OWATS: One Word At a Time Stories

I work backwards from a story or reading that I want them to do. I identify the new words in it. Recently, this was a couple of fables linked Roman virtues. Based on a list of virtues, students searched through Laura Gibbs 1001 Fables and identified the stories they wanted to read.

Based on two fables, there were 21 words or phrases that they either didn’t know or were not very familiar with. I put the words into a table using a large font, and cut out miniature flash cards. The Latin was in large block with English in small underneath it. Remember, these were new words/phrases. (Don’t panic. I don’t use flash cards).

I had students sit in groups of 3 or 4, and explained the process to them:

  1. I would give each group a word.
  2. Working together on one sheet of paper with a pencil, they had to write one good sentence using that word.
  3. When done, they had to call me over to approve the sentence. If there were a problem, I gave a pop up grammar kind of fix for it, and then gave them another word.
  4. Their next sentence had to begin to make a story based on the first one.
  5. The process continued: they write a sentence, call me over, get any pop up grammar help, and then a new word, a new sentence that furthers the story.
  6. When I run out of words to hand out, they get their next word from another group and give them one of theirs.
  7. With 5 minutes left I tell them that with their next sentence or two, they should bring their story to a surprising end.
  8. I collect the stories and type them up into a power point and the next day, we read the stories together.


  1. Students were very excited about this work. It was like asking a story but in a much smaller group, and each student had more control over the story. This work was COMPELLING.
  2. Because I did this with more advanced students, the stress over language production was rather low.
  3. They got individual attention from me for anything they were not clear about.
  4. Grammar happened only in pop up fashion.
  5. They naturally begin to repeat the use of new words in subsequent sentences. So, there was even in the activity, much repetition. On the next day, reading and discussing the stories provided more comprehension. They remained compelling because they not only got to see their story on the “big screen” but others’ as well.
  6. I had fun! (that counts, especially this time of the semester)
  7. I shared this with a colleague who teaches Spanish 2 and one “trailer” course of Spanish 2 students who all failed last year. He tried this same activity today with them but only with words they had already been introduced to. He said it went over extremely well and that his most struggling students managed to put together a nice story.
  8. This strikes me as the kind of activity that could be done with new words for more advanced students and as review, repetition with any level.

The process, establishing meaning of each word, keeps things SLOW, is compelling, provides repetitions, can create embedded readings from the bottom up, and involves backward design.

Bob Patrick