How Storytelling Inspires Children to Learn English

Written by Matthew James Friday

Storytelling is For Everyone, Everywhere.

Storytelling has tremendous benefits for classroom learning for all students. Everything that follows in this blog can be applied to children of all ethnicities, learning needs and backgrounds. In my dual role as a teacher and storyteller, I have used the techniques described below in the multi-cultural classrooms of south London, diverse international schools in Europe and China, and in local community school, college and library settings in locations as far apart as England and Malaysia.

In the aforementioned settings I have taught children with little or no English. Time and time again, the early breakthroughs, in terms of those students talking, reading and writing English, came in response to stories. In short, storytelling inspires children to learn English and I want to explain how that works to hopefully inspire you to do the same.

What is ‘Storytelling’?

Telling stories, of course. In 2015, there are so many diverse, wonderful and sometimes overwhelming ways to do this, ranging from books and films, to television shows, computer games, social media transcripts and news reports, etc, etc. The list goes on and on.

Having said that, what I want to explore is the more traditional, oral storytelling, which has been a part of human life since we first left Africa 200,000 or more years ago. Perhaps, linguist and anthropologists are now wondering, storytelling was the reason language developed in the first place, as our minds began to inquire, wonder, think.

Why Do We Tell Stories?

Whether in caves or in cities, storytelling remains the most innate and important form of communication. Every human being tells stories. The story of your day, the story of your life, workplace gossip, the horrors on the news, the life story of your grandmother, the first giggles of your baby, the adventures of your pet. Our brains are hard-wired to think and express in a beginning, middle and end. We are evolved to be storytellers. It’s how we understand the world. This short film, narrated by the actor Ian Mckellen, nicely develops this idea.

Storytelling is also the oldest form of teaching. It bonded the early human communities, giving children the answers to the biggest questions of creation, life and the afterlife. Stories define us, shape us, control us and make us. Not every human culture in the world is literate, but every single culture tells stories. And all of us, either in our jobs, or in our roles as parents and friends, are teachers.

The Many Benefits of Storytelling

When you tell your first story there is a magical moment that will inspire you: the children sit enthralled, mouths opening, eyes wide. Being a teacher who tells stories amazes children. If that isn’t enough reason, then consider that storytelling:

  • Inspires purposeful talking, not just about the story but also there are many games you can play.
  • Raises the enthusiasm for reading of texts to find stories, reread them, etc.
  • Initiates writing because children will quickly want to write stories and tell them.
  • Enhances the community in the room.
  • Improves listening skills.
  • Really engages students who love the acting.
  • Is enjoyed by learners of all ages.
  • Gives a motivating reason for English Language Learners to want to talk and write English.

Why Storytelling Works

That last point has really proven powerful. My school in China was 97% English Language Learners and I had many children in my class who arrived speaking little or no English. The single biggest factor to their incredible progress in English has been their wanting to become storytellers. I spent some time reflecting on why this should be the case. I concluded:

1. Stories are innately part of human experience, in any language. Storytelling is the one commonality between all world cultures, regardless of rates of literacy. It is a universal language.

2. Children naturally inhabit fantasy worlds (think Minecraft and other fantasy-based video games) and stories are a natural way for them to express language and emotion.

3. With a beginning, middle and end, stories have a structure that creates a sense of achievement.

4. When peers appreciate your story it is a big boost to confidence.

5. It’s great fun seeing your friends act your story and dress up, using props and costumes. ‘Fun’ is the best motivation.

6. Storytelling doesn’t require complex, technical vocabulary. Think of ‘silent films’ and comics. Sophisticated narrative can be understood with few words.

7. I never worry about the student’s spelling, grammar and handwriting at this stage. A focus on these areas can easily demotivate and inhibit creativity. There must be freedom to take risks and make mistakes.

My ‘Interactive’ Storytelling Style

It is important at this stage that I describe my particular style. I don’t rely just on ‘speaking’ the story, despite saying earlier that it was the traditional oral form of storytelling that I practice. I have created my own interpretation of that. I don’t sit still in a chair. I talk slowly, with alternating rhythm; I walk around, I use my hands a lot.

Most importantly, children from the audience act out the story as I tell it. They dress up in funny hats and other props, and follow the instructions in the story and repeat the dialogue I say. I stop and start the story a lot, asking the audience to contribute sound effects, to answer questions, to make suggestions, to deepen the engagement. Three other essential elements of my practice are:

1. I set my classroom up in a large inverted U shape, which creates a stage space in the centre and means everybody can see each other and have open, dialogic-style discussions. I am often asked, “how do you do group work if the tables are not grouped together”. Easy. Students move their chairs or sit anywhere they like.

2. Most students draw inspiration from their reading, so a varied Book Corner is essential. Last year two German students worked together Reader’s Theatre style to tell a story in English which they were translating together from a German book.

3. I play lots of language games that I either make up or gain from other storytellers and literacy workshops. They make talking (and laughing) the forefront of language learning.

Adapting the Style

Over the last couple of years, I have made some special adaptions to my style to accommodate the needs of students new to English. These adaptions are:

  • I speak slower but put far more dramatic emphasis into my voice.
  • I used more physical actions and sound effects to help associate universally recognised body actions (running, sleeping, etc) with new English words.
  • I frequently ask the audience to repeat key words and actions.
  • I used more physical humour. Laughter is essential to breaking down the barrier of language.

The Results…

After a few months of the above accommodations, I started receiving some of the biggest surprises of my career. Firstly, a German student who was in the ‘Listening Phase’ of language acquisition began spontaneously writing her own fairy tales and requested to tell them – the first student storyteller of that year. A Japanese student who had been enjoying himself as an actor in the stories but was always nervous to speak English, quickly followed. Then he started telling short but lively stories he had written. Several Korean students then started sharing stories, overcoming shyness and worries about publicly making mistakes.

These EAL storytellers went on to make rapid progress in the wider curriculum, with fiction writing and telling remaining their favourite activity. This year, seven of my Grade 4 class of German speaking students are writing stories at home and taking them to Grade 1 and Kindergarten classes, acting as official ‘Young Storytellers’.

So How Do You Become a Storyteller?

I am hoping that by this stage you are at least curious, but perhaps inspired, to become a storyteller. As a human being, you are already are naturally a storyteller. If you are a teacher, you have been given training in the art of storytelling whether you realize it or not. Teachers are storytellers, and storytellers have been teachers for millennia. Of course, you don’t need to be a teacher to be a storyteller. To be a storyteller I recommend the following 7 steps:

  • Attend a growing number of storytelling events, ‘slams’ and festivals across the world. Here you will witness the wide range of different interpretations and styles. Pick your favourite and copy it. This is what I did watching storytellers in the British Library and British Museum.
  • Read as many different world folktales, fables, myths and legends as you can. Most local and school libraries will have different, modern and colour collections of these stories. You can also find.
  • Build your confidence up by reading picture books or chapter books with an interesting voice. Stop to ask questions. Make the book reading interactive. It will help you create a shared event with a story.
  • Pick stories with small numbers of characters and repeating events, as these are easiest to remember. Having said that, pick any story you like no, LOVE! If you are captivated by it, so will the younger ones.
  • Write the stories down in a notebook. Writing helps you remember it and it models the same to the children.
  • When you start ‘telling’ your story, it’s OK to have the story nearby and to take a look at it if you forget a part. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You are a student again.
  • Get yourself a ‘prop box’ made of old bits of linen, hats from charity shops, random objects. I got a lot of my materials from recycling centres.

The Best Problem You Can Have

The ideal situation is to find yourself overwhelmed by student requests. To have problems managing enthusiasm is the best problem a teacher can have. During the last week of term, my students were worried their next teachers would not let them be storytellers. I had no way of elevating that worry. I can show anyone how to be a storyteller but I cannot make any teacher or adult try it.

Sure, it takes effort and inclination on your behalf, but with so many benefits, isn’t it worth trying? You might surprise yourself. You will certainly surprise your students. In relatively little time, you can be telling stories, running storytelling clubs, capturing the attention of the whole school assembly, contributing to school events and Professional Development training schedules. I never thought I would be doing any of this when I started my teacher training nine years ago. So what’s stopping you?

The next story starts with you…

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