Going off the Beaten Track: Storytelling as an Alternative to Extensive Reading in the EFL Classroom
Mariana Andone, Romania
Mariana Andone has been an EFL teacher for 5 years now. She currently teaches at a high school in Bacau, a city in the eastern part of Romania. She has become interested in ways of bringing literature and creativity in the EFL classroom, due to a lack of interest in the matter which is characteristic of the mainstream approach to teaching foreign languages in her country.
How do we get started?
The delivery stage
Teaching storytelling – classroom activities
I have come across this concept rather recently and at that point I did not know that there was more to storytelling than the mere re-telling of a randomly picked story. Actually I thought the concept was slightly overrated and finding out that there is quite a wealth of books that tackled this matter was in fact what stirred my curiosity and interest in it. Moreover, I wanted to gain a deeper insight into the art of storytelling for personal purposes, i.e. becoming a better “performer” for my elder son. This is what prompted me to start my research on this subject and now I have decided to share my findings with those who are in the same error as I was at the beginning.
First of all, what is storytelling? It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when it began but one can only assume that it is as old as man’s first attempts at communication. We can go as far back as cave paintings, for they should not be mistakenly thought of as simple doodles or pictures etched in stone, but as real stories of life. They developed alongside of vocabulary itself, thus becoming more complex, abstract and nuanced. Today we use stories on a daily basis. We can hear snippets of conversation and dialogue passing from one person to another and realise that in fact the most popular form of communication is the recounting of stories. We use them to share information, to connect to our interlocutors, to reveal who we are. Whatever the purpose, they are an active part of our lives.
Considering these aspects, we can but ask another question - why do language teachers tell stories? Stories are meant to educate, to offer wisdom and knowledge to those less experienced, so we should not underestimate their power. We are storytellers every day whether we realise it or not and it is a skill that can be developed and used in education with exceptional results. Storytelling is the best tonic for the imagination, and as such children find it exciting and fun. They have permission to go wherever they want, to explore language and learn about life in a safe environment. They immediately connect with the storyteller; there is no book or paper to act as a barrier. The only pictures they have are in their heads. The words become their own.
The difference between storytelling and reading might be a clear one, but why is it so important in the classroom? Here are some reasons why storytelling is essential for educational development and can be used to complement the curriculum:
- Storytelling aids in the development of children’s ability to interpret and understand events beyond their immediate experience. Children’s perception changes as they ‘make it real’ and identify with the story on a personal level.
- Storytelling is a medium of shared experiences. This helps children to empathise with the characters, to feel elated at another’s joy, sad for their misfortunes. It is a tool for social and interpersonal development.
- Storytelling aids language development. Children need to be exposed to language to fully understand its implications. This will also have a beneficial effect on reading skills and being able to associate meanings and emotions with words.
- Storytelling helps with listening and speaking skills. Children will learn the importance of listening, of how to communicate ideas and interact with others. They will develop their vocabulary and learn when and where to use words and phrases.
- Storytelling stretches the imagination. It encourages children to escape into a fantasy world, and supports their daydreams, which has positive benefits on mental health and clarity leaving them better able to cope with day-to-day situations (fairy tales are ideally suited for this purpose).
- Storytelling entertains and excites, which is an important part of learning. If children are having fun they are involved, and motivated to learn more. You can almost see them anticipating what comes next and discovering the real meaning of the tale.
- Storytelling helps children appreciate different cultures, in addition to helping them examine and value their own personal heritage.
- Storytelling is the natural way to introduce children to the wonderful world of books and reading. The next stage is for the class to create their own stories and learn how to communicate their ideas individually and in groups.
Deciding on the tale to tell
We have seen the benefits of using storytelling in the classroom; we know what it is about and how it can be used. Now comes the exciting part – finding and creating a tale to tell! It sounds a challenge, but there are ways and means to make the process easy and enjoyable. Our first decision refers to whether it is better to choose tried and tested tales from the wealth of material available for our audience, or whether to create something specifically for the task in hand. Both options have their advantages.
Choosing a tale
As fledging storytellers we might prefer the option of finding a tale. The benefit here is that we know the story works, it is already formed and it is in print. What can be safer than a tale that has already been created and enjoyed? The story does not lose anything by not being original because every storyteller has his or her own style. There are some tips which offer us a better grasp of what needs to be done in order to achieve the desired effect in students. First of all, pick a tale that you enjoy. It will be difficult to create atmosphere if you do not really believe in the the story. Secondly, make sure you know your audience well – what they like/dislike, their attention span, their interests or previous experience with stories. Then, you should feel free to take an old tale and change it to suit your needs, or your audience’s. Children enjoy the tradition and romance of fairy tales; they enjoy hearing about kings and queens, dragons and witches. To make the story fun you could think of modern alternatives to fairy tale characters. Furthermore, pick stories that make sense and have a satisfying ending. There is nothing worse than a group of blank faces at the end of a tale. Last but not least, find a story that suits your style. Every storyteller has a different voice. You may discover that you prefer to tell your tales in the first person. Perhaps you feel more comfortable with modern tales rather than fairy tales. You may find humour difficult, but have a natural aptitude for spooky atmospheric tales.
Creating a tale
This is not as difficult as it sounds, and can be very rewarding. There are many benefits in creating your own tale to tell. For a start, that tale is original, it may have elements of other stories, but it is your tale, and as such has never been heard or read before. You are the master of the tale and that provides an extra boost of confidence and control. You will feel happier chopping and changing bits, and you will find that you can be flexible with the plot and characters. So where do we start? Do we wait for inspiration to strike? Here are some easy ways to stimulate your imagination and get the words flowing, as presented by A. Davies.
Memories. Think of important events in your life, significant things that happened in your childhood. Think about positive experiences. Rather than trying to list them in your head or on paper, draw them. Take a sheet of paper and draw a picture, a still that sums up what that memory means to you.
Pictures. Pictures are a great source of inspiration. Storytellers work in pictures, so putting a story together based on pictures or paintings or photographs is a good way of thinking visually.
Other stories. It is perfectly acceptable to incorporate other stories into the tale you tell. You may be looking for a tried and tested formula: for example, the standard format of good versus evil that is used so well in fairy tales can be adapted. You can borrow characters and tell the story from their perspective. What happened to Sleeping Beauty whilst she was asleep? Where did she go? What did she dream? What were her adventures? Perhaps she learnt something during that time. You may begin to tell her tale and then ask your class to come up with their version of events.
Other perspectives. Take a story you know well and see it from another angle. Take an inanimate object and imagine what it sees and feels. What role does it have to play in the story? Give it a personality. Remember that it will be present for only part of the original tale, so it will have a totally different perspective of events. It will have its own story.
Take a smaller character from a popular tale and tell his or her story. Who is Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother? Where did she come from? How did she feel? How did the sequence of events look to her? Again these are all questions you can put to your class to get them thinking creatively.
As pre-delivery preparation, A. Davies suggests that, although it is obviously not advisable to learn our stories by heart, there is nothing wrong with developing some key phrases. Knowing the first and last line of our piece is however useful. A good strong beginning is necessary to launch into the tale, so a definite sentence which sets the scene and puts us and our audience in the right frame of mind for the tale is a must. Also, the author stresses upon the paramount importance of practising our tale. “Familiarise yourself not only with the words you want to use, but how they sound. Things sound different when they are vocalised. Run through the story and if there are any problem areas work on them. Make sure you have your key phrases and bridges in place in case you lose your way.” (Davies, p.26)
During the actual delivery, it is essential that we take into account several factors, such as voice, expression, movement and posture. Imagine that all music was the same. How dull it would be to listen to the same piece, with no changes in rythm or tone. The same happens with stories. Voice, movement, posture and expression are the tools of a storyteller’s trade. Like magic they can turn an ordinary story into something truly amazing. The way in which the story is presented is the icing on top of a cake. It is the bit that everyone sees and is attracted to. Presentation techniques, if done correctly, will not only give a story credence, but also give one’s performance confidence. The more these skills are employed in the classroom, the more effective they will become, and if we get our class to join in then we should also see positive results in the areas of speaking and listening.
Storyboards are an excellent way to introduce children to the world of storytelling because they are a visual aid to telling a story and great fun to produce. Storyboards are similar in pattern and effect to story ladders, the main difference being that a storyboard is made up of pictures and words. A story ladder uses chunks of sentences or phrases to move you on to the next stage of the story. Children find it easier to associate with images in the first instance, although older children might enjoy the challenge of creating a story ladder. Storyboards can be used as a lead-in to storytelling performance work. It gives the class the opportunity to get into groups and really get to grips with the tale. Storyboards can be used as starter or main activities, with outcomes that focus on sharing ideas, communicating in groups and creating coherent plots.
When producing storyboards ask the class to think of a picture that captures the essence of whichever stage of the story they are focusing on. Then suggest that they write a few key words beneath the picture to help them when it comes to telling their tale. They can also write a sentence for each picture; however try to steer them away from writing the full narrative as this is an exercise in storytelling and the oral tradition, not reading/writing. If you can get children thinking creatively, experimenting with language and then developing tales in their heads they will have more confidence when it comes to the written word.
Word games. There are very many word games you can incorporate into your storytelling activities, depending on the age and level of your class. Word games are a great ice-breaker and can be used as starter exercises to get the class thinking about language and accustomed to speaking.
The One-Word Game. Tell the class that the aim of this game is to tell a story, but each person is only allowed to say one word and that word must move the story forward. So you might start with ‘once’ and the next child might say ‘upon’ and the next one ‘a’ and on and on it goes until you piece together a story. It is an exercise that should be done at high speed to keep the momentum and the fun going! Some younger children might find it easier to say one sentence rather than one word but the idea is the same – it is very much about stimulating the imagination.
Tripling. This is an exercise for older children, those who have a clear grasp of language and are competent at piecing together stories. The object of the exercise is again to tell a story, but this time the focus is on the language and the meaning of the words chosen. Tripling is something that storytellers use for effect. Each word used in tripling adds something to the picture. It increases the power of the image, to provide maximum impact. For example say, ‘The crows they gathered on the Castle Gatehouse, watching, waiting, counting the silences’. Here tripling is used to add to the atmosphere and the intention of words. With this exercise you get your class to sit in a circle and you start to tell a story. After a minute or two you add in a sentence that uses tripling. So you might say, ‘the dog ran, leapt, bounded across the field’. Then you move on to the next person. They will continue the tale and include at some point a tripling sentence. The most important thing with this exercise is not to second-guess what is coming up. You cannot know where the story will go, and that is part of the fun and the challenge. You have to think about the story and the language as you are speaking.
Cliffhanger. Again this is a good exercise for older children who are confident with stories. Write a selection of different lines on prompt cards, lines that leave the story hanging in mid air. So you might have, ‘Jenny felt something grab at her shoulder. When she turned around all she could see was …’ Each child will take it in turns to pick a card and develop the story from this point. They have three minutes to tell this story to the rest of the class. Some children might struggle with this exercise but you can help them by asking questions and getting the rest of the class to join in with suggestions.
In the style of … This is another exercise for older, more advanced children. You pick a selection of well-known fairy tales and write them on different cards, you then write down a selection of character types, for example you might include in this list Witch, King, Ogre, Clown, Fairy, Giant, Pirate etc. Then a class member will pick one card from each group. So they might pick ‘The Three Little Pigs’ as their story and a Witch as their character. They now have to tell the story of the Three Little Pigs in the style of a witch. So they have to use their voice, facial expression, movement to depict their character whilst telling the tale. You can do famous people, characters from TV etc.
Although the title of the article might suggest an innocent rivalry between extensive reading and storytelling, there is actually no such thing. On the contrary, the two activities are closely interrelated and mutually dependent. However, my intention was (and hopefully I have managed to rightfully prove it) to sustain the idea that storytelling is an undeservedly unexplored area of EFL, which is more often than not disconsidered in favour of actual reading. It develops Listening, Speaking, Vocabulary and boosts a child’s imagination, motivation and literary competence, not to mention self-confidence and independence. I also hope I have managed to eliminate any possible misconceptions related to the term “storytelling”, which was my main goal from the very beginning. Having said all this, I believe it is only fair to give storytelling a chance and include it in our priorities during the English classes. Even if less visibly in the beginning, our efforts will pay off in the long run.
Davies, A. (2007), Storytelling in the Classroom (London: Paul Chapman Publishing)
Fox Eades, J. (2006), Classroom Tales. Using Storytelling to Build Emotional, Social and Academic Skills across the Primary Curriculum (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers)
Zaro, J. and Salaberri, S. (1995), Storytelling (Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann ELT) pp. 3-5
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Primary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.