Volume III - 1995-1996

See it! Tell it! Write it!
by Kathleen Mata

       Kathleen Mata has been teaching adult ESL at Chicago Commons for two years and has tutored in numerous university writing centers. She earned her Bachelor's Degree in Writing/Literature with a minor in teaching at the University of California, San Diego. Currently, she is finishing her MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis on the Teaching of Writing at Columbia College in Chicago.

      They wait for it. They dream about the moment when they will hear or read a sentence like, "The butterfly sat on the rim of the beer bottle," and automatically visualize an image. They will see black and orange wings fanning over a brown Coors bottle, instead of rolling their eyes back to try to match lexical items to a list of forgotten Spanish translations. As they struggle to untangle the long English sentences they read, writing seems absolutamente impossible! "I don't understand enough words! I can't speak! How can I write?"

Seeing in the Mind

      People see the connection between listening comprehension and reading, but for some reason writing is on a far-off island that's completely surrounded by sharks. In truth, the four--listening, thinking, speaking, and writing--are inseparable: they all rely on seeing in the mind. When you listen to your grandmother tell a story or when you read a newspaper, you visualize in your head. Words are translated to raw images in your mind. The same is true for writing. People write what they see.

      By "see" I mean when words in one language are no longer equal to a translation, but are the instantaneous communication of the actual object, feeling, or action. It is quite possible for students to see a movie in their heads as they write, rather than overlaying Spanish translations or English grammar rules. The more we can create activities that make it possible for students to see in English when they listen, think, read, and write, the quicker the obstacles to language acquisition will fall like dominos.

The Visual Approach

      The "Story Workshop" approach to the teaching of writing developed by John Schultz mainly for fiction writers, has been successfully used at every level and in numerous settings, from kindergartens to professional offices. I believe the benefits of this approach adapted specifically for the ESL classroom are even greater since its basic principles are: "See it as you read, then storytell it as you see it, and finally, write it as you see it." Suddenly speech clears, writing pours onto the page, and confidence soars.

Reading Storyteller Style

      How many times have you read a page and reached the end only to realize that you can't remember what you read! Your eyes obediently swept side to side, but you read without seeing it. This common phenomenon is especially true with ESL students. They are caught up in pronouncing the words correctly or nervously trying to translate each word separately instead of going after the whole idea. They will fall into the trap and read without seeing unless we establish and reinforce the working principle that the goal is not to translate words as fast as possible, but to see as you read.

      The first thing any storyteller needs is audience, so the chairs are arranged in a semicircle. This is crucial so that everyone can see and hear everyone else, and students will have room to give gestures when they tell. It's important to choose a reading with a highly visual content, something with lots of gestures, imagery, voice, and sensory perceptions. I always read the first paragraph, modeling a voice that goes across the room and knows it has an audience. Before I pass the story off, I'll have a student pick someone across the semicircle to read it to. "Go ahead and get a good look at Maximina." This will remind the students that they are not just reading to themselves but to a specific person who has to be able to hear them and understand them.

      A student is reading Sandra Cisneros' short story, "Eleven." In the middle of sentences, I interject to retell the moment that was just read. "Melva, see the little girl push the red sweater to the corner of her desk so that half of it falls off like a waterfall." One of my hands pushes away an imaginary bunched-up sweater, while the fingers of my other hand trickle down like a waterfall. For a moment all eyes are on my hands, they are all seeing it. Melva goes back to the page with a clear sight of what is happening. Her voice becomes clearer as she trusts the image that the words are building together instead of fixating on each word separately.

      After the reading, students clarify the story and vocabulary for each other with another round of "Recall," where they retell parts of the story like storytellers. "The sweater stretches like jump rope." Melva's arms spread out in the semicircle as she holds up the imaginary saggy sweater by the sleeves. Students also do Recall after student work has been read. Authors are motivated to write more after they hear imagery from their own story recalled, retold, and (at the end) hear questions asked about their story from other students.

Opposite Word

      Now that English voices and seeing in the mind are tuned, I'm ready to move to a deeper level and really get those imaginations churning. One exercise for intermediate to advanced groups is an opposite word round. "Awilda, give me a word any word."

"Give it to everyone! Give it with your voice!"
 "Everybody notice what the word 'church' makes you see!" The person sitting next to Awilda would have to give another word that she/he considers an opposite of "church," but only after they have established their own mental imagery triggered by "church."
"Disco." Awilda says.
      I use the word "opposite" in a very general sense. I push for something unlike or different from "church" to widen the scope of their imaginations as much as possible. Avoid cliché‚ opposites like black and white, chair and table. Take the class to a more abstract level. To make sure everyone's seeing "disco," the students can offer quick examples. The first time the Story Workshop™ approach is used, the teacher might want to model for the class and tell what she/he sees for "disco."

"Who's seeing something for disco? Leticia."
"There are too many lights. Too much music."
"Who's there?"
"Todo my family, my grandmother there too. It is the quinciñeros (fifteenth birthday) of my sister."
"Good. Who sees something different?" Four hands shoot up, eager to tell.
"My brother dancing on a table in the kitchen."
"How does he dance?"
"Like this." Aurelia shifts her hips in her seat and flails her arms.
"How do you say that?"
"I don't know."
"Just describe what you're doing."
"He is a snake."
"Now everyone, place what you see to the side temporarily. You can go back to it later. Maximina, what is a word opposite of disco?"
"Sewing machine."
      The students see sights for "sewing machine." If a student's word is too close to the previous word or perhaps not as strong as they could give, ask them for another one.

      In this part of the of the exercise, memories and ideas that are more abstract or more fictional are lifted from the cobwebs. Without this exercise, Aurelia may never have seen the sight of her brother dancing on the table, or Leticia, the disco. If the students hadn't seen these images in their minds first, it would have been far more difficult for them to talk and write about them. Students realize that they can see, tell, and write about anything. When shy students hear others talking about topics and situations considered taboo in a formal classroom, suddenly they are given the "permission" to write about what they really want to. They see the reactions of interest they get from their peers in the semicircle when they tell. They begin to understand what the real meaning of writing is--transferring what you see into words so that another person can see what you see. No longer do they write for the teachers. They choose what interests them. They tell and write for their peers, as any storyteller would.

Imagining a Place

      During the Oral Reading and Recall, students were seeing and retelling sights from other writers and students. In the opposite word exercise, students created their own imagery and told it as if it was happening right before their eyes! Now, they are ready for the Story Workshop™ experience called "Take-A-Place."

      "Everybody take a place...a real place...an imagined place...a dark place...a place with a lot of light...a place you love to go to...a place you try to forget..." I say each set of contrasting suggestions slow and pause after each one, giving them time to search through it with their mind's eye. If you've been building a theme, you can encourage the students to see a dream, or a person they could write a letter to, or whatever. The key is that you want to throw out a few contrasting suggestions that are not too specific, but contrasting enough to make it plain that the choice of place is theirs to make, so long as they define it to themselves as "place."

      After a few minutes I'll ask everyone to nod if they have a place. The first few times with lower levels you may even want to have students quickly name their place, just to make sure everyone is in the boat. "Now let your mind's eye explore the place. Notice what's taking your attention...people...objects...actions. Who is there? What objects are there? Listen for a far-away sound. And then listen for a close-in sound? Do you notice anything about the quality of light? Weather? What kinds of activity do you think people do there?" You are basically giving students ways to explore their place. Make sure you stay broad so you don't close anyone down.

A Class in Action

"Now, let your eye move around the place concentrating on the objects. When it is your turn, talk about the object that you are thinking of. 'Give' it with your voice to your classmates across the semicircle."
"Reyna, look right at the object and give it with your voice." Reyna's eyes search again in the belly of the semicircle. She pauses.
"Everyone see 'flower' in your place. If there is no 'flower' in your place, see it in another place." I nod my head, and the student sitting next to Reyna knows it's her turn to give her object.
"Everyone notice what 'bed' makes you see." Many times a student will see an object they don't know the English for. Milagros asked how to say "drain" in English; Aurelia asked for the translation for "stinger"; and Gladys wanted to know how to say "merry-go-round." Milagros, Gladys, and Aurelia would not have struggled to find words they didn't know how to say, if they weren't seeing those objects in their places.
"Everybody see what is happening in your place. Go to the moment of action. Who sees something?" Maximina raises her hand while her eyes look into the distance of the semicircle, still exploring what she sees.
"I in my bed at night. I looking out the window." Maximina's hand rises, pointing to an imaginary window. "I see a moon and a monster coming."
"What does the monster look like?"
"A elephant, big. He has, como se dice esos?" (How do you say this?) She curls her hand like a cat's paw and points to her finger nails.

      "Claws and eyes big and I cry for my mama." At first she stutters, second-guesses words and jumps around. Then the innate authority of the storyteller kicks in because she wanted us to see it. Her speech becomes clearer. The initial confusion that crinkled on the foreheads of her classmates smooths out as they follow her moving hands. She uses the space around her to make gestures--the way storytellers have done throughout the ages. We all begin to see Maximina's floating monster.

      But I know Maximina isn't telling everything she sees, so I ask like a spellbound child, letting my curiosity lead my questions. "What do you do? What does his face look like?" Each time her head turns back to the empty space between her hands as if she was double-checking his features. After she sees it, after she she has rebuilt the image with English words the audience can practically touch, Maximina is ready to write. I move to the next student, Milagros.

      "I am stand in the bath. I drip blood but I no understand. I watch how the water wash away the blood in the drain." She twirls her finger down. "I think, O.K. it is gone, but my stomach hurts and I drip again." I went on to question her about how she feels and, as always, what does she do? What happens next?

      The other students are sitting on the edges of their chairs, eager to tell. In a matter of seconds, Ernesto draws the class into his telling. His hands point to the ceiling, and then choke his own neck as he explains how he found an old man hanging by a rope. I question him, "What does he look like? What does he feel like?" After Ernesto tells us, he immediately picks up the paper and puts it on his lap, anxious to write.

Grammar and Mistakes

      Reyna, a beginning student, can only shout out the objects she sees without putting them in the structure of a sentence. I give her a simple structure she can put all of her "seeing" in: "The _____ is/are _____." She builds a vivid sight of a rainforest. (With beginning students, sometimes I'll have them draw what they see first and then tell it with the aid of a picture they have labeled in English.) After everyone has told a bit of what they see, I set them free.

      "Go to what is taking your attention. Write what you see. Write what you just told us about." That huge ravine between Spanish words and English words on paper is shredded. Milagros writes non-stop for fifteen minutes. Nobody is stuck thinking about what to write, or complaining. The classroom is practically humming with the swish of pencils and pens. I coach them: "Don't worry about the grammar. Guess if you're not sure how to spell or say a word." If they can't remember an English word at all, I encourage them to draw in a quick stick symbol for the word or, if it is complicated, write the Spanish and look it up later. This is the moment they really have to get their ideas down on paper the best way they can.

      Occasionally a student holds up his or her paper to me and says, "Is this right?" They expect a grammar rule slapped on their paper. At these key moments, I only ask questions. "What do bees taste like?" I question Aurelia who is writing a jungle survival story. By asking a question about their story, you're showing them what's really important. If I were to remind them to tack on the "ing," change the "are" to "is," and explain why, I would take them away from the "place" where the story is developing in their minds. I've seen it happen many times. They immediately begin shifting through their paper looking for more mistakes, and the story stops. The language actually comes easier if you let them make mistakes. Often students feel they have to write perfect English the first time: they freeze and write nothing because they "don't know how." Instead, coach them for something that's going to get them seeing again, writing again--like coaching for gesture. Later, after the initial gush of images and ideas has subsided, there will be plenty of time to go back and pick through grammar.

Writing Samples

      Only after they have written a complete first draft in their conglomeration language do I correct it. I circle the spelling and grammar mistakes and put the students in groups to give them a chance to figure out what's wrong first and correct it. It takes us just as long to correct as it does for them to see their stories, talk them out, and write them. In the finished products, some sentences still sound a little awkward, but their ideas and images are flying.

      Here are some parts of those stories:

I Will Never Forget

I remember the old man hanging. And I saw his tongue come out. I'll never forget that day. I had seen this man everyday when he was walking from wall to wall looking nervous at everybody. But the day when he killed himself I didn't see him. That day when I went to his room he was black. I knew he was dead because his tongue was red and blue. When I touched his body it was cold and stiff.
- Ernesto Rodriguez

The Adolescent Nightmare

I watched how the water helped to get rid of the blood through the small hole in the bath tub. When I had the sensation of cleanliness, I put on new clothes. Then I went back to sleep, but I was in pain. Instead I had the discomfort of pain surrounding my pelvis again.
I really didn't know what to do because the blood reached out and made me feel embarrassed. I never heard, at that time, talks about tampax or anything else, never mind knowing how to use either. I guessed and managed myself to wear a whole wad of tissue paper. Then I heard everybody who entered the washroom scream for toilet paper. It was as if the toilet paper had feet to run away from them.
In the meantime I tried to catch some sleep, but the stress was awful! I continued thinking and worried more about the possibility of being pregnant, like the Virgin Mary. I grabbed that idea from the seminary at church.
- Milagros Calderon

Rain Forest

The forest is beautiful.
The trunk is black.
The crocodile is brown.
The deer is brown.
The cobra is deadly.
The sun is red.
I am in the long vines.
The flowers are pink.
The pink sun is in the sky.
The grass is green.
The lizard is black.
The leaves and branches are red and blue.
I feel vines, branches and leaves all over my body like strong donkey hair.
- Reyna Mendoza

My Monster

I'm looking out the window at the night. It is dark. I'm tired, so I go to bed. I don't want to close my eyes, but my eyes close slowly. In the middle of the night, I wake up. Far away I am listening to a noise. The noise is like buzzing bees. I wake up on the bed. I'm looking out the window. I see the full moon near my house, and I am scared. But I don't want to wake up my family. In a little while I see something big like an elephant in the air. He has an open hand and big nails like a cat. The eyes are big like a cow. The ears are long as a rabbit's ears. I'm afraid and I am crying.
- Maximina Ruiz

      None of these stories would have been so rich in detail, in sensory perception if the authors themselves didn't see them, tell them to an audience. Seeing and story-telling allows them to go far from typical themes, such as my country, family, and school. Instead, the students move to a moment of action, a moment where something is happening, a moment that will bring the audience to the edges of their chairs. That is the moment of writing.

*Special thanks to Lisa Berman and Betty Shiflett.


Schultz, John. Writing From Start to Finish: The 'Story Workshop' Basic Forms Rhetoric-Reader Teacher's Manual. Montclair, NJ: Boynton, 1983.

Schultz, John. Writing From Start to Finish: The 'Story Workshop' Basic Forms Rhetoric-Reader. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1982.

Shiflett, Betty. "Story Workshop as a Method of Teaching Writing." College English 35 (1973).

back to content page