Teaching digital Storytelling to English Language Learners 1

The Power of Digital Storytelling for English Language Learners

Here’s my tips, strategies, and resources for teaching digital storytelling to lower level English Language Learners.

As a teacher of English Language Learners, digital storytelling for a real audience – has inspired my students to improve their literacy skills. It has also lead to substantive changes in their levels of self-confidence.  

Over and over again I have seen the power of digital storytelling. In this post I’ll detail what’s worked and what hasn’t in my classroom. I’ll also share useful teaching approaches, tools and resources.

Here I’ll focus on students with lower literacy levels, who lack confidence in their speaking and self-presentation skills.

Previously, I’ve written about teaching digital storytelling at a higher level. Click the image below to read that post. 

Teaching digital storytelling to English Language Learners

Photo: Greg Curran 2016

Learning Can Be Frustrating but That Offers Opportunities For Us

Students may feel upset and frustrated when they first see and hear themselves on camera. Using digital tools like cameras and voice-recorders can be quite exposing.

Maybe they haven’t seen or heard themselves on camera before.

Maybe they’re not where they want to be – in terms of their literacy and self-presentation skills. And there it is on camera able to played over and over again.

My students in the early days often say things like: I’m terrible. I’m no good. I’ll never get better.

Here’s where there’s tremendous opportunities for shifts in thinking and attitude. 

I get my students to keep a portfolio of their work over time – for themselves. It’s a portfolio that we refer back to on a regular basis to identify the shifts in development.

I find Google Drive especially useful for this purpose. I teach students to create folders, to upload their work to that folder, and to share that folder with me. 

Also we regularly review (as a class community) what we create in our digital storytelling. The crucial point here is: We review to identify our strengths and also to improve our skills.  

For example with lower level students, I may focus on:

  • Clarity – Can we understand what you’re saying?
  • Interest – Is my voice interesting?
  • Self-Presentation – Am I showing my personality? Do I look and sound confident?

Any feedback we receive, we put into practice in our next video or voice-work. That is, students are expected to show how they’ve worked to improve that aspect (they’ve received feedback on).

Students also continue to develop any strengths we’ve identified.

Through this process, students come to see the greatest potential for learning comes from:

  • making mistakes and working to fix them; 
  • identifying specific literacy challenges (like our pronunciation of specific words), or self-presentation challenges (like any nervous habits) and working on such, and;
  • knowing what we’re doing right and continuing to do such.  

Never Lose the Joy

Yes learning new digital storytelling skills and techniques can be challenging. And sometimes you want to give up. BUT it’s also a lot of fun.

  • Those moments when students see or hear themselves on film, and are laughing out loud.

Making mistakes and slipping up can be funny plus a great learning opportunity – in a supportive, respectful class. Don’t lose sight of the fun. It keeps students committed, interested and engaged. Plus it makes for a magic classroom environment.

  • Those moments when you see students laughing because they’ve copied a camera move you tried. 
    • I made a video recount of ‘My Most Relaxing Day’. I filmed my feet walking in the park. Only to see many of my students laughing at the videos they made which featured this same shot. MAGIC. 
      • This situation highlights the value of modelling.
      • At times in their videos there’ll be quirky shots or perspectives. Get students to look for quirkiness in videos and to try them out.
      • Also expose them to other creative, outside the box digital storytellers.

Get to Know the Tech

What do they say about the best laid plans? 

I’ve come to realise that you can’t have all the tech worked out beforehand.  And that can be particularly frustrating and annoying as a person who likes to be well organised.

Here’s some key teaching strategies I’ve learnt in this area:

Check what digital tools your students have access to. This includes the make and model of devices. That way, you can identify useful apps for each type of phone.

  • For example, apps for Apple Phones or apps for Android Phones (Samsung, Windows, Nokia etc)

If you work in computer labs, check what tools are already loaded onto the computers. If there are headsets, check that they actually work. 

  • To make it easier, I train students to assist me in the process of computer software and hardware checks.
  • If you have IT support, they may be able to assist you,  or can explain how to check software/hardware.

Tap into student knowledge. Even with students in my lower level classes, they will often find video-making apps that can be useful.

  • An example, a student was finding Windows Movie-maker especially challenging. She came to class the next day having made her video with a free app she discovered. ‘It’s easy Greg,’ she said. 

I’ll provide a list of useful tech tools at the bottom of this post.

Teaching digital storytelling to English Language Learners

Photo: Greg Curran 2016

Focus on Quality and Audience

Earlier I mentioned about students finding apps online and preferring to use these. Sometimes that works okay. Sometimes though the video quality suffers.  For example:

  • Some free video making apps do not allow the muting of background noise if you’re also recording a voice track. So if a student records outside with wind and car noise, you’ll hear that noise along with their voice recording. 

Here’s where I get students to make two copies of their video,  one with their chosen app, and one with a tool I’ve chosen. Then they compare the difference in quality. 

  • Sometimes it can be useful to focus on the audience for their video. Students in your class can explain how, the loud background noise for example, impacts on their listening.  

As mentioned above, the audience for the video is important.

It should be an audience that will engage with and respond to your students’ videos/recordings. This authenticity I’ve found really drives students to improve their work. And the connection with others really bolsters their confidence over time.

They know that others are watching their work and they’re keen to put their best foot forward.  

Challenges to Quality

One challenge here: Some students want to complete and finish something with a minimum of hassle, and without having to re-work or improve aspects of it.

I’ve found that checking in with students is crucial here.

  • Maybe they lack confidence in their capacity to improve.
  • Maybe they feel confronted by the task and seeing and hearing themselves so they want it over and done with.
  • Maybe they don’t see the purpose for creating the video/recording or the audience for it.

Whatever the reason is, check in (ask questions), work out ways forward together, and provide appropriate support. 

Purpose and Audience

I should highlight another key point in relation to audience.

At times because the focus is on learning certain techniques, students will just shoot something that’s just for us. It doesn’t have a wider audience.

We’ll shoot something, review it and the footage doesn’t go any further. Then we’ll put that learning (that’s just occurred) into practice via a video that we make for a wider audience. 

Set Limits

I want to make my storytelling tasks achievable which is crucial in building student engagement and commitment – so I set limits or constraints. 

  • Keep your videos or photostories short (30 secs to a minute);
  • For photostories: Limit the number of photos and possibly specify the types of shots you want (for example, a Wideshot, a Medium shot, and a Close-Up);
  • Limit the number of takes. Some students will go overboard filming, with take after take. Nothing will satisfy them.
    • Instead allow them 2-3 takes and provide a set time for rehearsal. Then they have to go with what they’ve got. 

Get Involved: The Teacher as Learner

Get involved as a learner in digital storytelling yourself. Create the stories you’re asking students to create. 

By doing what I expect my students to do:

  • I show that I’m a learner and a digital storyteller;
  • I get to know the tech tools – their strengths and limitations;
  • I experience some of the frustrations that my students might encounter (during the creative process) and can then plan how I can teach to such;
  • I experience the buzz of creating, sharing and critically reviewing the stories I create;
  • I learn a tremendous amount about digital storytelling.

I’m not suggesting here that you have to be an expert, knowing all the bells and whistles of each tech tool.

Your students can be a tremendous resource. Tap into their knowledge and skills wherever you can – as a teacher and as a class.

Teaching digital storytelling to English Language Learners

Photo: Greg Curran 2016

The Power of Peer Teaching and Learning

I’ve been teaching digital storytelling for more than a decade now but somehow I always seem to fall into the trap of thinking I can do it all.

Each time I come away from class utterly deflated and thoroughly exhausted. We can’t possibly be everything to everyone in our classes. As I mentioned above – tap into the expertise of your class. 

Focus on building community within your class.  Recognise and draw attention to the different skills and knowledge we each bring to, and share with, that community.

Teach your students to work together as small teams. Encourage them to teach each other when they learn a new skill.

Stress to them that they must first ask each other for help rather than taking the easy option of asking you. Here the ‘Ask 3 before me’ mantra can be especially helpful. 

Teach Technique

In line with a focus on quality, it’s important to teach students digital storytelling techniques. For example, I teach my students:

  • how to hold a camera in a horizontal orientation and to keep it steady; 
  • the different types of camera and video shots (such as Close Up, Extreme Close-Up, Medium Shot);
  • how to plan a video shoot. We discuss what we’re going to film then identify how we’ll shoot it (as in a panning left to right shot or panning up shot, or a myriad of other possibilities).
    • With my lower level students, I demonstrate, then they try it getting feedback from me. Then they go and shoot the film. 

Digital Storytelling Tech Tools

Here are the tools I’m currently using in my classroom for digital storytelling. 

Windows PC

  • Adobe Spark Video: Create photo stories with voiceover. You can sign in with Google.
  • Windows MovieMaker: There’s lots of bells and whistles here which can make it challenging but it’s the only free tool that offers the flexibility I’m after. 

There are other free cloud-based video editors but thus far I’ve found them to be quite limiting. For example, only allowing a limited amount of footage, or only allowing export at a low quality level, or having large branding on the video.

I’d love to hear if you come across flexible free cloud-based video editors.

Apple Devices

  • Adobe Spark Video (see above)
  • iMovie (Paid App has more facility editing and quality wise than many free apps)

Android Devices

  • WeVideo: Create video or photo stories with voiceover.
    • Limitation: You need to record the entire voiceover in one go. Other tools by contrast allow you to record a voiceover for one photo or video than stop. Then record the next one. 
    • Limitation: I’m unable to see how you can mute background noise if you record a voice track. 
  • VideoShop: Create video or photo stories with voiceover.
    • Limitation: I haven’t found how you can mute background noise if you record a voice track. 
  • VivaVideo: Create video or photo stories with voiceover.
  • Audio recorder (Green Apple Studio): My students have found this voice-recorder fairly easy to use.


Pushing The Edge of Technology