Storytelling is one of the oldest and most powerful ways of sharing ideas and transferring knowledge from one generation to the next. It brings people together as they sit and listen to the storyteller, hanging on their every word and enjoying the events as they unfold.
Most importantly, storytelling helps young people develop their ideas about life, culture and their understanding of the world. For learners, storytelling is a memorable experience, often associated with a sense of belonging. I’m sure most of us can recall at least one story from their childhood that left a long-lasting impression.
The benefits of storytelling
Stories are a vehicle for language learning in the young learner classroom. They help students develop an ear for the English language and its rhythm and sounds. They are also a great springboard for young learners’ overall growth and the development of cognitive skills, thinking, and reasoning.
What’s more, storytelling in the classroom can foster a love for reading and provide opportunities to develop young learners’ social and emotional skills through vicarious learning. The characters and situations stories present help young learners to better understand others.
Wells (1986), who investigated the links between storytelling and performance, found that consistent exposure to storytelling and narrative discourse in both the home and classroom environment also has a positive effect on children’s literacy development.
Above all, the enjoyable experience of storytelling can help our learners develop a positive attitude towards learning English.
How to use storytelling in the classroom
Choose your stories wisely
If you want your classes to be memorable, you must engage your learners on an emotional level. Do this by selecting topics that not only interest your students but which are also developmentally appropriate and meet (or slightly challenge) your students’ language level.
Storytelling can also be a great way to introduce differences and diversity. You can decide to use a story that shows a different way of living – for example, what life is like in a country where it snows heavily in winter. Try to gauge what your learners will find most interesting.
Enable your students
It’s key that you find out about your learners’ prior knowledge and understanding and build on it. Read the story yourself first, with your learners in mind and decide if you need to pre-teach any language before reading. You can create flashcards to pre-teach essential words of the story.
Equally, learners might need to learn more about a key concept before reading, so that they can fully enjoy the story. You could use realia or a short video to introduce any new concepts you touch upon.
Bonus Tip: Move a piece of paper with a shape cut out over a flashcard to show your learners part of the image of a keyword in the story. See if they can guess the image, then teach the English word.
Engage your students
One of the biggest challenges is to hold your learners’ interest and attention. Using a variety of techniques and activities during storytelling can keep them involved and turn them into active participants.
Before you start a story, create a special ‘story atmosphere’. Then when learners are ready, engage them with images or sounds from the story. You can go to soundbible.com to download free sound clips and learners can listen to predict the setting of the story.
Tips for engaging your students:
- Make storytelling a special time. Introduce each session with the same chant or song (“Are you ready for a story? Clap your hands! Are you ready for a story? Clap your hands! Are you ready for a story? Clap your hands! Now sit down!)
- Use realia, images, sounds and/or movement, gestures, body language and facial expressions to get the meaning of the story across and get learners to join in.
- Select rhyming language or a key chunk of language and get them to repeat it after you. However, instead of simply saying it, chant it or sing it with your learners to make it more memorable.
- Asking questions is an effective way to check students’ understanding of the story and to develop their prediction skills and it also enhances engagement. Vary your questioning, ask factual as well as more challenging evaluative and inferencing questions.
Give your students ownership over the story
Once you have finished the story, return to the text to explore the language or the theme. Make sure you give your learners an opportunity to respond to the story with their own ideas in the follow-up stage. There are various ways of doing this, they can:
- Draw a story path with the same or a different ending
- Act out the story
- Create their own story booklet
- Retell the story
- Imagine what happens next
Bonus Tip: to include some variety you can integrate technology. For example, learners can use voice thread to record themselves retelling the story or use storyboard.com to recreate the story.
Finally, enjoy the experience
Educating young learners involves teaching much more than just English; you are guiding them through the world around them. Doing this with enthusiasm and passion can have a huge impact on their attitude toward learning.
Our role is to trigger their curiosity and foster their interest in learning. By providing our learners with an engaging, positive learning experience we can sow the seeds for a life-long love of learning.
Now even though some of us are natural storytellers, most of us are not. But we can all become good storytellers through practice and by becoming aware of techniques we can use to bring a story to life and engage our learners.
Above all, storytelling is an art. This means there is no one right way to do it. Find your own style, one that works with your group and enjoy the experience together with your learners.
Looking for stories to read with your young learners? Check out our range of Pearson English Graded Story Readers.
If you liked this post you should also read our 7 reading strategies for primary and secondary learners.