The Craft of Storytelling
Andrew Wright is an author, illustrator, teacher trainer, freelance consultant and story teller. He has published with Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Pearson. As a teacher trainer and story teller he has worked in 55 countries. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.andrewarticlesandstories.wordpress.com
Stories are SO central to the life of adults as well as children! They offer a central road for language development in the mother tongue as well as in second/foreign language learning. Research in language acquisition strongly supports this belief. (Krashen: 1983). The route followed while acquiring language is the same the world over, though the rate of language acquisition differs in mother tongue, second language and foreign language, because it depends on exposure and need. Reading and listening to texts which are engaging are the gate way to all language learning—and stories provide the most natural context for these skills and for speaking and writing, specially to foreign and second language learners.
Being able to tell stories effectively is clearly a major advantage in daily life. In this article I am offering notes on the craft of telling from my experience of telling stories, in schools, in 55 countries. Choose from them what is useful to you! In boxes I am suggesting activities you might do if you are working through these notes with a colleague. For choosing, adapting, presenting and using stories in foreign language teaching, it is recommended that teachers learn to understand how language is acquired and how it can be used for learning, and consult materials to help them become great story tellers
What is a story?
Any description which contains an element of drama is a story. Drama is essentially ‘struggling to overcome problems’. Stories include:
- Real life descriptions and these might come from your life or from the newspaper, etc. Non fiction stories includes stories from history.
- Fiction: local legends, traditional stories, literature eg Roahl Dahl. AND stories YOU and the students have written or created!
The power of stories
In life stories grip people! Stories offer a path to walk along through a chaos of experience.
In the language classroom, stories offer a living context for language! Stories offer a mine of content which can set teachers and students off on all kinds of 'project' journeys.
Telling a story well is therefore an important skill for a teacher (and for a student). But how to do it?
Telling or reading stories?
Salt and pepper are both necessary for any cook. They are different.
Spoken telling by you to the students (and/or by the students)
The listeners feel you are giving something of yours to them.
Full drama with your body. Natural opportunity for eye contact. Personal feeling of giving a story rather than reading somebody else’s story from a book. Natural to use English which is comprehensible to the learners and natural to repeat an idea in different words in order to make sure it is understood. Natural to stop and comment on the story as a person rather than a neutral narrator. Adapt easily and repeat sections to help with meaning.
Story reading by you to the students
No remembering for you to do! English correct…no worries about that.
Styles of telling: tell in YOUR way
There are as many ways of telling a story as there are individuals and story telling contexts.
Let your way of telling be determined by:
- Your own character and your relationship with the listeners
- The telling style(s) of your culture (listeners commenting is common in some cultures)
- The immediate context of telling (a friend, a class, a noisy party)
- The nature of the story (funny, moving, action or character)
Storytelling is art. In art we must be ourselves but more so.
If you are quiet and shy then be quiet and shy in your telling and emphasize your quietness and shyness…and it will come over as strength. However, quiet and shy you are you must GIVE your story to your listeners! Look at them! Move towards them with your body…like giving a present.
Think about how people you know tell you about what they have been doing and what has been happening. Describe such people and their way of telling a story to a colleague. You might include people who do not engage and sustain your interest.
A summary of tips for telling effectively
- Choose a story to tell which might engage the listener AND which you like
- Speak clearly so that the listener can understand the words spoken
- Express the feelings and ideas behind the story with your choice of words and your voice and body (not just trying to speak in an interesting way unrelated to meaning)
- Create a vivid mental image of what is happening in the minds of the listener with your words, voice and body.
- Organize the events in the story so that the listener can follow the story.
Choosing a story to tell
- You must like or admire the story you choose or you will tell it without conviction. Of course, you will try to choose a story the listeners will like but you can never be sure about that.
- What mood are they in?
- What mood is coming from the listeners? If they are restless or inattentive it might be good to grip them with a modern or an ancient myth which contains strong emotional challenges and clear actions.
- Can they understand the story?
- Will they understand all the language you need for the story? I think the question should really be, Will they understand enough of the storytelling to enjoy it? You will be using actions and perhaps pictures and you will be preparing them…and you will tell the story several times. They don’t need to understand all the language in the story.
- Is the content relevant to them?
- You might choose a particular story because it is relevant in subject to a topic which you have introduced already or want to introduce.
- How long is it?
- Take into account its length. The stories in my OUP book are half a page to 2 pages in length. (See Further Reading)
- Alternately, you can tell a much longer story in episodes eg in the last five minutes of every lesson.
Modifying a story
Modifying the story in order to maximize the chance of the listeners understanding the story and appreciating the feelings expressed:
- words and phrases
- sentence complexity
But don’t remove all the language roughage and produce characterless language. And don’t remove all the unknown language and rob the listeners of the development of real listening fluency which means being able to deal with unknown elements.
Remembering and mastering the story (without reading)
We all have different ways of remembering and ‘mastering’ a story and we should make sure we use the way which is most suitable for us! The proof of the pudding is in the eating! I, personally, need to write down a gist version of the story in flow chart bubble form.
I then need to try out the gist of the story without expression on a friend…just to see if I can remember the basic storyline.
After that I need to tell the story many times before I begin to feel on top of it.
I never try to remember a story word for word. Trying to remember texts ‘word for word’ is very difficult and makes me terrified of forgetting a word and makes it harder to live out the drama (I am not a professionally trained actor).
I find it is important for me to see, in my mind’s eye, the story almost like a film.
How do you remember texts: visually and writing down a summary of ‘steps’? Acoustically and saying them aloud? Socially, trying to re-tell them to friends?
What sort of rememberer are you? Tell your neighbour how you have remembered a number of different things you do know and can talk about.
Preparing the story
Decide which key language items will be made understandable before the story and which during the story.
Decide if you are going to chat about related subjects before beginning the story in order to produce listening readiness and understanding of the topic or situation.
Get together any pictures or objects which you might need.
Preparing the listeners: Create ‘listening readiness’
However good a storyteller you are you can lose everybody if they haven’t brought their readiness to listen with them. Here are some ways I try to increase story readiness not calling out, ‘Quiet please! I am going to tell you a story! Sit up and pay attention!’
1 Arrange the seating in a different way eg in a semi-circle.
2 You as the teller, sit in a place or on a chair or desk corner which they have come to associate with your story telling.
3 Adopt a body position which they have come to associate with your telling of stories.
4 Quietly making sure they are comfortable, not hidden from you and have nothing on their knees which they might drop.
5 Cue their expectations with: a story corner, a story carpet, a story bag or coat or scarf or box or puppet which they have come to associate with your telling of stories.
6 Music: perhaps the same music every time you are going to tell a story.
7 Intrigue them with a story box or other object.
8 Insist, quietly, on total silence and stillness.
9 Intrigue them and focus their minds on relevant content and language eg through chatting and asking questions. ‘Has anybody got a cat at home? Yes, well I am going to tell you a story about a cat.’
1 Tell your neighbour which of these nine things you do, or what things you do anyway or which of the things in the list you would feel comfortable doing.
1 Content which is interesting to them eg cats.
2 Drama: the struggle to overcome the main difficulty and the mini struggles to overcome the mini difficulties on the way (page turners!)
3 Feelings and emotions engage people’s attention
4 Rich language: using language precisely, expressively and with sureness
5 Body language: the richness of the use of the voice and body. (see below)
6 Descriptive characterfulness of people, places and objects, etc. you create in their imaginations.
7 Link the listeners directly with the story, perhaps by a passing comment on an experience the listeners have with an experience in the story.
8 Active, explicit participation by the listeners: miming, making background noises, chanting, repeating key lines, inviting the listeners to guess what is going to happen next or to say how the protagonist feels, asking the listeners to listen out for the answer to a particular problem.
Discipline of the students
However hard one tries to carry out the ideas suggested above listeners can have a strong personal agenda which does not coincide with your own. Some listeners need to fiddle around, others need to whisper to their friends or to poke them or pass them notes or to grin for no obvious reason at someone opposite to them.
I find it disastrous ever to shout in a story session or ever to show serious disapproval. I feel that story telling is story giving and that warm concern must be the overriding atmosphere.
My way of dealing with behaviour which might distract other listeners and pull them out of the story is:
1 Increase the dramatic edge in the story in content and manner of telling.
2 Tell the story directly to the deviant, making strong eye contact.
3 Stand near the deviant and tell him/her the story but loud enough for the class to hear, of course.
4 Momentarily putting my finger to my lips and looking the deviant in the eyes but without interrupting the story.
5 Stopping and saying something like: Is he your friend? I am not surprised you want to talk to him. But please don’t. Save it up until later. When people like a story they go into it and forget the classroom and the story becomes real. But it is real, like a beautiful soap bubble is real and the story can be broken and disappear as easily as a soap bubble if you bring us back into the room by doing things like talking and poking. So please don’t bring us back into the classroom.
6 Moving the deviant.
My final measure is to move the deviant to another place in the class while I tell the story…put him/her where it is difficult for him to make eye contact with his/her friends.
How do you feel about these suggestions? Have you any alternatives to suggest? Please tell your neighbour. So much depends on the school’s traditional responses.
How to begin
Various ways to begin:
- You might stride into the room and strongly deliver the line, ‘Once upon a time there were three little pigs!’ or ‘I was in New York last week!’
- You might say the same line only once you have settled everyone and yourself in the ways described above.
- You might begin with a richness of language and a strong piece of description of character but you might begin with a question or a problem.
- You might begin by seeming not to have begun a story at all.
- You mustn’t begin apologetically or with hesitation unless that is a key part of your story.
Using your voice, body and props
In story telling the sound of the voice and the sight of body movement are the first levels of reality…like the quality of oil paint in a Vermeer…like the quality of instrumental sound in a flute…like the quality of marble in a Michelangelo sculpture. The voice and the body have been the source of our communication with each other from the beginnings of our time (homo sapiens…300,000 years ago.)
Note: the storyteller can be a neutral teller OR, while telling the story neutrally, can act out the feelings and behaviour of the protagonists.
Using your voice
The human voice can be used in a greater variety of ways than those of other animals:
Monotone/multi-tone. Quiet/loud. Fast/slow. High/low. Hard/soft. . Flowing/hesitant. Pause.
Formal/informal. RP/dialect. Urgent/relaxed. Happily/sadly. Etc.
Many people, when sustaining oral description, make use of a near identical intonational pattern for every sentence, no matter what its content and potential feeling. I have heard many students giving presentations or telling stories who use the intonational pattern most appropriate for reading out a shopping list…monotone with a rise at the end of the sentence…for every sentence!
Of course, we can use variety in our voice just to sound interesting and that is better than sounding boring! On the other hand, much better is to make use of the various characteristics of the voice and delivery in order to make things clear and to express explicit and implicit meanings.
You will do this according to your personality; some people work within a narrow range and others a broader range but not to do it at all or to use a very limited and repeated manner whatever the content is…monotonous.
1 Try to say Hello in different ways. Try to imagine what the circumstances might be for saying the word in each of these ways. Do this with your neighbour. After a few minutes do some of your ‘best’ ones again for another pair of neighbours.
2 Say the following sentence as if it is the start of an amazing story: ‘This morning I woke up, got out of bed and opened the curtains.’
3 Directors and actors study the story and the text and build up a clear character for the protagonists and a clear set of relationships between them, for example, some are dominant and some subservient.
From the story of Beauty and the Beast: spend a few minutes discussing the character of Beauty and her sisters and her father and their relationship and then study the texts below, work out how the texts should be spoken in order to convey the character, concerns and relationships of the protagonists. Then try your ideas out and take it in turns to be ‘director’ and ‘storyteller’.
‘Now father!’ her sisters said, ‘Make sure you bring us some beautiful clothes and hats and shoes! All in the latest fashion, of course!’
‘I’ll do my best!’ he said, ‘and Beauty, what would you like me to bring for you?’
‘Just yourself, dear father. Have a good and safe journey!’
‘Then bring me a rose, father!’
Using your body: Summary
The body can be used to communicate:
- physical appearance: people, objects, places, etc.
- relationships: physical, emotional, social, etc.
- action: protagonists, the wind, etc.
- expression of feelings: protagonists
- expression of abstract concepts
The body may also be used to communicate utter uninvolvement…but that IS not what you want to communicate!
Suggestions about using your body
1 Telling a story is art and is heightened life:
- emphasise it (if you raise your hand and open out your fingers to show surprise…raise it further and open your fingers more)
- do it more slowly than you would in normal life giving time for your story listener to see and feel what you are doing
- and, if possible, sequence your actions so that you only do one thing at a time rather than several bits at the same time.
How you move your body is thus natural but more so! Doing it slowly and emphasizing it gives people time to see and to perceive and to reflect.
2 Usually, I think I make my action precede the words which relate to it. In this way the listener sees, has time to reflect and then (hopefully) has it confirmed by the words spoken. In this way the listener feels he or she has supplied the meaning and the words merely confirm it…so, in this way, the listener feels it is his or her story!
Physical appearance: examples of using your body
- I am bald but I can show thick long hair hanging over my face by using both my hands with my fingers open, starting in front of my forehead and then hanging down over my face by slowly lowering my hands.
- I can show a deformed, tense man by lifting one shoulder and elbow and by letting my head droop forward and my mouth hang open.
- I am an ageing man but I can show a smart young woman by lifting my head and turning my chin, half closing my eyes, lifting one shoulder a little and pushing out my chest and slowly moving my hips.
- I can show a dog by drooping my shoulders, drooping my eyelids, leaving my mouth open and panting.
1 Try each of these activities in pairs.
2 Think of a particular person (actual or imagined), mime the person and ask your partner to guess what sort of person you are miming.
Relationships: examples of using your body
I can show a dominant person by raising my chin and looking down and slightly sideways as if I don’t even need to bother looking directly at the other person and raising one eyebrow. I have a slight sneer on my face. I gesture with one hand, beckoning with my forefinger.
A moment later, I switch to the subservient person by rounding my back, looking up and slightly sideways and raising my eyebrows and drooping my mouth.
I can show a person loving another person and asking him or her to, ‘Come to me’. Dipping my head on one side, softening my face and smiling and raising and opening out my hands and at the same time moving my upper body forwards.
1 Try each of these activities in pairs. A reads out the action and B mimes it.
2 Think of a type of moment of a relationship, physically, write it down, mime it and ask your partner to guess what it is that you are miming.
Combining voice, words and body
Here is an extract from Beauty and the Beast which I have annotated with descriptions of body movements:
‘Beauty’s father knocked on the door.’ (leaning forwards, head turned as if to listen more carefully, eyebrows raised as if not knowing what to expect, and then raising the hand, with the knuckles of the second finger crooked to knock on the door. )
‘He turned the handle of the door and pressed it open, slowly and looked into the lobby.’ (Fingers slightly bent, finger ends vertical pushing open the door, head cranes forwards to look into the lobby, eyes turn as far as possible to the left and then to the right, at a slightly higher angle.)
1 Try this activity in pairs. A reads out the action and B mimes it.
2 Think of a short situation and plan it with your partner. Act it out for another pair.
Expression of feelings: combing voice, words and body
‘Beauty’s father went into the lobby. Everything seemed to be so normal but there was nobody there and nobody came when he called.’ (If you are sitting then move your feet forward, slowly, cautiously, lean your body forwards, turn your head stiffly, precede a turn of your head to the right by turning your eyes first, keeping your eyes wide to show anxiety, even fear.)
1 Try this activity in pairs. A reads out the action and B mimes it.
2 Think of a type an action where the feelings are strong and plan it with your partner. Act it out for another pair.
Expression of abstract concepts: combining voice, words and body
Another part of Beauty and the Beast:
(The narrator is sitting even when the protagonist he introduces, stands up)
‘He sat in front of the roaring fire (rubbing hands in the heat of the fire), waiting for someone to come to him but nobody came (looking over his right shoulder towards the door). The supper lay on the table untouched (looking over his left shoulder). At last he stood up (slowly leaning forwards as if to stand up), went to the table (remaining seated but looking left and pointing with the right hand towards the table), hesitated for a moment (raised right hand held for a moment) and then reached into the bread basket and took a piece of bread (taking the bread and laying it on a plate), then he picked up a knife and cut a sliver of cheese.’ (picking up a knife and cutting a piece of cheese and lifting it and placing it on the bread.)
1 Try this activity in pairs. A reads out the action and B mimes it.
2 Think of an abstract concept and plan it with your partner. Act it out for another pair. (Love./ So small…so big!/Beautiful and precious and so rare./)
Using interaction by the listeners
In order to…show understanding, express feelings and ideas and show understanding and personal response.
- provide background sound effects
- join in with repeated phrases
- be asked what they think will happen next.
- be asked what they would do in the same situation.
Props: showing pictures, drawing pictures, objects, finger play, drama
This section is more of a note to point out that there is a long tradition of telling stories and, for example, showing pictures at the same time. All these techniques can help the teller to engage and sustain engagement by the listeners.
One technique I have seen in Japan is to show A3 size pictures to the listeners and have on the back of the pictures the key storyline which the teller can see but not the listeners.
In Japan I met a storyteller who had been trained for 15 years to use a small white cloth and a pair of chopsticks to tell stories with!
In the world of shadow theatre, the teller tells the story while manipulating the shadow puppets.
And, of course, puppet shows are stories animated by puppets.
A tradition amongst the Inuit is to cut pictures in the ice or snow while telling the story.
Within these traditions I hope you will find something, which you feel you can and want to do… And, remember…simply telling a story is hard to beat!
Krashen, Stephan (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, Oxford, Pergamon, USA
Wright. Andrew (1997) Creating Stories with Children Oxford University Press. UK
Wright, Andrew (2002) Ways of Using Stories. A SPELT Publication sponsored by OUP, Karachi Pakistan
Wright, Andrew & Hill, David A. (2008) Writing Stories. Helbling Languages. Austria
Wright. Andrew (2013 second edition) Storytelling with Children. Oxford University Press. UK
Please check the Methodology and Language for Kindergarten course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Primary course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website
The Craft of Storytelling
Andrew Wright, Hungary
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