Storytelling is one of the most important acts of communication. Every day, in our contacts with friends, relatives, colleagues and acquaintances we share stories, anecdotes – things that happened to use, stories we read about in the news, on social media, stories we heard through others.

In class, story building and storytelling can get somewhat neglected. Most modern coursebooks have little by way of getting learners to narrate.

Photo Credit: Gisela Giardino via Compfight

And yet storytelling for fun, storymaking and sharing can be serious or playful, and learners can be given the opportunity to practise producing sustained talk/long turns or write imaginative fiction producing their own stories or story episodes.

In another post on this blog, on Digital Storytelling, I talked about the many benefits of using such activities for younger and older learners. Digital tools are wonderful but not available to every teacher and even though I have found some wonderful apps and online tools which you can read about in my other post, paper and pen, the board and our imagination are sometimes the best tools available.

My Storymaking Machine 

Here is a simpe tool borrowed from surrealist writers’ workshops; apologies for not being able to trace the originator of this idea – not mine originally. Apparently, surrealist writers used the matrices below as a source of inspiration for their writing!!!!!

I thought it was a wonderful idea when I saw this and translated it into language learning activities, quite a while ago; in fact this was the topic of a talk I presented in one of the early TESOL Greece Conferences.

How it works

There are four matrices: characters, places, situations and objects – which are in fact some of the ingredients of any story.

Each matrix is numbered from 1-9 vertically and horizontally. So, to choose a character, place, situation and an object as ingredients to create a story or part of a story, ask your learners (groups or teams) to decide on a two digit number from 1-9, e.g. 58.

This will give them  a giant baby, a dark cave, going on a hunger strike, and a whistle

Groups or teams will then have to build a story around these four ingredients.

The four matrices





Matrices are scanned images from work written by Marisa Constantinides

If the students run out of idea, they can look up their number backwards for inspiration or they can choose a new two-digit number.

Who controls the matrices

The teacher can keep the matrices, they can be posted on the wall of the classroom, they can be copied and distributed to the learners, or they can be posted on a class blog or wiki.


  1. You don’t have to use all the matrices – you can choose only two or three
  2. You can enlarge, print and cut out in the shape of cards. Packs of these cards can be kept in separate piles, or they can be shuffled and small selections cna be given to groups to play story telling games
  3. If you use card packs, you can play story-dominoes, where each learner continues a story started by the teacher or another learner: they can pick up a card, make a connection and build a colaborative story.
  4. If playing the game for the first time, or for learners who need more thinking time, you can deal out four or five cards to each learner and they can choose which one to put down in order to continue a group story
  5. You can make your own matrices with characters and ingredients more suitable for your own learners; for example, for a pharmaceutical company language course, I made character cards that had to do with their own business, such as a reluctant doctor, a persistent salesman, etc. For younger learners, you could make fairy tale variations or comic book hero variations.

There a millions of stories possible through such a tool and most of them will involve surprise, adventure, combining unlikely elements and, of course, laughter, a great tool for learning.

At the same time, you will be catering not just to language development but to creative thinking skills training as these activities help develop some of the most important aspects of creative verbal behaviours; flexible thinking, fluency, elaboration and originality.


Post Script – In a comment below, Michelle Wogan suggested some special dice – here is what I often use with young learners with a pencil stuck in a hole in the centre (you don’t want kids rolling dice off tables, etc. 🙂 )

9 sided dice for you YLs (and not only) just download and print

9 sided dice for you YLs (and not only) just download and print – cut the edges off neatly if you can turn into a henneagon!!!


Have fun making stories with your learners!!! All age groups love story building activities and I hope you will be able to share some of your class stories or how your learners reacted in a comment below the post.




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