What do we really mean when we talk about storytelling? In this piece, Karen Simpson, a Senior Lecturer in Primary Education, looks at the different interpretations of storytelling. She explores its importance as the foundation for early literacy.
Storytelling is a key part of our lives. When we arrive home after a busy day at work or school, we will tell our families in great detail about the events of our day. When we arrive at work in the morning, our colleagues and friends will hear all about the nightmarish journey and how long our trains were delayed for. We will describe and detail, exaggerate and embellish and relish in our listeners’ reactions to the tale we have told. We all tell stories every day.
In schools, storytelling can be a rich experience for children, sometimes happening before they shape texts in writing, sometimes when telling stories for their own sake. It is what writing is built upon and skilled teachers know about its importance when using storytelling as part of the language curriculum to build children’s literary skills. As Jimmy Britton describes: ‘reading and writing float on a sea of talk’ (1982, p.11).
When talking about storytelling, it is important to be very clear about what we mean; to make the distinction between story-reading and being read to, from texts that have been written by others, and storytelling, where we craft texts of our own making or tell our own versions of tales from the oral tradition. By telling and retelling tales about magical worlds, children can begin to understand settings outside of their own experiences and try out their ideas in a safe space.
Of course, reading stories and being read to are both hugely important to a child’s literacy development. Children can experience texts that are more challenging than those that they could access on their own and enjoy getting lost in another world as an adult or older child takes away the decoding element of reading for them. It is, however, storytelling and its rich elements that I want to explore.
In his recent speech ‘The Importance of Storytelling’ Nick Gibb stated that “Learning to decode words is the vital first step in becoming a confident reader”. I would argue that there are many, crucial earlier stages to children’s reading development; having the opportunity to talk and tell stories being one of these.
From their earliest utterances and interactions with people around them, young children are learning about language. By listening to their parents and siblings and mimicking what they say, they learn about its patterns and rhythms as well as the way it is used to communicate what we want and need.
As children grow and their language develops they use storytelling in their play to imagine events and create worlds. They describe what has happened to them and they plan their adventures.
Stories form part of a rich oral tradition and cultures all around the world have their own canon of tales that have been shaped over hundreds or even thousands of years. Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and for children, form a crucial stage in their language development.
Parents and teachers play a vital role in building the foundations of a child’s literacy development. Through singing, sharing rhymes and riddles and telling stories, both traditional and nursery stories to our own tales about daily life, we are giving young children the important first skills that they need to go on to become confident and fluent readers. More importantly, I would argue, we are furnishing children with a love of language and its power to communicate, to entertain and to express our needs and feelings.
Trisha Lee, in her book Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories, (2016) describes ‘the enchanted place’ that we create in classrooms when we tell, and encourage children to tell, tales about our lives and the things that happen in our imaginations. She goes on to outline the many skills and nuances involved in the tales told by very young children, before they are able to read, write and certainly before they have learnt anything about the phonic code.
Even when children become more established in reading and writing, teachers can continue to use storytelling as a powerful classroom tool. Children can try out their ideas, and orally rehearse before they commit their ideas to paper, thus improving “the flow, fluency and feel of their writing.” (Cremin 2002) How many of us have had experience of needing to read a letter or other text out loud as we are crafting it – either just to ourselves or to someone else, to gauge their reaction to the words and structure or simply to see how it sounds. Children need to do the same.
Children develop reading and writing skills through understanding the language patterns of stories, through word play and developing their vocabulary – they learn not just to select the right words, but to use those words in the right way, to express their meaning and have the desired effect on their reader.
The importance of storytelling then, lies in everybody, from parents to teachers, school leaders to policy-makers, understanding how storytelling can be used powerfully at home and in the classroom as a vital foundation for children’s literacy development. In teaching children the skills they need to read the words but, crucially, building these skills on a language rich foundation so that children want to read and write so that they can access and create worlds beyond their own experiences.
Britton, J. (1982) Prospect and Retrospect: Selected Essays of James Britton in G. Pradl, (ed.) London: Heinemann.
Cremin,T. (2002) Storytelling: the missing link in story writing. UKLA Available at: https://ukla.org/downloads/ecaw_storytelling.pdf (accessed 13th March 2016)
Lee, T. (2016) Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories Oxon & New York: Routledge