 Op. Cit. Gardner, H

7 See e.g. Akyel, A (1995) ‘Stylistic Analysis of Poetry: A perspective from an initial training course in TEFL’. In TESL Canada Journal/Revue TESL du Canada, 13(1); Hanauer D I (2012) ‘Meaningful Literacy: Writing poetry in the language classroom’. In Language Teaching, 45(1)

8 Edwards, C (2017) ‘Waking Up the Brain’. In Training Journal, May 2017, pp.16-19


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