Telling stories to children, rather than reading to them, really brings a story to life and turns them from passive listeners into active listeners.
Cath Little, a storyteller based in South Wales, says, 'The first time I told, rather than read, a story to a group of young children, I was amazed at how well they listened to me.
'They listened more attentively and, without a book in the way, I was free to watch them and see the effect the story was having. The eye-to-eye contact is one of the things that makes storytelling such a special, shared activity.
'It is a creative act and in turn, it helps the children to be creative. The positive experience of listening to stories and telling stories helps the children look forward to the treat of being able to read and write stories for themselves.'
Despite the obvious benefits of storytelling, many staff in nurseries are reluctant to abandon the safety net of a book, where they can just read out the text without too much thought.
In a move to encourage more creativity in teachers and nursery staff, Ms Little, who also works part-time as a language support teacher, has been holding workshops for staff for non-maintained early years settings in Wales.
'At the workshops, the teachers have the chance to make up stories for themselves and to find out how easy and rewarding this can be,' she says. 'I use simple puppets and props, which inspire the teachers and invite them to be creative and to play.
'I think practical courses are the most useful. Storytelling is a skill that many people once used all the time and people now often don't realise how good they are at it if they try.'
The workshops are funded by the Welsh Assembly government as part of the Foundation Phase training.
The storytelling workshops 'fully support the holistic nature of the Foundation Phase,' says Julia Walkey, a Foundation Phase advisory teacher.
The Framework for Children's Learning for three- to seven-year-olds in Wales places a 'significant emphasis on creating a language-rich environment'.
Ms Walkey says, 'The rhythmic and soothing nature of the stories means children are bathed in language, hearing repetitive sentence patterns and supported in the development of speaking and listening skills.'
A large proportion of the early years staff who attend the workshops are from Welsh-medium pre-schools and nurseries (Cylch Meithrins). So, in the workshops, stories were told bilingually, with staff from the English-medium settings learning to 'pepper their stories with simple Welsh greetings, Welsh songs and lullabies, weather and colours', says Ms Walkey.
Cath Little follows up her workshops with visits to each setting to see how they are implementing her teaching. She also does a storytelling session herself with the children, so all of the staff can see the impact it can have on the children.
'Storytelling is a very good way of developing children's language and improving their ability to listen. It also develops their creativity and flexible thinking,' she says. 'It is often surprising to see how well children respond when they are being told a story. They sit so still and their eyes are really wide open as they take in the story. The children become really engaged in what is happening.'
Incorporated into her storytelling are puppets. It is an approach that she learned from her time teaching at the Steiner Waldorf School in Adams- down in Cardiff. She also incorporates basic materials that can easily be found in the house or outdoors.
'I use sticks, pine cones, stones and cloths that people have in the house. I make puppets out of felt and old scraps of material,' she says.
The open-ended props such as stones and cones inspire the children to use their imaginations, demonstrating how early years settings do not have to spend a lot of money on resources.
Another feature of Ms Little's storytelling is music. She sings and plays a small harp and a recorder.
Because she likes to incorporate the natural world into all her stories, the tales are always seasonal.
The main character in many of her stories is a little gnome who goes for walks and has simple adventures.
'In winter he might find some ice and meet Jack Frost. In spring he might dance with the daffodils and sing with the blackbirds.
'Afterwards, the children naturally start to tell their own stories. Children learn through example - if we tell stories, so will they. The simple puppets and props enable the children to imitate our example and tell their own stories.'
Debbie Munton, leader of Christchurch Community Playgroup in LLanedeyrn, Cardiff, attended the storytelling workshop and now holds regular storytelling sessions in her pre-school, which takes children aged from two-and-a- half up to when they start school.
She chose to go on the workshop as part of the training for the Foundation Phase because she believed it would be beneficial for the children.
Ms Munton says storytelling allows you to 'really use your imagination and you can see the children become magically entranced by how you tell the story. It is amazing how the way you tell a story can change the whole way they respond. I like making it sound fun and getting them involving in the story.'
She employs materials such as shiny stones and glass pebbles when she is telling the stories and uses toy figures and puppets for the characters.
Her favourite story, which invites the children to participate, is one she made up about Hedgy Hedgehog who lives at home with his mother and baby sisters.
Ms Munton explains, 'Hedgy is quite shy and likes to stay at home with his mummy. He has to go off to school. He has a great day and comes back and finds his mummy has lost his sister Tilly.
'I really involve the children at this point, and ask them "Shall I look under the chair?" and "Shall I look in the teapot?" Hedgy asks the children to help and so they start to look for Tilly. Eventually, we find her fast asleep under something in the room.'
The story ends with the hedgehog family celebrating by having a special tea of worms and custard.
'The children really enjoy it and it helps them to develop their imagination. It's great, as you can slot storytelling into any part of the day,' says Ms Munton. 'It really involves the children and it can be a calming experience, as I often play soft music while I am telling the story.'
Society for Storytelling offers information on storytelling and storytellers. See www.sfs.org.uk
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR STORYTELLING
- Keep the story simple - people often think that stories have to be exciting and complicated. But it is often the simplest stories that really captivate young children. Less is definitely more!
- Try to bring the outside world into the story. Children are inspired by the natural world. Keep to subjects that children are familiar with.
- Vary the tone of your voice, use different facial expressions and gestures, and use repetitive phrases.
- Try telling the same story every day for a week. This may sound too much, but if you try it, you will find that the story experience improves with each telling. The children love to anticipate and to know what's coming. The repetition of the same words and phrases helps the children learn the story by heart, and so they become storytellers themselves.
- A quiet approach can sometimes be more powerful than a larger-than-life performance and will have a calming effect on the children.
- Make the stories fun with simple excitement.
- Good storytelling is not just about putting on a performance but making the children feel part of the action.
- Keep a storytelling basket full of puppets, toys and props that can be used again and again when telling stories.