Storytellers in ancient, preliterate cultures could remember word-for-word epic tales that might take several evenings to recount. They would store the entire tribal history in their minds and retell it at celebrations and ceremonies.

Writing stories down in books and reading them again liberates the mind from these feats of memory. But traditional storytelling still has a role to play and is a skill worth cultivating.

Why tell stories with children?

Introducing traditional oral storytelling to your class will benefit children by:

  • providing opportunities to both tell and hear stories, encouraging the development of active speaking and listening skills
  • fuelling their imagination and allowing children to develop their own mental images
  • developing the memory
  • influencing children’s written work as well as their selection of reading material
  • familiarising them with traditional tales, myths, legends and fables that speak in metaphor about deep-seated truths and conflicts. They provide a vehicle for the discussion of social mores and personal ethics
  • creating fun and excitement – children love it!

Developing the skills of storytelling will particularly appeal to your gifted and talented children because of the opportunities it brings for developing expression, linguistic skills, the subtleties of timing and the flexibility of delivery. Storytelling also allows a dramatic element to enter the tale with facial expressions and a degree of acting out the story.

Getting started: teacher as storyteller

Although these notes are written for a teacher, or TA, they can just as well be used with an older G&T student who shows potential and interest in developing storytelling skills to use with younger children:

Before you can broaden your children’s cultural horizons and imaginations with stories from around the world you will need to make a start as a storyteller yourself. This can be a daunting prospect.

Start with something simple. For Reception or KS1 you might choose a well-known tale such as the Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood. For Lower KS1 you might go with something a little longer and more complex like Rapunzel or a selection of Aesop’s Fables. Upper KS2 children will want something they don’t perceive as ‘babyish’ (especially the more able). Trickster tales are good for this age group and there are many in African and North American culture. Look for stories about Br’er Rabbit or Anansi the Spider. These tales are short, which is good for you, and have a twist, which the children will enjoy.

Read the story through several times to make sure you have it clearly in mind. For the kind of short, simple stories that I suggest you start off with you won’t need to make notes. Try telling the story to yourself as you stand in front of a mirror or saying it out loud as you drive home from school. This will ensure that you are comfortable with the sound of your storytelling voice and will also help your brain to store the story.

Gather the children around you and tell them that you have been learning a new skill. Children always like to know that their teacher is still learning. Then simply tell the story. Don’t feel you have to put on voices or use lots of facial expressions or arm movements this first time.

Tell the same story a couple of times in a week to build your confidence. Ask the children for feedback. Then choose another story. Aim to tell your class a new story each week and gradually expand your repertoire as your confidence grows. You can find stories to use in anthologies of tales from different parts of the world and the internet is a source of many traditional tales from different cultures.

Over the first term or two of telling stories to your class you will begin to find stories that you are drawn back to time and again. These favourites will form your core repertoire – stories that you know well and are confident with. Don’t feel that a story has to be told in exactly the same way every time you tell it. That is one of the great pleasures of storytelling. You can describe a forest in a different way the second or third time you tell a tale. As long as you don’t change the key points of the story it’s fine to experiment.

Moving on: children as storytellers

Once you have told a few stories yourself and the children are beginning to become enthusiastic about these sessions you can coach them in developing their own storytelling skills. Here are the techniques that I use. They are in a particular order which will allow skills to develop progressively, and I suggest you stick to this order.

Paired storytelling
I like to start children off with a storytelling activity that they feel comfortable with. Simply sitting with a partner and retelling a story together works well. I sit children on chairs in a circle and tell them a short unfamiliar tale. I choose a story they don’t know because I want there to be a certain amount of challenge in this initial task.

Once I have told the story I ask the children to turn their chairs so they are facing a partner and to have a go at telling this story together. I stress that this is not one person telling the whole story and the other person passively listening. They are telling the story together. One will start off and then the other takes over, or one might chip in some extra detail that the teller has forgotten. They might discuss a part of the story to refresh their memory: two heads are better than one. Use this technique with a couple of stories over a week before moving onto the next stage.

Circle stories
Once a child has told a short and simple story with a partner they may feel more comfortable about sharing a story in a group. For this activity the whole class, including yourself and any adult helpers, sit in a circle. You tell the story you have chosen in its entirety.

Everyone present then takes it in turns around the circle to tell a piece of the story. It is a good idea to have an object that you can pass around the circle as the story passes from person to person. You start off the story again and after a few opening sentences you pass the object to the person next to you: left or right, it doesn’t matter. They then tell a little bit of the story and pass the object on. Piece by piece the story takes shape around the circle.

This is a cooperative story so if someone gets stuck it is OK for another person to chip in a bit of the story to help them. The first couple of times you do this it is a good idea to include an opt-out. If a child really doesn’t want to tell part of the story they can say ‘pass’. (Adults don’t get to use the opt-out!)

The one-minute story
Once children seem relaxed about telling stories to each other you can introduce the one-minute story. Use a story that the children are familiar with. It might be one they have already used in the previous two activities. Tell them to work in pairs. One is going to tell the whole story while the other listens and then they will swap over. They only have a minute to tell the story and you are going to time them. Get your stopwatch out and count them down to the start. Tell them when they have had 30 seconds, when they have 15 seconds left and then count down the last five seconds. This time pressure forces children to cut the story down to its bare essentials. There just isn’t any room in the one-minute story for any frills. This activity is great fun and able children especially love the challenge.

‘Bare bones’
With a one-minute story under their belts, the children are now ready to learn the key technique of storytelling. I call it the ‘bare bones’. Give pairs of children a piece of paper and a pencil and tell them they have to tell the whole of a story you have just told them in just 10 sentences. This is another way of getting them to concentrate on what matters most in the story. I have a template I use. You might like to make yourself one. It is a sheet of A4 paper with the outline of 10 bones on and the children write their sentence on the bones. These ‘bare bones’ are the notes the children will use when they move onto the next stage which is actually telling a story to an audience.

As a professional storyteller I will condense any new story I hear down to its bare bones and use the slip of paper as an aide-memoire when I am telling it for the first time. When I am working with children I will explain this technique to them and will ask them to count how many times I refer to my notes.

Children becoming storytellers
Your children are now ready to tell a story to the rest of the class. The most comfortable way for them to do this is as part of a small group. Give each group a printed copy of a story that you have never used before and ask them to write the ‘bare bones’ together. Once they have done this each group then stands in front of their audience and tells the story. Some children will simply read out their ‘bare bones’. Other, more confident children, will embellish their part of the story. Children who are good at this can be offered the opportunity to tell a story to the whole class on their own.

Storytelling for G&T children
Not all gifted and talented children are good communicators, but you will generally find that it is your more able children who take most readily to storytelling skills. Once they are confident in the basics of the art you need a couple of extra techniques up your sleeve to really stretch them. You can consider:

  • Performance: to younger children, in school or at a local pre-school, or consider putting on a ‘literature festival’ with friends and relatives in the audience.
  • Production: with computer software, groups of children can record themselves telling a story and then add computer generated sound effects or even add background music. A compilation CD of your best storytellers should sell well.
  • Adaptation: challenge able children with the task of adapting traditional stories, for example setting them in a modern-day context.

Further information on storytelling

Steve Mynard is a teacher and professional storyteller