What is story listening?

Students in Mandarin class need lots of comprehensible input, either through hearing the language or through reading it, in order to acquire the language. One method for a high quality listening activity is called story listening. A Japanese English professor called Beniko Mason developed this method at her university in Tokyo. In addition to giving the students lots of aural Mandarin, story listening can also help students learn about Chinese culture.

How Does Story Listening Work?

In story listening, teachers tell a story to the class using simple, short sentences. They also use lots of gestures, drawings and photos to give meaning. With this method, students should be getting lots of comprehensible input. They should understand 100% (or close to 100%) of what their teacher is saying. For beginner classes or intermediate classes, the storytelling session will be different than it would be for an audience of native speakers. The teacher will speak more slowly, use more repetitions and will only use words that the students know.

When I do story listening in class, I like to use some techniques to make sure that the students are “getting it.” It is also important to make sure that the teacher is truly providing comprehensible input. I check in often with students while telling the story. I ask, “what did I just say, say it back to me in English.” Or we do a “finger check,” they hold up one finger to show they barely understood anything. They hold up five fingers to show that they understand everything. The goal is to see each student hold up five fingers. I know I am on the right track when I see all the students hold up four or five fingers.

Teaching Culture

Story listening works for language acquisition because students focus on the meaning of the story. If the teacher tells the story effectively, the students understand the story so they are getting lots of comprehensible input. It is also great way to expose students to Chinese culture. The stories of Mulan, the nian monster, the monkey king, etc could all work for a story listening activity. The teacher just needs to make sure that she only uses words that the students know already, or comes prepared with lots of pictures/drawings.


Some critics of story listening think that it is too teacher-centered. To borrow a phrase from language-learning expert Bill VanPatten, this method is teacher-led, but it is student-centered. The teacher is usually standing at the front of the class, but the teacher modifies the story heavily for the students. The teachers gears everything towards their understanding. Story listening is only teacher-centered in appearance. Teachers also periodically check in with students. Students are not just passive listeners.

More Information on Story Listening and Examples

There are many examples of story listening on the internet. Interested folks can watch Beniko Mason herself do a story listening session here.  Many, many other teachers post videos of story listening they do with students on YouTube.

Story listening is just one way to give students the comprehensible input they need in order to acquire Mandarin. It should be, relaxing, enjoyable and fun. It is a great way for students to learn about Chinese culture while they are also learning the Mandarin language. Below is a photo of my whiteboard for part of a story listening session on Mulan. You can see that I use lots of pictures and drawings. The students see pinyin for newish words and Chinese characters for words that they know very well. This session was for kids. A story told to adults might be a bit different.

story listening white board photo Mulan
Example of what the white board looks like for part of one story listening session. This is for the story of Hua Mulan

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