Five Tips on Getting Language Learners to Write a Family Story


Ever since I started creating and publishing “communicative” learning materials back in the 80s, I have been a big fan of project learning, both in my classroom teaching and writing. In this post, I will describe a family story project that I recently created for young-adult intermediate to advanced English language learners.

What is project learning?  In Project Learning Made Simple, Smith defines it as “a teaching method where students gain and apply skills by working on a long-term project that involves an in-depth inquiry into a topic or question.” The method usually involves a real-life situation in which learners do authentic tasks. 

When the method is used properly, 21st-century learners are taught to think critically, problem solve, collaborate, communicate, and be creative.

Smith mentions these features of project learning:

  • In-depth inquiry: learners get to ask questions, do research and discuss a specific topic.
  • Driving question: learners focus on a specific topic that catches their interest.
  • Need to know: learners are guided in using certain concepts and skills to frame their project “within a realistic scenario.”
  • Voice and choice: learners get to make their own choices with the guidance of their teacher.
  • Critique and revision: learners get feedback from both their peers and teacher to improve their final product.
  • Public audience: learners get to present their project to people either inside or outside the classroom.

Among the many projects that Smith recommends, there is the “Family tree”  – which resembles the family story project I have created for upper intermediate to advanced English language learners.




Here are five tips for guiding learners in doing a family story project  – from introducing the project, having a focus, doing research, undertaking an interview and presenting an oral report as well writing a non-fiction narrative.

1. Show the Importance of the topic

I introduce the family story project by telling learners that it is the kind of project I wish I had done with my immigrant mother when I was their age.

In a fascinating article, The New York Times reported that “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” 

According to one psychologist, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

So get your learners excited about the project and its potential for having an enormous impact on their lives.

2. Have a Driving Question

Childhood family story

Learners need to have a driving question for their interview with a family member or relative. In the “Family Tree” project shown in the introduction, the driving question is “How can I tell the story of a family member’s childhood?

Other driving questions – drawn from the Centre for Oral History Research – can focus on:

  1. Teenage years (family changes, schooling, working, social life)
  2. Adulthood (higher education, career, marriage and children)
  3. Historically significant events (political or social events of the 50s, 60s and 70s, such as the Vietnam War)

The Driving Question frames the students’ interview and provides the characters, settings and plots for them to develop narrative writing techniques.

3. Suggest Research Techniques

An important step in creating a family story is doing research.  I ask learners to:

  • Create a timeline:  historical facts, dates, names, places
  • Find interesting documents:  letters, diaries, interesting records, photos, passports
  • Keep track of sources of information

According to one specialist in writing a family history, “make sure you have finished most of the research. For each person in your narrative, including parents, siblings and children, you want to know when and where they were born, married and died. You want to know their occupations and where they lived.”

I share with learners a picture of my family, taken when I was a baby living in a small apartment in Manhattan.  My mother, Julia, was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who arrived in New York City, the “melting pot,” just before the beginning of the Second World War. My dad, Frank, a second-generation Pole, born in Pennsylvania, worked as a maritime chef, mostly on American cruise ships.  My younger brother, Ed, three years older than me, seemed worried in the photo about this new arrival in the household, lying in his mother’s lap.

4. Explain the Interview

Family story interview

Have learners interview a family member. Here are instructions I give students, using the interview to do a slide-based oral report:

  • Devise of list of 10 questions for the interview.
  • Take 15-20 minutes to record the interview.
  • Transcribe the interview as accurately as possible (pay attention to the person’s tone and expressions).
  • Work with a partner to do a peer critique of the transcript, giving your partner feedback to improve the text.
  • Prepare a profile or sketch of your relative, using the driving question, description, details, and some interesting documents. 
  • Speak for 7 to 8 minutes individually in front of class, using a slideshow of your relative’s profile.

For the peer critique of the interview, I give learners guided worksheets inspired by a family story project from the Buck Institute for Education.

5. Have Learners Write a Non-fiction Narrative

Most teachers, including myself, do a lot of academic writing with upper level English language learners. Nick Walker of Ahuntsic College proposes doing more narrative writing. He argues that “One way to help learners with the demands of informal oral communication is to support the development of informal spoken registers through the use of narratives in ESL.”

Non-fiction narrative

Here are the guidelines that I give learners for writing a 550-word nonfiction narrative family story about the relative interviewed:

  • Have a beginning, middle, end to story, but don’t necessarily start at chronological beginning.
  • Write a narrative based on fact.
  • Apply fictional writing techniques for plot and character development, dialogue, detail, flashback, suspense
  • Incorporate literary devices, such as metaphor and simile
  • Use Endnotes for additional information

Here is great advice to give your learners about writing a compelling family story: “Keep in mind that no one’s family history is compelling and interesting, until you make it compelling and interesting.”

Share any learning projects that you have done with your English language learners


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