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Concourse 2

Relating experiences


Why is the skill important?

The ability to relate a story, tell an anecdote or explain what has happened in life is useful for a number of purposes.
Think of three reasons why someone might want to relate an experience and then click here.

Which of the following introductions is an example of these three purposes?
Click here when you have an answer.

Story 1
It may be true that it's hard being a student these days but I remember when I was at college we would often ...
Story 2
I know, sorry.  I've actually had a rather difficult time getting here.  I got to the station as usual and ...
Story 3
That reminds me of the time I was travelling around India.  We fetched up in a little village in Andhra Pradesh and ...


Staging the information

There are two possible structures for telling a story.  They are closely allied but different in one important respect.  Here they are.  What's the difference between them?

Recount   Narrative
Orientation who? where? when? Orientation who? where? when?
Record of events usually in chronological order Complication crisis or problem with evaluation
Reorientation summarising Resolution how was the problem resolved?
Coda personal comment Coda personal comment

In a recount, we are simply setting out what happened.  In a narrative, we are following more closely the structure of fiction which normally involves some kind of crisis or problem and sets out its resolution.  The latter is frequently the structure of anecdote; the former of justification, explanation and illustration of a point.

Let's be clear: There is no point at all in teaching the language and structures we typically use in relating stories unless your learners know how to structure the tale.  Their first languages may well do it differently.

Raising structural awareness

There are a number of ways to do this but one effective solution is to take a genre approach to speaking / writing and analyse an example before asking learners to construct a text.  Here's a way.

Match the stages to the text by drawing arrows between them.  Click on the story when you have an answer.

narrative 1

The language we use

The focus on language in this area is often confined to the use of what are referred to (somewhat loosely) as narrative tenses.  That is less than half the story but an important part of it.


There are separate guides to tense forms on this site that you may like to look at.

the dramatic present

Usually narratives and recounts are set in the past with past-tense forms being used.  However, especially in spoken English, the dramatic present can be used to add punch and immediacy.  For example, the speaker here could have said

This is quite easy to handle and may be appropriate, especially at lower levels, because it allows learners to use familiar tense forms naturally.

perfect aspects

Despite its usefulness, the past perfect is not commonly used except for causally related events.  However, some skilful speakers might choose to orientate the listener retrospectively with something like

Notice that in this story the causal relationship is pointed out with

In stories intended to justify or excuse a present action or state, the present perfect is common to set the scene.  It is also routinely used to set the scene in news reports (both written and spoken) and is followed by a normal recount in the past.  It is not appropriate for our example story here, but we often get sentences like

future in the past

At the complication stage of a narrative, when saying what the problem was, the future in the past is common so we could get

Note the use of speculative third conditional forms.  It's reasonably common in anecdotes.

past tenses

Most events are related in past simple because that is what they are: finished past events.  The finite is common, therefore.  In the example above, almost all the verbs are in the past simple.
For background, we may use the progressive aspect of the tense and could get, for example

In this story, we do have

The second of these refers to progressive actions, the first to a continuous event.

what goes where?

It is important to distinguish which tense forms are likely to occur at which stage of the story.  This means that you can devote teaching time to each stage and really focus.

  1. Orientation:
    present perfect – I've had a terrible time this morning ..., Customs officers have discovered ...
    past progressive – I was sitting on the train this morning when ..., We were travelling through France last year and ...
    past simple (event) – This happened when I was in Germany., She took the train this morning but ...
    past simple (state) – I was on holiday in Russia when ..., We were at university together and ...
  2. Situations and events:
    past simple – A friend got on the bus.  Someone called to me.
    past perfect (causal) – I recognised him because ..., I was frightened because the man had taken my passport.
  3. Complications and problems:
    future in the past – I knew there would be a problem because my visa was invalid.  I thought the policeman would arrest me.
    past simple (events) – He stole my money.  I lost my wallet.
  4. Coda:
    Past simple (states) – I felt ..., I thought ...

verb types

There is a separate guide to verbal processes on this site which will explain further.  Briefly, because texts of this sort are used to describe what happened, what people did and what they said about it, we need to deploy and understand:

  1. MATERIAL processes (the ferry docked, the policeman pulled me out of the line etc.)  Events and states.
  2. BEHAVIOURAL processes (I was upset, she was waiting etc.)  How participants felt.
  3. VERBAL processes (the police officer said etc.)  Who said what to whom.

For the coda at the end, the personal comment on the story, we also need to use a MENTAL process verb such as I thought, I felt etc.


There is also a separate guide to circumstances on this site.  The important ones for our purposes here are:

Circumstance Examples from the text
EXTENT for what seemed like a very long time
in the end
LOCATION to the front of the queue
in the 70s
CAUSE to make myself respectable
as my girlfriend had already passed through
ACCOMPANIMENT with my girlfriend
in the queue

Learners need to be able to handle these before they can relate effectively.

teaching skill

Teaching the skill

Here's a summary.

narrative teaching

The ordering of events may depend on you, your class and their needs.  However, make sure that at least the learners know how a typical text is staged and structured (steps 1 to 3) before you go on to the rest or the outcomes will be disappointing (for everyone).
At lower levels in particular, you need to break the story down into its stages and teach the language that is required for that stage only.  You should not expect learners to produce the whole story from scratch in one lesson (or even one day).

Butt, D, Fahey, R, Feez, S, Spinks, S and Yallop, C, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide. Sydney: NCELTR
Halliday, M, 1994, An introduction to functional grammar: 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold