Start your lessons with CI: Storyline bell ringers

When I made the decision to move towards Comprehensible Input methods in my Novice-level French classes, I was on the lookout for all kinds of ways to infuse stories into my lesson plans.

One strategy that I have enjoyed using is storyline bell ringers. I had already been using bell ringers to structure my classes before I developed this idea, just not in a very CI-friendly way. I would sometimes write a verb on the whiteboard and ask students to conjugate it, or ask the class to define some vocabulary words—a little easy practice to get the kids settled in and the lesson going, but nothing with much context built around it.

This changed when I realized that I could use bell ringers as another opportunity to flood my students with input. The original idea came from a product that I purchased from Martina Bex. It was a French lesson that included a reading and an activity, as well as a story-based bell ringer. My students had a lot of fun starting the class with this mini-story, and it gave me the thought, “What if I turn all of my bell ringers into stories? Better yet, what if the students and I come up with the stories together?”

And just like that, a super fun CI staple in my classroom was born. There are so many different ways you can tweak this idea to work for you, depending on whether you use thematic units and targeted structures (as I typically do) or if you have a more free-form CI approach. Below I have outlined just one way to do it, but feel free to change the format so that it meets your own needs and style.

Step 1: At the beginning of a thematic unit, I introduce the topic we will be focusing on. I tell my students that I would like us to invent characters who will “go through” this unit with us, and whose storyline we will follow each day in our bell ringers.

Step 2: I give each student an index card. I ask them to write down ideas for the characters and possible plots for their story.

For example, if our thematic unit is about family life in the French-speaking world, one student might invent a family of characters who are about to move from France to Morocco. Another student might imagine a mother-son musical act who are taking a tour through Québec. A third student might invent a family of lions who live in a French zoo, and on and on.

I encourage students to have fun and be silly with this, because it will help us create more interesting stories. (Not that my middle school students have ever needed much encouragement to be silly!) I also tell them to write these ideas in the L1, because I’m not trying to assess what they can produce in French on this topic right now. We’re just trying to set up a starting off point for some rich CI.

Step 3: After class, I read the index cards. I choose a few that seem like they will provide us with a lot of room to explore the characters and their story in the context of the unit and use these to come up with the basis of our storyline. I save the rest of the cards and try to pepper them in to the story wherever I can throughout the unit.

Step 4: I write the bell ringer. It shouldn’t be too long or too fancy. Just a few short sentences in the target language to introduce the characters that the students invented. Below is an example of a bell ringer that I created to start off my unit on French families based on student suggestions. As you can see, it is extremely simple and leaves us with a lot of room to grow a story:

Il y a une famille. Le nom du famille est Leclerc. Dans la famille, il y a un père qui s’appelle Luc, une mère qui s’appelle Lily-Rose, et trois enfants: un fils, une fille, et un bébé. Ils habitent à Toulouse.

(Here is the translation, in case your target language is not French: There is a family. The name of the family is Leclerc. In the family, there is a father who is called Luc, a mother who is called Lily-Rose, and three children: a son, a daughter, and a baby. They live in Toulouse.)

Step 5: The next day in class, I project the bell ringer on a screen or write it on the board. I choose a strategy to get the students to work with it in some way—translate it to English, turn to a shoulder partner and tell them what it means, choose five of the most important words from it, etc. After a few minutes, I read the bell ringer aloud to the class and do some circling with it, asking comprehension questions. Then, we move on with the rest of the lesson plan for the day.

Along with all of the great CI, an added bonus of projecting the students’ ideas up on the screen like this is that they get a big confidence boost that I am using their characters and their stories. I love seeing my students’ faces light up when they realize that we are working with what they created. This builds up lots of goodwill in the class, which has a positive ripple effect on everything else we do. Pretty great stuff. : )

Step 6: After class, I write the next installment of the storyline. Then I sit back, relax, and enjoy watching the plot unfold along with my students!

My students usually have lots of fun with this and get really invested in the characters. One year, we even held a birthday party in class to celebrate the imaginary first birthday of the imaginary baby of our imaginary family!

I encourage anyone who is looking for fresh ways to incorporate CI into their instruction to give this tool a try. You can adapt it a million different ways to fit your style, and you can make it as big or as small of a part of your lesson as you want it to be.

If you have ever tried a similar strategy, or if you have a different idea about how to build in CI opportunities to your lesson structure, I would love to hear about your experience! Please feel free to leave a comment or send me a message.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to learning with you again soon!





  1. I like this! I do have a question – do you basically make the story yourself, gleaning inspiration from the ideas your srudents write that first day?


    • Hi Christy! Thanks for your question. It depends a little bit on the suggestions that I get from the students. Sometimes, they provide pretty detailed story ideas, and I just translate to French and add some information here and there if needed. Other times, students give the bare bones and I fill things out a little bit more. Often, after I read the index cards, I see that suggestions from different students can be grouped together to make a larger story. And if through our class discussion of the bell ringer, the students start to dream up different ideas for the characters, I let the story follow those paths as well. So, yes, I do write the story, but I draw on student input as much as possible. However, you could switch this up and assign one or more students the job of writing the bell ringer, which would take the idea in a whole new direction!


  2. Bonsoir! In the past I’ve asked students to invent a character (doesn’t have to be a person) with some details (writing in English) and have asked them to draw a picture of that character. I will collect them, read them all, and choose one of them for the next day: you are so right; students do get super happy when their character/story have been chosen – I basically project the picture the student drew on the board and then simply tell the class the story of this character in French.
    I absolutely love this idea of using the story for just a few minutes throughout the entire week instead of telling the entire story in one day. So instead of listening to the story, they will be reading it to change it up. Awesome! I will definitively gave it a try; I can already imagine the suspense building up 🙂 Merci!


    • Bonsoir! That is a wonderful idea to use student-created drawings as a basis for the input. Thank you so much for sharing! It reminds me a little bit of Ben Slavic’s One Word Images, with a twist. And I’m so glad you are going to give the storyline idea a try. Wouldn’t it be fun to put the two ideas together and use images on some days and story text on others? That’s what I love about this work, there are so many different ways that we can tweak ideas and make them feel new. Merci beaucoup!

      Liked by 1 person

      • This sounds fantastic! I adore Ben and Tina and their One Word Images; which is in fact much more structured and detailed than what I ever did 🙂 it is simple yet effective and powerful (I will be trying OWI this year: creating a character in class together and also reformatting my instructions by using Ben and Tina’s approach for students when they create one on paper). You are absolutely right, so many different ideas could be adapted and tweaked or re-tweaked to fit with our own teaching personalities and our own classroom needs ~ and it is awesome!


    • Also, I just read your blog post about staying positive and using mindfulness meditations in your classes. Love this idea! Looking forward to hearing more of your ideas in the future. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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