The Power of Narrative Storytelling with ELLs

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Personal narratives can be a valuable teaching and learning tool.  For refugee and immigrant language learners, the process of narrative storytelling can be especially significant, as it fulfills multiple aims.  Storytelling can motivate ELLs to engage in the new language, develop essential writing skills, process critical life events, and foster inter-peer relationships.

Narrative is an essential component of our humanness.  We are drawn to share piece of ourselves through storytelling, and we discover our interconnectedness in doing so.  For many of our students, storytelling is also part of a rich cultural tradition- one that is intrinsically embedded in nearly every facet of social functioning.

In the classroom, setting, we can employ personal narratives as a means to draw students into language learning.  Meanwhile, we can draw out details that allow us to know and understand our students better.  The strategy is helpful in that it can be implemented across the language acquisition spectrum and can be scaffolded in a variety of ways.

“Storytelling can be a very valid means to experiment with the new language in a variety of contexts. It is an accessible option at various stages of the language acquisition process, and it is a skill that can develop in accordance with a learner’s expanding linguistic capabilities.” -The Newcomer Student


Additionally, storytelling is a powerful strategy for working through transition shock.  Transition shock is a broad umbrella that encompasses transition, trauma, culture shock, and stress-related anxiety.   From Elements of Behavioral Health, “Talking about [experiences] helps organize memories and feelings into a more manageable and understandable psychological ‘package’. Telling the story, or developing a trauma narrative, is a significant step in the trauma recovery process no matter what array of symptoms is present.”

 “There is an additional dimension to storytelling that can be profoundly cathartic and healing. The particular exercise of capturing human feelings and experiences, through fictional characters or biographical ones, allows students opportunities to release, revisit, question, and make sense of poignant life events. The retelling of personal experiences creates a fertile ground for self-discovery and social understanding.”         -The Newcomer Student

Where Do We Start?

Family trees are an excellent start point.  In research and focusing on the aspect of lineage, students are invited to work within a safe space, sharing what they feel is comfortable and “right” to them (this may be particularly relevant for refugee students who transition with family members who are not necessarily birth parents).  This activity may also draw from parents’ existing funds of knowledge and encourage caretaker participation in students’ academic pursuits. 

Incorporating heritage language is one way to increase intrinsic motivation.  Constructing a family tree can also generate vocabulary connections for English words like father, grandmother, or uncle.   Sharing a family tree in s safe learning space can benefit a learning community and lead to increased student ownership and self-esteem.  Constructing a family tree can also generate vocabulary connections for English words like father, grandmother, or uncle.

The included samples were created by third grade students.  

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Heritage Books

Heritage reports, or heritage books, expand on the process of sharing students’ original stories.  These are multi-step projects that “are designed to guide students in expressing their personal stories with others via sheltered instruction” (The Newcomer Student).   Heritage books also enhance meaningful vocabulary expansion and promote empathic, tolerant school-based relationships.

A detailed description of heritage book planning and building is available in The Newcomer Student: An Educator's Guide to Aid Transition, available HERE.


Areas that are worthwhile to explore include:

·       About Me

·       U.S. Flag/flag study

·       Alternative country flag(s)

·       Traditional dress

·       Traditional food

·       Traditional customs

·       Traditional housing

·       Celebrities and pop culture

·       Alphabet/number systems

·       Family tree

·       Family photos

·       Emigration story

·       Future hopes and wishes

The following samples are from third grade students.

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“Heritage book authors are usually very eager to document, show, and share their projects with an audience. Meanwhile, they are practicing cooperative language structures and cultural normative values (handshaking and simple greetings for each guest) throughout the sharing process!”(The Newcomer Student)  

Personal narratives are certainly worth including as a viable part of classroom learning and relationship building.  Share your own experience enacting personalized storytelling with students to@NewcomerESL, #ELLstorytelling #heritagebook