What Makes A Good Story?

Remember the Maine Hogs? We heard from one of them the other day, how she was doing after graduating, grunting snarkingly in the college grammar troughs. She was looking for the high quality food she enjoyed from Anne’s kitchen while hearing Anne Matava stories for four years, but, according to her, was finding only kitchen scraps. Here is that link:
Oh well.
Anne fed those hogs some high quality food, for sure. We know that because many of us use those same stories in our classes. (I am still trying to coax that second volume out of her – it’s not easy but I will ask her about it next week.)
If one of Anne’s stories rocks the house, she immediately sends it to me and I put it here as a blog entry. Whenever I get observed, or anytime the kids get low on air, I know that I can pull out one of those “house rockers”, like the one I used yesterday when visited by some guests:
And it did rock the house. It’s nice to know that we can count on a story to fly (Skip Crosby did that story too and agreed that it had wings of its own). But what is it that makes a story script fly? Why is it that, in her first story script book, Anne even chose to specifically describe how we can write our own stories? I decided to study the stories in her first story script book for clues.
I saw that each of the three structures presented for the Step One work (establishing meaning, gesturing, PQA) showed up neatly in each of the three locations. In the example below, the variables that the Hogs came up with in response to Anne’s circled questions are underlined. I italicized the structures. Look at how each structure appears in each location:

Table Manners, part 1

is annoyed, irritated
during dinner

Gloria’s mother is annoyed, because Gloria is spitting tobacco during dinner.  She says, “Stop spitting tobacco during dinner!  That annoys me!”  So Gloria stops spitting tobacco during dinner.
Then Gloria starts talking on her cell phone during dinner.  (She talks to Billy Idol in Chinese.  They talk about Chinese food.)  Gloria’s mother is annoyed.  She says, “Stop talking on the cell phone during dinner!  That annoys me!”  So Gloria stops talking on the cell phone during dinner.
Then Gloria starts cutting her fingernails and toenails during dinnerGloria’s mother is annoyed.  She says, “Stop cutting your fingernails and toenails during dinner!”  This time Gloria doesn’t stop.  She cuts off her hands and feet and puts them in her mother’s bed.  Her mother is not annoyed; she likes it.*
Now, because of the precision in which each target structure appears in the story, we can stay close to the story line and properly park/circle/spiral/get reps on them.
Those of us (I am the worst offender) who tend to be like jack rabbits in the parking lot, darting out of the lot at the slightest appearance of something edible in the weeds outside of the lot, are kept in the lot by the sturdiness, the craftsmanship, of the parking lot.
Notice in particular how it is the placing of the three structures through the three locations like hurricane rods through a house that allows us to keep from going too wide, off the tracks into the weeds.
Notice also above how the (underlined) variables in the story change, but not the (italicized) structures. To repeat that – each variable gives way/disappears to allow a new variable to appear in the next location
[- in the first location, the protagonist was spitting tobacco
– in the second, she was talking on her cell phone
– in the third, she was cutting her nails]
but the structures don’ t change. This gives only the appearance of change in this story. The students’ minds, being entirely focused on the new content/meaning, are thus tricked into hearing massive amounts of repetitions of the target structures, which is the point of stories and of the CI process.
Thus, stories are an elegant way of bringing Dr. Krashen’s ideas into the classroom. This is the genius of Blaine Ray. If it is Dr. Krashen who has suggested that we can all drink as much CI soda pop as we want in our classrooms, it is Blaine who has come up with the formula for Coke.
So, if we want our stories to work, we have to remember that a well crafted script, with its three structures in three locations working there for us, steadies the waters as the variables continue plopping into the story script.
I would like to repeat that each new variable only creates the illusion of zany events in a laughter filled classroom. The fact is that, as the students’ conscious minds wrap around and claim class ownership of each new entertaining variable, their unconscious minds are hearing massive repetition of the real  goal of the lesson – the deep neurological embedding** of the target structures into the deeper mind.
In stories there is therefore some intensely serious language acquisition going on. The glitzy changing content sits on a strong unchanging underwater steel rod foundation of the target structures.
The changing variables give the kids input that is interesting. The unchanging structures guarantee our kids input that is comprehensible. This gives us the best shot at guaranteeing our students smooth sailing in calm waters as, together, we navigate our Krashen made boats through the CI oceans.
*just a comment on how Anne’s stories always seem to have those last three lines in the script underlined. It further illustrates how the variables have (only seemingly) overtaken the story. The kids think that they have created this final story content. But they really haven’t. They threw out stuff, some of which was accepted into the the story, but it was the structures that drove those variables into the new content. The structures were the stars, and the variables were incidental. It is a skillful trick and further illustrates the necessity, when doing stories, to stick with Blaine’s formula if you want it all to work (which is not true at all with PQA, but is with stories).
**I once heard Dr. Krashen in Denver say something to the effect that language learning is nothing but a deep repetitive pounding into the unconscious mind of comprehensible input in the form of listening and reading, and, after thousands of hours of that, we just start speaking and writing naturally. I can’t remember the exact quote.



4 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Story?”

  1. Beautiful Ben!
    I would like to mention one thing, one point of clarification for those new to the method, that I misunderstood at first. The term “location” does not necessarily mean that the characters in the story go to a new physical place. This is obvious when you read the particular script that Ben talks about. But, for some reason, it was not obvious to me for quite some time.
    My formulaic approach to the “location” part of stories prevented novelty in the classroom, and it was not uncommon for kids to sigh at the onset of another location. I still remember one of my actors, a big, cool kid, saying to the class after stifled in one location, “Where do I go now guys?”
    The term “location” to me would better be called “scene.” But that is not my point here, to get the jargon switched. Rather, to add some clarification to those who may be experiencing what I did in those first few months of doing stories.
    So, stay at the dinner table sometimes, for the whole story (with brain breaks of course) and don’t feel obligated to ride a donkey to China.

  2. Yeah. Great point Jim. Really, it just depends on the story. Staying at the dinner table is fine, as long as the scene/location has energy. Moving to that second location is an intuitive, not a formulaic decision on the instructor’s part.
    Also to be avoided is the formula that the problem is stated in the first location, a failed attempt to solve it happens in the second, and the problem is solved in the third. Of course that is only a suggestion as well.
    That said, it sure is nice to see the entire class easily decoding the second and third location CI, because they have heard the words just a few minutes before in the first location.
    If you look at that story, of the 127 total words in it, 109 of them are either target structure words or variable words – 87% of the words. (I didn’t count the ramble/coda at the end, which doesn’t bear on this discussion). The word count on the 18 other words/structures reveals that there are multiples of the same word:
    Mother (3)
    Because (1)
    She says (3)
    That (2)
    Me (2)
    Starts (2)
    So (2)
    Then (2)
    This time (1)
    Of course, this is estimated and not scientific, and certainly not an accurate count, but it serves to make a point – that this script works because it doesn’t have new words except, really, the new structures, because all of the words in the list above, those support words that made the story work, were almost certainly already known by the students before the story.
    I used to bristle at that idea, I remember. How could I do a story with no new words except the target structures? When I first started doing this, I couldn’t believe that an experienced TPRS teacher could actually know to a fairly accurate degree what words their kids knew and what words they didn’t know. Blaine always knew – it was uncanny. I always wondered how he knew.
    But now I see how it works. We “just know” what they don’t know. During a story I know exactly if they know or don’t know the word. I don’t need to test them. I can even tell if they are lying to me by not asking with the fist for clarification. Now I try to do stories with no new vocabulary in them except the target structures.
    To restate – ideally we try not to introduce any new words into stories except the newly presented three structures – all other words including, ostensibly, those given in the form of suggestions from the kids in the target language should be already known by the students.
    Of course, when a word just has to be brought into a story, we have the great Point and Pause skill, but it must be limited in stories. It is very commonly used, on the other hand, in PQA.
    The message in all of this is very clear to me – we must not be foolishly introducing too many new words into a script. It, along with failure, of course, to go slowly enough, are probably the two biggest reasons teachers give up on stories.
    As Anne mentioned to me, it’s all about having a simple script. Simple scripts work the best. That is probably about the only really accurate thing we can really say about story scripts – they have to be simple. And that they have to be mojorific.

  3. hi ben
    I was busy online this morning listening to some youtube – Steve Kaufmann, a polygot, explaining language learning and I smiled as I listened. I thought I’d share, especially his remarks on Stephen Krashen. He’s sure interesting. Love your blog today, especially love how it relates to what I’m thinking about this morning. It’s great when the universe conspires for good and I listen! grin
    i love what he says about input and output, of course, we know this, it’s just nice to hear from an “expert” I believe being able to converse in 10 languages definitely qualifies this man as an expert, don’t you? Thinking back a few minutes, I’m thinking that one of our tools might be repeating the “homerun” stories a whole bunch, not just moving on. I wonder if anyone has been doing that, or what folks think of that. He says he listens to the same content over and over in the context of a story, while we approach it as new stories and shift the content. I’m curious what folks think about that/this.
    Anyway, I love the serendipitiousness (eek) of life. Friday i had a real heart to heart with my 9’s about their “intention” and how not going down the “english track” is so important. now here i find an expert reiterating pretty much everything I told them. gotta love life when what we put out there comes back to us!
    so, happy Sunday
    from canada
    steve kaufmann on krashen

  4. “…I’m thinking that one of our tools might be repeating the “homerun” stories a whole bunch, not just moving on. I wonder if anyone has been doing that…”.
    Jim Tripp wrote once about this – the need to repeat and repeat and repeat and not move on to new content until the content has been forced deep into the kids’ neurology. The king of this is Duke, and he suggests doing it with songs. He has been aggressively repeating twexted French songs during the last six months and when he came up her last week his French had a bunch of those little blue, white and red bows on it. I am going to start doing that with twexted Spanish songs to learn Spanish. The discussion from Jim was about megaly repeating auditory text in the form of reading without making it boring to the kids. Of course, this is what we do in Read and Discuss the day after a story on reading days. The general point you make, Lynn, certainly bears a lot of discussion. It is a huge point that we rarely talk about, it seems. And thanks for those links over to Steve Kaufmann.

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