Becoming Better at Asking

Recently I have been concentrating on techniques that guide me to ask rather than tell a story.

Asking rather than telling a story seems like a basic TPRS skill, but it is a really difficult skill to master. The difference between telling and asking has nothing to do with remaining comprehensible. Although I always include lots of comprehension checks and I proceed very slowly, I am telling a story when the majority of the content comes from me. Storyasking, on the other hand, requires that the majority of content comes from students (with the exception of a story framework containing the target structures). Asking a story is often more compelling than telling (even telling a personalized story) because students have invested their own ideas into the story.

I have struggled with storyasking. Sometimes I have a dynamite story to tell, like when I tell a joke in class. A joke is a compact, beautifully told story. Even though I might spend twenty minutes preparing to tell the joke, I have a very specific plot from which I do not want to deviate. A joke is a good story to tell rather than ask. Sometimes when I want to ask a story I have very specific details that I will allow students to add and it comes out more like a mad libs activity: you can add an adjective to my story but it is still my story. Other times I give the kids too much freedom. Rather than adding details they add entire plot structures. In the middle of the lesson I find myself confused as to how to reconcile their story with the one that has the target structures I need to teach. That is not a terrible situation if students remain interested, but not so much if I end up scrapping their story altogether so that I can tell them my pre-planned story.

question words
Last week I decided to spend an entire class setting the scene before even introducing the target structures. I used the question words posted on my wall (and all in Spanish, of course, writing on the board to remain comprehensible). I announced that we are going to make a new story but we need to imagine a few details first. I started with the word “when”. At first the class was confused. When what? So I wrote on the board: When does the story take place? My students already knew the word “take” (toma) as well as “place” (lugar), but they had never seen these words placed together in this way so I wrote an English translation on the board. The first class threw out several suggestions but we ultimately voted on “20 años en el future” (20 years in the future). The next class decided on “en la edad media” (in the Middle Ages… seriously, this is the impact of FVR because I have a childrens illustrated encyclopedia in Spanish about life in the middle ages). The last class decided that it would take place in the 1920´s.

The next question is “where”… following the process the classes voted on “in space” (we later narrowed it down to Mars), “in Yemen” and the last class chose “Brooklyn”. Yemen in the Middle Ages required a quick break so that kids could do a minute of research on google to figure out what Yemen was like in the Middle Ages (this was done in English). One student discovered on Wikipedia that there was a large slave market in Yemen during the Middle Ages, so we all agreed that would be our location. Once we got to the “who” question we chose a student in class who would be the protagonist of our story, and at that point I had a student actor to verify information with.

After going through all of the question words we had spontaneously created a title for our story. All classes created a rich beginning full of possibilities. There were traces of an emerging plot, but not completely because we had concentrated on setting the scene with all of these question words. I had thoroughly circled everything and the white boards were covered with notes. During the last ten minutes students wrote a two paragraph fluency write: the first paragraph summarized the story we had created thus far while the second paragraph was about what they thought would happen in the story. Kids passed it in and I have had the weekend to read through the ideas that they generated. On Monday we are going to review their stories and then I will be able to start with the phrase, “clase, hay un problema”.

The basic story structure that I will adapt to each story is about a kid who wants to do X but is embarrassed to say it to her/his friends because s/he has a friend who makes fun of people who do X. Simple. There are two structures that I will introduce while asking the story and we will circle them like crazy: “is embarrassed” and “makes fun of”. I am still planning on storyasking the rest of the story, but I am starting from a point in which the class has generated a large amount of the content already and I can use this material to spin around the target structures that I want them to acquire.

After we build the story I am going to type the story up, have them read it again and then illustrate a specific scene from the story. Each student gets a different sentence to illustrate. This sounds like a good activity to do on the day before Spring Break (Friday). Then I will have three different, illustrated stories that all focus on the target structures “is embarrassed” and “makes fun of”. All three stories will be stapled and added to my FVR library; given that they will be comprehensible and student-created I am sure that they will be highly-compelling reading for my students. I might even scan them and add them to the online FVR starter library .


  1. Thanks Mike. I really have trouble finding the story-asking sweet spot between Mad Libs (filling in minor details) and ending up with huge plot twists that take me away from my scripts. I would love to hear more advice about how to do this.

    How do you handle getting the whole class behind story asking? I find it hard to get everyone to agree, and the more vocal students end up creating the stories.

    1. I am not sure if every student has to be vocal, adding to the story, as long as they are all paying attention and following in the target language. All students do need to be able to answer questions about the story, and I try to find other ways of expanding the story (such as observing what kids write in quick writes), but not all kids feel comfortable about being put on the spot and creating something clever. On the other hand, if it is a question of kids wanting to contribute but are being drowned out, try solving it with class jobs. Make one student the judge who decides which answer is correct. Choose a new judge each week. I have done this to take the pressure of deciding off of my shoulders.

      1. Thanks! I have had a class professor and that does help, but I had a student who was very shy but very creative who would prefer the stories went in a different direction but wouldn’t speak up. I tried giving everyone a whiteboard and having them write down their cute answers and holding it up. She was happy with that, but I still found it a lot to manage. I am still struggling with balancing student input with controlling the story’s direction. I’m sure it is parallel to my learning to go narrow and deep. I will keep practicing! Thanks for the blogging!

  2. Super helpful. I’m a beginner and my stories all end up ridiculous, which bugs some of the kids. This would help narrow our focus a little.

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