pedagogical narratives

What is a Pedagogical Narrative?

You have heard of the pedagogical essay—also known as the opinion essay. The pedagogical essay discourse model aims to teach ESL students how to structure an argument, with an introduction and a conclusion and supporting arguments. But what is a pedagogical narrative? A pedagogical narrative is a highly structured story that includes context, characters, a series of dramatic events, and their consequences—creating obligatory meaningful contexts for target grammar, vocabulary, and pragmatics. It can teach students empathy, critical thinking, and the willingness to communicate in a second language. It gives grammar courses focus and coherence, and it makes grading more objective and fair—even with students in the wrong level.

Why teach pedagogical narratives?

For teachers who want to teach students the English verb system, pedagogical narratives make teaching and testing grammar much easier. Let’s compare pedagogical alternatives. Opinion essays elicit nouns and present tenses. Along with all forms of academic writing, essays are great for expressing what is and what should be. It is pointless to teach past tenses to students if your competency evaluation task is an essay. Past tense grammar lessons make academic writing course less focused and less coherent.

In contrast, the default tense for narratives is the past tense. Stories are great for expressing what happened. But narratives can also include a much wide range of grammar structures because of the presence of quoted speech. It is for this reason that narrative tasks are ideal for testing the grammar needed to describe what is, what was, what could be, what could have been, and what will be.

In other words, if you intend to teach a range of verb tenses, moods, and counterfactuals, you should try set essay writing aside and use pedagogical narratives. They create obligatory communicative contexts for target structures, making it easy for teachers to elicit and evaluate language taught during the semester.

Competency-based Communicative Language Teaching

Competency-based Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is learner-focused and meaning-focused. CLT involves creating real or imagined contexts for students to communicate with target grammar and vocabulary. Why? So that when students find themselves in similar contexts in the future, the taught grammar and vocabulary will be immediately retrievable from memory. Students will know what to say, with whom to say it, and what the likely effect on the interlocutor will be. Grammar structures will be stored in memory as meaningful units in meaningful contexts.


Form-focused grammar drills

In contrast, the grammar drills that many of our colleagues still use and still appear in ESL textbooks from the big publishing houses in Quebec are overtly form-focused and language-centered. Language-centered methods often involve teaching a list of grammar points (from simple to complex) through sentence transformations or gap fill exercises. For example, if you teach articles, adjectives, plurals, adjectives, present tenses, past tenses, modals, the future, and perfects in that order, ask yourself if your grammar curriculum depends upon drills or communication tasks.

Do you have students fill a blank with the correct verb conjugation? Do you use dehydrated slash sentences (for example, My brother/go/yesterday)? If so, you might be delaying your students’ language learning.

Grammar drills do more harm than good. Lightbown (1983) compared the communicative language accuracy of a group of students who were drilled extensively on sentences like “He‘s going home now” and students who were not drilled. The grammar-drill group had a pronounced tendency to produce incorrectly formed sentences like “He’s have 3 slices of pizza.” Those drilled students will have to unlearn the form their teacher drilled into them before they can learn the correct form.

In short, we need to get grammar drills out of Quebec classrooms and help the teachers who employ drills to reconsider their choice of exercises.

How can you recognize harmful grammar drills? Harmful grammar drills students ask students to change all of the present tense verbs in a list of sentences into a past tense or the passive voice. Ask yourself if students need to recognize the communicative context—or do they just have to find the verbs or fill the blanks. Is it the linguistic feature that is the focus—not the communication task—that matters? Can students hop from blank to blank, students ignoring the surrounding context of the sentence. Do they always know what form to use?

Sure, grammar drills can lead to high levels of accuracy on grammar tests. Taught grammar forms may indeed be well-practiced by students—even excessively practiced. But will students know how to use them in conversation? Is the grammar form used extensively in a communicative production activity? Does the production activity only come once? Is it only for practice? Competency-based education aims at skill development for the real world.

Drill-and-fill grammar structures will likely remain inert in the memory and irretrievable during authentic communicative interactions in the wild. The reason is that the taught grammar gets stored as structural information but not as contextualized meaningful units—the grammar gets parked in the wrong part of the brain.

Worse still, the grammar is usually taught without any guidance as to with whom you might use the structure, when you might need it, and what its effect could be on the interlocutor. “Should” is for giving advice, but is it polite to use with your boss? Discrete item decontextualized grammar practice and testing tends to ignore pragmatics. That has to be discovered by the student outside of the lesson—often at great cost to the ego.

In short, just-in-case grammar drills leave students unprepared for communication in the real world.

Obligatory communicative contexts

From time to time, grammar teachers happen upon drilled structures in their students’ essays. It’s lucky when it happens, but smart educational professionals make their own luck. Pedagogical narratives increase the chances that taught structures will appear. How? Obligatory communicative contexts!

Pedagogical narratives create obligatory contexts for target structures by specifying what communicative success looks like. Obligatory communicative contexts make learning visible. You can’t do the task successfully without using the structures taught in class.

Describe your character’s dream

Imagine a lesson on dreams. You teach your students that when we talk about the events in a dream, we say what happened and what didn’t happen in chronological order using the Simple Past, we use “when” and “while” to contrast the timing of events. When we share an interpretation of a dream we have had, we use the Simple Present and say, “I think it means…” After some presentation and focused grammar practice, you tell your students, “In the next section of your story, describe your character’s dream and your interpretation.”

Students who come to class write, “Last night, I had a dream. I dreamed that I was…” Students who skipped class and didn’t do the homework write, “My dream is to become a doctor.” We won’t ever know what the students in the GTM will do because the final writing exam is an opinion essay.

In the pedagogical narrative class, students who come to class know some Simple Past tense verbs, when to use the grammar (the obligatory context), and when to contrast it with the Past Progressive using “while.” They learned the forms and the communicative context together. Teachers can now evaluate students’ achievement instead of their existing proficiency.

Grading achievement becomes less about hoping students will use some of the grammar you taught just-in-case. You don’t have to penalize any and all errors. The error count and error density is irrelevant. You have a clear focus with pedagogical narratives: Students must use the grammar that you taught just-in-time to complete the communication task successfully.

How’s my teaching?

Pedagogical narratives also allow teachers to evaluate the quality of the lesson by its effect on the students’ writing and speaking. The pedagogical narrative task will elicit the targets from the students who have come to class. If they don’t appear at all, your lesson didn’t have the intended impact, and you can try to figure out what went wrong. If students use the target structures correctly some of the time in the production activity, now you have a clear focus for your corrective feedback. You can also reflect on the quality of your practice activities.

Why did I get this score?

Students who are used to getting good scores from their English teachers but rarely come to class will be disappointed. “My English is good. I usually get 80s and 90s in English. I know I have missed a few classes, but could you explain my grade?”

Pedagogical narratives make your grades easier to defend. You can use objective grading criteria. You no longer have to defend your grade based on your “experience”. You no longer have to make claims relative to other “students at this level.” You no longer have to talk about the subjective impact of errors on a hypothetical audience by saying, “In my experience, you made too many errors for a student at this level which will have a negative impact on your reader.” You simply have to point out this is what we learned, these were the targets, and they were missing or weren’t used correctly. You can simply explain, “We learned to use past tenses when we describe our character’s dream. You didn’t.”

Pedagogical narratives give courses greater focus, and they give grading greater objectivity.

Pedagogical narratives for beginner ESL courses

Beginners don’t need essay writing practice in their second language. They won’t write English opinion essays at work or on social media. Opinion essays won’t support their speaking skills, either. Frankly speaking, opinion essays are extinct in the wild.

Beginners often suffer from low-willingness to communicate and language anxiety. They are unlikely to invite contradiction by volunteering a firmly held opinion and support to strangers at a bus stop.

Beginners’ low proficiency means that they have trouble making friends in English and so they are unlikely to get much contact with the target population—unless, of course, their ESL teachers give them the tools to strike up and participate in high frequency and engaging conversations.

So what’s the highest frequency conversation that people have? It is not, “What’s your opinion?” Nope. It’s asking and answering the question, “What happened?” Students, that’s your invitation to tell a story—if you can.

company fictional character routine dream bad day pr layoff

For beginner students entering the workforce, there are other high-frequency questions that they will likely be asked. Where do you work? How long? Who do you work with? Who are you talking about? What does he/she look like? What do you do? What happened? What’s the matter? What’s your advice to your boss? Why did he do that? Any regrets?

By tasking beginners with workplace narrative writing, most students are able to answer with many sentences like these during their final oral exams.

I work at ABC Inc., and I have been working there for 2 years. I work with Shirley and John, and my boss, Mr. Trump. He’s the tall man with the comb-over and the small hands. He works in the gold office. I usually start my day by answering emails and by preparing customer invoices. I seldom come to work late. I almost always finish early. Last night, I had the most wonderful dream. I was floating through the air when a blond bird flew by with small wings shouting, “I won the election!” I said, “If I were you, I would watch out for that tree!” While I was saying those words, the blond bird hit the tree and fell. He definitely regretted that. If he had known the tree was there, he would have looked where he was going.

Do you think that essay writing and filling the blanks will prepare students to say these answers in response to those common questions? I don’t. Answering these questions without a lot of practice in context involves too much processing power and too many different structures to remember all at once unless they were learned together as part of a meaningful message tied to a cohesive meaningful context.

Why use pedagogical narratives with intermediates?

Pedagogical narratives teach empathy and advanced grammar. In a course on critical thinking and language learning, pedagogical narrative writing projects allow teachers to ask students to imagine moral dilemmas from the perspective of someone in that situation. They promote careful reflection, empathy, openness, and respect. For example, I have asked high intermediate students in the past to create a pedagogical narratives that answers the question, “Are we doomed to repeat the mistake of the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island?”


In groups, I asked students to research the history of Easter Island, its competitive and fanatical religion, and the total collapse of its civilization. Then, they worked together to tell the story in the first-person about of a cast of characters on Easter Island. Each student told the story in the first-person from the perspective of one of the characters. (Since collaborative narrative writing projects are socially constructed, plagiarism was impossible.) The story climaxed with each character petitioning the king to save the last tree or to cut it down for some practical but selfish purpose. By the end of the project, they were well-prepared to answer the question, “Are we doomed?”

In terms of language learning, the students learned a lot. They not only learned many new vocabulary items and how to conjugate advanced verb structures, but they also learned how the vocabulary and verbs are used in an imagined social context.

My vocabulary and grammar lessons involved just-in-time instruction on—among other things—how to express passive-conditional structures using both “if” and inversion. I asked them to have their characters speculate about the consequences of cutting down the tree. Take for example these choices, “If the tree was cut down…” or “If it were cut down…” or “Were it cut down…” Students learned these three structures in addition to how the choice of was/were or inversion can convey formality, sophistication, or class membership. After practicing the structures, they applied what they learned in the context of the stories they were writing, selecting the form that matched the status of the character and the formality of the situation.

During the final exam when I asked them to summarize their stories for me, I was able to evaluate their mastery of the structure by simply reading their summarized stories and by checking if the structure appeared. If it was there, they got a point. If it was used correctly, they got another point. Grammar avoidance earned a zero. Obligatory contexts elicit target structures, making evaluation more objective.

Now students know one structure in English for speculating about counterfactuals. If they are ever in a situation requiring conjecture, they will probably remember it and be able to use it.


Stories are like flight simulators. They allow us to imaginatively visit dramatic situations and think through the causes and effects of events in time. They are also ideal for teaching students pragmatic target structures linked to language functions within predictable communicative contexts. Narratives certainly make grammar testing easier. We need simply tell students what communicative functions they should include in their stories to create the obligatory contexts for the grammar to emerge. Grading a narrative becomes the objectively verifiable application of a checklist. Even a machine can grade it.