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April 06, 2007

Born To Tell Stories: New Insights for Grammar Presentation

Image Source: http://www.nyu.edu/humanities.council/workshops/storytelling/decameron1.jpg

This week, the English-Blog is pleased to present the following revised version of "Born to Tell Stories," an article submitted for publication by author Darryl Bishop. The original version won first prize in the 2006 Philadelphia Writers Conference for best book proposal. Bishop's piece examines . . .

. . . the artistic side of language and suggests that grammar studies may be studying the wrong thing. Your feedback on this new English-Blog column is greatly appreciated!

Born To Tell Stories

“God made man because He loves stories.” – Elie Wiesel

No one knows when or where stories began, but prehistoric people had an innate need and ability to express what they saw, did and experienced. As they began to appreciate their relationship with light, space and matter, they first told visual stories by drawing and painting people, animals and scenes on cave walls – it was the creation of art.

Equipped with an advanced vocal tract, they also began to associate sounds and syllables with everything that they encountered – the birth of words. They discovered that they could express themselves by identifying objects (people, animals, fruit), describing what they observed with their senses (colors, sounds, smells, tastes), revealing actions (hunting, eating, walking), revealing their experiences (fear, pain, sleeping, being chased) and relating their surroundings (caves, forests, lakes). With these innate abilities to identify, describe, reveal and relate, it was only a matter of time before primitive artists began to combine these objects, sensations, actions, experiences and surroundings into stories – the discovery of the art of storytelling.

But to make themselves understood, these artists realized that they had to arrange the words of their stories in a certain order, so that their audience could understand the relationships between the different parts of their stories – the construction of human language. With language, they were able to communicate their circumstances in much more detail than the grunts, growls and groans of their ancestors. As a means of survival, they could be more specific in warning each other of danger – the first homeland security system. As a means of conducting their lives, they found that they could give detailed instructions and orders to each other – the empowerment of our first directors and bosses.

And as a tribe, they were able to accurately define their identities (Tarzan, humans, tribe-people), relationships (parent, spouse, sibling, chief) and duties (hunting, cooking, building) – the establishment of families and government. Stories played a vital part in tribal and community affairs.

Our vocal ancestors, not only told their stories to each other, but also told them to their children, who passed the most important stories down through many generations – the beginning of history. And as primitive people began to realize that they could envision events and change them in their imaginations, they began to create stories in their minds – the invention of fiction. With crayons and paint, primitive artists began to associate symbols with the sounds and syllables that they used – the beginning of the alphabet. And with carving tools and ink, they began to record their stories on flat rocks, flattened grass and animal skins – the origins of our first and foremost literary forms.

Image Source: http://phoenix.praxistechnology.com/sites/webartsites/myimages/4_8775_Storyteller_8286_image1_l.jpg

Given our extensive storytelling background, it follows that human beings are born to tell stories. Babies intuitively learn language without conscious effort. At the age of two, toddlers playfully express their thoughts, hold conversations and make up stories. And they practice their speaking skills not only with other human beings, but also with their dolls, toys, pets or imaginary friends. Toddlers also learn to influence others by inventing stories. To get their way, these tiny con artists concoct stories that mislead or manipulate. To avoid punishment, they tell false stories or lies. And to gain sympathy or attention, they ‘cry wolf’ with an imaginative tale of woe. Undeniably, storytelling runs in our blood.

Children can even create language. When people of different tongues are brought together, they sometimes create a primitive, mixed language, called a pidgin. The pidgin does not have all of the story-telling components of a naturally created language. But when parents speak the pidgin to their children, the children sense that there is something missing and begin to add the language/story components necessary to create a native language, called a Creole. Storytelling is built into our genes and is probably the most distinguishing feature of the human species.

The most fascinating aspect of stories is their extraordinary nature, for all stories are composed of a never-ending succession of smaller stories. For example, novels often have sub-stories with subplots that we call chapters in books. Often, these chapters are divided into sections that reveal sub-sub-stories. And each section contains paragraphs which are brief stories about specific topics within each section or chapter.

Within each paragraph are statements containing thoughts about the paragraph topic. Each thought, such as “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492” (author unknown), represents a self-contained mini-story containing up to five story elements. This mini-story begins with a main character or topic: Columbus. The theme or message follows, focusing on Columbus’ method of transportation: he ‘sailed’. A supporting cast or related item usually follows: the ocean. Details may be added to further describe the story parts, such as the ocean color ‘blue’. Finally, the scene or setting of the story is set at some time in the past, which the letters ‘ed’ in the word ‘sailed’ indicates, while the final two words specify the year: ‘in 1492’. By expressing the main character, theme, supporting cast, setting and details, we translate our thoughts into mini-stories.

Image Source: http://bama.ua.edu/~alaarch/Images/storyteller.png

Within each thought are words whose meanings or definitions represent even smaller stories, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Every word was once a poem”. For example, the poem “Roses are red, violets are blue…” provides partial poetic images for two flowers. Everyone has a slightly different mental image of roses and violets, so if you ask for a definition from a thousand people, you might get a thousand different mini-poems. When all of the images for these flowers are taken into consideration and compared with scientific observations, definitions are entered in the dictionary, such as the definition of the ‘rose’:

“any of a genus (Rosa of the family Rosaceae, the rose family) of usually prickly shrubs with pinnate leaves and showy flowers having five petals in the wild state but being often double or partly double under cultivation” – ("Rose." Merriam-Webster Online)

This definition represents a brief descriptive story for a ‘rose’. Not only that, but also each word within the definition also represents a mini-poem, providing a never-ending story-within-a-story-within-a-story meaning.

This story-within-a-story process also occurs within conversations, where someone might start with the mini-story, “Lori took a plane to the Alps to go skiing.” Now this story may easily branch off into several other stories, each having their own topic. Someone may begin to talk about Lori and her life.

Someone else may want to talk about flying to Europe. Others may want to talk about their favorite hobby – skiing. Each topic of conversation can easily go off into an endless discussion of subtopics-of-subtopics-of-subtopics that will fill the night with talk. Conversations are merely a collaboration of stories among two or more people, where discussions can go in a million directions based on the words and expressions discussed. It is not surprising that we can start a discussion on English syntax and wind up talking about the sex life of the tsetse fly.

In addition, many word definitions serve as mini-metaphors, which are figures of speech that compare the similarities between words and their stories. For example, the word ‘run’ means,

“to go steadily by springing steps so that both feet leave the ground for an instant in each step” – ("Run." Merriam-Webster Online)

However, when used in the expression ‘run a business’, the original definition of ‘run’ represents a mini-metaphor that draws a comparison between the act of foot-running, where one moves quickly, and the act of business-running, where you do not want to waste time and you often have to rush to get things done on time. Also, in running a business, we usually move in a specific direction, just as we do in running with our feet.

Every word also has a history or etymology that explains where and when it was born, how it was created, and what language it came from, along with its ancestors, if any. This provides us with the story behind the story and many times an appreciation of foreign languages.

Image Source: http://imagecache2.allposters.com/images/pic/CAN/8300~Story-Telling-Posters.jpg

Fundamentally, the story is the quintessential element of language. For when we look at the anatomy of a story in a book with chapters, sections, paragraphs, thoughts, words and meanings; we discover that the primary purpose of language is to translate our thoughts into stories with sub-stories, sub-substories, brief stories, mini-stories and mini-poems that often represent mini-metaphors. Every word we utter and every thought we express tells a story.

All spoken languages are methods of combining words (mini-poems) into stories. Primarily, human communication is a process of combining thoughts (mini-stories) into larger stories for an audience. And the art of spoken expression is simply part of the art of storytelling, our most prolific art form, practiced worldwide by over six billion people. The story teaches us practically everything we need to know about language, communication and the art of expression.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different types of stories from Leo Tolstoy’s epic account War and Peace to abbreviated e-mail messages, such as IM4U247 (I am for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). Today, the science of library care dedicates itself to the care and preservation of our stories in their various forms: books, magazines, newspapers, microfilm, computer documents….We cherish, protect and perpetuate our stories forever.

The power of stories is immense, for they pique our curiosities, stimulate our senses, fascinate our minds, stir our emotions, whet our appetites, inspire our spirits, captivate our hearts, engage our imaginations and arouse our desires. The story affects almost every area of our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual lives.

Because of the story’s power, entire industries (communication, information, mass media) focus on the most effective ways to find, spread and convey stories. Publishers and editors scour millions of manuscripts, looking for the next best-seller. News agencies search the globe to grab headlines that will tickle the public’s interest and fancy. The film industry feverishly looks for blockbuster storylines that will appeal to the public, while the paparazzi stalks movie stars to get stories behind the stories for adoring fans. Storytelling is our heritage, our nature and our destiny.

Storytelling has become a worldwide pastime, because telling, hearing, seeing or reading stories is FUN! We love to engage in conversation, immerse ourselves in the many stories on TV (including the short commercial vignettes) or lay in bed with a warm cocoa and a good book. We even put our stories to music and poetry, so that we can enjoy the rhythm and rhyme of sounds as well. [Some people can even talk on the phone, while listening to songs on the radio and reading a magazine].

We not only love to tell stories, but also love to retell them. An interesting or humorous tale can be retold to an unlimited number of friends, family and acquaintances. We relive our own personal memories, adventures and experiences with anyone who will listen [often exhausting a spouse who has heard the stories a hundred times before]. We never tire of telling a good story.

Stories occupy our minds constantly. Even in our sleep, we visualize stories to create dreams, fantasies and nightmares. We daydream about vacations, visualize our goals, live out our dreams and fantasize about various sexual encounters. We live, love and dream stories, 24 hours a day.

Image Source: http://www.morristown.org/HansCAndersonLober.jpg

I hate to cut a long story short, but let’s turn our minds to English. Here’s the question, concerning the last two and a half centuries: Why haven’t we studied stories in order to learn the basics of the English language? Studying the story and its structure is the ideal method for understanding language, because the human brain is naturally wired to absorb, interpret and convey stories. We learn most easily, when knowledge and wisdom are presented in story form, and we communicate effectively, when we express our thoughts in story form. Nothing is more intuitive, meaningful, relevant and fun than telling stories.

Storytelling provides an artistic method by which we can explore the structure and nature of English without the academic standards, linguistic theories, and technical terms of traditional grammar instruction. By studying stories, the student can learn the basics of English much more fully, naturally and quickly by

* Appreciating English expression as an art form rather than an academic subject; which helps students understand the beauty, power and versatility of words and thoughts

*Using intuitive storytelling terms (main character, theme, supporting cast, setting, details) without Latin terminology (verbs, adjectives, prepositions, appositives, participles…)

*Developing storytelling/language skills (our innate abilities to identify, describe, reveal and relate) without the need to memorize terms, definitions, standards and rules

*Expressing his or her thoughts by telling stories without sentence analysis.

The study of grammar can be transformed from a traditionally academic and analytical subject to a modern art form simply by telling stories. Will students have a more enjoyable learning experience? Will teachers have an easier subject to teach? Will parents be able to teach English to their K and pre-K children? Will the artistic approach benefit underprivileged or ESL students? We need to find out.


About this entry's author: Darryl Bishop is a business engineer with over 30 years of experience in transforming complex business applications into intuitive and down-to-earth instruction. His primary interest is in the field of grammar studies, especially on how to make them more effective.

Darryl theorizes that “much has been written about the limitations of traditional grammar instruction. Its methods focus on the preferences of 18th-century scholars who had great respect for formal academic scholarship, Latin structure and terminology, Classical Greek philosophy and thought, scientific classification, the establishment of high standards, and the rote memorization of terms, definitions and rules. As an academic subject, it fails to treat English expression as an art form. As a tradition, it bypasses modern linguistic wisdom and practices. And with an analytical framework, it neglects the intuitive aspects of English expression. Designed for the scholars of Ben Franklin’s time, the subject for many students becomes dry, boring and irrelevant.”

Darryl’s business solution is simple: replace the academic, traditional and analytical aspects of grammar with artistic, modern and intuitive instruction. Over the next few weeks he plans to submit articles that show how easy and fun it is to study grammar from an artistic perspective. Your comments are welcome and Darryl will likewise respond to your remarks.

The English-Blog hopes you will enjoy Darryl’s contributions! To read Darryl's next publication "Playful Experience is the Best Teacher of English," please click HERE

Posted by lhobbs at April 6, 2007 10:33 AM

Readers' Comments:


Your position was very eloquently stated.

Rather than engage you in a debate on some of the finer points (I'm no grammarian!), I'd rather get some step-by-step suggestions from you on how you might, as an English-teacher for example, implement your theory, as presented, in the actual classroom.

Getting right down to business: What would a tangible lesson-plan for teaching grammar using this method look like?

Or, if asked, how could we, as Language Arts teachers, explain in practical terms to other instructors, our superiors/employers, parents, and even the students themselves (who might be paying for ESL lessons, for example), the actual procedure we are using to convey the conventions of English grammar through stories?

I am curious to hear your thoughts [or anyone else's who may have used this method] on how to effectively implement teaching grammar the "storytelling" way. Please choose any well-known fable or fairy-tale, for instance, and show us how you might use, say, an hour's worth of time in the class.

One thing's for sure, it would be nice to have a viable alternative to traditional methodologies.

I do look forward to the responses,


Posted by: Lee Hobbs at April 6, 2007 04:16 PM

Greetings to Lee and Darryl,

I may be stirring up a nest of worms, but having taught in California schools for twenty-two years, I only taught grammar for two years (after teaching about ten years), to see if teaching grammar would benefit students. So, I taught grammar to elementary students in the 4-6 grades and I made it fun. They actually enjoyed it. But after a review by the Superintendant, my Principal, and several teachers, who were interested in what I was doing, we discovered that teaching grammar did not enhance any student's ability to read, write, or speak English. Our final conclusion was that a lot of teachers teaching grammar were doing so because that all they really knew what to do, as the teachers in China do. They don't know English at all, so they teach grammar. Nobody learns to speak, write, or reading English correctly in China. Therefore, teaching grammar seems to be pedigogically innappropriate really. What worked for me was to get students writing a lot, and to make it fun, and to read a lot, and make it fun. Generally speaking, students that I taught improved two grade levels on standarized tests, which was amazing in itself. I don't want to change the world, but I want to say that if you want students to speak better, have them practice talking a lot and get feedback from their peers. If you want them to write better, have them write a lot, and have their peers check it and give feedback. I learned all this while I was in college a long time ago. I am not sure why this grammar debate keeps coming up. Clearly nothing has changed in the world.

Bob Toomey in Beijing

Posted by: Robert H. Toomey at April 7, 2007 08:29 AM

Response to Lee Hobbs and Robert Toomey,

I agree with Robert that students need to have fun. Feedback from and interaction with their peers is also important.

With a storytelling method, English lessons can also be made to be natural, intuitive and artistic. In addition, students need to use both sides of their brain – the analytical/logical side to understand the story structure of English and the creative/imaginative side to understand how to tell stories.

The teacher needs to become a story facilitator (SF) – one who provides for a creative and playful learning experience. The SF does not teach by dispensing information, but by asking questions that prompt students to learn through their own thought process and experience. In other words, let the students discover the language on their own.

As a short example, if I want my students to learn about prepositional phrases, we could play the Parker Brothers game of Clue. I would give the students the plot of the story, ‘Mr. Boddy was murdered’, then ask them to set the scene of the crime (the context of the thought) by answering the questions who, what, where, when, why, how, whose and which. I would facilitate a discussion for each question, while letting the students choose their own answers, giving them a five-minute time limit for each question. After the answers are chosen, I would write out my story:

Mr. Boddy was murdered Colonel Mustard rope strangulation library noon fun.

I would then ask if this statement made sense. The students will hopefully say “no”; whereby, I would ask “Why doesn’t it make sense, since I identified who (Mustard), what weapon (rope), how (strangulation), where (library), when (noon) and why (fun)?” The students would see the need for additional words that would relate or link each item in a specific way to the story. I would then playfully try various linking words, such as, ‘with Colonel Mustard’, ‘for Colonel Mustard’ and ‘in front of Colonel Mustard’ until the students told me to use ‘by’. After much discussion on linking words, the students would finally arrive at:

Mr. Boddy was murdered by Colonel Mustard with a rope by strangulation in the library at noon for fun.

This interactive exercise allows students to create a story and realize the purpose and format of words, such as links (prepositions) and context items. Students will realize that they need to address the eight questions for every thought they express. Their word choices receive immediate feedback from their peers. The facilitator can see immediate results and progress from the answers that students give. By allowing students to create and tell stories, one word at a time, they can discover the nature and structure of the language on their own.

[Next week I will submit another article called “Playful Experience is the Best Teacher”, which also won first prize (as did my article this week) at the 2006 Philadelphia Writers Conference in the category of Magazine Writing. It explains my method in the class room in more detail.]


Posted by: Darryl Bishop at April 7, 2007 09:58 PM

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