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ESL Lessons: Story Writing for Elementary Students

Updated on October 10, 2014

ESL Story Writing

On this page I will take teachers through the various steps which I have found can produce structured ESL story writing lessons and quality work.

Attempting to get students with only a basic command of English to write a story sounds like a pretty ambitious project to begin with. However, by breaking the process down into different stages, it becomes possible to obtain short pieces of writing from even the youngest and weakest of students, without taking years off of your life expectancy.

Do You Teach Story Writing In Your ESL Lessons?

Have you taught story writing lessons to ESL students?

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Frustrated Face From Artbymichelle
Frustrated Face From Artbymichelle

Story Writing Can Be A Very Frustrating Lesson

Anybody who has taught English to non-native speakers must at some stage of their career, in a lazy moment, asked their students to write a story, only to be faced with inactivity and embarrassing silence; it's happened to me, if not to anyone else.

This can be a stressful situation for the students and the teacher, and is usually the recipe for a lot of wasted time and a very frustrated teacher.

Acknowledgements: Frustrated face from artbymichelle's Free Clipart.

Why Can't Students Write Stories?

The teacher needs to take a moment to think about what it is they are asking the students to do here. If you ask a native speaker to do this, you are asking them to;

1 Invent a story. 2 Write it down on paper.

If you ask a non-native speaker to do this, you are asking them to;

1 Invent a story. 2 Put it into a foreign language. 3 Write it down on paper.

So, the teacher is actually asking the non-native speaker to go through one more step than the native speaker. This could quite easily be the factor resulting in the students' inability to do the task.

The teacher should also take into consideration cultural aspects in some parts of the world, where imagination and free expression aren't encouraged. Either one, or both of these factors are likely to produce problems in producing coherent written material.

The answer seems to be to me, to eliminate the extra step and/or the lack of imagination in your students.

Use a Series Of Pictures In ESL Story Writing Lessons

Selecting a suitable sequence of pictures (like the ones on the right here) which tell a story will eliminate step one of the 3 steps above and make up for any lack of imagination your students may have.

The older the students, the longer the sequence of pictures they can deal with. For small children, six pictures has been sufficient in my experience, for children aged 8-12, between ten and fifteen pictures has worked well for me, and for the older students, the sky is the limit (I guess, I've never actually applied the following technique with students over the age of 15).

The Story Writing ESL Lesson Technique - It Is Not That Hard Really

Step 1 ; The teacher should prepare the sequence of pictures so that the students can clearly see them. For small children, flashcards that can be stuck to the board are ideal. For older students, the pictures are best presented on a worksheet. This allows them to make notes and leaves no excuse for not finishing as the task can then be set as homework.

Step 2 ; Go through the pictures and try to elicit a verb for each one. Write the verbs on the board and encourage the students to make a note of them on their worksheets. For young children, the teacher will assume responsibility for recording the words by writing them on the board.

This stage can be turned into a game whereby students are awarded points for the most interesting verbs. With older students, a selection of verbs for each picture can be created, and the students can choose which one to use later on. This will ensure that the teacher doesn't have to endure the pain of reading 30 identical stories. (More if you are working in a less developed country with a higher number of students in each class.)

Step 3 ; This step is for good elementary students upwards, and should be ignored for small children.

Ask the students to convert the verbs from their present tense form, to the past simple tense form. Again, this step can be turned into a competition by awarding points for the fastest correct answer.

Step 4 ; The teacher should then try to elicit sentences from the students, using the past tense form of the verbs allotted for each picture. The teacher could try a "verbs into a hat" activity here, whereby students pick a piece of paper from a bag/hat with a verb on it, and complete a sentence. Alternatively, students can simply put up their hands to make a sentence. Points can be given for every correct sentence made, and extra points for the most interesting and creative sentences.

Step 5 ; Here, the youngest learners can write out their sentences and draw a picture to make a colourful display to put on the wall, or send home to mother and father. This either earns the teacher respect from their employer (and a pay rise? Probably not.) Or, "isn't he/she a great teacher" glee factor from the parents (which will hopefully get back to your employer, but probably still not result in a pay increase.)

The older learners can do a similar presentation, minus the picture and colouring (although you could try it, I'd be interested to know the reaction). At this point they will also need some guidance as to how to put the sentences into paragraphs.

Step 6 ; Ask some of the students to read their stories out in front of the class. This not only lengthens the time of the activity but also provides reading practice for the students (at least this is what I tell my boss when he sees me sitting down with a coffee, listening to endless stuttering).

Choosing Pictures For ESL Story Writing Activities

They say that preparation is everything; in this activity it is certainly the difference between reading interesting work and feeling good about your students and your teaching, or, reading reams of guff and feeling that your students are pre-evolutionary and that as a teacher you'd make a good tea- lady.

Obviously, ensure that the pictures you choose are suitable for the students' language level.

Take care to choose pictures that can be clearly reproduced by a photocopier or seen from the back of the classroom. Pictures from newspapers tend to copy particularly badly, so best avoid these unless you want stories about smudges. Cartoon books and ESL books normally have useful picture stories to use. If you are particularly creative you can draw your own story.

Take care not to choose pictures that can be misconstrued; I once used a set of pictures that included one of a man with a cat sat on his lap. It seemed innocent enough to me, but one nice 10 year old boy wrote, "the man makes a baby with the cat". Watch out for that type of thing!

If students become enthusiastic about this type of activity, then the teacher can encourage them to go home and find a set of pictures to bring to school and write about. This type of thing goes down well with parents and makes you look like a serious teacher (if you aren't already).

Where To Find Suitable Picture Stories - Pictures Are Plentiful

There are a number of ways to get hold of suitable sequences of pictures to use for these activities:

1. Draw them yourself: If you are a decent artist then you are sure to be able to draw at least a few such simple stories. I made a number of them in the past, some I took some time over, others were knocked up in a few minutes.

2. Get them from the internet: Google the words "story board" and you will get loads of sequenced pictures. I have done it for you in fact, just click here - story board.

3. Get picture stories from ESL teaching books: Spend some time flicking through a large number of ESL course books and almost every one of them will have a picture sequenced story or two. Photocopy every one you find and within the space of an hour or so you will have quite a collection.

4. Get picture stories from cartoon books: I have found the Asterix books, Tintin books and books by Raymond Briggs's (Father Christmas, Gentleman Jim and Fungus the Bogeyman) all to be good sources of picture sequenced stories. There are lots of other similar books too.

Some Useful Picture Story Books - Some cool books with useful story writing picture sequences

Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas (Ladybird)
Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas (Ladybird)

This is a classic, featuring Raymond Briggs' grumpy Father Christmas. There are hardly any words in this book, so it is ideal for writing about the sequenced pictures which clearly tell the story in detail.


Don't Panic - Don't Be Scared, Try Some Story Writing

The first time you do this activity with a student or set of students, it will probably produce mixed results. Some students will seem like budding Shakespeares if you are lucky, but many will appear to be destined to life of illiteracy. Don't worry, repeat the activity a number of times with different pictures, over a number of weeks, and I'm sure that you will see an improvement in your students' writing.

Some Story Writing Resources - These May Help You

Choosing The Correct Writing Implement - It Can Make All The Difference

Have you ever had a group of young students for a writing activity where almost nothing gets done due to broken pencils, ink spills, tipped pencil cases and exploding pens?

If the answer is yes then you need to give more thought to what writing implements you are allowing in the classroom. By being in control of which pens or pencils are allowed in the classroom you can save lots of wasted time and use it to actually getting some meaningful work from your students: How to Save Time in The Classroom by Using The Right Pencil.

ESL Teacher T Shirt
ESL Teacher T Shirt

English As A Second Language Teacher's Shirt - Look The Part

You Can't Save Me I'm An ESL Teacher Shirt

Zazzle Price: From $15.85

These funny ESL teacher's shirts come in a variety of styles, colours and sizes to suit the wearer. ESL teaching is a very particular career and often one that makes the teacher wonder why they chose that particular path. This t-shirt sums up that feeling, known to most ESL teachers, very well.

Some More Teaching English As A Second Language Lenses

ESL Lessons: How To Make Quality ESL Flashcards
This is my step-by-step guide to making clear, useful and durable flashcards for use in the ESL classroom.

ESL Lessons: Using Food Chains, Webs and Pyramids in Language Teaching
This is a guide to how ecological food chains, food webs and food pyramids can effectively be used in ESL lessons; all the information here is based on my personal experience.

These two lenses provide some resources that I made when teaching basic science to 7-8 year olds

Royalty Free Animal Coloring Pages To Print
On this lens you can download animal coloring pages that I have created for use in ESL lessons and print them free of charge.

Free Printable Card Game - Animal Trumps
On this lens there are 40 printable cards to download which when put together create an animal trump card game.

English Grammar - An Interesting Way To Brush Up Your Grammar

English Grammar For Dummies
English Grammar For Dummies

Ok, so you aren't a dummy but this series of guides has a knack of making dry, dusty old subjects rather amusing and easy to deal with. It might just make your teaching day a little easier and less dull.


Find Teaching English As A Foreign/Second Language Jobs - Links to websites that regularly display TEFL & ESL jobs.


    A website which has been providing TEFL career opportunities since 1997 with jobs added daily from over 15000 registered employers.

  • ESL Job World

    ESL jobs from all over the world, each continent has its own section for ease of searching.

  • Dave's ESL Cafe

    Probably the best-known and longest running ESL job site on the internet. Jobs added daily and there are always hundreds of current vacancies.

  • ESL

    Advice, articles and resources for English as a Foreign Language teacher but most important of all is a list of worldwide teaching vacancies.

  • ESL

    Eslbase provides English language teachers with information, advice and resources. On eslbase you'll find help if you're just starting out, a directory of teacher training courses, job adverts, teaching resources, discussion forums and much much more.

  • Happy Cat's TEFL

    Happy Cat's TEFL is a website run by EFL teachers that is dedicated to helping teachers find jobs around the world.

I don't pretend to be any sort of expert on ESL Story Writing, but this system has worked quite well in my lessons in the past. I hope it can help others to induce their students to write something intelligible. There are probably a lot of holes in this little piece of advice, so I'm very happy to receive your comments in the place provided here.

Reader Feedback - Please Leave A Comment Here

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    • ESLinsider LM profile image

      ESLinsider LM 5 years ago

      Yes, pictures are good. You can cut them out or draw them up. Kids like drawing too. You could even dictate a story to them and have them draw it.

    • profile image

      nifwlseirff 5 years ago

      Writing using a storyboard is an easier way to break through the 'can't do it' barriers that many students have. If I come across an appropriate story/storyboard when I'm studying (German/Japanese), I can tweak and re-use it in my English classes!

    • EpicFarms profile image

      EpicFarms 5 years ago

      Good ideas - I work with a deaf student, so the picture method has come in handy quite a bit :o)

    • profile image

      bskcom 5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing what works for you. Also, the visuals that you used made your points stand out.

    • nickupton lm profile image

      nickupton lm 6 years ago

      @jonduckett: Thanks I added it.

    • nickupton lm profile image

      nickupton lm 6 years ago

      @franstan lm: Thank you

    • franstan lm profile image

      franstan lm 6 years ago

      Blessed by a visiting Squid Angel

    • profile image

      Kirilov 6 years ago

      A great lens on learning English as a second language. Those who are not native English speakers can also take advantage of free translation tools for Firefox and other major browsers that provide instant translation free of charge. Thanks.

    • profile image

      Trireme 6 years ago

      Fun activity with lots of scope for students to improve their writing skills. Great lens nick one i will find useful in the future ;]

    • profile image

      jonduckett 6 years ago

      Thanks Nick, that's a really useful lens. Another useful TEFL jobs site you might like to try is

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 6 years ago from Ljubljana

      Thanks for this tips, I was looking just for something like that. Special thanks for resources of pictures.

    • profile image

      richtowns 7 years ago

      Great lense Ill be following this advise as Im a new teacher. One question, The cartoon strip with the child in pajamas flouting in a bed, where is that from? Ive been trying to find a story I remember from my childhood where a boy floats around in space drinking milk from bottles and haven't had any luck finding it and this looks similar!

    • profile image

      dchittur 7 years ago

      This is a beautiful lens full of great ideas. My students like storywriting as a class. I just built my own lens if you want to check it out...

    • masz09 profile image

      masz09 7 years ago

      Thank you for sharing. I can apply it to my class

    • Sammy24 profile image

      Sammy24 7 years ago

      Come tell me what you think about teaching ESL on my lense

      I love your lense.

    • profile image

      WriterBuzz 7 years ago

      Your lens is great. Very informative. I liked your lens with a thumbs up.

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 8 years ago from Australia

      Another excellent lens! Even for EFL (is that a "word") this is a useful idea.

    • nickupton lm profile image

      nickupton lm 8 years ago

      Yes, basically this allows the teacher to keep things under their control and lead the students in the right direction.[in reply to spirituality]

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 8 years ago

      Great idea - also makes sure the kids are not inventing stories they don't have the words for yet (or too many new words). And by selecting the series of pictures well, you can go around making sure they learn words from all kinds of social and physical situations.