A Mini-Crash-Course on Oral Storytelling
It’s been several months since I’ve written for Two Writing Teachers. In December my son was born, and I was on maternity leave until a few weeks ago. Then, in March I pushed aside all excuses and did the Slice of Life Story Challenge. Every day in the month of March I recruited my four year old daughter to tell me a story, which I videotaped and posted daily on my personal blog. Each day I tried to use all that I know about teaching language, storytelling, and young writers to help my daughter learn to tell stories.
This post is a mini-crash-course in oral storytelling that brings together what I’ve learned from my experience and training in teaching literacy. Hopefully, by the end of this post, you’ll be ready to model storytelling for your own students, and you’ll have some very practical ideas for coaching kids to tell their own stories aloud more often.
First, when I say storytelling, I’m talking about telling stories aloud. I’m talking about telling your own bedtime stories to your own children at night, or telling stories to your students, or telling stories about your life to friends over coffee. Chances are, you probably already tell stories aloud every day. However, kids often don’t get the chance to tell stories unless the adults in their lives make space for it.
To begin, think of somebody you know who is an excellent storyteller. You’ll need a model to follow. My colleague and mentor Lucy Calkins comes to mind, or educator and author Lester Laminack, or author John Scieszka, or storyteller Carmen Agra Deedy, or one of my favorite storytellers, Heather Forest. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing any of these storytellers speak, then you know why I recommend them!
Click this link to listen to Heather Forest tell a story. I suggest Stone Soup for the uninitiated. While you’re listening, think of a few things she does as a storyteller that you could do too. Write them down somewhere.
Did you listen and jot down some noticings? Great! Now, did you notice the way she:
- Uses storytelling language (as opposed to vernacular, everyday language)
- Makes her voice get louder, softer, faster, and slower to match the meaning of the story
- Changes her voice for different characters
- Uses rhythm and song to add to the meaning
- Sound effects (knocking)
- Uses repetition, a chorus
- Takes her time, pausing for effect
You can do all these things too, with a little practice, and so can your students with some coaching and encouragement from you.
Next, think about your school day. Whether you teach preschool, elementary, or middle school, there are ways that you can tuck in some time for oral storytelling practice. Here are three ideas:
1. Whole Class Storytelling – Telling a Shared Experience
I learned from my colleague, Natalie Louis, to start by selecting experiences shared by the whole class. This way every child in the class can remember the event and is able to contribute true details to the story. You think of the story of a fire drill, or part of a field trip, or an assembly. It helps if it’s something memorable. It also helps if it is a short event rather than an entire day. You could even manufacture an idea for a story. My friend Kristi Mraz is a genius at manufacturing stories in her classroom—spilling whole containers of supplies, popping balloons, all in the name of creating a good story to tell later on.
Once you have an idea for a story in mind, gather your kids and guide them through the storytelling process, which mirrors the writing process.
- Invite your kids to come up with ideas for a class story (though you will already have one in mind, just in case). I like to ask kids to turn and talk to their partners to brainstorm ideas that we could tell as a story (preferably just one small moment, not a whole day).
- Then select one story idea (could be that idea you had in mind, or a story idea from the students).
- Model telling the story bit by bit, including all the important details, using rich storytelling language and expression.
- Then, ask your kids to practice retelling the same story to a partner, revising as they go. As they practice, you can coach them to change their voice, choose a better way to say it, include dialogue, more detail…whatever you think will improve the story.
- Remember, a little coaching goes a loooong way. Just one or two tips per partnership is plenty.
This takes about ten minutes. You might even rehearse the same class story across several days, eventually writing the story down using your SmartBoard, or chart paper. (FYI, I would call that “Shared Writing” but that’s for another blog post!)
2. Around the Circle Storytelling of a Class Story
Another variation on telling a class shared story is to tell it out loud as a group. This could happen with your whole class, or as small group work to support oral language. It helps to sit in a circle for this. You can start the story by telling just the first few sentences, the lead. Then the student to your right adds on a sentence or two, then the next student, and the next, and the next.
As the story makes its way around the circle your role as the teacher is to provide coaching that lifts the level of the language. If the story jumps ahead too quickly to the ending, for example, you might say, “Whoa! Slow down! Let’s stick with this part a little longer to include more details. Say more, elaborate on that part…” Or if the students are heavy on action, then you might coach them by saying, “He said…” or “She said…” to prompt for dialogue. Or you might say, “He/she/we felt…” to prompt for character feelings or thinking.
Rehearsing a story aloud like this helps kids understand the thinking a writer does when deciding what to write.
3. Telling Our Own Stories – Telling & Retelling Your Own Story to a Partner
A third idea is to find small bits of time in your schedule to simple give students time to talk with partners about their days–about their own lives. Some teachers find that at the start of the day, or right after lunch, or after recess are good times for storytelling. So much can happening one lunch period! The idea is to simply give kids time to tell stories. Your role, again, is to listen in and coach, lifting the level of their language and story structure. It’s incredibly helpful to encourage kids to tell the same story multiple times, perhaps to the same partner, but different partners is an option as well. The story gets better and better with each retelling–it’s like magic.
4. Bringing Oral Storytelling into Writing Workshop as a Way to Get Ideas and Plan Stories
If you have time for writing workshop (or independent writing), you can take a few minutes during writing time to ask kids to get with a partner and tell their stories aloud before writing them down. Particularly with younger students, saying their stories aloud multiple times before writing allows them to revise it several times before committing it to paper. When you’re a beginning writer, it takes a LOT of work to get those words down on the page, so the more times you’ve rehearsed it aloud, the better the story will probably be when you finally do write the words.
Rehearsing stories aloud gives kids of any age time to think through how they want to say their stories, instead of simply writing whatever comes to mind first. It also gives kids a chance to test their stories out on a real live audience.
Examples of Literary Vocabulary Children to Coach Into During Oral Storytelling:
“First… then… next… finally…”
“I said/He said/She said…”
“All of a sudden…”
“One fine day/afternoon/morning…”
“Let’s revise that part…”
“Let’s revise our lead…”
“Let’s revise the ending…”
“Let’s consider adding dialogue…”
Coaching Moves for Oral Storytelling in Writing Workshop
There is so much more to say on the topic of oral storytelling. For example, how to support English Language Learners, and how to reinforce new vocabulary through oral storytelling, and how to use the same concept but for information and argument. Hopefully, you’ve got enough here to get up and running, and I’ll save the rest for future blog posts.
Do you have more ideas for oral storytelling? Do you have a routine that works well for you? Please, do share in the comments section!