How to Tell a Story in Early Years Educator magazine… by Paula Brown (same photo as last time) is an Early Years Teacher, playworker and storyteller
|Stories, we know, help to improve children’s language skills as well as, crucially, supporting a child’s personal, social and emotional development. Here I make the case for story-telling – the ancient art where oral language is used to transfer images to another. I give some tips on how to get started with telling your own stories to young children.
The Master storyteller Margaret Read Macdonald extends this passionate invitation; ‘Storytelling is an oral tradition. Print, Midas-like, declares a tale golden but freezes it into lifeless eternity. After generations of flowing, malleable, from tongue to tongue, the tales finds itself entrapped in one form. It is up to you to release the tale and set it free.’
We are fortunate in the UK to have a wide range of picture books for young children with superb illustration and wonderful stories which can link with any, theme, occasion or idea. But storytelling also has its own special place in early years and can develop different skills in our youngest children.
Pie Corbett’s ‘Talk for Writing’ and ‘Storymaking’ programmes promote the benefits of exploring stories orally as the basis for later writing. Repeating stories with actions in multi-sensory ways helps children to internalise stories and become familiar with story structures. Children explore, through talk, the thinking and creative processes involved in being a writer. Children can imitate, innovate and finally invent their own stories.
Stories, suggests Bettelheim, have a broader function than language development. In his The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales, he suggests that folktales are recipes for examining the human condition. Through stories children find a sense of belonging, explore morals, visualise, wonder and connect with their environment, finding a sense of ‘place’.
Additionally, children who find it harder to focus and engage with larger group storybook times often find storytelling sessions more accessible and rewarding. The telling relies on the relationship between teller and listener and there is more room for active participation and focus on children’s interests. Later, the tale is free to be ‘fractured’ and re-interpreted by the children once it is embedded.
How to begin telling stories
Like making good soup, storytelling contains many different elements. The best advice would be to read the following tips contained in this article, put them to one side and give it a go.
Firstly, you will need to choose a story. Traditional folk stories such as the Little Red Hen or the Three Billy Goats Gruff come from an oral tradition and are well suited to the early years. Though it is possible to ‘tell’ stories from contemporary books, caution should be exercised as some ‘literary’ stories are not always easy to translate into oral telling. Invented and personal stories are also excellent starting points and using a notebook you can begin to create a story bank.
There are many different types of story, a useful distinction Doug Lipman makes us aware of are those that are ‘edge of the seat’ stories – those stories that contain action, adventure, humour and participation as well as ‘leaning back’ stories which are more thoughtful, ‘trance-inducing’, gentle and meaningful. When choosing stories think about yourself as the teller, your audience, the space, the story and the occasion. Be choosy and use your intuition.
Next, consider what you believe to be the ‘Most Important Thing’ about the story, the thing that draws you to the story. Be very clear about your interpretation because it will guide your telling of it and helps the audience understand the story’s intention. For example, the story of Jack and the Beanstalk might, for an individual teller, be about openness to the unknown or a cautionary tale about greed. It might be about Jack’s developing maturity or an exploration of magnitude or something else entirely. From this you can explore the elements of the story, such as the character and plot and how they relate to this ‘Most Important Thing’.
After this it is useful to think about the story elements, for example character. Who is the hero and what is their goal and how do they relate to the problem? Are there helpers or hinderers? What is the outline of the plot? Where is it set? Settings are a moveable feast so relocate stories as you see fit – my Gingerbread Man runs down our local highstreet much to the children’s delight. Likewise, with respect, tellers are able to pass on tales from cultures other than their own. Remember that children understand metaphor and are inherently meaning-seekers so avoid the temptation to over-interpret for them. Likewise they enjoy rich language and concepts so avoid over-simplifying.
“Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards”. Autobiographical stories are an excellent starting point for gaining confidence. Sharing memories from your own childhood or the saga of your broken car going to the scrapheap are fascinating to young children. Practice this on your own, choosing a starting point such as ‘a memory of winter’ to start you off and begin to present it as a ‘story’ to build confidence. The advantage here is that the imagery will be sharp and personal and this makes it easier to transfer. This is also a good starting point when working with families and starting points might include memories of a first day at school, how you (or your family) got their name, a memory of a practical joke, getting lost, how a scar was obtained or when something got broken.
The storyteller Ruth Sawyer sums up ‘stories must be acquired by contemplation, by bringing the imagination to work constantly… learning incident by incident, or picture by picture, never word by word.’ The story has been chosen, or has chosen you, now it needs to be imagined fully. The story is being ‘tamed’, internalised, never memorised or recited. Simple visualisations of elements of your story can be practised on the way to work, in the shower or while waiting in queues. Visualise the scene in colours, sounds and textures, imagining it from different perspectives.
The storyteller must be present, authentic and bring a sense of playfulness to their storytelling. Be aware that you are not imitating anyone – you will find your own style. In Look What Happened to Frog; Storytelling in Education the authors consider the different continuums of storytelling styles – memorized versus improvised, understated versus animated, stationary versus active, conversational versus theatrical or third-person versus first person. Where possible find a colleague interested in storytelling and share ideas, test out stories on each other and give each other feedback.
Create a special story space, better yet, tell outside. Use a clear signifier that the children should settle in readiness such as a special chair, hat, candle or object to let the children know that a story will follow. Aim to gain attention at the start of your story and make the children feel at ease. I use a Tibetan singing bowl at the beginning of my session to gain attention and break from reality. Exercise professional judgement when selecting props or puppets as they can enhance and support the telling but too many can detract from the telling.
Find interesting and memorable ways to begin. A favourite beginning, guaranteed to gain atention is simply ‘Sssh, a story is coming’. These first lines should mark the start and transport audiences into the world of story. Endings such as ‘snip, snap, snout, my tale is out’ return them promptly to the ‘real world’.
To aid your internalisation of the story use methods that support your learning style, for example, mindmaps, storyboards or the use of colour. Break the story’s plot into an introduction, the conflict’s set-up, resolution and conclusion. Use this to practise your telling to yourself at any opportunity, remembering to do this aloud whenever you can as ‘imagining’ and ‘telling’ uses different parts of our brains. If possible, record it as you go along and as a record of your finished story.
As you work on your story, note the sections that contain action and those that contain description – this will guide the pacing of your story. Jay O’Callahan, a master storyteller, invites us to “dare to pause” and the use of different pacing, pauses and a rest at the end of the story to allow us to come out of the story trance help us to feel the story.
You may wish to build in opportunities for partipation opportunities. Incorporating the child’s ‘voice’ may be in the form of including simple refrains, chants, songs, repetitions, actions and the opportunity for children to contribute to the descriptions, to problem-solve. I provide opportunities for children to contribute jokes, answer riddles, provide ideas for challenges in a story, make funny faces, select puppets, consider the ending, make judgements about fairness of consequences and to share what they think they are good at when we meet a character with particular strengths. Remember the ‘rule of 3’ and use this in your stories. Michael Shermer reminds us ‘Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.’
Characters Hinting at their demeanors with subtle inflection, gesture or facial expression avoids full dramatization which can detract from the telling. If you wish to use different voices a suggested range might be high, low, squeaky and your normal speaking voice. The book Mouthsounds explores a wide range of voice effects that can be made with the mouth alone. Always use your breath to support your voice and aim to make your movements to accompany the story as relevant and natural as possible. eg closer for sharing, intimacy, away for distance. Think of how it would feel to squelch through mud, have rain dripping down your back etc. A simple voice warm-up might be a big yawn, tensing then relaxing shoulders, neck and jaw, humming a favourite tune and a few deep breaths. Star jumps are a good antidote to nerves! Laslty evaluate – were you in control, was the audience engaged, was the ending skillful, maintain relationship with audience
Pie Corbett uses a story entitled ‘Mr Wiggle and Mr Waggle’ (see Useful Resources) in which his two thumbs are characters which visit each other in a simple story. Children can learn and internalise basic story structure and, using their own thumbs, can adapt the plot and characters to create their own story. Using an object or character familiar to the children is a good starting point for inventing a series of shared stories and these can be recorded in pictures or words for the children to reflect on later.
Although story book sharing is an essential activity for developing children’s literacy, storytelling activities can contribute to an early years literacy strategy. Storytelling helps children’s development both in terms of understanding story structure and the wider goal of understanding humanity. Simple guidelines can help the start-out storyteller but the only way to learn is simply by doing it.