Six words

IMG_20150731_194438In 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.

Strangers. Friends. Best friends. Lovers. Strangers.

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.Výstřižek

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.

Published by

Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

13 thoughts on “Six words”

  1. Thank you for an amazing post, dear Hana! Kevin has inspired me as well in so many ways and I’m definitely trying his activities with my students this year. Hopefully, I will have nice stories to share and write a post about it as well! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have heard this approach before and always thought to myself: what a interesting way it could be to warm-up, like you’ve mentioned, Hana. Plus, it speaks to very impactful summary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Tyson.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I really believe that this approach is worth exploring in class. Since Kevin’s presentation, I’ve tried writing a couple of six-word stories and I must admit that it’s not easy at all! Summarizing a story in six words is even more challenging. So I’ll have to think of ways of grading the task or scaffolding in case things don’t go according to plan. For example, I thought of starting with more words first and gradually get to six words to make the activity less daunting. Well, there are lots of things to consider before one enthusiastically runs into the classroom with a new idea 🙂

      By the way, your presentation for the iTDi was equally awesome. I love exploring different ways of working with texts and your ideas were really inspiring. As a student, I’d definitely appreciate such an approach to dealing with challenging texts.


  3. Hana,

    Thank you for the kind words, for your warm and active participation in the webinar and also for taking the time ti explore and share your ideas for using 6 word memoirs in class. Luckily, iTDi has given me a space to explore how to use literature in my classroom and to share those ideas with other teachers. My webinar actually started off as an iTDi blog post and I hope you don’t mind if I share it here with the readers of your blog:

    In and from gratitude,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Kevin.

      Thanks for sharing the link to your post. It’s awesome. I’m happy to see that we see things from a similar perspective, especially the part about the ‘gap’ the reader fills in while reading. I particularly like this quote: ‘Every story we read is an act of creation.’ I like the timeline idea too.

      I believe that certain forms of literature give the reader more freedom than others. I love stories with open endings, for example. At first I sort of blame the author for shifting the responsibility to me – the reader – but as my exasperation fades, I start feeling grateful.

      Six-word memoirs work the same way for me. They make me stop and think about life; they make me create something. And I hope they will have the same impact on my students.



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