Imagine a world without stories. It's almost impossible to picture, but one thing is certain - life, and language, would be bland and insipid. Without stories, conversation would be merely a vehicle to pass on information. Communication would be dull, and relationships would inevitably suffer.
We use stories every day to form bonds, share experiences and pass on pearls of wisdom. So it makes sense that stories are the perfect tool for learning, improving literacy and fuelling a healthy interest in reading and writing at an early age.
Storytelling is an ancient tradition that's never really gone away. It may sound archaic and traditional, but it's very much 'in' the present day. Whether you're recounting a tale to a group of friends, or making up bedtime stories for your little ones, it's something that comes naturally and often with little thought or effort.
Because of this, it's a skill that can easily be developed and nurtured. You only have to watch a group of children listening to a story to see the powerful effect it has on them as words are lifted from the page and brought to life in front of their eyes. And this is only the surface effect.
When children listen to a tale, they are drawn into the story and they begin to process the content, so making the whole experience real for them. They learn by beginning to identify with what is happening in the story, and developing empathy with the characters. They think in pictures, seeing the story unfold like a film. This in turn helps them create their own stories, because they can visualise a tale, and describe what they see.
Storytelling breaks down barriers to learning. Children who might struggle with reading or writing can explore language and ultimately improve their levels of literacy. They are encouraged to join in and experiment with different types of language, and they soon learn the format of a good story.
Sounds great, but how do you begin to delve into the world of storytelling if you're not a professional storyteller? The first step is to find the right story (see box).
Once you've picked a story that you think will work, you need to think about how you're going to tell it. This is just as important as the story. You can have the best tale in the world but if it isn't delivered well, then it will fall flat with the audience. A storyteller has many tools at their disposal that will enrich their performance. The obvious one is voice and how you use it.
Consider what kind of tone is best for the story. There might be an opportunity to inject light and darkness. This difference in sound will give the story melody and make it more enjoyable for listeners.
Make the characters speak in different ways. For example, a witch might cackle loudly and screech, but a prince might have a strong, clear tone.
Think about the pace of the tale. If there is lots of action and adventure, then the voice can be used to make it even more exciting, by picking up the speed of delivery and increasing the volume. To build up a spooky atmosphere, slow the voice right down, and whisper. Talking quietly can be just as effective as shouting. It makes a point in a different way.
Pausing is another effective tool that adds drama. A pause at the right moment is like taking a pen and underlining what comes next.
Facial expression will add colour to the tale. We can tell a lot about a person from their face. We know if they are sad or happy, if they are angry or frightened. We can read their emotions almost like a book.
Think about how the characters in the story feel and how this can be shown through facial expression. Good use of expression helps to draw the audience into the tale. Emotion gives stories depth and texture. Without it, the reader/listener is not involved, because they don't really care about what's happening.
Practice facial expressions in front of a mirror. Remember, the younger the audience, the more exaggerated expressions should be. Young children don't pick up on subtle changes, so whether it's your voice or your face, make the changes glaringly obvious. It might seem exaggerated, but it will be easier for a child to read and make sense of.
BODY AND MOVEMENT
Make eye contact. This will really draw listeners into the tale, and make them feel like they have their own private storyteller.
Use your entire body when telling a story. This might sound hard to do, but storytellers are messengers and it is their job to deliver the tale.
Use every tool available to make sure that what you have to say is clear and understood. When a young child tells a tale, they don't stand on the spot with their arms folded while mumbling what happened. Instead, they fling themselves about; they use their arms and legs and move around to demonstrate events. In essence, they put everything into recounting the tale. So, to appeal to a younger audience, you need to do the same.
Get used to incorporating movement into your tales. As adults we are naturally more reserved - so, practice. Get someone to film you telling a tale, and watch it back. It will be easy to spot obvious bits where movement is required. Wherever possible, get the children to follow your actions.
FROM THE HEART
Believe in your story. If you don't believe in the tale then you can't expect an audience to, however young they are. They need to feel it is real. As a storyteller, it helps to picture the story in your head. Imagine that you are transferring the pictures you have in your mind to the minds of your audience.
See it like a film. This will help you remember what you want to say, and will also make the tale come alive.
Storytelling is a two-way process. It requires the storyteller and the audience to be actively involved in the tale. It's a flexible medium. You can tell the same story ten times and it can be different every time, depending on the angle that you want to take.
Pause and ask questions to get the best out of a children's story. The questions can be about the content of the tale, or about what happens next. This will keep the children listening, and get them thinking. If you've introduced a character, ask them what they think the character might look like.
Get the children to draw their favourite characters from the tale as a follow-up exercise.
Don't be afraid to stop and start your story, and allow interaction. Let the children ask questions. If they don't understand something, explain it.
Don't go on for too long. If your audience is very young they will struggle to listen for any length of time. Short bursts of storytelling are much better than one long story with lots of twists and turns.
Time yourself. Stick to the five-minute rule. Anything that runs over this, without a break, is too long. It doesn't matter if you're the best storyteller in the world - the smaller the child, the smaller the attention span.
Keep entire sessions short. Aim for 20 minutes of storytelling, with three or four stories and lots of interaction and movement.
SPACE AND FORMAT
Use lots of space. Ideally, you need the children to sit in a semi-circle at your feet, allowing you lots of room to move about, and address each one.
Use key words or actions to signal the start of a tale. Ring a bell, rattle a drum - they will start to recognise this sound as meaning that it's time to listen to stories.
If you can, use props. Children love puppets. They love anything that helps them build up a picture of the tale. So, if you have pictures show them. If you have a costume, wear it.
You could even get the children to help you make props for your sessions. Give them an idea of the characters and what they might need. For example, a witch might want a broom. A prince might carry a paper sword; a king might wear a crown.
Depending on the age and ability of the children, encourage them to act out the tale. You might want to pick a child to be the big bad wolf, and another to be a little pig.
Make sure the story has a rewarding conclusion. Tie up all the loose ends so that you leave your audience with a lasting impression.
Again, think about what you want to say. Imagine your final sentence is underlined; it should sum up everything so your listeners feel satisfied and happy. The reason children can enjoy the same story over and over again is because they know the ending. They know what to expect and they look for that same satisfaction every time.
Have fun. If you're enjoying the story, and getting into the spirit, the children will also enjoy it. An enthusiastic and engaging performance means an enthusiastic and engaged audience.
There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a group of very young children enjoying and exploring language. Storytelling can be the first step to this. It gives them the confidence to have a go at reading, writing and communicating. Introduce a child to stories at an early age, and they will love them forever!
HOW TO PICK THE RIGHT STORY
Start by considering your audience
- They will guide you. If you want to connect with them, you need to think about what they like. How old are they, and what do they enjoy doing? If you're telling tales to very small children, your main character should be of a similar age. Children aren't usually interested in stories about adults, unless you're using familiar archetypes like Kings, Queens, and Princesses.
- If you're going to use a tale with lots of archetypes, help the children along by getting them to picture a King/Queen/Witch before you start. Ask them what they think a King might look like and where might he live? What would he wear, and what does he eat for breakfast? Simple questions will get them building a picture in their mind, which will then develop as the tale unfolds.
- Fairy tales (or wonder tales, as they were once called) are guaranteed to work, because they contain all the elements that children love. There's action and adventure, good versus evil, and always a moral to the tale. Fairy tales are simple stories with a straightforward plot, and a great ending that ties up everything that has happened. Even very young children can pick up on the general gist of a fairy tale, depending on how you tell it.
Pick stories that use lots of repetition
- For example, a phrase that is repeated at regular intervals in the tale is ideal, as it encourages the children to join in. This is particularly effective if the phrase occurs after an event or action in the story, because then the children will try to pre-empt this, making them listen even more carefully.
- If a story doesn't have such a recurring phrase, make one up and use it.
- Make up actions for characters. Perhaps every time the big bad wolf appears, he growls - an ideal sound and action to involve the audience and get them making some noise. Or maybe when the fairy appears, everyone claps. Simple rhymes or chants are great for small children.
- Rhyming language works particularly well in storytelling, as it gives the tale a melodic flow, which is easy for children to follow.
- Using repetition in the form of words or movement will keep their attention - and keeping their attention is the biggest challenge when you are working with a younger audience. If you can keep them involved, they become a part of the story, so what happens next becomes more important to them.
Make sure that the language is simple
- Again, traditional fairy stories and fables are excellent examples of this; they have just the right balance of description and action, without being overly complicated. Flowery language will only confuse young children, so stick to easy-to-understand words that paint simple pictures.
- For a story to work, it has to have description to set the scene, action to move it along, and emotion to add depth. It's important for the storyteller to know the core meaning of the tale and what kind of message it delivers.
- Young children learn about rules and how to behave in the world through stories, so think carefully about what your story says to them.
For information on how to use storytelling techniques with young children, check out:
- Storytelling in the Classroom - Enhancing Traditional Oral Skills for Teachers and Pupils by Alison Davies (Lucky Ducks Books, www.paulchapmanpublishing.co.uk)
- What's the Story? by Steve Bowkett (A & C Black) contains original and exciting storymaking activities and can be ordered at a number of online book stores
- Tell It Again by Shirley C Raines and Christi Isbell (Gryphon House) is full of easy-to-tell stories and activities for young children.