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2 Guess what happened to me!

Samiah Hassan

This chapter is concerned with anecdotes, a genre commonly used in our daily lives, and as such also widely used in EFL contexts at different levels of instruction. The chapter discusses general contextual features of the genre and its important role in early literacy development in EFL. It then focuses on one of the key strategic meanings that contributes to fulfil its purpose – the expression of emotions. As affect is explored, types of emotions, strategies used to express them and ways to intensify and mitigate them are described. Finally, the chapter puts forth concrete teaching-learning activities that prepare students to write an anecdote.

2.1 Anecdotes in our culture

Whenever we hear someone say “Guess what!” or “Guess what happened to me!” we know we might be in for a special story. We can expect to hear about amusing, frustrating or embarrassing events. We know an anecdote is to be told. As users of a language and members of a culture, we often listen to or tell stories ourselves; we enjoy sharing our experiences either to entertain, seek empathy, recall memories, shock our listener, or just share our emotions. Many of these stories are anecdotes.

Anecdotes are texts that generally belong to the concrete, familiar world of experience and can be found both in the oral and the written mode. They can be funny or scary, moving or ironic. They can be short or long, simple or sophisticated in terms of the meanings made and of the language resources used. They can be enjoyed by children, adolescents and adults alike. Martin and Rose (2008) tell us:

“the point of an anecdote is to share an emotional reaction. To this end, anecdotes present a sequence of events that is out of the ordinary, and conclude with the protagonists’ reaction to events. They may be a story of personal experience, a text type within a novel or short story and very often a humorous story (real or fictional).” (Martin & Rose, 2008, p. 56).

Along these same lines, Christie adds:

“the distinctive feature of an anecdote […] is that […] it unfolds some event(s) leading to a crisis, or at least an unexpected incident, it is the story teller’s emotional reaction to this crisis that gives ‘point’ to the tale.” (Christie, 2012, p. 50)

Telling anecdotes is probably one of the most common ways of sharing our experiences of the world with people we know well or with people with whom we are establishing or maintaining relationships. They are a simple, spontaneous way of sharing something that happened to us or to somebody else that is in some way remarkable or out of the ordinary. Besides sharing what happened, we share the reaction to what happened: were we happy? Scared? Moved or inspired? At times we even share the values that can be related to the events told. Expressing emotion and values is a very interpersonal social activity: it is not only about our own emotions or beliefs, it is about expecting others to agree with or support our reactions. Both the remarkable events themselves and the reaction(s) to them are at the heart of what makes anecdotes worth telling and appealing to hear. It is always interesting and revealing to hear stories told by our students and come to see what feelings, values, experiences seem relevant and worth telling about for them. 

2.2 Anecdotes in context

Anecdotes can be shared in a multiplicity of concrete situations that involve particular features related to the subject matter or field, to the interactants that participate in them and the relationship that holds between them, and in terms of what channel (oral or written) is used. We will briefly review these contextual features below. They are important, as this is the context that we will try to recreate in class. Based on its characteristics, our students will be making language selections as they tell an anecdote.

Anecdotes can be about very varied areas of experience: family, school, vacation, work, sports, physical activity. The range is enormous. In the context of an anecdote, we generally talk about these topics in commonsense terms, only occasionally specifying more technical notions related to a special field. If we are telling our friends from our fishing club about our last weekend catch, we will probably use specific vocabulary related to fishing gear, for example, as we recreate the experience for a specialized audience.

We often tell anecdotes to family or friends or to people we do not know that well and with whom we are trying to establish or maintain a relationship. We can tell an anecdote at a family dinner or in a work meeting, in a class or to support a point in a lecture. The anecdote can help us communicate with others, share feelings and values or make and support an important point. And as we said above, we will be attempting to get our audience to express their approval, their solidarity toward what we are saying.

Anecdotes can, of course, be written, yet they are very often shared orally and interactively. This seems to be the most natural way in which anecdotes are shared: dynamically, including comments and feedback, in a face-to-face context. The teller and listener collaboratively build the story, sharing comments, laughter, expressions of surprise or fun or fear, of support or resistance as the story unfolds. Another very important feature of the mode in which anecdotes are told is that they can very often be found as part of (or embedded in) another genre as a letter to a friend, a personal e-mail, a post in social media, a longer story we tell as well as in other more public contexts (such as an opinion editorial, a lecture, an inspirational talk) or in academic contexts (as in an essay), just to mention a few. Anecdotes fulfill the very important function of telling about remarkable events in our daily lives that are associated (symbolically, we can say) to feelings, values, or more abstract ideas. This functionality makes them very productive in a wide range of settings. We discussed this feature of anecdotes in Chapter 1, Section 1.3 and will further discuss it in Chapter 5, Section 5.2, when we describe the role of anecdotes embedded in opinion editorials.

Anecdotes are very much part of our family life and of children’s first school experiences as they are asked to recreate events for an audience that did not witness them and that they wish to be supported by as they share their feelings and, possibly, their values. They are very appropriate genres for lower levels of instruction (in the EFL context as well) as they are about concrete, commonsense, here-and now experience, expressed by meanings and wordings that are congruent. They are important initial building blocks in a students’ literacy development that will be recontextualized over and over in the context of longer, more complex genres or macro-genres.

2.3 Anecdotes in the EFL context

Based on our analysis of several collections of EFL course book series, we have found that anecdotes are not always identified or labeled as such, but simply as stories. They belong to the more general family of story genres, together with narratives, recounts, exempla and observations. Each one of these story genres has a distinctive feature and is, in fact, quite common as a pedagogic object, especially narratives, recounts and anecdotes. Very briefly, recounts are a series of temporally connected events and their key purpose is to recreate the events themselves (as when we tell a friend about the events in a day); narratives tell us about a series of events that lead to a conflict that the protagonist attempts to deal with and they typically move toward a resolution (as story books we read to children); anecdotes, in turn, are not about a conflict or its resolution but rather about the emotional reaction to the unexpected turn of events (that make us happy, scared, moved). These story genres are very often used to practice narrative past tenses and time connectors.[1] Let’s consider a sample anecdote included in a National Geographic course book, drawn from the autobiography Facing the Lion, by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton, a story of a Maasai young boy who goes through an unforgettable experience:

One holiday, when I was 14, I went to help my brothers. They were travelling with my family’s cows. During the night, lions attacked the cows. The next morning, we saw the lions. They were eating a dead cow. The young lions weren’t moving. A big male lion was looking at me. His tail was hitting the ground slowly and repeatedly. I was shaking with fear. Suddenly, they gave a loud roar. I ran home. I was happy to go back to school.[2]

This lovely anecdote is included at the very beginning of a lesson in an excerpt of the autobiographical recount Facing the Lion. Even when it functions very well as a self-contained anecdote, it is a good example of one that is embedded in another, longer, more complex genre: the autobiography of Joseph Lekuton. This is a very frequent setting for anecdotes to occur: to illustrate people’s customs, habits and daily life. The lesson in which it is included is centrally about the past continuous. There are, in fact, three additional story genres in the lesson, all contexts for past tenses to be practiced. The anecdote is used as a very appropriate context to present and practice this grammar resource, not as a pedagogic object in itself.

Let’s briefly review this simple anecdote. It starts, as most stories do, orienting the reader by introducing key information: participants and the setting in time and place (I was 14; my brothers; one holiday; travelling with my family’s cows). After this initial frame is provided, the anecdote unfolds chronologically as a series of events that include an action or set of actions leading to a disruptive, out-of-the-ordinary happening that interrupts the expected normal flow of events (During the night, lions attacked the cows; we saw the lions; big male lion was looking at me). These events are clearly reacted to (I was shaking with fear; I was happy to go back to school). In only a few lines and using very simple language the Maasai boy shares this special experience that disrupted what would have otherwise been an ordinary trip transporting the family cows.

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So anecdotes are frequently included in EFL course books, whether they are explicitly identified as such or not. What is clear is that students are both exposed to reading and to producing them. The more aware we are of their potential in terms of students’ literacy development, the better. As Christie (2012, p. 50) states, “telling one’s interlocutors about events that occurred when the latter were not present – is a developmentally demanding task”. Additionally, anecdotes provide a friendly context for the treatment of a variety of topics (fun, work, sports) for a variety of audiences (friends, family, colleagues, strangers) with which we attempt to construe solidarity around both values and attitudes, as well as multiple channels that can be used (face-to-face, over the phone, by e-mail, chat). This flexibility makes anecdotes a very easily adaptable genre, suitable in a good number of teaching situations. They can be effectively understood and produced by students at almost all levels of instruction in EFL. We can make students any age, even at a pre-intermediate level, understand and also produce a simple anecdote using the simple present and effectively expressing their reaction to the events they share using basic adjectives, adverbs and intensifiers (exclamation marks can do!). Actually, the fact that we are sharing emotions, something that is so natural to us as users of a language, makes anecdotes an engaging way to build and maintain bonds among our students.

2.4 Our study

Anecdotes in English have been extensively described by Rothery and Stenglin (1997), Martin and Plum (1997), Christie (2012), and Martin and Rose (2008, 2012) as one of the family of story genres together with recounts, exempla, narratives and observations. Salmaso (2014) is concerned with anecdotes in Spanish as they appear in admission interviews carried out in public mental health youth centers in Mendoza, Argentina and Salmaso (2017) extrapolates her taxonomy of story genres in Spanish to story genres in English. Gauna (2018) has analyzed anecdotes in Spanish by native speakers of the language and those included in textbooks for teaching and learning Spanish as a second language. At the EFL Teacher Training College at Universidad Nacional de Cuyo (UNCuyo), in Mendoza, we have been working with anecdotes since 2006 and have developed descriptive and applied material on the textual structure and the expression of emotion in anecdotes. We have drawn upon all these studies as we analyzed anecdotes in EFL course books and the authentic ones in our corpus.

In the context of our project, after revising four series of EFL course books[3] which are used in elementary and secondary education, both in state and private schools and language institutes in Mendoza, we analyzed the anecdotes we found, their purpose and treatment as teaching-learning objects in the units in which they appeared. We then compared these anecdotes to authentic samples by native speakers of English that we collected. We asked them to write about some special (inspiring, scary, shocking, funny, etc.) event or experience in their life.[4]

We analyzed anecdotes by native speakers of the language, some of which are well beyond most of our EFL students’ level of instruction. Analyzing these samples made it possible for us to come up with a textual model of anecdotes and a description of the key meanings made that can be expressed by language resources that can vary in complexity. So, for example, expressing counter-expectancy – i.e. how the normal course of events seems to be upset or disrupted – and emotion are key meanings in anecdotes and can be expressed very straightforwardly or with more sophisticated means, as we will see below, in Section 2.7, on the expression of emotion in anecdotes. Identifying the key meanings in authentic samples makes it possible to think in terms of the functions fulfilled in the text (expressing counter-expectation, emotion, events in the past) and how these functions can be fulfilled at different levels of instruction with the particular repertoire of meanings that students already have. This is the case with the study and description of anecdotes and, in fact, of any genre.

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2.5 Fishing with Titus

We will now introduce an authentic sample anecdote, Sample Anecdote 1[5] which we will use to describe the generalizable textual structure of this genre and the key meanings and wordings used.

The following anecdote was brought to us by a friend, Richard, who tells a personal experience he went through with his son, Titus. We have used it as an example in our classes with students at an intermediate level of instruction (and above).

One of the most memorable moments in my life came one night when I was fishing with Titus. He was about 8 or 9 years old. We went to a place on the edge of Seneca Lake to fish for a few minutes after dinner one night. The sun was just going down. We did not have any luck catching fish, so we were about to pack up our gear and head home. But at that moment I saw a slight movement on the pier where we were standing. The pier – actually it was more of a jetty – was made entirely out of rocks, so there were cracks between the rocks. Out of one of the cracks appeared a little black nose. Then the head appeared. It was a mink – a small, but cute, rat-like animal. The mink was obviously a baby. It was probably about the size of my hand. It came out and walked towards Titus and I. Then another appeared from another crack. Then another. And another. By the end there were probably a dozen minks walking around that jetty. They walked to us and started to sniff our shoes; then they climbed on top of our shoes. These were wild animals! But they were so cute. I imagine it was the first time they ever left the nest. After about 10 minutes I realized that if there were a dozen baby minks around, there was probably a mother mink around too. Knowing that minks have very sharp teeth, I told Titus it was time to leave. But I would say it was one of the times in my life that I felt most connected to nature. [1]

We have called this anecdote Fishing with Titus. It involves activities which include a disruptive element during a normal uneventful evening out fishing. As the story opens the narrator anticipates that he will tell us about ‘one of the most memorable days’ in his life. He then moves on to introduce the main participants in the story (Titus and himself), and characterizes Titus (he was about 8 or 9 years old); he sets the action both spatially (by the Seneca lake) and temporally – he specifies the child’s age, which could orient a friend listening to the story, and the more immediate time (a few minutes after dinner one night). These details are relevant to situate the reader before the story begins. After a few more details on the moment during the day when the action occurred (which contributes to creating a certain mood), the narrator tells us about what happened on this seemingly uneventful evening that was disrupted by a remarkable occurrence. The counter-expectant But at that moment announces a change in the normal course of the action. Father and son see a few baby minks appear on the pier which at first looked cute, but could become dangerous as more and more appeared. They decide to leave the pier, impressed by the unexpected beauty of the scene.

Below, we have signaled the stages we found in this anecdote which are, in fact, those an anecdote typically goes through to fulfill its social purpose.

Fishing with Titus

Abstract the main idea or point of the story

One of the most memorable moments in my life came one night when I was fishing with Titus.

Orientation who are involved, where and when the action takes place, the mood

He was about 8 or 9 years old. We went to a place on the edge of Seneca Lake to fish for a few minutes after dinner one night. The sun was just going down. We did not have any luck catching fish, so we were about to pack up our gear and head home.

Remarkable event the events that follow sequentially, including one that is special or out of the ordinary in some way

But at that moment I saw a slight movement on the pier where we were standing. The pier – actually it was more of a jetty – was made entirely out of rocks, so there were cracks between the rocks. Out of one of the cracks appeared a little black nose. Then the head appeared. It was a mink – a small, but cute, rat-like animal. The mink was obviously a baby. It was probably about the size of my hand. It came out and walked towards Titus and I. Then another appeared from another crack. Then another. And another. By the end there were probably a dozen minks walking around that jetty. They walked to us and started to sniff our shoes; then they climbed on top of our shoes.

Reaction the emotional reaction to the events which constitutes the point of the story

These were wild animals! But they were so cute. I imagine it was the first time they ever left the nest. After about 10 minutes I realized that if there were a dozen baby minks around, there was probably a mother mink around too. Knowing that minks have very sharp teeth, I told Titus it was time to leave.

Reorientation / Coda a final reorientation to present time and a comment on how the events are remembered

But I would say it was one of the times in my life that I felt most connected to nature.

We can represent the textual structure of anecdotes as follows:

ch02-22

This linear representation reflects several features of anecdotes and about the properties of each stage. We will draw on Hasan’s description of the properties of stages (Hasan, 1996, p. 53)[6] as it is helpful in foregrounding the following about the textual structure of an anecdote:

  • it typically unfolds along the stages displayed above;
  • some of the stages are obligatory, or genre-defining (i.e. they help us identify the genre);
  • others are optional (in brackets) and explain the variability among individual instances of anecdotes;
  • stages typically follow each other sequentially (signaled by ˄).

So an anecdote will typically unfold along all these stages opening with an Abstract and an Orientation that prepare the reader experientially and interpersonally. It can open by anticipating that an anecdote is coming as when we are told Oh, I’ll never forget once when…; Guess what happened to me or The craziest thing happened to me. These expressions clearly anticipate the genre and already part of its emotional impact. Then the writer can take time to orient us in terms of time, place and even mood. Alternatively, it could just jump onto the events that lead to a remarkable one and to the reaction that it provokes. The action itself, particularly what is out of the ordinary about it, is an obligatory part of the anecdote, just as the emotional reaction it provokes is. The writer will optionally wrap up the story by returning to the present and briefly looking back onto the events, highlighting their significance.

In the table below we list the stages in an anecdote and the description of the function that each stage performs so that the whole text effectively shares an experience and the reaction to it.

ch02_chart-02

2.6 Meanings and wordings in an anecdote

We will now briefly comment on the meanings and wordings that we typically observe in each of the stages.

Most of the authentic sample anecdotes we analyzed do not have a title given to them by their author. Some did include one, such as:

  • One Down
  • An Experience in Mendoza
  • My Trip to Riva Diva

In EFL course books, anecdotes are typically given a title; such is the case of stories like Rescue, Facing the Lion, Lady in Red, to name but a few. This could be so to highlight the content or the focus of the units or lessons in which they appear.

Titles are usually expressed by nominal groups that include pre-modification (articles, adjectives, adverbs) and some post-modification (prepositional groups, adverbs, embedded adjectival clauses: The young lady who lost her purse, The man who could see without his eyes). We encourage students to give their anecdotes a title as this entails expressing in a few words what they are trying to transmit, what the point of their story is. We can encourage them to try to engage their readers effectively and to move beyond rather general titles such as An experience in Mendoza.

The Abstract is often expressed in one or two clauses that either anticipate the emotion caused by the experience and/or anticipate the interpretation of the experience. We have found these ideas typically expressed by verbs that refer to mental activity (remember, recall, forget), verbs that represent verbal activity (tell, listen to), relational clauses (be, seem), abstract nouns that capture the idea of ‘happenings’ (moments, experience, something that happened), adjectives to describe events (memorable, best, most exciting). The following examples illustrate some of these choices:

  • You won’t believe what happened to me!
  • One of the most memorable moments in my life came one night when I was fishing with Titus. [1]
  • One of the most important moments in my life came when I had just joined the Peace Corps. [2]
  • […] This particular date has stuck with me even up to the moment I am writing this, nearly six months later. [6]

The Orientation, which is described by Martin and Rose (2008, p. 56) as an optional stage, was observed in all the anecdotes we analyzed. It fulfills some or all of the following functions: orienting the reader in terms of the participants involved, the place where actions take place and time when they occur; establishing some kind of usuality, “a scene of tranquil normalcy,” in Martin and Rose’s words (2008, p. 59); raising expectancy in terms of how things or events usually happen. These functions are typically expressed in one or more clauses that include verbal groups in past narrative tenses (simple and continuous), verbs that express activities related to events with different degrees of specificity (go fishing; cast; stream; strike), time linkers associated with one-time events (when; after; before; later), prepositional groups or adjectival clauses that express time and place (on the edge of Seneca lake; for a few minutes after dinner one night). Some examples follow:

….when I was fishing with Titus. He was about 8 or 9 years old. We went to a place on the edge of Seneca Lake to fish for a few minutes after dinner one night. The sun was just going down. [1]

Living in the foothills of the Andes mountains for half a year to learn Spanish forced me to re-examine the life I left at home. One evening, I was sitting at the dinner table with my Argentine host mom, and I was gushing about the beauty of the mountains she got to look at every day. I was jealous that we didn’t have mountains where I was from. [4]

I should first set the scene. This date took place on my last weekend in Hawaii. I had been staying in this breathtaking island for three months, selling hot dogs and smoothies on the beach and spending time with the many friends I had made throughout the trip. [6]

The Remarkable Event is an obligatory stage in an anecdote. Events that are out of the ordinary typically disrupt or upset the usuality that has been established. So events that are counter-expectant, that alter the normal course of events are described, as in:

But at that moment I saw a slight movement on the pier where we were standing. The pier – actually it was more of a jetty – was made entirely out of rocks, so there were cracks between the rocks. Out of one of the cracks appeared a little black nose. Then the head appeared. It was a mink – a small, but cute, rat-like animal. Then another. And another. [1]

The change in the normal course of events is typically signaled by a conjunction expressing contrast or counter-expectation (but, yet, still), an adverbial (suddenly, unexpectedly) or a prepositional phrase (without our knowing) all typically placed in initial, prominent position to foreground it. These markers signal that the remarkable event is about to be come. Narrating the events in this stage is an important challenge for our students. Recreating vividly what happened is important for the anecdote to be effective. It is a stage in which students will intensively practice past narrative tenses to recreate events that follow each other or occur simultaneously; they will use temporal and causal linkers and circumstances of time, place, mode, for example, all of which will bring the depiction of events to life. The remarkable or disruptive event leads straight into the Reaction, the heart of the anecdote, where the emotional response to the events is expressed, as in:

These were wild animals! But they were so cute. [1]

Feeling more humiliated than dejected, I made my way to the plaza of Misery. [3]

I was shaking with fear. […] I ran home. [5]

Reactions are expressed most typically in relational clauses (with verbs like ‘be’ or replaceable by ‘be’) as in I was scared!, by verbs expressing a mental state, as in Feeling more humiliated than dejected, I felt terrified, or by verbs that express the behavioral manifestation of an emotional state, as in I was shaking with fear. As stating the reaction to the events told is a key function of anecdotes, we will devote Section 2.7 below to describing the typical attitudinal meanings and the ways they are expressed in this stage.

As the anecdote comes to a close, we optionally find two more stages that can very effectively finish it off. These are the Reorientation and Coda which can be fused together. In these stages the narrator signals the story is over by looking back onto the events from a distance (of both time and place), evaluating them and finishing off the anecdote. The writer relocates him/herself at a different place and/or time and looks back upon the events told, bringing them closer to the emotional here and now. The Reorientation expresses this temporal and spatial relocation, most frequently with an adverbial (now, a few weeks/years later, back home) to signal this change, typically in initial, prominent position, as in:

Every time I see a deer at home now, I think of my excited host mom, sitting at the dinner table, laughing and talking about how fun it would be to have Bambi’s in your own back yard. [4]

When I look back on this moment, I always remember the range of emotions I felt […] [6]

In the Coda, the narrator tells us in one or more clauses how they evaluate the whole experience, either in positive or negative terms. The choice is mostly to use nominal groups that capture or distill the events told (time, moment, experience, trip shown in bold below) that is, in turn, usually pre- or post-modified (pre- and post-modifiers underlined), as in:

But I would say it was one of the times in my life that I felt most connected to nature. [1]

It was humbling and it set the stage for me to have the right attitude to what I was about to do. [2]

My trip to Riva Diva was not for naught after all. [3]

I can definitely say that this day was the highlight of my life so far […] [6]

The narrator often projects this final evaluation of events with a clause containing a verb expressing ‘saying’ as in I would say; I can definitely say. This structure foregrounds how the events and the emotions raised are recollected. Quite frequently, both the re-setting in time and place and the final evaluation occur in a single clause, as in:

Things turned out to be okay and today I am fine but I am always craving bananas… [5]

Or we are just told how the event is remembered, with the reorientation in time implicit, as in:

When I look back on this moment, I always remember the range of emotions I felt: anxiety, fear, adrenaline, calm and gratitude not only because I got to skydive but also because I survived! [6]

We can encourage our students to include these two final stages that finish off the anecdote. Working out what exactly they wish to say (what their point is) as they wrap up their anecdote involves identifying exactly what more abstract ideas, values, attitudes the events they just told stand for. This is an important skill that will surely be implicated in their literacy development later on.

In the following sections, we focus on the expression of one of the meanings that is central to anecdotes: the expression of attitude, more specifically, of emotion, positive or negative, happy or sad. We will describe the emotions that are typically expressed, the way in which these emotions are expressed and how they are intensified or mitigated. As we do so, it will become evident that students at different levels of instruction will be able to express emotions with more or less sophisticated resources. Yet, as we have suggested all along, a very effective anecdote can be written with very basic attitudinal language (happy; scared; surprised), intensified by a basic pre-modifier (very; so; rather), an exclamation mark, and even a nice drawing!

2.7 Reacting to events: the language of emotions

As we said above, one of the key features of an anecdote is that we share our emotional reaction to something remarkable, out of the ordinary that happened to us or to somebody else. Whatever occurred that stands out in a certain ‘normality’ can provoke our surprise, fear, enjoyment, delight or discontent. Or, put differently, we can feel moved, inspired, shaken up by the events that occurred.

We will now describe in some more detail how emotion is typically expressed in an anecdote. More specifically, we will discuss the ways in which we express our feelings, the way we intensify or mitigate what we feel or felt and how these meanings are incorporated into an unfolding anecdote. To account for the type of meanings we make, we will draw upon the system of Appraisal, a framework that systematizes all the very varied types of evaluative meanings that we can express related to our feelings, to things and processes in the world and to people’s behavior. We draw upon the work by Macken-Horarik and Martin (2003), Martin and White (2005), Martin and Rose (2008), Martin and Hood (2005), Bednarek (2008), Macken-Horarik and Isaac (2014), and Thompson (2014) on Appraisal and its application to the analysis and teaching of narrative texts.[7] In this chapter we will concentrate mainly on the expression of emotions. Later in the book, in Chapter 5, we will take up Appraisal again to discuss evaluative meanings in the context of opinion editorials. Martin and White (2005, pp. 19-22) propose that of all the huge array of emotions we feel, we can classify them quite systematically into three main areas: un/happiness (moods of feeling happy or sad), in/security (feelings of peace and anxiety in relation to our environs), and dis/satisfaction (feelings of achievement and frustration in relation to the activities in which we are engaged) and, following Bednarek (2008), we can add the semantics of surprise, both negative and positive in its impact.

As we describe the attitudinal meanings made in anecdotes we will also refer to the concrete wordings (mainly lexical) with which we express them. Our ultimate goal is to be able to explicitly talk about and work with attitudinal meanings and the language resources we can draw upon to express emotions effectively in an anecdote, and for that matter, in other personal narratives or genres in which emotions are expressed.

2.7.1 Emotions and manners of expression

Following Martin and White (2005, pp. 46-7), we can very broadly distinguish emotions in terms of their being positive or negative, their being expressed as a surge of emotion (as in I cried) or as an ongoing state (Im thrilled) and, very importantly, as explicitly stating what our emotion is (as in Im thrilled) or invoking an ongoing state of mind is (She sat, looking out of the window on end). The manner of expression is an important aspect of the expression of attitude: awareness of the effect of ‘showing’ an emotion rather than ‘telling’ it is quite powerful. We will review these distinctions in this section.

Based on the texts we have analyzed, we have found that the writers resort to an interesting and varied array of strategies to communicate how they feel (or how they felt) when something unexpected happened to them. Writers can express their feelings in a very direct, explicit way or be less straightforward and invoke or suggest what they feel or felt.

Let’s observe the example below. The narrator tells us about the amazing experience of going skydiving in Hawaii and he expresses his emotions quite explicitly. He actually chooses to suspend the narrative (the telling of the events) and takes his time to specify the effect that the events had on him:

After about a minute later (probably the longest minute of my life), the instructor lifted the parachute and we descended slowly. I was astonished by the amazing view of the island and the Pacific Ocean. I got to enjoy the view for a few moments with calmness and tranquility before we landed back at the base. [6] 

We have underlined the explicit expressions of emotion that he has used: an adjective (astonished), a verb (I got to enjoy), and abstract nouns that nominalize emotions (calmness and tranquility). As this example shows, emotions can be very directly expressed by adjectives, the most natural way the language has developed for us to express feelings as in I was so scared!; adverbs: I asked anxiously; verbs: it kind of frightened me; or nouns: Her delight did not last long or their horror was clearAll these ways of expressing emotions are explicit, the choice is to ‘tell’ the reader what the emotional impact of happenings in the world was.

In the following excerpt from another sample anecdote, in which a foreign student experiences quite an amusing episode around a misunderstanding with her host mother here in Argentina, the narrator also chooses to express her host mom’s and her own feelings explicitly. We have underlined the expressions of emotion below:

She was so excited to imagine my house in the middle of the woods surrounded by lush green fields, rabbits named Thumper, and skunks named Flower. Every time I see a deer at home now, I think of my excited host mom, sitting at the dinner table, laughing and talking about how fun it would be to have Bambi’s in your own back yard. [4] 

In this excerpt, we find a slight change from telling us very explicitly and exactly how the host mother felt (She was so excited) to a description of her host mother’s behavior as a manifestation of her emotion (laughing and talking about how fun it would be to have Bambi’s). In this case, we are told about the manifestation of her excitement. This is a very common way of reflecting how a character feels which is very similar to what happens in real life, in real time. When we see or hear somebody laughing, we know that they are expressing some strong emotion, generally joy, and the context of the situation or the co-text will help us know whether the person is happy, moved or maybe nervous. Similarly, we will understand other manifestations of emotion, such as crying, yawning, stuttering, yelling, sobbing. How people behave can reflect their feeling sad or frustrated, bored, nervous or fearful, angry, or upset. This is a very effective way of expressing emotion, one that our students do not always exploit enough in their texts. It is the most obvious and vivid way of ‘showing’ versus ‘telling’ readers or listeners about emotion.

Let’s now consider our first anecdote again, about fishing with Titus. A section of it reads (dashed underline indicates invoked expression of emotion):

They walked to us and started to sniff our shoes; then they climbed on top of our shoes. These were wild animals! But they were so cute. I imagine it was the first time they ever left the nest. After about 10 minutes I realized that if there were a dozen baby minks around, there was probably a mother mink around too. Knowing that minks have very sharp teeth, I told Titus it was time to leave. [1] 

How do we know how the boy’s father feels? Well, the combination of his enumeration of all the minks that appeared (another, another, another, a dozen baby minks) that foregrounds the out-of-the-ordinary event, followed by his exclamation (These were wild animals!) and his final decision to leave the pier reveals his concern about their safety. So the descriptive details the narrator selects and what he himself does strongly suggest or invoke that he was getting increasingly worried, even scared. This more indirect way of expressing emotion is also very effective. It is, in fact, very often the way in which we sense how people around us feel. Behavior such as, for example, walking up and down a hallway, sitting down and getting up repeatedly, jumping out of a chair all suggest that a person is anxious, jumpy or nervous; hiding behind a tree may also indicate fear; letting yourself fall on a couch can show you are exhausted; jumping up and down can express your happiness. Will the emotions be clear to the listener or reader if only the behavior of a person is described? Typically, the rest of what you say or write (the co-text) will provide clues to the reader or listener that will make it possible to assign emotions to a particular behavior or activity. When the young father tells his son that it is time to leave, we know he does so not because he is in a hurry to go to work or because he is hungry, but because he is worried about the mink’s sharp teeth. Co-text helps the reader to put pieces together and assign an emotion to the particular action or behavior.

So, there seem to be several ways of expressing the emotions we feel. In the following table we list the examples in the field of ‘fear’ and we describe the strategies that have been used to express it: 

Table 2.1 Expression of fear in our anecdotes.

2.7.2 How intense can emotions become?

As we have discussed so far, expressing emotions involves choosing whether they are positive or negative, whether they will be explicitly expressed or suggested by our behavior. We also choose to express how intense emotions are (Martin & White, 2005; Martin & Hood, 2005). We can think in terms of turning the volume of emotions up or down – intensifying or mitigating them. Let’s consider the following examples:

  • I was very, very angry!
  • She was so graceful in her new role, though a little overwhelmed.
  • They were really, really scared!
  • They actually looked pretty bored.
  • I was FURIOUS.
  • They were terrified!

The first three examples use adverbs (very, so, a little), the most natural way of graduating volume, to increase the intensity or to lower it. Closely related to the expression of intensity or ‘force’, but not quite the same, is the expression of ‘focus.’ It refers to the degree to which an entity possesses a quality (as in really, really, scared) or does not sharply possess it (as in rather bored). Adverbs express intensification, mitigation and focus very effectively. And, as we can see, letter types, repetition and exclamations can also help to do the job. These are resources that our students can use, even at relatively low levels of instruction. In the last two examples, the intensification is infused (included as a semantic trait in the word): I was furious is more intense than I was upset or It bothered me. Using attitudinal language that infuses intensification or mitigation is very effective. It requires a little more work to find exactly the word that expresses the degree of intensity we wish to express. We can challenge our students not to use adverbs to turn volume up or down and force them to look for words with infused graduation.

Let’s consider two examples from our sample anecdotes:

“You have Bambi’s in Missouri?” she yelled excitedly. “Bambi’s … yeah!” I responded, laughing. She was so excited to imagine my house in the middle of the woods […] [4] 

I was terrified to go near it! And when I got about ten feet down the path I turned around very quickly to see if he was following me. [5] 

In the first example, from Sample Text 4, the narrator uses three different resources to increase the intensity of the excitement and surprise. First, she resorts to an adverb (excitedly) to show the way in which her host mom yelled. Then, the exclamation mark expresses her amazement at her host mom’s reaction ([…] yeah!). Finally, the intensifier so turns up her host mom’s excitement. The second example, from Sample Text 5, includes infused force with an exclamation: I was terrified […]!, the intensifier (very) plus the adverb quickly, all combined with her turning around to check what was happening. As we can see all these resources are working together to foreground the intensity of the emotions experienced, clearly a central functionality of sharing her experience. Together with the emotion expressed in these examples, a lot of graduation is also encoded. This suggests that when we teach emotion, we can work with the types of emotions expressed, the manner of expression and the graduation of its intensity.

2.7.3 Shifting emotions

We will briefly look again at the emotion that is expressed by the father as he tells us about his experience fishing with Titus, in Sample Text 1. He expresses emotion, mostly through invocation, as the anecdote unfolds. We will briefly examine what exactly he expresses and how he does it as we go over the text below.

As we can see, there are several emotions expressed, most of them around the idea of contentment and insecurity. There is also variation in terms of the manner of expression. The anecdote opens with a clear statement of the overarching evaluation that Richard makes of the experience: it is memorable. Interestingly, he evaluates the experience itself. That is, the ‘target’ of his attitude is the moment he experienced – fishing with his son. This is typical of more general or global evaluations we make in many texts in which things, processes or events in the world are evaluated. The attitude expressed is, in turn, very related to our reaction to them, especially our emotional reaction. When we ask our students to write a review of a story, a movie or an album, we encourage them to concentrate on the ‘thing’ they are evaluating and not only on their own emotional reaction to it (it bored me; it fascinated me; it moved me). We try to bring out the difference between focusing on our emotions versus foregrounding the qualities of the ‘thing’ itself. In the context of an anecdote, which is, in fact, mainly about emotions, the opening Abstract and closing Coda are the moments in which we may find a switch from the expression of emotion to an expression of attitude that results from looking back on the remarkable events, moment, experience with perspective. So what happened to Richard becomes one of the most memorable moments in [his] life, one in which he felt most connected to nature. These two moments in the text are positionally very prominent, as are openings and closings in all texts. The evaluation expressed as the text opens “dominates” (Martin & White, 2015, pp. 19-21) our reading of the whole anecdote. In between, as Richard tells us with immediacy and vividness what exactly happened, we come to know about his emotions, more or less explicitly expressed. Already in the Orientation, there is a subtle invocation of boredom or disappointment as they pack their gear to head back home. The use of the negative in We did not have any luck catching fish incorporates into the text the affirmative, that is, their expectation that they would, in fact, have luck and catch some fish. This statement, together with our own knowledge of the world (we all know that if you go out fishing, well, you want to go home with a catch!), work together to invoke their disappointment. So the use of the counter-expectational negative is effective. Already in the next sentence, this situation is disrupted, that is, its expected development (going home) is upset as they perceived a slight movement on the pier. Mild surprise is invoked. The initial but signals that something, again counter-expectational, is about to happen. The narration of the events that follow invokes increasing insecurity and concern until Richard decides it is time to leave the pier. So we can trace the expression of attitude, especially of emotion, as follows:

In terms of the manner in which emotion is expressed, we see that it is mostly via invocation (marked with dashed underline in Sample Text 1 above). This is the writer’s strategy: he lets events themselves do the job and speak for themselves, with a little help from counter-expectation signals (negatives, but), enumeration (as he quantifies all the mink), exclamations and only one explicit evaluation (wild animals). It is a simple anecdote, but one that shows us more than what it tells in terms of emotions. This brief commented analysis hopefully reflects the kind of work we can do with our students as we ‘teach’ them attitude, in the case of the anecdote, mainly emotion. Going over a sample text and deconstructing it with our students can help them to ‘see’ how an effective text does what it does. Actually, examining a text with them in which attitudinal meanings have been mostly deleted can be an effective way of foregrounding their functionality (via their absence!) and the way in which they could be spread out prosodically in the unfolding text (Macken-Horarik, personal communication, March 26, 2019).

2.7.4 When do emotions appear in an anecdote?

Another interesting aspect related to the expression of emotion is how it is distributed in the text. As we analyzed anecdotes we noticed that we can find emotion distributed in several ways:

  • initially anticipating the emotion in prominent position, affecting the rest of the text;
  • expressing emotion now and again as the text unfolds;
  • suspending the narration of events to express the emotion;
  • closing the anecdote with a reference to the emotion.

These choices can occur in combination and all of them cross over with the possibility of being expressed explicitly or by invocation. Sample Text 1 above clearly illustrates the expression of emotion in two dominating positions, the beginning and the end. And, as we have shown, the writer mostly invokes how he felt as he tells us about the events. Let’s now examine two other texts, below.

In the anecdote One Down, on skydiving in Hawaii, the writer takes his time to suspend the narration as he is about to jump off a plane to distinctly and quite explicitly express his emotional reaction, highlighted in bold below:

[Remarkable Event] […] After one of my friends jumped with his instructor, it was my turn. My instructor and I sat on the edge of the plane. I looked down and saw a blanket of clouds just waiting for us to drop through them. I then closed my eyes and before I know it, I was no longer on it. Everyone always asks me how the free fall felt. 

[Reaction + Remarkable Event] I always say that I felt a dropping sensation for the first five seconds and then I felt like I was floating, as if I were swimming. I was very cold but that was because I had made the intelligent decision to go barefoot with shorts and a T-shirt. I also struggled to breathe at one point as the wind just crashed through your body. But all of these minor setbacks didn’t matter at that moment. I lifted my hands up and pretended that I was flying, something that I had always fantasized as a child. 

After about a minute later (probably the longest minute of my life), the instructor lifted the parachute and we descended slowly. I was astonished by the amazing view of the island and the Pacific Ocean. I got to enjoy the view for a few moments with calmness and tranquility before we landed back to the base. As soon as we landed, I looked up and waited for the other pairs to land. My heartbeat was probably on overload for the next ten minutes. [6] 

As we can see, the writer tells us in this section of the anecdote what was happening right before his turn to jump. He even anticipates that he will move on to tell us how he felt (Everyone always asks me how the free fall felt.) He takes his time to foreground his emotion even as he continues to tell us about what happened as he descended. This is a good example in which the expression of emotion is clearly foregrounded in a section of the text, even when events (the descent) continue to unfold.

In a section of Sample Anecdote 4, the girl whose host mom shows excitement as she comes to understand the meaning of the word ‘deer’ in English, we see how emotions appear all along the text, again, highlighted in bold type below:

“They’re kind of like horses, but smaller. They’re bigger than dogs. And they have hair on their bodies and horns—” You have Bambi’s in Missouri?” she yelled excitedly. “Bambi’s … yeah!” I responded, laughing. “What is the word in Spanish for those animals, though?” I asked. “Well, I don’t know. We don’t have Bambi’s in Argentina,” she told me. “But you have all the Bambi animals where you live!” She was so excited to imagine my house in the middle of the woods surrounded by lush green fields, rabbits named Thumper, and skunks named Flower. [4] 

As we can see in this segment, the girl and the lady are quite amused talking about deer in the girl’s backyard. The action itself, in this case a dialogue, could have been reproduced with little or no mention of the type of reaction (yelled excitedly, laughing, excited).

Upon analyzing anecdotes written by native speakers and by students, we noticed a general tendency for native speakers to invoke their emotions by means of actions, all along their anecdotes. We have also noticed that our EFL students tend to concentrate their expression of emotion in a very distinct Reaction stage. This may be the result of our not talking enough about the nature of the Reaction stage as one that can be encoded discretely as a stage or one that can be expressed interspersed, spread across, as the text unfolds. Students may find it easier to add something brief like And I was embarrassed than to tell us about and show us their embarrassment as they narrate their experience. As we have tried to show, being aware of the choices both in terms of manner and distribution of attitude can help students experiment with their expression of emotions in their anecdotes.

We have attempted to review in some detail one of the key functions of an anecdote: reacting emotionally to events that are somehow out of the ordinary. This may seem a simple enough function considering how often we express how we feel as we live our lives. Yet, the choices involved are several: what emotion we are trying to convey, how we will express it most effectively, the degree of intensity we choose and how we distribute the expression of emotion along the text. Anecdotes are, of course, very spontaneous texts, particularly if told orally, yet their effectiveness will very much depend on how skillfully we get our listeners or readers to feel with us. This is an area that is not typically explicitly taught to our students. Work with vocabulary is obviously important, just as is work with all the ‘choices’ that are available to us in terms of type of emotion, manner of emotion, intensity and distribution along the text. These are choices that can be considered in our classroom with students at a relatively low level of instruction, as the expression of attitudinal meanings is typically lexical (no complex syntax is called for) or invoked by the events we tell about. Getting our students to talk about this area of the language already as they learn to produce an anecdote, a primary genre typically taught early on in their genre literacy development, will effectively pave the way for learning other much more strategic and sophisticated expressions of attitude in more complex texts. We will take up this discussion again in Chapter 5, in the context of opinion editorials.

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2.8 Teaching anecdotes

In the following section, we describe activities that address key characteristics of an anecdote, especially those related to the focus of this chapter, the expression of emotion. We will organize the activities following the teaching and learning cycle, described in Chapter 1, Section 1.6, with a view to encouraging you to go through its stages as you lead your students step by step toward independent construction of an anecdote. Most of the activities that we suggest are adaptable to more than one level of instruction and will hopefully serve as a starting point for you to design your own activities.

2.8.1 Setting context

In this stage, we activate any knowledge on the specific subject matter the text they will read or the one they will write is about. We will be tapping on the students’ interests, sharing their knowledge and organizing experience with a view to preparing subject matter. As field is built, mostly new vocabulary items that are known to students in their first language, vocabulary in English and words they are not familiar with and are introduced by the teacher will all come into play. So this stage is as much about the content, the language we need to talk about it, as it is about how experience is organized. If, for example, we are helping our students get ready to write their anecdote, they will need to think about the information and the language they need to be familiar with in order to ‘set the scene’, to ‘tell us what happened’ and ‘how they felt or reacted’. We have included some very simple activities with this purpose in mind.

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Words and more words

If we were about to read the anecdote Fishing with Titus, for instance, we could begin by discussing fun or leisure activities students enjoy with their family or friends. They can be asked to bring pictures of free-time activities they enjoy; we can bring others for them to choose from. Short videos could also be effective. School curricula typically foreground discussing local outdoor activities, so we can discuss camping, trekking, climbing, rappelling, rafting, all of which can be practiced locally. As we prepare to read the anecdote, we can focus on fishing and start to build this area of experience: the participants (not just the human ones, but also the objects, like the fishing gear, for example), the activities involved, places to go fishing. As we discuss the topic we can write relevant vocabulary on the board all mixed up or already organized in areas of experience related to fishing. Alternatively, we can review and consolidate some of the language we used by asking them to classify the vocabulary that is all mixed up in the big bubble below and complete the smaller ones on types of fishing, places where we can fish, fishing gear, emotions related to fishing, etc.

 

All this work with vocabulary will help students to increase the range of ideas they can express and also work with field in terms of areas, classifications, parts and wholes. This is a very important preparatory stage as they get ready to read or write which we can adapt to the particular field they need to work with.

If the work we do were preparatory for their writing their own anecdote, we could guide them to make sure they vividly represent the area of experience their story is about. If it were about an experience during a camping excursion, for example, they could also make sure they know the specific vocabulary they need to recreate the steps followed to put up a tent or to fold it up when it collapses over and over. The field can be built with commonsense knowledge of the world unless they are preparing to tell an anecdote to friends who are experienced campers, for example. The degree of specialization of the subject matter we build is something we can explicitly discuss with our students.

2.8.2 Deconstructing an anecdote

As we anticipated in Chapter 1, Section 1.6, deconstructing a text with our students entails i) making the structure of the text we are working with visible to our students and ii) working with the language resources they will need to use to write the text. Not surprisingly, this is quite a laborious stage in the EFL contexts, one in which we take all the time we need so students are equipped with knowledge of the structure, the meanings and wordings related to the text before we ask them to write their own text. This is what we referred to in Chapter 1 as a front-loading pedagogy.

Anecdotes may seem to be simple enough texts in terms of their structure, yet if we want to make sure we prepare our students to write a good, vivid anecdote and not a recount, for example, we need to explicitly address what makes an effective anecdote effective. We will suggest some simple ways of making its abstract ‘structure’ visible to them.

a. Modelling the textual structure of anecdotes

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Reading and boxing things up

We can ask students to get into groups of five and give each student in the group a slip of paper with a section of an anecdote. They can read each section and work out the best way to organize the pieces into an anecdote with their classmates. We can then give another five slips of paper with questions that address the content in each section for them to match. If we think they are ready, they can also work with labels. The example below lists the strips, the questions and the labels that students can receive and organize. We have suggested labels that seem simple and transparent in terms of their function. You may come up with better labels yet! [8]

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What’s missing?

We can ask students to read an anecdote that is missing a whole stage or important information within a stage that we may feel we need as readers. We can ask them to read the anecdote (individually, in pairs, in groups) and decide what seems to be missing, explain why it is necessary in the anecdote and, if appropriate, make suggestions to fill in the missing part. They should pay attention to who the participants are, what actions they are performing, where the action is set, when, what is the possible disruptive element, how the participants reacted or what we can infer their emotions were. An example in which different incomplete versions are included for students to examine follows:

Comparing the incomplete versions one to another and then with respect to the original one can help to foreground the importance of [a] an initial orientation (in time); [b] the complete episode that makes the event a remarkable one; [c] attitude that highlights what is extraordinary and clearly suggests the surprise and joy the girls experienced.

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Representing the structure visually

Once we have identified the different stages in an anecdote we can work out ways to represent it visually. This representation can vary from a straightforward table that displays stages, functions, questions addressed or labels that makes the structure explicit to more creative visual representations that are more engaging to students. In any case, the representation will be shared by teachers and students as they continue to work toward production of the genre, as the one that follows:

We can also resort to figures or formats that our students may find more friendly or amusing, as the emoji representation that follows:

How we choose to represent the structure of the text can vary widely as long as teacher and students share an effective one as we finish the deconstruction stage.

b. Modelling the language of anecdotes

This is an important step as we prepare our students to read or write an anecdote. There will be key meanings they will need to express or understand such as representing experience in the past; connecting these events logically in terms of time, place, consequence, counter-expectation; and expressing attitude (particularly emotions). Other, potentially less obvious, meanings can include building expectancy, quantifying experience, intensifying or mitigating emotion. EFL course books usually do a very good job presenting and practicing the narrative tenses in the past and the use of temporal linkers. In fact, lessons that include anecdotes or other story genres typically function as contexts for work on tenses. Yet, we may find that we need to supplement work with other key meanings involved in an anecdote (and other story genres and persuasive genres), such as the expression of attitude, its intensification or mitigation. We have included some sample activities below that address these latter meanings.

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The language of emotions

One very basic way to improve students’ expression of emotions is widening the repertoire of expressions they can use so they go beyond words such as happy, sad, angry, pleased, scared, or embarrassed. Emojis like the ones below are familiar and friendly to young students. They can be asked to find words to express the feelings invoked by the emojis or they can choose from a list we provide them with (as below, on the right).They could even be asked to use two words to describe the expression of the emoji and its opposite. These same emojis can be used for students to capture the emotion they stand for by describing not the face itself, but rather, the behavior (crying; jumping up and down; pressing hands tightly together) or just events that would invoke or suggest that emotion (seeing the person you love; finding you just lost your mobile phone; dropping your ice cream cone). We have exemplified these alternatives below:

The first brief text in the strip describes behavior that invokes surprise whereas the second and third texts just describe plain experience that we can associate with the same feeling. This is an excellent exercise to help students capture the difference between just saying He was scared/panic-stricken and actually showing through behavior or through what was happening how a character felt or must have felt. More on this a little further along.

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Happy, happy, happy!

Part of expressing emotion involves graduating the intensity of the feelings you want to convey. Intensifying and mitigating feelings can be expressed in very simple ways using pre-modifiers as very or rather or by choosing vocabulary that, in itself, already expresses the semantics of intensification or mitigation.

Do we wish to say that a character was:

As we can see, there is a clear progression from the intensified thrilled to the more neutral satisfied which becomes upscaled again in negative terms toward devastated. There are no grammatical items (adverbs such as very, extremely, somewhat, a bit) expressing the different degrees of graduation of intensity. This meaning is already infused in the words themselves. We can help our students to learn vocabulary that intensifies or mitigates without resorting to pre-modification. We can even not allow the typical very pleased, a little shocked and, in turn, ask them to find the word that captures not only the exact meaning they wish to convey but also its intensity: was your character troubled or distressed? alarmed or petrified? curious, keen or captivated? We can work with the four general areas of emotions: un/happy; dis/satisfied; dis/quiet; un/surprised or, more specifically, with the emotion they are trying to depict through their anecdote. We can ask them to organize different degrees of happiness, for example, along a ladder of increasing or decreasing intensity.

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Saying or telling?

As our students analyze and later write their own anecdote, they will surely need to identify exactly the emotional reaction brought about by the remarkable events they are narrating. If they choose to express emotions directly, as the writer in One Down does (Words cannot describe the anxiety I felt the day before; I honestly believe that is the worst part of an experience like this … the famous ‘butterflies in your stomach; I was surprised; As we reached the small plane, my moment of fear kicked in) (Sample Text 6 in the Appendix), they will probably need to work with synonyms and expressions that they can later choose from to express themselves with precision, vividness and variety. We propose that however ample their repertoire of attitudinal language becomes, we encourage them to consider the important difference between showing and telling emotion, as we discuss below. We can show them an excerpt such as the following, from Fishing with Titus, Sample Text 1:

Out of one of the cracks appeared a little black nose. Then the head appeared. It was a mink – a small, but cute, rat-like animal. The mink was obviously a baby. It was probably about the size of my hand. It came out and walked towards Titus and I. Then another appeared from another crack. Then another. And another. By the end there were probably a dozen minks walking around that jetty. They walked to us and started to sniff our shoes; then they climbed on top of our shoes. These were wild animals! But they were so cute. I imagine it was the first time they ever left the nest. After about 10 minutes I realized that if there were a dozen baby minks around, there was probably a mother mink around too. Knowing that minks have very sharp teeth, I told Titus it was time to leave. [1]

The father, and most likely the son as well, must have felt increasingly anxious and worried about the number of minks that kept showing up at the pier. The description of the scene itself makes this clear, though we are not explicitly told. The writer, in fact, is replicating the way in which we observe things happening around us in real life: we observe events, people behaving and usually know well enough how they are feeling. So we are shown what is happening and we assign emotions to the events rather than being told I was worried they would go after us. We can help students become aware of this difference and practice shifting from one way of describing to the other by showing them a list of actions for them to relate to an emotion. Even if they do not have the rest of the co-text, they will be able to speculate, based on their own experience of the world, what emotions can be assigned to the behavior. We can work with a list like the following:

She left and slammed the door. 

…………

She couldn’t stop laughing. 

…………

She blushed. 

…………

He walked up and down the hallway.

…………

Rachel just mumbled her answer. 

…………

He frowned and hit the desk hard. 

…………

She held back her tears.     

…………

Most of these examples are quite clear in terms of the emotions invoked, though some depend quite strongly on the co-text. So, for example, in the first sentence, did she leave and slam the door out of frustration? Most likely. In the last example, did she hold back tears of happiness or of sadness? Emotions shown in a text are directly dependent upon the experience we construe in the rest of the anecdote which will give clues, together with our knowledge of the world, to the emotion(s) involved.

2.8.3 Joint construction of an anecdote

Once we have made sure students understand how an anecdote works, what its main stages are, what key meanings are made and what language resources we can use, we should be ready to write an anecdote, or part of one, jointly with them. In Chapter 1, Section 1.6.3, we already made some suggestions that work for genres in general and for anecdotes in particular. Some additional exercises follow.

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Let’s get started!

First of all, we need to consider the context in which the anecdote will be shared. Will it be a written or oral anecdote? Who will be listening to or reading this anecdote? Ideally, students will work on events they have experienced themselves and shared. With the general context defined – the field, the audience it is addressed to and the mode in which language will be used – we can start planning the anecdote having the general structural guideline we shared during the modelling stage as a guide. You can also consider the one suggested in Chapter 1, Section 1.6.4, for joint construction. If we find it difficult to get the whole class to write together, particularly with a large class, we can ask them to first work in groups. We can propose two ‘starters’ (an Abstract or an Orientation, for example) that they can choose from. They can then invent the events, including the remarkable one, in groups. We monitor and guide the groups as much as we can and, if possible, we write a single version jointly combining what each group can contribute. Students should feel more confident to make contributions once they have shared ideas in groups.

Starters such as the following could work:

  • I can’t wait to tell you what happened to me today. The craziest thing!
  • Let me tell you the scariest story ever!

Or Orientations such as:

  • I was standing at the bus stop, minding my own business with my earphones on, when the weirdest thing happened, right next to me!

Or a final Coda:

  • And that was it! I was still shaky and not sure it was already over. It had been an extraordinary experience, for sure! I had met a most exceptional man.
  • … That’s how I learnt to think twice before opening my mouth!

Pictures can also get us started. We can show student pictures of provocative scenes or faces expressing an emotion. Some students can write the initial Orientation, others the Events and we try to get even the oddest parts to work together.

Reading a sample anecdote to them can also be inspiring. If we are working with students at an intermediate level of instruction, we could read aloud, for example, one of the vignettes in The House of Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, “Our Good Day”. It tells about the joy of a group of young girls out riding the new bicycle they bought with their meagre savings. A good sample can be inspiring as well!

As they work in groups or with the whole class, we should always go back to the representation of the structure we developed together. We can use the organizer below which includes questions that might help students to plan their ideas and the vocabulary they need to express them.

2.8.4 Independent construction of an anecdote

After writing part of or an entire anecdote with our students, we can decide if they are ready to write independently. If getting started is hard, we can help them in the same way as we suggested above for joint construction: providing parts of the text to get them going, an ending that finishes off the anecdote, a picture or a good read aloud that inspires them. Once they decide what they wish to write about, we make sure they plan their anecdote using their organizer. Peer editing a first version of a friend’s text can be very useful for those who give the feedback and for the authors. Students will position themselves as readers and probably notice things about the text that they relate to their own. Once the peer-editing has been received, they can go back to their texts and write a new version, the one they will hand in to you. Peers could receive a guideline, something like the following to orient them:

A word on feedback

As we know well, the feedback we give our students is a critical part of the teaching-learning process in our practice. As we go over students’ texts, we can make sure we are reacting as interested readers and not just as worried grammar teachers. Grammar is a key resource, but not the end in itself! Let’s make sure we respond to the text as a whole as an authentic communication event and address students as active editors themselves. Asking them questions about different aspects of their text can make them consider the improvements we suggest and, very importantly, help them understand why they are necessary. We will be considering the organization of the text, how experience is represented, how they are relating to their audience, how effectively the function of the text is fulfilled and, also very importantly, how key meanings are expressed by means of effective language choices. We have found that questions are a very good way to engage with our students. Some examples:

  • Can you start with an effective invitation to read your anecdote?
  • Who was there? Can you tell me where and when? Was s/he older than you?
  • Would you tell us what else happened? Did s/he just disappear?
  • Great. You’ve told us exactly how you felt! Now, can you ‘show’ us?
  • Can you find a more specific word than ‘bad’ to describe what happened / how you felt? How was it ‘bad’?
  • Do you still remember that day? How do you remember it? Do you still feel the relief?

Questions along these lines can be used together with the more direct, yet necessary aspects of spelling or tense that need to be signaled as well.

In this section on teaching anecdotes we have included some ideas that might work well to prepare our students to produce anecdotes. We should always trust students will have appealing and inspiring stories to tell! They can tell stories based on the reading material and, ideally, on their personal experiences as the youngest child in a family, the time they learnt a new baby was coming to the family, their first experience at school, the scariest exam experience ever, and so many others. We may also work with them on a story project in which they collect experiences at home, at school, in their neighborhood. You may select together a common idea and work around it.

Good luck and inspiration for you and your students!


2.9 Appendix

Authentic sample anecdotes

[1] Fishing with Titus

One of the most memorable moments in my life came one night when I was fishing with Titus. He was about 8 or 9 years old. We went to a place on the edge of Seneca Lake to fish for a few minutes after dinner one night. The sun was just going down. We did not have any luck catching fish, so we were about to pack up our gear and head home. But at that moment I saw a slight movement on the pier where we were standing. The pier – actually it was more of a jetty – was made entirely out of rocks, so there were cracks between the rocks. Out of one of the cracks appeared a little black nose. Then the head appeared. It was a mink – a small, but cute, rat-like animal. The mink was obviously a baby. It was probably about the size of my hand. It came out and walked towards Titus and I. Then another appeared from another crack. Then another. And another. By the end there were probably a dozen minks walking around that jetty. They walked to us and started to sniff our shoes; then they climbed on top of our shoes. These were wild animals! But they were so cute. I imagine it was the first time they ever left the nest. After about 10 minutes I realized that if there were a dozen baby minks around, there was probably a mother mink around too. Knowing that minks have very sharp teeth, I told Titus it was time to leave. But I would say it was one of the times in my life that I felt most connected to nature.

[2] Peace Corps

One of the most important moments in my life came when I had just joined the Peace Corps and was first living in Dominica – in the West Indies. I was being introduced to this guy in a bar, and the person who was making the introduction said that I was in the Peace Corps. The fellow I was being introduced to (who happened to be a government official) asked what I would be doing, so I told him that I would be teaching agriculture in primary schools. He put his hand out to shake mine, but when I extended my hand, instead of shaking it he simply grabbed it, turned it over, and felt the palm of my hand. Feeling that there were no calluses, he simply said, “Oh, YOU are going to teach US agriculture, eh?” I was mortified, but the whole experience brought out the truth of the situation: I was a white, middle-class, college graduate who was going to “teach” agriculture to people who had been doing farming for a living their entire lives. It was humbling and it set the stage for me to have the right attitude to what I was about to do.

[3] My Trip to Riva Diva

Looking for something in the way of an unusual Buenos Aires adventure, I ventured on to a website boasting all things cultural going on in that expansive city, day by unruly day. Lo and behold what did I find but a film festival featuring a tribute to one of my favorite directors, a Brit Hollywood had long since refused to fund and one I thought had forever disappeared into the bowels of Mexico City, never to make and English-language film again.

After a quick run through with my girlfriend as to how to get to the theater, I set out with little more than my Lonely Planet (a Gringo’s security blanket if ever there was one) and an address: Riva Diva 3050 Santa Fe will never be my favorite street in BA but it seems to be the city’s Nile from which all buses of any use flow. Once the 152 finally arrived, it was filling up quickly so I grabbed one of the backward facing seats, only to proceed to sneeze my fool head off, an allergy victim of the city’s very fertile spring.

Feeling myself a leper, I decided to get as far away from the concerned faces as possible, and stand in the center of the bus where things would eventually become so tight that diminutive old ladies, unable to see over all the people, would soon be screaming out for their stop: “Correntes, Senor … Correntes …?!?”

My stop would indeed eventually come, but alas, no “3050.” There was Riva Diva 3040 and Riva Diva 3060 but no 3050. The film was to start in 10 minutes and if I didn’t find it soon, my hour-long bus ride would be in vain.

Spotting an Internet cafe, I ran in waving the address at the man behind the cashier’s cage. He looked very comfortable back there and wasn’t going to come out if he didn’t have to, especially if it meant having to talk to this crazy gringo who spoke no Spanish. He asked his mother if she knew what I was talking about, she didn’t. Nor, apparently, did his wife. It wasn’t until I gave him a few pesos to go online and showed him the film festival’s website that he finally came out of his box to investigate my claim.

Riva Diva, si, senor, but your festival is on Riva Diva in La Plata! La Plata was more than two hours away. In my anxiousness to see this obscure film I hadn’t even considered that a La Plata Film Festival might be listed on a website featuring things to do in BA. Distance is culturally relative, apparently.

Feeling more humiliated than dejected, I made my way to the Plaza of Misery[9], bought a bag of miniature peanuts and began feeding the birds. The place wasted no time in living up to its name; the people in the plaza looked less than happy, the fact that a nun (my first sighting of one in the city) was preaching the Second Coming, only seemed to exacerbate the mood.

My own mood now sinking fast, I pressed on into Once, the sidewalk burial ground for all those cheap labor Chinese exports you not only never needed, but never even knew existed. My forward progress quickly stymied by all this trade imbalance, I hooked a quick left onto a side street, only to eventually stumble across the Museum of Carlos Gardel, a house one of my favorite Tango singers bought for his mother and where the two of them lived together until his marriage. My trip to Riva Diva was not for naught, after all!

[4] An Experience in Mendoza

You never really understand the worth of what surrounds you until you’re taken out of that environment and sent 6,000 miles away. Living in the foothills of the Andes Mountains for half a year to learn Spanish forced me to re-examine the life I left at home. One evening, I was sitting at the dinner table with my Argentine host mom, and I was gushing about the beauty of the mountains she got to look at every day. I was jealous that we didn’t have mountains where I was from. “Well, what do you have in Missouri?” she asked me. With my limited Spanish vocabulary, I told her that we had wild rabbits, squirrels, turtles, turkeys, peacocks, raccoons, opossums, and I wanted to tell her that we also had a lot of deer. However, I didn’t know the word in Spanish for ‘deer’, so I began to creatively describe it, just as I was forced to do every day when I didn’t know the word for something. “They’re kind of like horses, but smaller. They’re bigger than dogs. And they have hair on their bodies and horns—” “You have Bambi’s in Missouri?” she yelled excitedly. “Bambi’s … yeah!” I responded, laughing. “What is the word in Spanish for those animals, though?” I asked. “Well, I don’t know. We don’t have Bambi’s in Argentina,” she told me. “But you have all the Bambi animals where you live!” She was so excited to imagine my house in the middle of the woods surrounded by lush green fields, rabbits named Thumper, and skunks named Flower. Every time I see a deer at home now, I think of my excited host mom, sitting at the dinner table, laughing and talking about how fun it would be to have Bambi’s in your own back yard. This is a special memory that will stay with me for a long time because just like a death in the family forces you to give your mom more hugs or a near car crash causes you to drive more carefully, glimpsing a Bambi crossing the street reminds me to be thankful for the world that surrounds me, whether it be majestic mountains, the vast, blue sea, or green, rolling hills.

[5] El Mono

The first animal we came across in the Mendoza zoo was a parrot. Colorful and friendly, my friends and I thought this was the start to a great day. After passing many more birds and even rodents caged in, we heard a rustling in the leaves only to look up and find three monkeys hopping from branch to branch. At first that was the coolest thing I had ever seen and they continued to move through the trees over our heads as we walked through the zoo. We saw some scary llamas and weird smiling goats, then came to a cage filled with over a hundred monkeys all with the same red butts. However, even though these specific monkeys were supposed to be in the cage, one lone monkey was chewing on a branch sitting on a ledge outside the cage away from his friends. I was terrified to go near it! My friend Emily walked next to him first and he reached out to her! Started climbing up and down her body, hanging on her bag. He did the same thing to my friend Kara. I still didn’t want to go near him but my friends said, “No, It will be okay!” I didn’t want him to touch me or even get too close, but as soon as I got near him, he started going through the side pocket of my backpack trying to get the gum that was inside. Next thing I know, the monkey is on top of my backpack picking things out of my hair and playing around. I stand frozen until he gets off of me and is standing once again on the ledge by my side. I got to look away and look down at the monkey. I thought it was so sweet, and we make eye contact. As soon as that happens he flashes me his teeth and makes the scariest face that still haunts my dreams and he clamped down and bit me, hard! I went to run away and when I got about ten feet down the path I turned around very quickly to see if he was following me, and if he was I was ready to kick him. Everyone at the zoo was very concerned as I too was nervous about just getting bit by a monkey! We called the vet to see if he had advice and then went to the hospital also. Every doctor I saw was shocked and let me jump in front of all the other patients because this kind of visit is so rare! I had to make sure I had gotten all of my shots and get started on some medicine. Things turned out to be okay and today I am fine but I am always craving bananas …

[6] One Down (written by a student at college with an advanced command of English, educated in the USA)

It’s very rare for me to remember dates. I, along with countless others I’m sure, can only remember the birthdays of friends and family through the wondrous invention of social networking, specifically Facebook. Many times, I even find myself completely oblivious to the day of the week I am currently in. It’s quite an issue, yet this particular date has stuck with me even up to the moment I am writing this, nearly six months later.

I should first set the scene. This date took place on my last weekend in Hawaii. I had been staying in this breathtaking island for three months, selling hot dogs and smoothies on the beach and spending time with the many friends I had made throughout the trip. I had decided to quit my job two weeks before my flight back to Mendoza in order to travel to the other islands and treasure my last few days there. Throughout the three months, I had heard from a couple acquaintances about a skydiving company on the north shore. I heard great things, and it really got me thinking. I suppose nowadays it is common for everyone to have a ‘bucket list’, a list of things you want to do before you die. Now I can admit that my list is quite thorough and large-scale, just like a little child’s Christmas list to Santa Clause would be. But here, I had an opportunity to do something I couldn’t even dream of: get on board an airplane and jump off with only a parachute.

It took me a very long time to find someone to go skydiving with. It was practically the only factor that was preventing me to do it. Usually, some people would take into consideration the fact that you are jumping off a plane at 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) or the risk of a malfunction of the parachute. Not me … I just didn’t want to go by myself! Luckily enough, my two friends from Switzerland, who had gone to Hawaii in an exchange program to study English, also wanted to go and we set the date. We paid and signed up to go for the 2nd of March. Words cannot describe the anxiety I felt the day before. I honestly believe that is the worst part of an experience like this … the famous ‘butterflies in your stomach.’

Unfortunately, on the day we went it was cloudy and rainy at the north part of the island. We watched the safety video, signed the waivers and waited to see if the weather would improve. It didn’t. The company receptionist suggested that we go bright and early the next day. I was a bit pessimistic because I only had a couple of days left, but nonetheless we waited one more day (and my anxiety level nearly tripled) and I was surprised to see that the stormy weather had gone away the next day. It was go time.

After waiting a few hours at the base, it was finally our turn. We each met our instructors who would dive with us and they drove us toward our plane. The group included the three of us and two sisters (one was celebrating her birthday), and each person had their instructor and their personal photographer (someone who jumps seconds before you do and films/takes pictures). As we reached the small plane, my moment of fear kicked in. I had never in my life been in such a small plane and I found myself doubting if we would all fit in. Thankfully, I didn’t have time to contemplate on my decision and back out as we were instantly pushed inside. We sat in two small rows with our instructors behind each of us. After everyone settled in, the door was shut and there was no turning back.

As soon as the small plane took off, our instructors began to tighten our harnesses. It was amusing, because while they were busy with that, everyone else was silent. I looked out the window the entire time. I’m not sure why, but as soon as we were up in the air I was actually pretty calm, but once I had confirmation that it wasn’t going to crash, I was ready to jump. After a few minutes, we finally reached the altitude of 12,000 feet and the frenzy began. First up were the individual divers who didn’t have an instructor. A German woman who was diving by herself hesitated at first, and I clearly remember someone yelling, “If you’re not gonna jump, step aside!” This immediately brought her back into the moment and she jumped off. After one of my friends jumped with his instructor, it was my turn. My instructor and I sat on the edge of the plane. I looked down and saw a blanket of clouds just waiting for us to drop through them.

I then closed my eyes and before I know it, I was no longer on it. Everyone always asks me how the free fall felt. I always say that I felt a dropping sensation for the first five seconds and then I felt like I was floating as if I were swimming. I was very cold but that was because I had made the intelligent decision to go barefoot with shorts and a T-shirt. I also struggled to breathe at one point as the wind just crashed through your body. But all of these minor setbacks didn’t matter at that moment. I lifted my hands up and pretended that I was flying, something that I had always fantasized a child.

After about a minute later (probably the longest minute of my life), the instructor lifted the parachute and we descended slowly. I was astonished by the amazing view of the island and the Pacific Ocean. I got to enjoy the view for a few moments with calmness and tranquility before we landed back to the base. As soon as we landed, I looked up and waited for the other pairs to land. My heartbeat was probably on overload for the next ten minutes.

When I look back on this moment, I always remember the range of emotions I felt: anxiety, fear, adrenaline, calm and gratitude not only because I got to skydive but also because I survived! I can definitely say that this day was the highlight of my life so far and if I learned anything from the experience, it’s that one should never put off doing things they dream of doing. I have a great deal of goals I have yet to reach, such as improving my first novel in order to share it with the world and travelling to fascinating places like China and Australia. The list goes on, but I am determined to work hard and attain them the first chance I get because, let’s face it, life is too short for anyone to be carrying a long list of things they want to do.


  1. In Chapters 4 (Section 4.7) and 5 (Section 5.2) we go back to these story genres as they frequently appear as part of other, longer genres or macro-genres.
  2. Facing the Lion, in English Explorer 2
  3. English Plus Starter, English Plus 1, 2, 3, 4; Young Explorers 1, 2; First Explorers 1, 2; World Explorers 1, 2; English Explorer 2.
  4. The analysis of anecdotes we present in this chapter is largely based on work done by Leandro Ampuero, Cristina Boccia, Belén Gauna and Maria Emilia Moreschi, FFyL, UNCuyo, Mendoza, Argentina.
  5. The numbers in square brackets after the examples correspond to those used to identify the sample texts in the Appendix to this chapter.
  6. Even when Hasan’s model of generic description (Hasan, 1996) is conceptually different from Martin’s in important ways, we believe that foregrounding what is compatible and mutually enriching in both these views is possible methodologically. In any case, our approach to genres follows largely The Sydney School, as proposed by Martin (Martin & Rose, 2008).
  7. Martin and Rose (2008) is a panoramic introduction to Appraisal; Martin and White (2005), a comprehensive description of the framework.
  8. Labels such as Abstract, Orientation and Coda may not work well with younger students. You may wish to consider alternatives such as Anticipation, Preparation and Afterthought, respectively. They may be functionally more transparent for students. All along Section 2.8, we have used the traditional ones as we refer to the stage in an anecdote, just to avoid any confusion. But you may consider alternatives that are friendlier.
  9. Plaza Miserere in Once neighborhood, in downtown Buenos Aires


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