Good Advice: NPR’s Fascinating StoryCorps for Practicing Listening Skills

StoryCorps is a project that presents stories of different people in the United States. Many of the stories are fantastic for ESL because they feature authentic English and frequently come with transcripts. The language can be a little difficult for learners with Intermediate-level skills, so it is important to play the story audio two or more times.

Often, the stories work well with themes used to teach ESL, such as goal setting (at the beginning of the semester) or love (Valentine’s Day). But be careful: choose the interesting and upbeat stories. Some stories, however, are very sad, and may not be appropriate in a classroom for learners who have experienced trauma.

Now to provide a concrete illustration of how to use StoryCorps: say you are teaching students about how to set goals. You might use different materials and introduce different kinds of vocabulary or goal-setting methods. Then, to liven things up, you can introduce a narrative told by Clayton Sherrod, a man who set goals and as a result, succeeded. This exercise gives learners a concrete experience to consider as you move them towards setting goals of their own. Plus there are plenty of  things to discuss after they understand what Mr. Sherrod says.

Instructions for ESL Students

  1. Open this document: Story Corps Clayton Sherrod goal setting
  2. Then listen to this story, told by Clayton Sherrod:

Afterwards, the teacher can lead a discussion about the narrative. Discuss Mr. Sherrod’s life and times (racism, poverty); his tactics (the fake resume he made for his boss); and importantly, the specificity of his goals and how he tracked his success.

Instructions for Teachers in Training

Teachers can further investigate the language by analyzing or manipulating the text in the narrative. Below are some ideas.

  1. Check the Readability Score. Let’s examine the text used in this narrative. Using the document, copy and paste the text into Readability Score. Enter the text, then click the “Measure Readability” button. Look at the righthand sidebar, and see what the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score is. If the score is above 80, then you can consider it to be fairly general and easy to read.
  2. Make a Cloze Test. Make a copy of the written text and save it as “Cloze Test.” Then replace every 12th word (or 10th, or 8th, or 6th) with a blank line (_____________). Then go back through and read the text with the missing words. Can you guess what the missing words are? Try giving this to your students before they listen to the audio. Give them some time to read through the text and attempt to fill in the blanks. Then play the audio and let them check their answers.  (Hint: to make this task easier, provide a Word Bank of the deleted words).
  3. Take Inventory of the Grammar and Vocabulary. Read the text again. This time look for different grammatical structures or vocabulary that might be useful to highlight for students. For example, (1) Mr. Sherrod uses many FANBOYS to connect his thoughts and add coherence. This is a common strategy in story telling and in speaking. These connectors are a great way to transition from strings of sentences to paragraph-level speech. Your students can try speaking like this. In addition, (2) Mr. Sherrod uses many past tense forms, and several of them are irregulars. Finally, (3) Mr. Sherrod uses different types of imagery that convey meaning, like “big white hat.” Point out examples of these and make sure your students understand what he is saying.

© 2016 H. Stewart Carpenter

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