A love of stories is common to all young children, and by telling stories, rather than reading them, a storyteller can really bring the tale to life and make it a more interactive experience for the children. Former headteacher Steve Mynard explains how everyone has the ability to become a storyteller

Children love stories! Sharing stories is an essential part of their development and not just for the launch pad it offers into reading and writing. Stories tell us so much about the world we live in and the people and animals we share it with. Storytime is an exciting time for children as they settle down into an expectant mood ready to have their imaginations stimulated.

And there are so many beautifully illustrated books out there to fire the imagination.

What I want to share with you through this article is some ideas I have developed about a different approach to storytime – one that doesn’t actually involve books!

What, no book?

Early on in my teaching career I went to see a professional storyteller and I was amazed at how he captivated the audience for nearly two hours simply with his stories, his facial expressions and the movements of his hands. I was hooked!

I went back to school and tried it out with my year 5 class and found I could do it too. Over the last 15 years I have told many, many stories to children from nursery to year 6 in schools and older children, young adults and adults through the public performances I have given in theatres, historic buildings and even in a cave!

But, why no book? I found that I really enjoyed being face-to-face with my audience; I could interact with them, I could catch their eye at key moments in the story and I could emphasise parts of the story with my face and hands, I could use props if I wanted to. On an even more practical level I found that when I had one or two disruptive children, being able to maintain eye contact was a real benefit.

I still tell stories from books, I love books and so do children, but most of my work is now without the help of books.

Why tell stories?

There are good, sound educational reasons for putting the book down occasionally and delivering a story straight from your own memory.

  • Giving children the opportunity to both tell and hear stories encourages them to develop active speaking and listening skills. 
  • Storytelling fuels the imagination and allows children to develop their own mental images of the story.
  • Storytelling develops the memory
  • Storytelling influences children’s written work as well as their selection of reading material.
  • Traditional tales, myths, legends and fables speak to us in metaphor about deep-seated truths and conflicts. They provide a vehicle for the discussion of social mores and personal ethics.
  • Storytelling is fun and exciting – and children love it!

How can I become a storyteller?

The fear barrier you have to overcome in order to start storytelling yourself can seem insurmountable. ‘What if I forget the story? What if I miss out an important bit and it doesn’t make sense?’ 

Start with something simple
Choose a story that you know well, a story you loved yourself as a child. Read a version of it two or three times and jot down a sequence of notes as memory joggers. You can keep these ‘bare bones’ in your hand as you tell the story and dispose of them once you are confident. Tell this story several times in a month to your children. Let the children help you embellish it. Make it your own. A good starting point in the early years would be the many stories based on a triple repetition: The Three Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Elves and the Shoemaker.

Finding new stories
You will have a surprising number of books of traditional tales, myths, legends and fables in school already. These can provide a good starting point but sooner or later you will need to search further afield for new material. Befriend your local librarian. You will find a font of knowledge there. Your local bookshop will have collections on various themes. Visit some of the websites listed at the end of this article.

Work with a colleague
It is a good idea to develop your skills in partnership with another staff member who is keen to benefit from storytelling. This enables you to listen to stories as well as to tell them. Be a critical friend and offer positive feedback with pointers to improvements. The practicalities of this will usually mean that one of you tells a story to both your classes while the other gauges the audience reaction and observes the teller’s style.

Form a core repertoire
Once you get started you will quickly build up a small collection of your favourite stories. You may have 10 or a dozen stories that work well and the children will want to hear again and again. The great thing about telling stories is that they are never exactly the same when told again.  Children love to look for the differences in familiar stories. These are your foundation stories and telling them gives you the confidence to seek out stories which you might only use once or a handful of times in the context of a specific topic.

Use your voice to the full
The tone, pitch and inflection of your voice are all important. So too is the look in your eyes, the expression on your face and the movements of your hands and body.  At first you will feel daft, but after a while you will fall into a natural storytelling rhythm and you will wonder why you hadn’t tried this long ago. Practise in front of the mirror or your critical friend. Don’t worry too much about different voices for each character but do put your whole self into the telling.

How can I help the children become storytellers?

Children are natural storytellers and from the earliest age we need to use their enthusiasm for word play to encourage and channel their learning. I have used the following practical techniques over and over again. They are simple and adaptable and will help you to develop as a storyteller alongside your children.

Paired stories
Once you have told the children a story get them to sit in pairs facing each other and tell the story together. It is not a matter of one tells the story while the other listens. They are both involved; one might start off and then get stuck on a bit so the other one picks up the story and takes it forward. This helps children to practise before going on to whole class work.

Circle stories
Sitting in a large circle the children take it in turns around the circle to tell small pieces of a story that you have just told them. Your role is to direct the proceedings by stopping each teller at an appropriate point. Choose a short story which can easily be divided into about 10 parts and tell it three times in one circuit so that every child has a go.

This helps with sequencing skills, memory development, listening skills and, because of the supportive nature of telling a tale together, it helps to build children’s confidence for other storytelling activities.

The one-minute story
There is a tendency when children first start telling stories for them to ramble through any pieces they are unsure about. Putting a time restriction on the occasional story encourages them to really think about the words that they are going to use when they retell the story. This can lead into story races where competitors try to tell the story in a meaningful way in the shortest possible time.

The bare bones
Having listened to you telling a short story the children are asked to reduce the story to its essential elements and come up with just eight or 10 sentences to outline the story. They can count the parts of the story on their fingers. Working in pairs the children tell each other the story, work on it together and flesh out these ‘bare bones’ before sharing their version with the rest of the class.

Picture stories
Many books of traditional tales are well illustrated with line drawings. Photocopy two or three of these pictures from a story that is unknown to the children and give them the opportunity to create and tell their own tale from the pictures.

Finish the story
Choose a story that is new to the children and has a dramatic high point towards the end. Tell the story yourself but stop just as that crucial point is reached. The children then work in pairs to create their own ending to the story. When it comes to sharing these with the class you can tell a short extract up to the take off point, where the pair of children take over and conclude the tale. The children will, of course, want to know the ending of the original story and you, of course, are obliged to tell them!

The Storyteller’s Chair
As individual children become more confident in their storytelling skills you will reach a point where you feel it is appropriate for one child to tell a story to the class. This can be a moment of great excitement, especially if you create a special chair for the occasion with a drape and cushions. Make this a real celebration and soon other children will be queuing up to have their go in The Storyteller’s Chair!

Critical friendship
From the outset it is important to encourage children to develop their storytelling in partnership with others. When the children are ready, they can be asked to work on all of these activities in pairs and offer positive feedback as a critical friend. This can greatly improve children’s technique. Working on the principle of two positive comments to one suggestion for improvement helps to maintain the teller’s self-esteem while helping them to accept constructive criticism.

Swap classes weekly so you tell stories to different children

You might like to make storytelling a regular part of your week and swap classes or groups for 20 minutes so that children can try out a new story from a different teacher and practise some of these techniques on that story.

You won’t know if you can do it or not until you have had a go! As teachers we spend most of our working lives communicating in a spontaneous way. In telling a story you are not really doing much that is different from what you are already doing. So give it a go! You will be surprised how quickly your confidence grows and you will be encouraged by the enthusiasm of your children. 

Former headteacher Steve Mynard now runs Metaphor Learning, a company dedicated to promoting creativity and imaginative approaches to reintegrating the curriculum.

  • The Society for Storytelling: As a first port of call for those new to storytelling, the Society for Storytelling provides a comprehensive and accessible service and can be contacted at PO Box 2344, Reading. RG6 7FG Telephone 0118 935 1381. The society aims to provide information on storytelling and to increase public awareness of the art. The SfS organises conferences, special interest groups and publishes a regular newsletter as well as occasional booklets.