Lessons · Reflection

Videotelling: Narrative Tenses with ‘A Thousand Words’

I’ve been trying more actively to incorporate elements of storytelling of late, and found a nice opportunity for a mini-videotelling this week which I wanted to share, along with the revisions I’d make.

Videotelling, a term coined by Jamie Keddie, describes a kind of storytelling for the youtube age, exploiting the narrative of an engaging videoclip through interacting with the class, leaving the showing of the video itself till the end, the big reveal. I’ve managed to catch a couple of Keddie’s workshops but the full explanation is here on his website or you can watch his seminar for the British Council. With a bit of practice it’s a seamless and engaging way to contextualise language for and with students, making the passive event of viewing film active, and lots of fun as well.

In this case the videotelling acted as a kind of interactive live listening, incorporating narrative tenses. I don’t know how busy teachers find the time in their day to source decent clips but luckily I don’t have to, there are so many nice resources around 🙂 (see below post for some suggestions). Flicking through Kieran Donaghy’s book ‘Film in Action’ the other day I’d come across the lovely short film A Thousand Words by Ted Chung which really lent itself to this theme – it’s one of those holy grail film clips thats short (under 5mins), has no dialogue, and tells an intriguing story. I also took some inspiration from this post by ELTLaura.

Procedure (Check out the video first)

After intro-ing the theme of storytelling I told the first half of the story as if it were my own, changing a few details (the cute girl sitting opposite me became a guy, and it was something that happened to me on a train in Barcelona, a few months back). I’d typed out the first half in advance which was useful as my rough script.

“This all happened a few months ago when I was living in Barcelona, before I moved to Vietnam. I was sitting on the train on the way home from work when I noticed a cute guy opposite me. He was sitting there with a box full of stuff, playing with his camera, looking at the photos. Suddenly our eyes met and he noticed I was looking at him. We just sort of smiled at each other then awkwardly looked away. We arrived at the station and he got off with his box. As the doors closed I realised that he’d left something on the seat, his camera. I picked it up but it was too late, we’d already left the station. I didn’t know what to do with it so I took it home. When I got in, out of curiosity, I took a look at the photos. The first few pictures were of him and some work colleagues at a party, and a big cake with a goodbye message on it for “Alejandro”. I guess he must have quit his job, and that’s why he’d been carrying the box of stuff. The next photo really surprised me! He’d been taking photos of me, on the train!…”

I marked appropriate junctures at which to ask the class questions to advance the story by predicting what happened next, although it happened quite naturally in the end. My questions incorporated a range of narrative tenses, and I skipped back at points to elicit the key details, reinforcing structures in the process.

Me: “What had he left on the train? “

Students: “He’d left his camera”

Me: “What was he carrying?” etc

Just as I’d finished, two students happened to turn up late which gave my two small groups the perfect opportunity to retell the story so far (I noted errors in tense/aspect). The story telling went down really well and everyone seemed pretty hooked as they were dying to know what happened next.

I then gave out my script and had students notice use of tense and aspect:

  • past simple
  • past continuous
  • past perfect simple
  • past perfect continuous

They also noticed the modal for speculation which helped the story along. Students noted down examples, attaching them to a timeline, and discussed reasons for my choice of tense/aspect.

I’ve found at this point in classes on narrative tense, despite understanding the mechanics of the forms (particularly past perfect constructions) students sometimes don’t seem to grasp their use as devices in storytelling as they fail to produce them in later stages, despite preparation time and having seemingly quite clear opportunities to do so. I think this is in part due to the cognitive challenge of telling the story itself combined with the relative complexity of the structures, and also the way the mind naturally orders events chronologically. It can also have to do with storytelling conventions in L1. The past perfect as a storytelling device not only works to add suspense, intrigue, reorder events etc but specifically reveals the order in which we discover or realise things from a personal perspective and therefore the impact the events have on us as the teller. On this occasion the storytelling being so interactive really helped, demonstrating and reinforcing that this sequencing of events was necessary for telling the story from MY perspective, i.e. ordered in terms of successive realisations.  We also had a look at how phrases joined together with linking words while, as, but etc. and boarded the adverbs used (e.g. awkwardly, suddenly) plus others useful for storytelling.

I then asked them to predict what happened next, before confessing it wasn’t really my story. At this point I played the real video.* I then asked students to make a list of the main events in note form. In groups they then completed the story from the perspective of the character, on large paper, before swapping with another group to compare and peer edit if appropriate. My justification for asking students to write rather than tell the narrative is that writing slows down production, allowing students time to consider how to order the events and focus on the form accurately. All four pairs incorporated a range of narrative tense/aspect very naturally .

To reintroduce the oral storytelling element as at the outset of the lesson, I encouraged students to individually consider the whole story and change as many details as they liked to create their own version, giving them a couple of minutes to prepare. This worked really nicely in providing a clear frame (I noticed lots of natural accurate production of narrative tense, more than in past lessons) as they were familiar enough with the narrative arc now to improvise without sacrificing accuracy. They came up with some really amusing versions, some actually based on real experiences.

Thoughts on Video-telling & Adaptations

I was really pleased with the lesson as a whole, but feel like I copped out a little bit with the video-telling, in that I still let the students view the video a little too soon (exactly what Jamie Keddie says he is trying to avoid). I’ve been thinking about ways I could have prolonged the experience further without sacrificing my lesson aims and the most obvious change I could make would be simply  to continue to “video tell” the remainder of the story as my own rather than play it here *. Students could then notice the differences between my version and the video version as a natural while-viewing task, which would lead in to making their own changes for the final speaking task. Another main change i’d probably make is to ask the students to write the first part of my story BEFORE handing out the script to compare, as a form of dictogloss, and omit the writing of the second half of the story, retelling it orally.

I’d love to hear of other people’s experiments, both with storytelling and videotelling. Any other suggestions for changes? Incidentally, I’m also on the look out for a storytelling course to attend, if anyone has any recommendations…

Below is a brief list of resources I’ve found useful to mine for short films.



7 thoughts on “Videotelling: Narrative Tenses with ‘A Thousand Words’

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