Once Upon a Time

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin …


  • narrative tenses (past progressive, past perfect simple/progressive)
  • storytelling
  • vocabulary (fairy tales and folk tales)


  • Upper-Intermediate and higher (CEFR B2-C2)
  • 15-17 (Can work with students aged 18+, but only if they are a light-hearted bunch)


Once Upon a Time has a long tradition in education, both mainstream and EFL.  So much in fact, that I almost feel a bit cheeky writing about it, to be honest.  I only decided to write about it as it seems to have criminally fallen off people’s radar in recent years.

When it comes to story telling games, Once Upon A Time (OUaT) almost created the genre.  The rules that come in the box are pretty straightforward, in fact the only teacher intervention that is in the preparation (for details about this, see Bear in Mind below).

This is a card game and there are several types of card.  Most immediately, you’ll notice that the Ending cards have a different back and are the only cards that contain prose.  The other deck, Story cards,  all have the same back and are divided into 5 suits: Characters, Things, Places, Aspects and Events.  Within each suit, each card has a word or feature typical of the fairy tale genre, and this usually has a beautiful illustration to explain the word for learners.  Each suit also has a number of Interrupt cards which are essential for the game-play.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/1494710/once-upon-time-storytelling-card-game (Laszlo Stadler)
Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/1494710/once-upon-time-storytelling-card-game (Laszlo Stadler)
  1. Divide the class into groups of 4.  Each group will need a reasonable amount of free table space to play the game.
  2. Deal each member of each group an Ending card.  They should keep these private and separate from their other cards.  (It’s best to have vetted the cards first to avoid any of the more challenging vocabulary, because it’s difficult to help students with these words when they are supposed to be secret!)
  3. Tell the students to think for a moment about what kind of story they could tell which would have that ending.
  4. Give each group a deck of 38 story cards (having organised the cards as outlined below).
  5. Each player takes 6 cards. (reduce this to 5 as they become more experienced otherwise they’ll run out of cards.)
  6. Tell the class that they are going to semi-cooperate and create a story.  One story.  All the cards will be placed next to one another on the table to represent this story.  However, the player who can use all of their cards and then play their Ending card will be the winner.
  7. The person who’s ending card starts first alphabetically (they all have a big red letter in the top left) will begin the game.
  8. The other players can use their cards to interrupt and take over the story in three ways: a) they can play an Interrupt whenever a card of a matching suit is played (i.e. someone plays the “Wicked”
    card of the blue Aspect deck, then they can play their blue Interrupt card, or b) they must listen very carefully and if someone says a word for which they have a card, then they can play the card and say the word, taking over control (i.e student says “Once upon a time there was a wicked witch who lived in a dark forest …” and they play the “Witch” and “Forest” cards they have in their hand.  Another player has the “Wicked” card, so they say “Wicked“, place the card and assume control.)  Once a player has been legitimately interrupted, they draw one extra card and wait for an opportunity to interrupt.
  9. If any of the other players then feel that the new storyteller has started to tell a story that is inconsistent with what was told previously.  A successful challenge results in the challenger also taking control of the story.  This is also true for the ending card.  If a player doesn’t think that the ending matches the story which has been told so far, then they can challenge.  So it’s really important to listen and keep track of what has been told previously.
  10. It’s important to stress that the students can use any words that they like, but they will want to get rid of as many cards as possible.
  11. Once it’s explained and demonstrated, then let the students play.  Monitor for accuracy of tenses.  Once the students have got the hang of it, put some scaffolding visuals on the board, prompting them to use each narrative tense at least once in each story.


  • If you just shuffle the cards then you leave a lot of the games balancing to chance.  In order to make sure that all the groups have a similar deck each.  If you divide all the Story cards into their five suits and do the same with the interrupt cards.  Taking one from each pile, create 3 sub-decks (38 cards per deck).  There will be a little variety in the balance of the decks, as there are slight irregularities in the numbers of cards in each suit.  This, however, should balance it a little better.
  • At first, the game can look and feel a bit childish, so you might want to avoid this with more mature classes.
  • This game requires some imagination.  This is the main reason I avoid it with older learners as they tend to struggle with the theme.  You can mitigate this by playing this in pairs (have 2 groups of 3 pairs for example) and giving some preparation time about how those cards could tie to their ending card.  This does work quite successfully, but my preference is usually for the individual version as in pairs, one player usually tends to take over.


The art on this game is beautiful and the illustrations really help learners understand even some of the more obscure language.  One of my favourite things about OUaT is that it is a speaking and a listening game at the same time!  All too often, you can see students aren’t really listening to what their partner is saying, but in this game you have to listen and really focus.  That’s one of the reason’s it’s so great for younger learners.  On top of that younger students in general tend to be better at this multi-tasking element of the game.  Overall, it’s a great game.  It’s greatest drawback is perhaps it’s learning curve.  It’s another one of those games that really rewards experience and you can visibly see students get more involved and better at it the more they play.  On the other hand, at 15 minutes (for a group of 4 students) it is short enough to do a few plays over 3 lessons.  The upside of this is that it keeps the language fresh.  Definitely worth having on the shelf.

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