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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, linked below, 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: events and states, for example:
    the ferry docked
    the policeman pulled me out of the line
  2. BEHAVIOURAL processes: how participants felt, for example:
    I was upset
    she was waiting
  3. VERBAL processes: who said what to whom. for example:
    the police officer said
    my girlfriend explained
  4. MENTAL PROCESSES: how people felt, for example:
    I thought
    I felt
    These are frequently used in the coda.


There is also a separate guide to circumstances on this site, linked below.  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
(and consequnce)
to make myself respectable
as my girlfriend had already passed through
this meant that ...
ACCOMPANIMENT with my girlfriend
in the queue

Learners need to be able to handle these before they can relate effectively.
In a more structural analysis, these kinds of meanings are usually expressed through adverbs, prepositional phrases, causal clauses and noun phrases.

teaching skill

Teaching the skill

There is a temptation, worth resisting, to assume that learners simply need practice in recounting events or telling narratives but that won't usually work because without explicit teaching of the facets of relating experience, learners will do three things, none good:

  1. They will assume, unless it is made clear otherwise, that a narration or recount in English will follow the same staging as one in their first language(s).
    This may be the case within some cultures but is certainly not the case for all.
  2. They will deploy language they are sure of rather than the more complex ways of setting events and states in time relative to each other and making circumstances clear.
  3. They will often place the coda at the beginning because, for many, that seems a logical place.

Take a recount of a narrative (depending on your targets for later production) and analyse the staging together.  You may have to do this more than once.

Focus on the types of verbal processes and the lexis the learners will need successfully to relate the story.

Focus on the tense structures.  depending on the level of the learners and on how well they can already use the main narrative tense forms, this may take some time or be a reminder.  Looking at the types of verbs used in an example narrative or recount and analysing the forms and meanings is a good way to do this.  A classification exercise categorising the types of processes involved is also useful.

Focus on circumstances (or adverbial structures, if you prefer) to be able to say:

Put it all together.
Do not be tempted to rush this stage.  Learners need, especially at the outset, to have time mentally to rehearse their recount or narrative, running through it in their heads only before they venture to tell the story orally.
One way to allow for this is to get learners to write the text (as in an email to a friend) before being asked to produce the text orally.  Writing it first and then telling it orally is often a useful focusing procedure because time pressures are removed.
It may seem dull to you to repeat the entire anecdote or whatever to another person two or three times but it is not to the learners.  Repeating the narration or recount multiple times usually means making adjustments and refining the way the story unfolds.  This can be done with a simple mingling exercise with people circulating among their peers telling their stories and listening to other people's narratives.
Now, too, is an obvious time to focus on back-channelling devices to which, naturally, there is a guide on this site, linked below.

Here's a summary with a little more detail:


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 (step 1) 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).

Related guides
verbal processes for more about what verbs do and how to classify them by function rather than structure
circumstances for the guide to this area from a functional point of view
back-channelling for the guide to this area which forms a natural counterpart to recounting and narration
functions index for the index to allied areas

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