Tell us a story…

Using the ancient art of storytelling in your classroom will enhance learning and social skills for young students. By Matthew Friday, grade three teacher, Utahloy International School, China.

Traditional oral storytelling has been a part of human life since our societies first came into existence. You might even say storytelling is the oldest form of teaching, offering children answers to the big questions of creation, life and the afterlife. Stories define us, shape us, control us and make us. We inquire and discover that the world is full of stories. Every one of us tells stories every day.

The stories of our lives, of our days at school or work, or of the events making news headlines. Stories are how we’ve always understood the world, and the 21st century has brought with it technology that unlocks new ways to tell and share stories with people all over the world. Often teachers don’t see themselves as full-time storytellers. But think about it: teaching is theatrical. Teachers are experts at using their voices to command audiences and every teacher loves reading stories to their class.

So why not tell a story as well? I asked the same question while training to be a teacher. Observing professional storytellers in the British Library in London, I was spellbound as they captured the attention of four-year-olds, telling stories from history using tricks similar to those I practiced in the classroom. The experience inspired me to incorporate storytelling techniques into my own teaching. I have been telling stories to my students ever since, in classrooms from London to China. Storytelling inspires learners to talk purposefully about the stories they hear, raising their enthusiasm for the reading and re-reading of old favourites.

Children who hear stories are inspired to write their own, so they can tell and share them with their classmates. Boys in particular really engage with the telling of tales and relish the chance to entertain their friends. Storytelling is also a powerful way of connecting with English language learners.

At my current school, 97 per cent of students are learning English for the first time and many of them arrived in my class speaking little or no English. Hearing stories and wanting to share their own tales with their classmates motivates these students to work hard on their English skills so they can join in the fun, too. Becoming a storyteller takes a bit of practice, a little courage to start with, and your natural imagination. Start by reading as many different books and types of stories – such as folktales, myths and fables – as you can.

Gain confidence by reading picture or chapter books with an interesting voice. Stop to ask questions about the plot and characters: an interactive experience will benefit you and your students. Now, it’s time to learn the stories so you can move from reading to telling them. Pick ones with a small number of characters and repeating events, because these are easiest to remember.

Write your stories in a notebook; not only will it help you remember them, it’ll also set an example for your students. And don’t be afraid to refer to your notes when you need them. Your students will see that you’re learning too, and that it’s ok to need extra support. Speak slowly, with emphasis, and change your voice to add drama and emotion.

Props help as well, to get you and your students into character! And don’t forget to use your hands to help tell your stories, especially if you have many language learners in your class – it’ll help them to follow the tale more closely. Encourage students to ‘act’ out the story as you tell it. They can repeat the dialogue, and you can direct your company of actors as you tell the story. Their friends will also be very entertained by their performance!

And before you know it, you’ve morphed from a teacher to a teller of tales. From there it’s just a matter of confidence before you too can run storytelling clubs, tell stories to whole-school assemblies, contribute to school events and share your expertise through personal development training.

I never thought I would be doing any of this when I started teacher training seven years ago. So what’s stopping you? The next story starts with you.