My Life In 20 Lines – a simple storytelling activity


Here’s a simple idea for practicing the past simple with lower level students. I got it from Quora, a website that allows its users to ask and answer each other questions. Unlike other similar sites, you are required to sign up to get access, resulting in a higher calibre of contributions. If you’re interested in the big questions, I recommend signing up.

Quora users were asked to share their life story in twenty lines, and I thought this would be a great practice for my pre-intermediate classes. Asking them to create a story to practice the past simple can be difficult for some learners as not everyone is a natural storyteller, but everyone has lived a life. It’s also an opportunity for them to try out the tense in short sentences without having to worry about too much content.

Here’s my suggestion for how the activity would run:

1) Ask students to think about the most important moments in their lives. Ask them to choose 5 and share them with their partner.

2) Show them an example “My Life in 20 Lines”. You could make your own life story if you feel comfortable sharing it with your students, or create an example. Here’s one from the Quora page:

3) Ask them to note why number 20 is different (all the other use the past simple to talk about the past and 20 uses the present continuous to talk about how he feels now).

4) Ask students to write their own, possibly as homework. If you teach teenagers or young people, you could create some conditions, such as they are aged 19 or younger, they can write ten lines, between 20 to 30 years old, fifteen lines, and over 30’s write twenty lines.

5) After you’ve given the students feedback on their writing, collect the students work and stick them up on the wall. Ask the students to go around and read them. Ask them to make a note of anything they didn’t know about their colleagues. They can then discuss this in groups, asking follow questions as they talk about it. Check for their use of the past simple as they give more information about what happened.

Quora users can find more examples of 20 line life stories here.

12 thoughts on “My Life In 20 Lines – a simple storytelling activity

  1. I like this idea a lot. Just a thought to make it a bit more communicative could be for students to have to kind of find about about a partner, make very short notes in class, and then for homework go away and put the notes into 20 lines. It could even be used as a very interesting ice breaker with new students. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Also, I think this activity would be great on the FlashMobELT board where teachers are sharing activities at the moment.

  2. I think this is a great idea to teach pupils the past simple. A lot of pupils don't like to write things like stories or poems so this is a good alternative. After all, the main goal of this exercise is using the past simple so it is a good thing that they don't waist too much time on creating a nice storyline. I would also give them a model of my own life so they know what they have to do. I would also think of an alternative, like “write 15 lines about your last holiday or what you did last week”, if a student doesn't want to write about their life and share it with other pupils.

  3. I just read a journal article yesterday where they say a good relationship between students and teachers is important. I agree. You could create a better relationship by asking about the pupils' live, but in return you should also something about yours. That is why I think you should give an example about your own life in 20 lines.

  4. Interesting that in your post and in a few of the comments people have said that storytelling can be difficult. Why? Possibly because teachers don't give students the right support for writing stories. But story telling can an opportunity for students to use the language freely and creatively and express themselves in a way that they want to.
    On the other hand talking about your own life for some students can be equally as difficult for some students but it is a way for some students to really express themselves. So it is swings and roundabouts.
    However an adaptation of this activity might be very good for helping students to develop a character for fictional writing.
    20 fictional lines about their main fictional character's life creates a nice backstory that they can use when they are putting together a story later in the year.

  5. Thanks for all the comments everyone, you made some great points.

    Bieke – you make a good point about how some students may not want to share their lives with their colleagues, and that's fair enough. It's possible for them to do it without taking it too seriously, something you could model with the example you give first.

    Jasmien – Agreed, I never ask my students to do something that I wouldn't do myself, so I wouldn't hesitate to use my own life as an example.

    Anon – I think you've accurately summarised the pros and cons of the activity there, and I wouldn't disagree with any of it. I agree that support is absolutely crucial when doing writing activities, without it they can fall flat on their face.

    sylwiarytarowska – Thanks, I'd love to know how it goes if you try it!

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