Aug 282012

A good story has lots of elements but essentially it’s going to have a lead character we care about who is facing some kind of challenge or problem. And the plot is going to keep moving – that’s really important. It has to have ‘rising action’ as Aristotle would say, all the complications of the plot that build up to the climax. So there are universals at work in a good story.

Movie trailers are condensed stories – designed to tantalise, tell us just enough to make us care about the characters, and then leave us on the hook wanting to know more. They’re a great source of input for lessons for many reasons including:

  • not too short and not too long
  • natural conversation in context
  • an unknown ending so we can discuss what might happen

And the universal features of a story provide us with comprehension questions we can use again and again, with almost every trailer.

  1. What genre of movie is it? e.g horror, action, romantic comedy…
  2. Who is the hero?
  3. What problem or challenge are they facing?
  4. What other characters do we see and how are they related to the hero?
  5. What happens to the hero?
  6. Do you care about the hero or not? (Why?)
  7. How might the story end?
  8. Do you want to see this movie? (Why/Why not?)

Click here to download a free worksheet that works with practically every movie trailer. And click here to visit my new Simple English Videos website which has 34 of the latest movie trailers to choose from, plus clickable transcripts. I’ve been thrilled to find the site is attracting visitors from all over the world and I’m adding new videos almost every day. If you have any tips or suggestions for the site, please pass them along.

To get updates on new videos as they are added, follow me on Twitter here:


 Posted by at 6:08 pm
Aug 212012

What kind of business skills courses do you pitch to clients: meetings, presentations, negotiating, report writing perhaps? What about a course  in story telling?

I love it when I get to prepare students for a story telling course at the Wharton school. Not only do I get to hear some ripping business yarns but I also get to feel really useful. It gives us the opportunity to focus on discourse and develop skills they can start putting to use right away.

We’ve all encountered people who’ve had difficulties structuring stories. Perhaps some important element has been missing, or they get the length or timing wrong, or they just seem pointless. The pay off matters particularly, in  business English contexts, I think.

So story telling seems like such a valuable business skill to me.  If you need to make complex ideas comprehensible, ignite organizational change or build a sense of community, stories are great places to start. Stories can teach, inspire, motivate, convey values – all essential leadership skills.

So instead of reaching for the meetings and presentations courses, how about some story telling?





 Posted by at 3:27 pm
Aug 072012

Test scores are sometimes poor representations of someone’s ability to communicate. I think many English teachers have come across students who would come out at say lower intermediate or B1 on a scale, and yet they’ve been able to communicate their ideas effectively – powerfully even – more so than many upper intermediate or B2 students. It’s always intrigued me. What are they doing that’s working so well? If we could bottle it up and pass it around we’d be able to solve a lot of problems for a lot of people.

Now obviously it might be about things we can’t teach like personality, intelligence… But I reckon there are other things going on too that we can help all our students with.

A lot of it is about the structure of ideas. Those able communicators are structuring their thoughts in ways that other people can easily follow. Often language teaching focuses on what happens at a word and sentence level (and that’s often what gets tested too). But what if we shifted our attention more to how ideas get structured over longer tracts of discourse?

Now of course some approaches have always done that. Genre approaches in ESP spring to mind and structure often crops up in business presentation courses. An area where discourse structure is really important is story telling.  As Aristotle explained….


Does storytelling feature in your English courses and would you like it to? And what other things do you do that focus attention on text organization and discourse?

 Posted by at 8:00 am
Aug 042012

It doesn’t matter whether you have a three year olds climbing on their seats or a class of businessmen fixated on their email. “I want to tell you a story” captures attention.

And if you then take a conspiratorial look over your shoulder, lean forward, curl your forefinger and say “C’m here”, they’ll all lean forward in their seats.

You’ve got ’em hooked.

So now what are you going to do?

It’s time to employ the ancient art of storytelling – an art that dates back to the ancient Greeks and beyond. So what makes a good story?

What elements does a story need to keep your students gripped?




 Posted by at 2:48 pm