Using ghost stories to revise narrative tenses

Level: pre-intermediate to advanced.
Ages: teens and adults.
Type: telling a ghost story; sharing strange or unexplained stories; revising narrative forms.
Skills: reading; writing; speaking; listening; pronunciation.
Language focus: narrative tenses.

Note: I’ve found this lesson to be a great, personalised and interesting way to look at/revise narrative tenses, which you can use any time of the year (though Winter is best, as it’s normally quite cold and dark outside). While I’ve described the story as though we’re using past forms, there’s no reason why you couldn’t use present forms instead, to make the story seem more dramatic and immediate.

Materials: before you go into class, you’ll need to think of either a ghost story you’ve read, a horror film you’ve seen, or (preferably) something strange or unexplained that happened to you or someone you know.


  • Note down 6 key words or expressions from the story you’ve thought of, to board in class
  • Bring enough blank sheets of paper so you have one per student or small group.


  • Divide your class into A and B pairs.
  • Board or dictate the first 3 key words or expressions from your story (see above) and check the vocabulary with your class.
  • Explain that these words all come from a story you’re going to tell. Ask ‘A’ students to tell ‘B’s what they think the story will be about – perhaps set a time limit of 2 or 3 minutes for this. Make sure they realise they are expected to guess what might happen, and can let their imaginations run wild if they like. You might want to tell your students that the phrase, “I don’t know” is banned for this part of the lesson!
  • Nominate a couple of ‘A’ students to tell you what they think the story will be about.
  • Board the other 3 key words/expressions from your story. Check vocabulary with the class, then explain that these words are also from the same story. This time, ask ‘B’s to tell their partners what they think happens in the story.
  • Again, nominate a couple of ‘B’ students to tell you what they think will happen in the story. Then explain that you’re going to tell the story – ask your students to listen and see if their ideas are correct.
  • Tell your ghost story, perhaps pausing and eliciting suggestions as to what might happen next at various key moments.
  • Ask your students to put their hands up if they think the story is true. Nominate a couple of students to tell you why they think it’s true or false. Tell them if it is (bear in mind that true stories are going to be more interesting than lies here!).
  • Grammar focus

  • Ask your students if they can remember what happened at the start of the story. Elicit details like the time of day, what had been decided by the characters before the story starts, what the weather was doing, and so on. Board the first paragraph or two of the story, eliciting vocabulary and descriptions from your students. Try to use past simple, past continuous and past perfect forms in what you board.
  • Ask your students what different verb forms they can see in the story. Hopefully, you’ve used past simple, past continuous and past perfect forms. Elicit which are used to tell the main events (past simple), which give background information and describe actions or processes (past continuous) and which talks about earlier events when we’re already in the past (past perfect). Underline these forms differently (use a differently-coloured pen for each form, or a different style of underlining) and perhaps draw time lines with examples from your story to show how each one functions.
  • Practice using narrative forms – speaking and writing

  • Ask your students to think of something strange or unexplained that happened to them or someone they know. Tell them that, if they can’t think of anything true, they can use a horror film they’ve seen or a ghost story they’ve read. Ask them to tell a true story if they can, and if they are happy to share it. Allow 4 or 5 minutes for your students to write key words from their story – elicit that they shouldn’t write words from your story, and that they should not write whole sentences (they don’t have time!).
  • As your students write their stories, go round the class and help with vocabulary and narrative forms as necessary. Try not to interrupt your students’ flow of writing – instead, if you see a problem, wait ’til they’ve stopped writing before you elicit any corrections. Some students may not have a story idea. If so, give them a minute to think of something; if they haven’t, ask them to step outside the classroom with you. Ask them simple, closed questions (requiring one word answers) about their story, and tell them just to say the first thing in their heads, and not to think about their answers. For example: how many people are in your story? (3); are they friends, lovers, or strangers? (strangers); do they meet in the story? (no); did they meet just before the story? (yes); did they meet online or in a bar? (in a bar); etc. You’ll find that, after a few questions, your students have a good idea about the story they’re going to write.
  • After about 5 minutes, stop the activity. Put your students into groups of 3 or 4 and ask them to take turns to tell each other their stories. Elicit they should try to use the boarded narrative forms. Elicit that, after hearing each story, listeners should ask questions to try and find out more details. They can then say if they think the story is true or false, and the storyteller should tell them. Then another person can tell their story, and so on.
  • Listen and monitor the language for subsequent feedback.
  • Once everyone has told their stories, you can either give some language feedback (see this post for ways to do this), or move on to the next part of the lesson, below.
  • Ask your students, in their groups, to decide which story was their favourite. If you haven’t given out blank paper yet, do so now. Ask each group to work together to write this story, to tell the class. Elicit they should try and use all the boarded narrative forms appropriately in their story.
  • Set a time limit for this activity (perhaps 10 – 15 minutes). Monitor the groups, helping them with structure, vocabulary or grammar as appropriate.
  • As the time limit draws near, give your students 2 or 3 minutes to finish writing their story.
  • Pronunciation focus

  • Return to the first sentence of your story (which should be on the board). Say it in a few different ways (high-pitched, fast, slow, happy, excited, depressed, …) or nominate students to say it in different ways. Elicit the effects that pitch, pace and pausing has on the story. Ask your students to think how they want the class to feel at each moment in the story. How can they show what their story’s characters are feeling in the way that they speak? Ask your student groups to look through their writing and mark where they want to pause (I normally board “//” for full pause and “/” for a half-pause).
  • Monitor this activity – students often don’t put nearly enough pauses in – you might want to remind them that pauses can be dramatic, and that they’ll need to breathe!). When they are done, or nearly done, ask them to underline the key words in between each pause: these will be the words they want to stress. Again, you might want to demonstrate different stress options in the opening sentence of your story. Allow a few minutes for your students to do this.
  • Finally, ask your groups to divide up their story into equal parts, so each student has a similar amount to read aloud. Allow them one or two practice runs (I recommend monitoring this and giving some pronunciation tips and advice as you’re listening – your role can be as a radio play director here). Then ask each group to tell the class their stories. Listeners can give marks out of 10, or make notes about, the clarity of each speaker, the drama they brought to the story-telling, and the quality of the story itself. Or one student in each group could focus on clarity of the speakers, another on the story, and another on the best English expressions they heard. You can make notes on any or all of these things as well, though I suggest focussing on making pronunciation notes.
  • After all the stories have been told, invite your students to give their feedback to the different groups, adding your own feedback as well.
  • Homework extension

    You could ask your students to write up their favourite story for homework, or another story they can think of.

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