Storytellers and reading aloud - Alec Williams
Classroom cliff hangers and library legends
Once upon a time, when chickens still had teeth, and horses still had feathers...
Have I got your attention? Stories do that, too, and this post is about storytelling and reading aloud. Stories grab and enthral, they stimulate thinking, they play with language, they celebrate listening – and they’re a high-octane way to motivate children, and model reading for pleasure.
All your pupils need the experience of stories (whether told from memory, read aloud, or on audio books), especially if they’re struggling with reading. They need to be reminded of the delights to come when they become more fluent.
By itself, reading is potentially a quiet and isolating activity. Reading groups, author events and online book chats are challenging this, but speaking aloud challenges the stereotype even more, bringing a buzz to books in class, and making it ‘loud in the library!’
Stories to start with:
If I’m telling from memory, I often start younger sessions with Why Dog lives with Man, and older sessions with The Clever Wish (various sources; contact me for details). If I choose picture books, I might use Mary Murphy’s Say Hello like This!, or Tom Willans’ Wait! I want to tell you a Story!, for similar audiences.
Everybody does it...
Did you hear what David from Class Three said in the Nativity Play?
I’m sorry I’m late – you see, what happened was…
This horse came into a bar…
All of us tell stories. In recounting events, jokes, and anecdotes to others, we tell them all the time. And without knowing it, we do a lot of the things that a practised ‘teller of stories’ tries to do with a story text or idea: for example, a natural lead-in; occasional repetition and voice changes; and a satisfying ending. We do these things because we get ‘carried away’ in the telling. Good storytelling is about making the tales seem real to your listeners – bringing stories alive!
…and most people remember it fondly
I hope you can recall being told stories (or being read stories, or having stories made up for you). It might have been a family member, or one of your first teachers (‘it was a TV’ doesn’t count!). If it brings back a happy memory, pass that on to another generation. You may be that ‘first teacher’ they’ll remember for life. My mother reading stories, and my father making them up, led me to reading to my own son in turn, including serialising stories – Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain books – with a chapter a night. In school, serialising like this is a great way to demonstrate the power of narrative; each morning, children will be itching to find out what happens next!
Stories with pictures:
My favourite picture book stories include Sally Grindley’s Shhh! and Mara Bergman’s Snip Snap!, and I’m adding more recent titles like Richard Byrne’s This Book just ate my Dog! and Kjartan Poskitt’s The Runaway Pea.
Too important to be rare (if well done)
Over the years, storytelling has ‘moved upwards’: from a parent’s habit, to a teacher’s duty, and now into something that you ‘buy in’ a storyteller for – as though it needs special skills which aren’t otherwise around. But it’s far more important than that! Of course it’s good to have a visiting storyteller (or else I’d be doing myself out of a job!) for a change of voice, gender, cultural background, and repertoire; but children need many more stories than these, and teachers can provide this throughout the year. Styles vary, from quiet and magnetic to loud and physical, but if storytelling’s done with enthusiasm and a sense of drama (‘it is impossible to go over the top’, as Janice Del Negro put it (1)), it’ll succeed.
Tell what... and to whom?
Most traditional stories appeal to all ages, and many adults have personal stories to tell. You could also use riddles, fables, and urban legends, plus extracts from contemporary fiction and poetry. Many of these sources succeed brilliantly with older children, and picture books reach all ages.
Audiences could include your school’s own pupils; children from other schools (it’s a great transition activity); and invited parents, picking up tips. Storytelling is often especially successful with special needs children, with added actions, refrains, puppets and objects.
Stories in verse:
There are many children’s poems that can be ‘lifted off the page’ by reading them aloud. Michael Rosen’s This is the Hand and Clyde Watson’s Here is the Nose are fun for the youngest; Allan Ahlberg’s The Challenge and Colin West’s Christine Crump are great for joining in; Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners and Charles Causley’s Miller’s End will show the beauty of language.
Four steps to story success
If you want to develop your own storytelling, here are some ideas.
Firstly, find some good sources: from books; the internet; from family or friends; or from other storytellers. When reading aloud, choose fiction or poetry that excites you. Read an arresting opening, an exciting early episode, or a cliffhanging ending. Short stories are great for restless listeners. Try ‘booktalking’: reading from the blurb, giving some author bio, mentioning their other titles, and similar books.
Secondly, practice... and then practice some more! You could do this at home (to an unsuspecting family!), or with friends. Talk in front of a mirror, in the car – and record yourself!
Thirdly, with traditional tales, choose a way of remembering that suits you. If you’ve a visual mind, draw a story map or a storyboard. If you prefer language, reduce the story to its basic elements, which you can then use to rebuild it in your own words. The ‘three Rs’ of traditional stories (rhyme, rhythm and repetition) will also help you remember the structure.
Fourthly, listen to other storytellers* and readers: live, and via on-line clips. Try out different ways yourself. (*Contact the Society for Storytelling (2), for information about storytelling clubs and events)
That’s all very telling… how do I learn more?
There are more practical tips and story choices in the freely-downloadable guide Get Everyone Reading (3), which I wrote for the School Library Association. Talk to colleagues about favourite stories, and browse websites and social media. If you’re lucky enough to have a school library service, their staff will have tips, and favourite stories to tell. And if I can help you, get in touch.
Stories for everyone:
Use folktales around the world, and stories set in different countries, especially those of families in your school. Check gender balance: in traditional tales, try Scotland’s Molly Whuppie as well as Jack and the Beanstalk; China’s Chi and the Seven-Headed Dragon as well as St George; and Japan’s Three Strong Women as well as Heracles. In more recent reading, there are plenty of sparky princesses, including the classic Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch.
1. Folktales Aloud: Practical Advice for Playful Storytelling, by Janice Del Negro
2. Society for Storytelling