How to Use Stories With Students With Disabilities

This material was designed for use by teachers and buddies who work with students with special needs.

33 Ways To Use  A Story

A story can be a vicarious experience where your students can actually be participants.

  • Your enthusiasm is catching! Do you like the story? If not, find a substitute story with the same theme or main idea. Test the skeleton bones of any story by saying to yourself, “This story is about_______  who ______and ________. If it fits your main idea, you are ready to put flesh on the bones to make it interesting.
  • Know the different  attention spans of your students. They may be polite and sit still for a long story or for the reading of an entire book, but they may have turned off after three minutes or less. You can learn to shorten a story when you retain the characters, plan a little conflict and bring a resolution to the end. A good story does not need explanation at the end, but it needs a great beginning. Use an object of interest – anything from a rock to a basket of anything covered at first to pique curiosity – and remember to use something tactile especially with persons with vision impairments. Seat students with hearing impairments near the story teller making sure the teller’s face is well lighted.
  • Students understand stories on more than one level, and any level of understanding is wonderful. Special needs students are mostly literal thinkers, and the story may be just a story or may move to applied meanings or NOT.
  • Make the Bible visible when using a Bible story even if you are not reading from the Bible.  Hold up the Bible and say, “This story is from our treasure book, the Bible,” or “This is a might-have-been story based on words from the Bible.” Or say, “This story is not from the Bible, but it is based on verses in the Bible.” Vision impaired students like to feel the Bible, and almost all children like to touch it and smell it!

Here are 33 ways to tell and use a story. Don’t be surprised if you can add to the list! Stories are wonderful!

1. Create a wall of boxes at eye level. Inside each box place a scene or character from the story. After telling the story, take a wall-story walk when a student removes the lid from each box for a telling review. Some students can create the boxes using their own art work or cut out pictures. If you have students who cannot walk, place boxes within their reach. If you have students who are vision impaired, outline the figures with rubber cement that dries to make a raised picture.

2. Tell it. Can’t remember? Use a cheat sheet with chronological words or the name of characters tacked on wall, written on your hand, or on a notecard. Use pictures as reminders for yourself as well as the students.

3.  Let the student read it. Some students can read, others may read a little.  Assist non readers to feel good about their skills by “lining out” the words. You read a phrase and they repeat it. You read the next phrase, and they repeat it. When the story or paragraph is finished, compliment the student. Use of a story board or rebus is another way to assist the student to “read.”

4.  Have students listen for words in a story. Assign individuals to listen for one word, or assign a word to a listening team or multiples of words. Have students raise hands or place a piece of paper or paper clip in front of them when they hear the word. It should be a silent response or it interrupts the story. Another important option is to read the story once then give each person a musical instrument and have them make a pre-arranged sound when they hear the word such as the word Jesus, wind, feed, disciple, etc. Students love to reverse the roles letting the teacher listen and react to a word or character and having the class check to see if the teacher misses reacting. It’s all in the name of repetition.

5.  Play a recording of a story. Know the attention span of your group and make the story as short as possible. Some students need to hold something while they listen.

6.  Listen for ideas or actions in a story, use listening teams, and have them respond in ways you decide or let them decide how they will respond when they hear the story idea or action. (honesty, prayerfully, wrongfully, good deed, kind words, etc.) Choir chimes make good punctuation or every hero in a story could use some drumming to announce his or her coming.

7.  Use a flannel board. Tell the story. Giving students characters or scenery to hold. Re-tell the story then having the students place the character at the appropriate time.

8.  Use pictures with a story. Remember that special needs students are literal thinkers, so have the picture EXACTLY match the story. If it doesn’t match, alter the story to include what’s in the picture, or your listeners will get off onto questions and comments having nothing to do with the story.

9.  Use objects to interest a group or illustrate a point. For example, fill a basket with bread, stones, etc. and cover it with a napkin. Create interest by asking what is under the napkin.  Or pass out stones, paper, etc. and have students hold objects until you come to that part of the story.  Pass around a tin of birdseed to generate interest in story of the ravens feeding Elijah. Put a shoe in the middle of the table or story area or have students put theirs in the middle when you are creating interest for a walking story, or a wrench or bicycle pump if the story involves bikes.

10. Make power point or transparencies to illustrate incidents in the story. Have a student manage the computer or projector when possible. This also works well at a learning station.

11. Dramatize a story. Read the story, talk it, choose characters, dress the part and act it out.  “Line out” lines for non-readers and have mentor-helpers speak for non-speakers. Younger children can act the story told by a narrator/leader. Never underestimate the power of students’ imagination, but a symbol of the character is important: Have something for students to wear, anything from a sign hanging around the neck to a scarf, head band or drape of cloth or full costume. Video or still picture the drama for later review. Delete stage directions from any script as students cannot discriminate and will read all directions as part of the script.

12.  Write a story. Say, “This will be a story about……state theme or idea….What characters will be in the story. What is their problem?….How will they solve it?

13. Make a tableau, a visually dramatic scene or situation with the characters posed to illustrate the story. A narrator tells the audience the story or meaning of the depicted scene.  A variation of the tableau is a depicted scene with actions and the narrator calls “freeze” and characters freeze in that pose. For repetitive purposes and a lot of fun, have the narrator speak, the characters move, but let the audience yell,  “Freeze” at some point. Allow time for laughs or serious discussion, whichever suits the occasion, then have audience yell, “Thaw.” Video this activity to show later for review.

14.  Tell part of a story and let the class finish it. An alternative method requiring an adult leader in each small group lets small groups finish the ending and compare their endings. This works only with older, more mature thinking, students.

15. Ask questions after a story. Questions in the form of riddles add interest and sometimes humor. (Jesus sent his friends to get me so he could ride into Jerusalem: What am I?)

16.  Pantomime a story while the teacher or student reads it. Read or tell the story before doing the pantomime.

17. Draw pictures or paint to illustrate a story. Easy painting is blue water for any drama backdrop.

18.  Let students record a story. Have parents of a non-verbal student who uses a voice machine help the student record a story in his own speaking/voice/computer. Appreciate the fact that this is his/her own voice.

19.  Make and/or use simple puppets to tell a story. Some students with sensory problems will not put hands inside puppets. Use tongue depressor/craft sticks with paper characters glued on to enact the story. A good stage for this type puppet is a file storage box with the lid removed and the top cut away to make way for the puppeteers to lower their characters. Take pictures to show later as students use them for review.

20.  Use or make a rebus story. Use large poster paper for the words and pictures when making the story. The story stays focused if you have pictures ready rather than having students hunt pictures that illustrate the story. Use the story over and over. Provide a pointer so a student can point to the picture as the leader reads and the group supplies a picture-word.

21.  Use a story as a springboard for making things: a peep hole box, a street of houses, various types of books, a rock garden, etc.

22.  Use a story with repetition or verse and set it to music, or create repetition in the story and have students respond when the repetition occurs. Some story rhythms lend themselves to soft clapping as the story is chanted.

23.  Use the story as a springboard for simple games that reinforce the theme or idea. For example: Make a hopscotch on sidewalk or plastic table cloth taped to the floor that depicts the characters from the story of the good Samaritan. When you land on the character, you say his name. The second time played, a bonus is given if you can tell what that character did. The last square is “The Good Guy.” A bonus is given if the student can tell why one of the characters  was the “Good Guy.”

For persons who are partially immobile, tape the game to a table and blow a ping pong ball on a table or tossi a bean bag. Totally immobile persons can choose someone to be a designated blower or tosser.

24.  Help a student select and practice an interpretive reading to be presented to the group.

25.  Find a story in the Bible. There are many methods for doing this. Select a method most useful to the capabilities of the group. Vary the methods when possible.  a) find and read a story directly from the Bible, 2) tell a story in contemporary words emphasizing a single word and repeating it often, then have students look to the scripture you have selected to find that word. Have them use non-bleed markers to underline that word and repeat it. Have a student write the word on chalkboard or have a pre-printed card to hold up. This treasure hunt for words makes a non-reader successful and is fun for readers.

26. Sing a story.

27. Establish a story telling review box or trunk where you keep props from any of the above suggestions. (This is most suitable for children and youth.)  From time to time, let a student open the box and select an item and review the story. Start with something concrete: What is this? What did it do in the story?  Who was in the story? What did that person do? Why?  Sometimes the leader has to “prime” the flow of ideas by giving a clue.

28. Preview the story with conversation and/or objects from the students’ daily lives. For example: Who has new shoes? Or, What are your favorite shoes? What kind of shoes would Jesus wear? Did his feet get dusty? Provide a sandal and/or a pan of water for washing feet.

29. Let students re-tell a story to the stuffed animals in the book corner. Repetition is good.

30. Use a social story. Repetition of the social story is important. A social story is a story written by an informed leader, parent or professional, and it is illustrated with appropriate pictures if possible. A social story uses a the child’s name, describes an identified social situation, gives pertinent clues for behavior in that situation and concludes by defining an appropriate response.

31. Have a treasure hunt for story parts. To do this, cut the story into parts, place each part in a zip lock bag, thumb tack the bags in several locations. After all parts are found, gather to re-assemble the story, read the story. If possible, have each hunter identify the part of the story he or she found. Read the story again. Next week, have the students hide the zip lock bags for the leaders to find. Reassemble and read the story. Repitition is good!

32. Use a cell phone to announce a story. At a learning center or in a one-on-one situation, have a student call your cell phone so you can announce the subject of the story. A novel attention getter, this announcement sets you up to announce the subject again then tell the story. Experiment with a speaker phone and a short version of a story. This sounds crazy, but it actually works in the contemporary age where every special need student may have a cell phone.

33. Read it. Practice reading it aloud for flow, hard words, and your personal enthusiasm. This is probably the least interesting way to use a story, but it gets the job done. Learning stations with books work well when a student selects a book.

34.  Brainstorm your ideas and write them here:

copyright, Naomi Mitchum  2007