In his inspiring presentation for the ongoing iTDi event, the wonderful Kevin Stein spoke about literature and ways of using it in an L2 classroom. Apart from showing us what he does with tanka in class, he also talked about six-word stories, aka six-word memoirs.
The first six-word story was allegedly written by Ernest Hemingway, the master of simplicity and plainness, but the link to him is unsubstantiated.
No matter who invented or first used this form of literature, I find it plain fascinating. I believe that a story told in six words may have a much greater impact on a certain type of reader than a thick novel would have. I feel that reading such a story and thinking about it makes me use my imagination to the fullest. In fact, I have to be almost as imaginative and creative as the writer was. Although at first sight there’s usually one interpretation of the story, the reader is gently forced to fill in the missing details. The best thing is that the details will vary depending on the reader’s life experience and schemata.
You may oppose that the same happens when you read a short story or a novel. However, although in a short story there’s plenty of room for various interpretations, many facts have already been supplied by the author. We’ve been given the names of the characters, their genders, ages, family backgrounds, appearances, etc. In the six-word story above, we get none of that and thus each and every reader will interpret and visualize the story differently. This is great news for a language teacher.
Six-words stories may be products of fantasy, but they may also be based on real events. Playing with this form of literature could be a great way of welcoming students after the holidays. Instead of asking “What did you do on holidays? Tell the person sitting next to you”, we can have our students write six-word memoirs first. Of course, there’s a danger that some students will opt for the easiest way out and just list six things/places/activities. The above story may look as an example of that sort of approach after all. Yet, it perfectly sums up a relatively long period of a human’s life, which would normally take pages to describe. So don’t fear to start small; the students’ final stories will serve as a springboard for discussion or follow-up activities anyway.
It is likely that your students will read a book or see a couple of films when on holidays. Why not ask them to summarize the stories in six words. This task may be pretty challenging, especially language-wise. Apart from considering suitable vocabulary, they’ll also have to think about grammar, even though (or especially because) six-word stories are, and have to be, completely de-grammaticized.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
In the most famous six-word story above, grammar is invisible but inherently present. Your students can use one another’s stories – or you can find six-word stories on the internet – and get them to fill in the missing words. In the above story, the bit never worn will change into they/which have (had) never been worn. There’s a lot at play here: students will have to zoom in on the word order, the use of the present (past) perfect tense, the passive voice, relative pronouns, the fact that English does not have two negatives in the same clause, etc.
It may be interesting to point out that for sale is a high-frequency collocation which saved the writer a lot of words. You may ask about possible alternatives of expressing the same thing.
Anyway, all the activities are on my September to-do list and I can’t wait to try them out. I think it will be refreshing and motivating to start with something unusual.