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Digital stories by Kirsty McGeoch

Digital stories
By Digital stories are created by weaving together images, music and voiceover narrations into engaging two to three-minute movies. The stories, told in the first person, are inspired by significant events, people or places in the narrator’s life and/or can be based on a certain theme. First developed in the 1990s at the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS), in Berkeley, California, digital storytelling has been embraced not only by individuals telling personal stories, but also by organizations, businesses, activists and educators. 

 In 2007, I undertook to investigate the process of implementing a digital storytelling project with two groups of advanced adult English language learners at the Institute of Continuing and TESOL Education at the University of Queensland (ICTE-UQ). After these initial two rounds of action research, digital storytelling was incorporated into the curriculum for the advanced class at ICTE-UQ.  I have since had the opportunity to guide seven more groups through this challenging, inspiring and rewarding course, which takes place over a 5-week period with around 5.5 hours of class time per week.  The aim of this article is to give a practical overview of the steps involved in making digital stories and how my students have responded to this process. Before we begin, however, I invite you to view some digital stories made by my students at www.l2digitalstorytelling.blogspot.com.


Orientation to the project

Initially, as with any language class, it is important to establish rapport and start building trust. I usually do this through a series of ‘getting to know you’ activities, which in the past have included name games, drama and poetry writing.  As an orientation to the project, I first show my digital story, followed by examples from the growing bank of work made by past students.  As part of the viewing process, we also analyze the stories in terms of the 7 elements of digital storytelling as conceived by the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS):

1.         Point (of view): The author must define the point of the story.

2.         Dramatic question: Does the story set up some tension that is later resolved?

3.         Emotional content: Truthful stories that deal with themes of love, loss, confidence, vulnerability, acceptance and rejection improve the likelihood of holding the audience’s attention.

4.         The gift of your voice: Record a natural-sounding voice-over. The teller’s voice is unique and conveys its own special meaning.

5.         The power of soundtrack: Choosing music which complements or adds an extra layer of meaning.

6.         Economy: Being selective with the script, editing out text which is shown and may be conveyed by the images. The general guideline is about 250–300 words, which translates into a three-minute story.

7.         Pacing: The rhythm of the story is crucial in sustaining the audience’s interest.

 (Lambert, 2002, pp. 45-59)

 In addition to the 7 elements, which provide guidelines rather than a fixed formula, some time is spent discussing narrative features in general, including drawing the typical ‘shape’ or map of a story and introducing the concept of the ‘story core’: problem, resolution, change/realization. (Ohler, 2008)

 With my most recent group, the students also made a mini-digital story in the first lesson, using two photographs and narrating a brief self-introduction.  This helped to acquaint them with the basic process and the software we would be using (Movie Maker 2 and Audacity). 

Coming up with a story

 Arguably the most challenging aspect of the project for students is unearthing their initial story idea. Viewing past digital stories can begin to trigger memories, as can discussions based on story prompts about turning points in their lives, their careers, their passions, influential people or treasured objects. Free writing on these topics is another effective strategy.

 The story circle

 The story circle is part of the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS workshop model) and is considered to be a pivotal stage in the process.  The group sits in a circle, as the name suggests, and one by one students read out their first drafts, or share the ideas in their heads (as is more often the case). The rest of the group listens attentively and then gives supportive peer feedback. In my experience, the story circle has helped students to test out their initial script ideas to see if they are potentially engaging and also to find the focus of their stories. It is also an activity which inspires the group to trust each other and has the effect of bonding the class. “We are much closer now”, one student commented after participating in the story circle.  One issue that needs to be addressed is the level of personal disclosure. Before we begin the process, I remind them that they should only share what they are willing to share; that personal does not necessarily mean deeply private or confessional.  From what I have observed, students seem to have a sense of their own boundaries.

 Script development

 Students continue to refine their scripts through a process of writing multiple drafts with the goal of honing them to fit within the 300-word limit.  They share their writing with their peers and also review it in response to my feedback, either via email or over a class blog. Yoon, from South Korea, reflected that during the project he ‘wrote his fingers to the bone.’  This aspect of the project is certainly demanding, but many students have reported that the process of refining the same piece of writing boosted their confidence.  As the script was part of a larger goal, students were also more invested in the writing process.  Ana, from Mexico, described how she was prompted to investigate the past perfect tense in earnest:

 “I have to go to the library, borrow a book to check the tense.  I never, never, never do that until this time because was worried about that so it was really good for my English.”

 Images and storyboarding

 When their scripts are reasonably developed, the students then make a storyboard, indicating the kind of pictures they intend to use.   This invariably leads to alterations in the script as ideas that can be shown can replace written text thereby achieving more ‘economy’.   Students are free to use or create their own photographs, or find copyright-free images online. To introduce students to the basics of visual grammar (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996) and the use of metaphor, we often read and analyse a children’s picture book called The Piggy Book by Anthony Browne (1996).  Again, we revisit some past digital stories for examples of the creative use of images. 


 Before recording their final voiceovers, the students record audio drafts of their story using a free open-source software program called Audacity.  After listening to their drafts, I give each student audio feedback on their pronunciation.  For many students, it is the first time they have recorded their voices and it raises their awareness about their weaknesses and strengths.  Having to record their voices as part of a digital story project also gives students a pretext for practicing their pronunciation, with many of them listening repeatedly to my audio feedback and re-recording their voices several times. 


 As with images, I direct students towards copyright-free music. This step is usually left until towards the end as music can be omitted if there are time constraints.

 Putting it all together

 The computer lab at ICTE-UQ has PCs, so digital stories are compiled using Windows Movie Maker 2. Students with Apple MacIntosh computers can use the free software, iMovie.  Final voiceovers are recorded and music mixed using Audacity and then imported into Movie Maker.   Before finalizing their movies, I have the students view a rough cut of each other’s movies.  This is an opportunity to get valuable feedback on whether the story is communicating the desired message, whether the images are congruent, and whether the volume of the voice and music is adequately balanced.

 Final viewing

 For my research project, the final movies were screened for the class and invited guests only.  More recently, we have held final screenings in the auditorium for the whole school to attend.  The final screening, be it for an intimate or larger audience, is a vital step in the process.   Students invest incredible amounts of time and effort in making their digital stories.  The final screening honours this effort, and honours them.  It is a truly moving experience and students are left with a genuine sense of achievement.  Robin from China summed up the sentiment well; “I did it!!”  

 What the students say

 While my research and subsequent projects did not set out to measure gains in language proficiency, students consistently report improvements in their English, particularly in terms of pronunciation, speaking and writing.   Most striking, however, are the students comments about how making a digital story is intrinsically motivating and engaging, how it creates a space for self-reflection and intercultural sharing, how it builds a strong sense of community in the class, and how it leaves them with something tangible – an artifact of which they are immensely proud.

 Other ways to use digital storytelling

 The kind of digital stories I have discussed in this article are personal ones.  The techniques of digital storytelling, however, can be used for a variety of other genres, both narrative and expository.  Likewise, digital storytelling can be adapted to suit different levels of language proficiency.  For example, in 2009, I experimented with pre-intermediate and intermediate Japanese study tour students each making a 1-minute digital story based around one single photograph and the details and personal significance behind it.  For more details, click here.

Try it for yourself

After my first digital storytelling project one of my colleagues, who was the main class teacher of the advanced group, said enthusiastically; “This is what teaching can be.”  While the involvement required by the teacher in a digital storytelling project is significant, the rewards are real.  Digital storytelling in the language classroom goes beyond language skills. It is a way for students to engage their creativity, express their identities and find their voices. For me, helping students create digital stories has been the most satisfying experience of my career, and I encourage other teachers to try it for themselves. 

For more information about digital storytelling and links to resources, visit Kirsty’s website or contact her at Kirsty.mcgeoch@gmail.com.

  • Browne, A. (1996). Piggybook. London: Walker Books.
  • Kress, G., & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge.
  • Lambert, J. (2002). Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community. Berkeley, CA: Digital Diner Press.
  • Ohler, J. (2008). Digital Storytelling in the Classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Author’s Bio:
Kirsty McGeoch has worked as an English language instructor for 14 years – in Australia, Asia and South America. After completing her Master of Education degree at the University of Sydney in 2005, she received an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship to write her PhD thesis on digital storytelling in second language teaching and learning. She teaches part-time at the Institute of Continuing and TESOL Education at the University of Queensland, and gives professional development workshops in digital storytelling for teachers.

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