10 Interactive storytelling activities


I recently watched a webinar over at the Training Magazine Network by the celebrated learning game guru, Thiagi and his associate Tracy Tagliati on interactive storytelling in which they offered techniques for transforming the conventional approach of the facilitator narrating a story and participants listening passively to one where the facilitator sets up activities within which Ss “actively create, share, analyse, debrief, modify and roleplay stories.  Many of these ideas will be familiar to those of us in ELT but nevertheless it’s potentially useful to see them all consolidated in one place.

1. Co-constructed stories 

Ask Ss to pair up and stand facing each other. Each S contributes a few words that go towards building a c0-constructed story. Ss take turns to extend the story. Turn-taking could happen sequentially or randomly. The story could be written instead of spoken and Ss could pass a piece of paper back and forth. Ss could also be challenged to create the longest sentence through the shared story. Thiagi and Tracy derived some interesting learning from this activity. It could be used to draw Ss’ attention on how both people in each pair completely focused on each other and worked towards a common goal so they didn’t multitask or engage in one upmanship and how this may have helped achieved a better outcome. They also pointed out that the activity could be used to debrief more substantive content. For example, you teach your Ss the seven principles of customer satisfaction and then conduct the activity asking them to incorporate the seven principles into their co-constructed story.

2. Shared stories 

Apparently this activity is also called story exchange and based on an idea borrowed from Appreciative Inquiry. Ask Ss to take a couple of minutes to write the outline of a story they want to share. Now ask them to stand and pair off with someone from another part of the room. Ss should listen enthusiastically to their partner’s story and then narrate their own. Ss then find new partners and repeat the procedure. After exchanging stories with half a dozen other Ss, form groups and ask Ss in their groups to find common elements in storytelling from all the people they heard for example what made it a positive experience.

3. Unfinished story 

Ss listen to 80% of a story told by the facilitator (or another S) and then complete the story by themselves. Upon coming up with a version for completing the story, they could work in groups and come up with more alternate endings. This activity could be used to explore assumptions, stereotypes and perceptions and could also be used to challenge Ss to be creative. In fact, one of my favourite activities in the same vein also comes from Thiagi. It’s called The Sentry . You give Ss copies of this science fiction short story without the last line and ask them to try and complete it. After they share their responses, have them read the original line for a powerful ‘aha’ moment.

4. Zoom stories 

In this technique, borrowed from improv, pair off Ss. One S narrates a story while her partner, from time to time, says ‘zoom in’ or ‘zoom out’. Zoom in means the storyteller should add more details and zoom out means that she should reduce the level of detail. I really liked this activity – I see a lot of potential for application in the business classroom where professionals are often required to gauge audience and context, and adjust their level of detail in order to ensure that they convey their message effectively in meetings and presentations.

5. Roleplayed stories 

T starts recounting a narrative and stops when she gets to a critical juncture. At this point, she asks Ss to assume the roles of different characters. Ss roleplay the scenario until T stops them and introduces a new twist and then repeats the roleplay bit. Their example was that there’s been some sort of nuclear holocaust and the earth is completely irradiated. The Ss seem to be the only survivors, having found refuge in a bomb shelter. Ask them to create a plan for restarting civilization in three month’s time when the radiation clears and they’ll be able to go out into the world. Now have them role play characters in this narrative. Then introduce a twist; one of your friends is just outside the door. She’s used the intercom to tell you that she’s in a bad state and needs medical help. If you open the door to let her in, there’s a possibility that the shelter may get contaminated by radiation. Debate the issue and obtain a two-thirds majority to open the door and save her life. Ss roleplay the scenario again.

6. Analysed stories 

This is essentially the case study approach. T reads out a fairly short scenario or provides copies to Ss to read. Ss individually analyse the story before analysing it collectively in a small group and then analysing it in a larger group or as a class. Tracy had an interesting cross-cultural example for this technique. She talked about an American trainer who is sent on a secondment to an organization in South India where she trains the local trainers on interactive learning techniques which they lap up enthusiastically. Later, in a meeting, the director of the company tells the training team that trainers should be respected and that humility is most important on the part of those who attend training programs. The American trainer interrupts, openly challenging the director’s views suggesting that recent research in cognitive science demonstrates that questioning the trainer is a sign of deeper engagement with the knowledge being taught. The director however ignores her and the training team vocally support his position. When the American trainer confronts her team about what happened, they agree with her views. Some time later, her company abruptly recalls her to the US. This incident could fuel an interesting discussion about differences in cultural orientations.

7. Shrunken stories

These are really concise stories which are either read out by the T or read by the Ss individually. They can be of several types such as short-short stories, 99 word stories (Brian Remer who I’ve been subscribing to for yonks is particularly famous for these), six word stories (like Hemingway’s famous “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”), hint stories and espresso stories. Provide examples and ask Ss to write their own using the same structure and have them share it in groups.

8. Debriefed stories 

The shrunken story is immediately followed by a discussion where Ss reflect on the story and discuss their perspectives with peers.

9. Summarized stories 

Recall a famous novel or plot and condense it into a one minute summary. Alternatively, read a case study, research report or business proposal and narrate it in one minute or less. This could be really useful for business students.

10. Prompted stories 

Specify a theme or topic and provide a prompt such as pictures, comics, titles, first lines and opening paragraphs and ask Ss to incorporate it into a story that addresses the theme.

You can access the recording and associated handouts from here. However, you’ll need to sign up for Training Magazine Network. Kudos to T&T for sharing these great ideas and encouraging people to “creatively plagiarize” these activities.


Sometimes what you say doesn’t really matter | A dialogue activity

I’ve been attending a lot of drama-related workshops recently. A couple of weeks ago, I attended the second installment of Writing through Movement – this time with Yuki Ellias and popular playwright, Mahesh Dattani.  As usual, one activity stood out for me for its ability to engage learners and deliver a powerful aha moment.


Materials: Photocopies of whichever dialogue you choose to use.


1. Divide Ss into pairs. Distribute the dialogue and ask Ss to commit it to memory (they should learn the lines for both A & B).

2. Give each pair 5 minutes to discuss and create a setting in which they can enact the dialogue. There are some rules they need to follow:

  • They can’t introduce any additional words or lines.
  • They can’t provide any context before performing.
  • They can’t use any physical objects; they must mime any props they require.
  • They can’t involve anyone else in the performance.

3. Have each pair perform their dialogue in front of the rest of the Ss.

4. Debrief by asking Ss about what they observed and what brought the dialogue to life.

Although each pair will say the same words, the result will be very different. By using the voice, body language and action, some pairs will completely transform the dialogue into something enigmatic, hilarious or magnificent . In the workshop I attended, one pair set dialogue 1 in a prison with an inmate on death row – really moving stuff; another had an at home scene with a constipated husband on the commode.  The best performances will be those where Ss interact effectively with each other and their imaginary setting and the objects it contains.

The activity is meant to teach writers how dialogue, which they may pour their souls into, may not be as important as the setting, characters and objects that surround it. However, I reckon the activity holds an important lesson for teachers. Our approach to language with its focus on form and lexicon puts Ss at a disadvantage when it comes to “performing” in real life – situations where your non-verbal skills and proxemics may be far more important in helping you stand apart.  Sometimes, what you say doesn’t really matter. 


  • With advanced Ss, while they are performing, impose new constraints or settings on them e.g., you’re the same husband and wife going about your morning routine but now you’re in a leaky little boat in the middle of the Pacific.
  • Insist that Ss deliver their lines as they perform the actions instead of separating the two which is what most non-actors will do.
  • While Ss are performing, have them suddenly swap roles so A becomes B and B becomes A.


Dialogue 1

A: Two eggs

B: Yes

A: Brown bread toast

B: Yes

A: Two slices

B: Yes

A: Orange juice

B: Yes

A: Freshly squeezed

B: Yes

A Masala chai

B: Yes

A: Without sugar

B: No

Dialogue 2

A: It’s over

B: No

A: Finished

B: No

A: Khatam*

B: No

A: Tomorrow

B: Yes

*Khatam in Hindi means ‘finished’

Improv & ensemble storytelling activities

Last month, I attended a day long improv and ensemble storytelling workshop.  The goal of the program was ostensibly teamwork but there was lots of potential for application in the ELT classroom. Improv has the ability to help participants become less inhibited, test the boundaries of their comfort zones, create better connections with others, listen more actively and become more conscious about actions and speech. Ensemble storytelling helps participants build  stories collectively and create discussion-provoking tableaus. These are useful outcomes for any language classroom.

I’m going to describe the activities as I remember them. I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with ways of using them in your classroom. Most of these activities should be done without footwear to ensure that no one gets stomped on.

1. Foot 2 foot obstacle course 

Pair Ss and ask them to sit facing each other in two circles. So you have an inner circle and an outer circle. Ss in the inner circle sit facing their partner in the outer circle. Now, ask them to put their legs out such that their soles are touching their partners’ so they create a diamond shape between their legs. You’ll now have a foot to foot obstacle course. Give each pair a number. When a number is called out, the pair get up and start running through the obstacle course, ensuring that they are not stomping on anyone and only placing their feet in the space created between people’s legs.

  • Outcomes: Energize Ss and break the ice.

2. The “you” pattern game 

This one’s going to sound a little complicated but it was perhaps the most enjoyable activity of the day.  You shouldn’t have more than 12 people playing this game and if you fewer than 6, it might not be all that challenging.  If you have a large group, you can divide them into smaller circles – we had three circles of 11 or 12 people.

  • The basic pattern: In your circle, ask everyone to raise their hand and point their index fingers at the ceiling. T starts the game by lowering his/her hand and pointing to someone in the circle while saying “you”.  This person then points to someone else while saying “you”.  Play continues until everyone gets to lower their hand and say “you” to someone – no repeats allowed – the last person points to the T and passes the “you” back to him/her. Ask the Ss if they remember who they received the “you” from and who they passed it to because they are going to stick with these people. Play two more rounds so Ss become comfortable and encourage them to go faster.
  • The second pattern: Tell the Ss that they are now going to practice a different pattern. Point to someone (different than the first round) and say your favourite breakfast food/dish. Repeat procedure until everyone’s pointed to someone and said a favourite breakfast item (no repetition of people being pointed at or food). Start the “you” pattern and about 30 seconds in, begin the breakfast pattern so you have two patterns going at the same time. Ss will generally drop one. Encourage them to concentrate and keep the momentum with both.
  • The third pattern: Now introduce a third pattern – favourite animal or superhero. If Ss master this quickly, move on to the finale.
  • Finale: Tell the Ss they’ve had it easy till now because all they had to do was memorize where the “word” came from and where it was going so it didn’t really involve genuine concentration. In this round, when someone points to them and says “you” or a “breakfast item”, you need to swap places with them. Begin again with the “you” pattern and gradually introduce the second pattern before bringing in the third. At first, it will be completely chaotic but after some time, most Ss will be able to get into the kind of “flow” described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name. At that point, it might look like they are performing a contemporary dance.
  • Outcomes: Energy, focus, teamwork, concentration, flow, momentum, intonation, supporting each other, being fully engaged.

3. Yes and … 

Have all the Ss sit down and ask 3 or 4 to come and stand where everyone can see them. These Ss stand in a line facing the audience. The audience needs to give them a product to sell and those in the “yes and …” line say things that describe or promote the product. However, they cannot confer with each other and each person says their lines spontaneously. Here’s how it plays out:

  • The audience asks those in the “yes and …” line to sell a toothbrush.
  • All four Ss step up and pump the air with the fists while saying “Yes and” and then step back.
  • One of the Ss steps forward and says “Yes and … this is a magical toothbrush that grants you a wish every fortnight.”  While this Ss steps back, everyone in the line says “Yes and …” and another Ss steps forward and adds his/her line.
  • Ss will try to choreograph each other by conferring, guiding, forcing others to say something etc. Don’t let them to do this. Some of them will also contradict each other by saying “No and …”. Stop the activity, tell the Ss that the reaction should always be positive “Yes and …” and ask them to do it over.
  • Outcomes: Building on each other’s ideas, spontaneity, creativity, fluency, allowing autonomy of action, not stage-managing other people’s words or actions, not seeing the way in your head as the only  right way, going with the flow and lots of other things.

4. Affinity … to me 

You need a slightly larger space for this activity. It would work well outdoors. Demonstrate by calling out something you like a lot, for example, “dogs”. Everyone who likes dogs runs to you and forms a tight huddle and those who don’t like dogs need to get as far away as possible. The game is spontaneous. Anyone can call something out and if you have an affinity for that thing – you run over to them and if not, you run away.

  • Outcome: Getting to know each other, energy, taking initiative.

5. My enemy 

Ask everyone to silently and subtly choose someone in the room. They must not let this person know (in any way) that they have been chosen. This person is their enemy.  Ask them to now choose another person. This person is their guardian. At all points of time, they must keep their guardian between themselves and their enemy.  Play for a few minutes before asking Ss to switch perspectives – their enemy is now their guardian and vice versa.

  • Outcome: Dealing with change, thinking about how we view people

6.  Samurai

Ask Ss to hold their right (or left) hand out vertically so it’s folded up at their elbow. They need to form a fist but put their little finger out. Tell them that they are samurai warriors and this is their katana, their traditional sword. At all points of time, their hand must be held up and out as if it were a sword with their pinkie sticking out.  The objective of the game is to kill others in the room by using your sword. Samurais can only die if some part of their torso is touched by another warrior’s pinkie finger. Ss can only defend and block using their sword. Start the game by asking everyone to raise their swords and striking the floor while making the noise of steel against ground. Then, stand back and watch the battle. Those who are killed should fall to the floor and play dead.

  • Outcome: Getting into character, strategy, playing by the rules

7. Letter by letter

Divide the Ss into groups of three or four. Write seven letters on the whiteboard, avoid tougher ones like X, Y & Z. Call out a letter by crossing it out and announcing a time limit of one or two minutes depending on the level of the Ss. Ss need to write out a story within the time limit but there are some rules. Each group member can only contribute one word at a time and they must write this word on their piece of paper. Ss shouldn’t influence each other or compel their group members to write something they don’t want to. Each word that is contributed must begin with the letter called out for that round. For examples, all the words in the story begin with “t”, including function words. When the timer runs out, call out the next letter and so on. Finally, have groups pick a person to read out their story using their voice and eye contact to bring it to life.

  • Outcome: Building on each other ideas, collaboration, avoiding helpful sentence completion, letting others think for themselves, encouraging team members while letting them be themselves, creative writing, working under constraints, making the most of the voice.

8. Freeze frame

Divide the Ss into larger groups of between 5 and 7 people per group. Ask them to sit together and share experiences that were life-changing or life-affirming in some way.  They then need to construct seven tableaus that narrate the story. These are frames where there is no movement and no dialogue.  Give Ss ten minutes to design and practice their frames. Each frame must include everyone from the group. Point out that each person doesn’t need to be a character – they could also be objects or a part of the setting.

When everyone’s ready, get Ss to sit down on one side of the room. Get the first group to come up and ask Ss to put their heads down so they can no longer see the are the performance is taking place. The group quietly gets into position for their first frame. Say “freeze frame” and have everyone look at the frame. Then says “heads down” and the group gets into the next frame and so on.  At the end of the seven frames, ask observing groups to reconstruct the story, reflect on what they liked about the frames and which details they found most enjoyable or memorable.

  • Outcome: Teamwork, collaboration, being resourceful, using everyone in the group, storytelling, visualization, coordination.

9. My story for the future

In the workshop, the facilitators asked us to pretend that human civilization will have to undergo some world-changing tribulations in the near future. As a result of this, we will lose most of our repositories of knowledge, culture and stories. Ask Ss to think of a story that has significance for them and bequeath this to the people of the future by preserving it in an abstract sculpture we will launch into space. The facilitators got us to write (most people wrote names of books or movies) our story titles on thin pieces of wood which had grooves so they fit into each other. When we were done, they invited us to construct the sculpture so it became a piece of installation art.

I think the activity would have been more powerful if Ss had written their own stories on the piece of wood. It could be a story inspired by an existing narrative or one that is somehow significant to them – but something that people from our future would find moving, funny or interesting and would become a treasured addition to a culture that is bereft of stories. Instead of wooden squares, you could create the same effect with cardboard from old boxes. I tried, it works as long as the cardboard is a little thick – saw 4 grooves into it where it could be connected to other squares.


I hope you have as much fun facilitating these activities as I did participating in them!