6-Word Stories

The idea of a 6-word story is, as the name suggests, to construct a coherent, understandable, narrative in six words or less – a brilliant example being one attributed to the American novelist Ernest Hemmingway:

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn”.

While no-one’s suggesting students should aspire to this level of story-telling poignancy, the basic idea is to get them to focus their thoughts on the creation of short, pithy, ways to summarise key theories, concepts and methods in memorable ways that make them easy to revise.

Think of the 6-word story as being a bit like a signpost students can use to direct them towards remembering key ideas in their course. These, in turn, should key them into further ideas that build, like the links in a chain, into something substantial and memorable.

Although the 6-word limit is somewhat arbitrary, it does serve two useful purposes:

Firstly, it’s way of disciplining the thought process such that students need to think carefully about how and why they construct their story. Allowing students to exceed this limit does, ultimately, defeat the object of the exercise.

Secondly, by creating this arbitrary rule students know that every concept, theory or method they want to describe always consists of 6 words: No more and no less.

One way to encourage students to construct their own stories is to set aside a few minutes at the end of the last class each week to allow them to share the stories they’ve constructed during the week with their peers.

And if they need a little help and encouragement to construct and share, there’s no harm in you starting things off with your own contributions.


If, for whatever reason, you don’t want to spend time explicitly encouraging students to put-together their own 6-word stories, an alternative is to do it implicitly. That is, as part-and-parcel of your general teaching.

You can, for example, use your own 6-word stories to describe the key theories, concepts or methods you introduce in the course of your teaching.

Here’s some that I made earlier:

Participant Observation: “Watching you. Watching Me. Watching You”

Social Construction of deviance: “I don’t like what I see”

Labelling: “You are if I say so”

Divorce: “They changed from Is to Was” / “Strangers. Friends. Best friends. Lovers. Strangers”

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