‘Getting learners to do what comes naturally to them’

Geometric Thriller: Look at the screen below. What do you see inside the frame? Well, clearly, there is an open box and three geometric shapes: a large triangle, a smaller one and a small circle. What happens however if these shapes start moving about? Will you still see them as small, 2D objects moving about on a screen? If so, you are a rare person indeed! But do not take my word for it; just click on play and watch the 90 second film for yourself. Chances are, what you are going to see is a story – perhaps like this one 1. In the original study (Heider & Simmel 1944) what 33 out of the 34 subjects saw was a true thriller! But how does this happen?

Gazzaniga’s Experiments: In a series of fascinating experiments, Michael Gazzaniga discovered ‘the interpreter’ – a neural circuit which helps to organise a person’s experience into a meaningful whole. Gazzaniga worked with split-brain patients. These people had undergone operations which had severed the corpus callosum which links the two brain hemispheres. Researchers had pictures briefly flashed in front of either the left or the right eye (this information is conveyed to the right or left hemisphere respectively).

Stories 4In one case, the patient was shown a chicken claw (L hemisphere) and was asked to pick a picture with his R hand. He chose that of a chicken. When asked why, he correctly pointed out the link between the claw and the bird. Then he was shown a snowy scene (R hemisphere) and once again was asked to pick a picture. He picked that of a shovel. When asked why however, his R brain could not reply, because the verbal functions are mostly located in the other hemisphere! Here comes the interesting bit: the L hemisphere (which controls language) had no idea why the subject had picked the shovel, but it made up an explanation nevertheless on the basis of the information it had!! The patient said ‘Well… you need a shovel to clean out the chicken coop!’ Amazing!!

Time and again the researchers got the same results; when they flashed a card which read ‘Walk’ to the R hemisphere, the patient got up and started walking. When asked why, he did not know of course but ‘the interpreter’ in the L hemisphere made up a reason just the same – ‘I’m going to get a Coke!’ (studies described in McRaney 2012, p. 19).

Implications for ELT: So here is the idea: it appears that this ‘interpreter’ – the module which ‘connects the dots’ into a coherent whole is part of the ‘standard equipment’ of the human brain. Not only that; because such an ability was so useful to us, nature has fitted us with a reward mechanism, so we get a neuro-chemical reward every time we manage to do so (Ramachandran & Hirstein 1999). It follows therefore that activities which use a range of stimuli to encourage learners to come up with stories should be both pleasurable and ones which come naturally to them. Here are six examples:

Warm-up activities 1: Many of the texts we give our students to read are in fact stories. To get our students interested and prepare them for reading by activating their mental schemata we can select a few key words and get the students in pairs to come up with their own version of what happened. That will provide them with the motivation to read the text in order to see how accurate their predictions were. This is a very versatile activity and requires very little preparation.

Warm-up activities 2: This is a more sophisticated version of the above, particularly suitable for listening texts. Using simple editing tools (e.g. ‘Audacity’), we can cut some sentences from the text and get students to listen to them in random order (alternatively we can just type them up and give them to the students). Then they have to work together to sequence them and once again speculate about what might have happened in the story (e.g. Vince 1992, p. 44).

Ambiguous stories: In this activity, students are given a set of pictures, where the sequence is not obvious. Students have to decide on a plausible order and write up the story. They can then read their story aloud and their partner / their classmates can arrange the pictures in the right order as the story unfolds. Alternatively each student can come up with his/her own version and compare it with that of their classmates (Ur 1988, p. 219).

Creative story writing 1: In this fantastic activity, students are given ideas for the beginning and the end of a story (e.g. Beginning: ‘A hiking holiday’ – ending: ‘A first prize’) and many words / phrases in-between some of which are connected together in a grid. Students can  choose different ‘routes’ (e.g. ‘A hiking holiday’ – ‘an accident’ – ‘a wedding’ – ‘something found’ etc. etc. … – ‘a first prize’) and in the end they can again compare their version to that of their classmates (Grellet, 1996, p. 120)

Stories 9aCreative story writing 2: This is a more interactive version of the above. Students are told they are going to write fairy tales. They work in pairs. Each student is given a picture of an object (e.g. a ring). They have to write 2-3 sentences and try to include the object somehow. Then they swap stories with the person next to them. Their partner has to continue the story while including a new object. After 2-3 sentences the process is repeated, until in the end students are given some time to finish off the story any way they like.

Sounds into story: Although this idea is an old one, it still has great novelty value as it is very different from all the others. Students listen to a sequence of sounds (e.g. an engine starting, a cat meowing, a window smashing, etc.) They then have to try to figure out what happened and write down the story (if you want to try this with your class, just click here). There are many variations of this idea (e.g. Maley & Duff 1975) and nowadays of course sound effects are readily downloadable, which means that teachers can easily create their own sequences.

From Thrillers to Romance: OK – here is something else you can use with your students  (‘Watch this ad, then write the story!’) As Berger (2013 – p. 115) explains, Google wanted to show people how easy it is to use their engine to find just about everything. So in this beautiful ad we follow a young American who travels to Paris in order to study. Upon getting there, he looks for a café nearby… and then his whole life changes. The ad is short, sweet and hugely popular (7.5 m hits and counting!). Like a treasure hunt, the carefully selected clues lead the viewer to effortlessly reconstruct what happened. The ad cost next to nothing and yet it was voted best Super Bowl commercial for 2010.  That speaks volumes about the power of stories….

1 “The small triangle and the small circle (the couple) enter the screen together and the big triangle (the villain) storms out of his house. The big triangle violently butts the little guy (small triangle) out of the way and herds the protesting heroine (small circle) back into his house. The big triangle then chases the circle back and forth trying to work her into a corner. The scene reeks of sexual menace…” (Gottschall 2012 – p. 106)


Berger, J. “Contagious” Simon & Schuster 2013

Boyd, B. “On the Origin of Stories” Harvard University Press 2010

Gottschall, J. “The Storytelling Animal” Houghton Mifflin 2012

Grellet, F. “Writing for Advanced Learners of English” Cambridge 1996

Heider, F. & Simmel, M. “An Experimental Study of Apparent Behaviour” American Journal of Psychology 57 (1944): 243-259

Maley, A. & Duff A. “Sounds Interesting” Cambridge 1975

McRaney, D. “You are not so Smart” Oneworld 2012

Ramachandran and Hirstein ‘The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience’ Journal of Consciousness Studies 1999

Ur, P. “Grammar Practice Activities” Cambridge 1988

Vince, M. “Highlight Intermediate” Heinemann 1992