Story cubes: EVERYONE is valued!

In my last blog, I briefly mentioned how annoyed I get with “bickering” over stupid things like what characters are going to be named in our class stories (that we make up or that are based off of OWI ‘one word images’), or what cities they live in or whether or not they drive a lambo or a ferrari. In the last couple of years, in fact, I have become SO tired of the bickering that I have found clever little ways to avoid it all together. One of these ways is my incredible, erasable, magical, story cubes….

I got the idea two years ago when I was walking through Target and I saw these awesome little dice. I immediately thought, ‘that would be a GREAT way to tell a story in a language classroom’. THEN, I found these.

Rarely do I ever “story-ask” the traditional TPRS way anymore. Instead, I have several different story-telling techniques, like these which eliminate that element of arguing that I can’t stand. I really don’t like the idea of the second teacher because of the pressure it puts on the one student who is selected to “make a choice” each time in your room (especially in Middle and High school when you care SO very much about what your friends and your friend’s friends think about you!).

With the Story Cubes, I quickly group kids (in the target language) by counting to four and motioning with my arms to signal that THEY are one group, and as I form each group I toss them ONE marker and ONE dry-erase story cube. They then have a few minutes, 3-4 at most, to DRAW the category that I assign them (you can also choose to not assign categories and let them draw whatever.

One class quickly taught me that you MUST remind students that these drawings and suggestions MUST be school appropriate. Personally, I DO allow English to be spoken during the 3-4 minutes for the FIRST couple of times we do this in level one. However, after 2 months of Spanish, I have trained all of my kids to know that we NEVER use English in class and when I group them like this, I have that same no English expectation.

These are photos of adults after they were grouped drawing on their cubes. I did an example of this form of story creation during my two day workshop in Oregon.

Some of the different categories that I assign groups in a level one class are (these are always in the TL, and stars indicate the more IMPORTANT things to assign):

  • NAMES**
  • TYPE of DWELLING (house, apartment, mansion, castle, etc. )
  • WANTS (what does the character want)** or FOOD**
  • Method of Transportation**
  • COLOR (Color of vehicle)
  • PLACE (location within a city, ie. Walmart, Canes, KFC, etc.)**
  • PROBLEM – NOTE- this more often than not CHANGES as you tell the story (if you set up a problem, more often than not, when you get to this stage in the story, it makes more sense to create an alternate problem….

So, once students have drawn their images, we do a quick 20 second Brain Break/ Brain Burst, and then I have them choose their story task.

Students can either:

  1. Write the story in English as it is told in DETAIL
  2. Draw the story in storyboard format as it is told
  3. Write bullet point notes on the story IN ENGLISH as the story is told

Then I story-tell using the story cubes.

I choose a student every time to “roll”. As a student rolls an option, I SLOWLY and carefully shape, tell, and create a story using the image. I am carefully planning the language as I speak to use ONLY recycled, pre-acquired language, as well as any non-targeted structures that emerged during the week. I want to recycle all of the structures as many times as possible, keeping it compelling and comprehensible. It is so easy to keep it compelling because the kids themselves came up with the “pictures” on the cubes.

If there is ever a drawing that I don’t understand or I am unsure of, I just get excited and show the drawing off to the class as I ask them ‘clase, ¿Que es?’ to which eventually somebody responds with the answer and I go with it pretending all along that “OF COURSE (por supuesto)” I knew what it was all along, and I continue telling the story. The power and benefits of story cubes are amazing:

  • All of the drawings and suggestions are STUDENT DRIVEN
  • Students don’t argue because the drawings are student driven
  • Students don’t argue because it is LITERALLY the luck of the roll… you never know what you are going to end up with
  • TEACHERS get a chance to be REALLY creative and think on the spot
  • It slows teachers WAY down because they HAVE to think and create as they go
    • Going SLOWER is always my goal every year!
  • Students who generally are quieter, feel valued because they are the ones unlikely to speak up and give suggestions during story asking but they may be willing to draw or offer up a suggestion for a drawing for a story cube in small groups. Then when theirs is rolled, they are on top of the world.
  • Everyone’s opinions are valued, and no one feels singled out or embarrassed about a suggestion
  • Can be effectively used with targeted AND non-targeted comprehensible input
    • last year I used this technique when I was more targeted and this year again with non-targeted comprehensible input

I know it is irritating that we live in a culture now where EVERYONE should get a gold medal for participating and effort. I am not saying that THAT is what story cubes are good for. However, I AM saying that for the foreign language classroom where a SAFE, risk-taking, FUN, inviting, non-judgmental culture is essential for acquisition and output, student-created story cubes are a perfect way to start creating and establishing that fun and safe environment where everyone’s input is valued and received.

Until next time,

HAPPY TEACHING! (one of my friends in China teaches for another week) (or HAPPY VACATIONING! for most of you)



Comprehensible Cascadia Crew


  1. Wow! I’m so glad I found you!! My summer without a conference is still full of learning because of you!!

  2. Annabelle-
    Do you have a video of how to use the cubes for storytelling? I’m a visual learner. Does each group of four fill all sides of their cube with different pictures within their assigned category and then the student rolls each of the four dice and you go from there depending on how they fell?(I wish I was going to Iflt conference again this year-I enjoyed watching you and chatting on the bus…I curious to hear how you like MS. ) thanks

    1. OBSESSED with Middle. 🙂
      I will have a video soon. I will try and video that part of that at iflt and post it, otherwise I will do it with kiddos right at the start of the year. They do the drawings and I collect them and I choose one random student to roll a random cube (AT RANDOM lol) when I need it. So I start the story telling and when I need a character, I choose someone to roll the character cube then I continue telling, and then when I need a place I have someone else roll the “place” cube and boom, I keep telling…. Does that make sense?

  3. Great idea! It’s like those story flip books you can buy at teacher stores where they flip one section for the character, one for the problem, one for the solution, or a variation of such. Awesome!

  4. Question 1: Do you use story scripts? If so, I would love to know how you choose them for a “non-targeted” teaching style.

    Question 2:
    “I am carefully planning the language as I speak to use ONLY recycled, pre-acquired language, as well as any non-targeted structures that emerged during the week I want to recycle all of the structures as many times as possible, keeping it compelling and comprehensible.”

    In my target-style teaching, I use a story script to provide repetitions of 3-5 new target structures plus repetitions of already-acquired words. Is this basically what you do? Is the main difference that you target whatever vocab has naturally been emerging? I suppose this goes back to my script question.

    I do LOVE this story cube idea! I will be purchasing a set soon!!

    1. HELLO!!!
      I don’t use story scripts because with non-targeted I let the details that are provided by kids and the structures that emerge naturally guide the stories.

      Yes, essentially that is how I do stories. ALLLLWAYS recycling the old and incorporating whatever new structures emerge! You will LOVE the cubes!!! So will your kids!!!

      This blog talks more about my Non-Targeted approach.

  5. I love this and I am planning on trying this tomorrow (but in a targeted story-script). What I am curious about is the part of your post where you wrote about how students “choose their story task…

    Students can either:

    Write the story in English as it is told in DETAIL
    Draw the story in storyboard format as it is told
    Write bullet point notes on the story IN ENGLISH as the story is told”

    Can you tell me more about this? Are all students writing/drawing during the story?

    1. AS I am speaking and telling the story they are completing one of those tasks. It is similar to the idea of “student jobs” during story telling but EVERYONE is responsible for something instead of a few. Then it avoids people being disappointed if I don’t choose them to be the artist. 🙂 I hope this answers your question!

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