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The Power of Storytelling
to Engage Students

Spotlight, January 2012

Alwiya Omar

Storytelling and the oral tradition play strong roles in African languages and cultures, so it seems only fitting that Alwiya Omar—Clinical Professor of Linguistics and director of IUB’s Swahili Flagship program—has begun using storytelling as a key pedagogical approach in her language courses. 

Omar and the other instructors in the African Language Program are continually revising the language courses to increase student engagement and performance. Drawing on best practices in the field of foreign language instruction, they seek to make the classroom student-centered, utilize the target language as often as possible during class, and incorporate the use of technology in meaningful ways.  Omar’s storytelling activities draw on each of these practices to help students practice their developing language skills.

Much of her storytelling approach centers on a core activity in her upper-division language courses, the written and oral presentation of a series of personal stories and news stories.  At several points during the semester, the students are asked to write a story about their experiences or a current event in the target language. The students post their developing stories to a wiki in order to receive feedback from classmates and instructors, and then they revise, record, and publish an oral version of the story in a podcast. The results of one class’s efforts—a series of news stories in Swahili—can be listened to on this podcast series.

The storytelling activities have led to increased student motivation and performance, in part because of the control the activities allow students to have over their own language learning. Omar says, “It’s amazing seeing their motivation in doing these stories . . . it really shows how much they want to be in control of what they’re doing. They choose the topics for what they want to write for their stories. They have accomplished a lot. At the beginning they hesitate, but as the semester progresses they can tell how they have improved. They do oral proficiency interviews at the middle and end of the semester, and they see how they have progressed; and we can see that they have met the desired goals that we have established.”

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One of the obstacles to implementing this teaching strategy was the use of technology for both exchanging feedback on developing stories and creating the final podcast versions. Professor Omar, who considers herself a digital immigrant, attended workshops and consulted with the staff at the CITL to help select the best tools to reach her teaching goals—in this case, the wiki and podcast tools in Oncourse.  

Another challenge was assessing student progress in gaining language proficiency, a project that reaches beyond Omar’s storytelling activity.  In order to gather evidence of students’ progress in their language studies, the African language program is implementing the Oncourse ePortfolio for all the languages. Student work will be tracked over multiple semesters, with students posting select assignments to the ePortfolio as evidence that they have reached the desired proficiency goals set by a national community of language educators, the National Standards for Foreign Language Education. In the case of Omar’s courses, the students’ podcasts can serve as both a learning tool and as evidence of their language proficiency.

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Looking forward, Omar would like to increase student engagement still further by having her students interact with other students not only locally, but also internationally in the target language countries, mediating these experiences through technology and study abroad programs.  For now, though, Omar’s storytelling assignments allow students to get a good start on that important target-language interaction by encouraging them to create and share their own stories through podcasts.

If you are interested in learning more about the use of student-generated content in your teaching—including the use of wikis and podcasts—contact the CITL at citl@indiana.edu or 855-9023.