How often do you start the day at work exchanging stories with colleagues about, for example, why the bus was late, the film you saw last night, or who you met by chance on the way home? When we watch the news on television, presenters also often refer to the main news of the day as ‘our top stories’.
Stories are central to our lives. As Jerome Bruner has said: “we represent our lives to ourselves (as well as others) in the form of narrative”. In other words, listening to, telling and sharing stories forms a fundamental part of our identity and how we are perceived by others. For this reason, Bruner also believes that it is vital to create a ‘narrative sensibility’ in children in their own language(s) through giving them access to and familiarity with conventional stories, myths, fables, histories, fairy tales and folk tales that are part of their own culture(s). It is these stories combined with the child’s evolving powers of comprehension, analysis, discussion and imagination that play an instrumental role in developing children’s sense of who they are.
The value of stories in children’s first language development is backed up by extensive research. One classic example is the longitudinal study of children in Bristol described by Gordon Wells. This provides strong evidence to suggest that young children who are read to and told stories from a very young age have considerable advantages later on at school, not only in the development of literacy skills, which you might expect, but also in the development of social skills, such as empathising and being able to relate to others. Conversely, children who are not exposed to stories at an early age tend to do less well later, both in terms of literacy and in terms of integrating with others at school.
It is arguable that stories can play a similar role in the context of children learning a second, additional or foreign language as well. From my own experience over many years of teaching, I am convinced that it can. In our classes with children, the magic of stories seems to lie in the way that they provide shared contexts for promoting participation and developing emerging language skills in a natural and spontaneous way. Stories also potentially engage children’s hearts and minds, as people and as thinkers, with issues that are relevant, real and important to them.
I’d like to share two examples from my own teaching experience which illustrate this:
The first is chosen with the approach of Halloween in mind! It comes from a time when I organised a drama week at the school where I was working to coincide with the end of the autumn term. The aim of the drama week was to provide a framework in which children from different classes could perform to each other. Teachers signed up and ‘performances’ were timetabled according to different ages and levels. Ground rules were kept to a minimum: contributions were to be short (no more than ten minutes); there could be dressing up and props but no-one was expected to do anything too elaborate.
In preparation for the drama week, my own class (a group of 6-7 year old beginners) chose to dramatise the children’s picture book we had recently read for Halloween, Meg and Mog. The children had loved the story and were extremely enthusiastic at the prospect of putting on a play. The project included rehearsals, making masks and props, planning costumes, making programmes and invitations, and lasted over several weeks. Although the final production was modest (see photo above), the children felt a huge sense of achievement. There were a number of significant benefits in the longer term too, including increased confidence and motivation, greater class solidarity, improvement in the children’s willingness to use of English as a natural part of classroom communication, and greater involvement and positive support from their parents. However, the thing that amazed me most as a result of the experience of dramatizing Meg and Mog was the subsequent desire of the children to act out every story that we read together in class! This became something of a ritual with every storytelling session ending with cries of I want to be … / Can I be …? and an instantly improvised play. This is one example of the way in which stories, in this case combined with drama, engage and motivate children to develop language in a rich and naturally contextualised way.
The second example is rather different and comes from a time when I was invited to a conference in a country that had recently emerged from a long and bitter war. The conference organizers asked me whether I would be willing to demonstrate storytelling techniques with a group of children in the main conference hall for teachers to come and observe. So it came about that I did a storytelling lesson with a group of 30 children, aged 9 -12, with 90 teachers observing – probably one of the most challenging conference sessions I have ever done in my life! I had never met the children before and did not speak a word of their language, although they had been learning English for at least one year, and some of them for longer. The story I chose to use with them was a big book version of Something Else, a wonderful story about difference and exclusion.
At the start of the session, I was extremely aware of 90 pairs of teacherly eyes watching my every move (!), but as the lesson got underway, I completely forgot their presence and focussed entirely on the children. The children’s response to the story was one of the most powerful and moving teaching moments I have ever experienced. Their ability to relate the story to their country’s recent experience of war and suffering was extraordinary. Their attempts to use every bit of English they had available to try to convey and communicate to me, as an outsider to their country, their amazingly mature views about how wrong it is for people to exclude, hate and fight each other, were impressive, and you could have heard a pin drop in the hall as they took turns to speak. As well as bringing home the power of stories in a way that I’ll never forget, this experience led me to think how we perhaps often underestimate the maturity of children’s thinking. It also made me reflect on how refreshingly open children are in discussing complex and difficult issues that, as adults, we often shy away from.
I know that many people reading this will already be convinced of the value of stories. It would be wonderful to hear your views and share experiences of stories you have used.
Bruner J. The culture of Education, Harvard University Press, 1996
Cave K. & Riddell C. Something Else, Picture Puffin, 1995
Nicholl H. & Pienkowski J. Meg and Mog, Picture Puffin, 1982
Wells G. The Meaning Makers: learning to talk and talking to learn, (2nd Edition), Multilingual Matters, 2009
Notes: The above is based on posts I wrote as guest blogger on Storytelling on the British Council Teaching English website in February 2010. For examples, of story-based materials, see also the Magic Pencil and promoting diversity through children’s literature on the same site. For further reading on picture books, see Opal Dunn’s classic collection of Real Book News also on the same site, and visit Sandie Mourao’s blog.