George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Using Interactive Storytelling to Teach Key Vocabulary Terms

Embedding important terms in stories created with upper elementary and middle school English learners helps them build their academic vocabulary.

March 18, 2022
Middle school teacher in front of class
Gregg Vignal / Alamy

Projected on the whiteboard, two eagles soar over a beautiful mountainous landscape.

“Once upon a time there were two eagles who lived in a perfect ecosystem. What are the eagles’ names?” One of us (Gina), a science teacher, pauses while sixth-grade students call out their ideas. Picking out the students’ favorites, she continues with the tale: “Yes, the two eagles, Nugget and Wings, lived in a balanced ecosystem and wanted to start a family.”

“What can the eagles observe,” asks Gina, holding a hand up to her forehead like she’s looking in the distance. She then looks around the room and waits for all the students to mimic the motion, and continues the question, “from their nest?”

Interactive Digital Storytelling 

Over the next few days, the students and Gina engage in an interactive digital storytelling methodology that she and Kent, an English as an additional language (EAL) specialist, have adapted from world language pedagogy to serve their learners in South Korea. While most often found in world language classrooms, interactive digital storytelling fits well in many learning environments, particularly those serving English language learners and students with disabilities.

Interactive digital stories support students in acquiring academic and content vocabulary by embedding the vocabulary within a light, memorable narrative. As students cocreate the story with the teacher by naming characters, supplying backstory, identifying connections, summarizing key points, and more, they become invested in the tale. This interactive experience then serves as a conceptual and linguistic touchstone throughout the unit.

To take learning a step further, teachers can incorporate multimodal opportunities as students gesture key vocabulary, read the interplay of the images and written text projected on the screen or whiteboard, and pause to compare the characters’ experiences with their own and their classmates’. Depending on the needs of the course, students can also engage with a written version of the story to embed literacy skills into the content area class.

Later in the story, Nugget and Wing’s balanced ecosystem is thrown into disarray when Gina introduces an invasive unicorn species. Students make predictions about how a rising unicorn population will impact the eagles and evaluate the decision to introduce a predator, a dragon, into the system to solve the problem. While the latest characters are imaginary, the core concepts connect to scientific big ideas of cause and effect, humans and the environment, and systems thinking—skills and standards middle school scientists are expected to master.

A little silliness, surprise, creativity, and age-appropriate humor are key to keeping students engaged with the story. For example, using people they know or are familiar with as characters makes kids feel connected to the tale. Further, utilizing repetitive narratives in the story so that the teacher circles around familiar patterns helps students construct conceptual understanding as well as their linguistic capacity to communicate the big ideas of a unit.

Incorporating Digital Storytelling  

Another positive reason for creating digital stories for a content area class is that it doesn’t have to be difficult. Using a backward design approach, educators can brainstorm how key vocabulary terms relate to one another as well as to terms from previous units. Then they can use a simple storyboarding model to write a narrative using the Somebody-Wanted-But-So framework—this template can get you started.

1. Key unit concepts: What are the big ideas in the unit? What are the essential questions, learning goals, etc.? In the ecology unit, students are moving toward standards concerning how populations interact, how disruptions impact ecosystems, etc. The standards help to define the story arc and key ideas, but it’s helpful not to get too stuck on the academic jargon. Getting a little silly while having a clear sense of the why behind the story takes it from mere fun to purposefully engaging.

2. Identify target vocabulary: Next, create a list of content key terms students will need and sort it into top, middle, and bottom tiers. Focus on those top-tier terms in the story. This is also a good time to consider academic vocabulary to incorporate into the story. As a science teacher, Gina notes that terms like observe and predict show up frequently in each of her stories, reflecting key linguistic structures that all science students need to communicate about the content.

3. Somebody, Wanted, But, So: Time for the classic hero’s journey. Choose the main characters, their driving dilemma, and their attempts to solve the problem. Keep the big ideas central when outlining the tale. Also, what characters will the students connect with, and what will they find funny or surprising? Remember, the story doesn’t need to be complicated. The force and motion story we wrote for a sixth-grade science unit is about a mother hen trying to get her chicks to school. Her silly, failing attempts, along with the relevance of the topic for our students, kept them engaged and communicating about the essential concepts of mass, velocity, friction, etc.

4. Create the slides: We use PowerPoint to create slides with simple animations to support the storytelling. We then pepper in cloze reading slides, rebus retell slides, and other opportunities for students to take control of retelling the story or engaging with the vocabulary. Print out the slides to prepare questions to ask for each, or write the questions in the notes section of PowerPoint. Warm up students  with simple questions and scale up the complexity as students demonstrate readiness. Cocreate a learning space within which students can always access a variety of strategies to find support, allowing learners of all readiness levels to communicate about the big ideas.

5. Jump in: Take a deep breath and give it a try. Some educators allow students to shout out answers during the story activity while others call on hands. Find a method that fits you and your students. We highly encourage letting this be focused, but a bit silly. Grab some unexpected answers and run with it. Model risk-taking with students and ask for their feedback along the way.

6. Have students write their own: This step is optional. Decide on target vocabulary, big ideas, or standards for students to center their stories on. By writing and telling a digital story, students can hit a range of content and/or speaking and listening standards. The process also demonstrates their ability to transfer knowledge and communicate big ideas to their peers. A bonus is that you can build a story library by pulling from students’ amazing work and acting as editor-in-chief with the high-interest tales. We’ve also invited students to illustrate our stories and had older students help to review and refine new stories we created.

Here’s a sample template for this strategy from Gina’s sixth-grade science class.

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Filed Under

  • Student Engagement
  • English Language Learners
  • Technology Integration
  • Science
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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