Do you have students who don’t write because they have “nothing to say?”
Do you want to improve students’ skills in areas like elaboration and dialogue?
Do you wish kids could find creativity and fun in the writing process?
I have a one-word answer: STORYTELLING.
Before we begin, I’d like to set the record straight. When people think of storytelling, many envision performers who come to school assemblies or library programs, entertaining dozens upon dozens of rapt children and adults. Or caregivers who sit bedside, spinning magical tales of awe and adventure. Yes, there are storytellers who do that. But that’s not the whole picture.
If you’ve ever retold a joke, vented to your partner about that meeting, or reminisced with family about childhood memories, here’s the news: YOU are a storyteller. You have the ability within you to carry a narrative and share it orally. And that, quite simply, is all you need. And it’s all your kids need.
Some of you may wonder why storytelling is such a big deal to begin with, especially where it comes to writing instruction. I’d like to share a few of my favorite reasons.
Storytelling increases fluency. I tell writers that our brains are like cheetahs. They move incredibly fast and can be nearly impossible to follow. Our mouths are like rabbits. They move quickly – sometimes more quickly than we can control! – but still slower than our brains. Our hands are like snails, so very slow. What patience we need for them. And yet:
Asking children to write essentially demands the cheetah and the snail keep the same pace.
No wonder kids have trouble taming their thoughts into the written word. By the time their hands have written or typed a sentence, their minds have moved on. Oral language is the link that allows us to more fully capture our thoughts long enough to commit them to writing.
Storytelling frees us up to be more creative, to bring voice into our craft. How often do we wish a student would insert more voice into their writing? When we don’t have to worry about written grammar, spelling, handwriting and the like, we can focus more on the content of what we want to say. We can let our words follow our imagination more easily, let our sense of humor shine through, and add descriptions and details. Telling a story orally gives compositions voice, both literally and figuratively.
Storytelling allows for dynamic composition and revision. When we tell stories, even informally, we read our audience. We can tell when they’re interested and give them more of what they like. When they’re getting bored, we know we’ve got to move on. The interactive nature of storytelling allows us to gather and respond to feedback right there in the moment. We talk about writing as an iterative process. Storytelling lives it.
Where to Begin
Hopefully, you’re as excited as I am about storytelling as a writing tool. I recommend modeling skills as often as you can. The kids always enjoy the change of pace, and you might find yourself having some fun in the crafting. There are, of course, loads of ways to implement and broaden the experience, but I hope these exercises and videos are a good place to start. Feel free to use and adapt them as you wish.
- Fold a paper into 6 or 8.
- In the first rectangle, loosely draw (10-15 sec!) a rough sketch of what’s happening at the beginning. Stick figures are encouraged! No one will look at what we’ve drawn but ourselves, so we’re the only ones who need to recognize the drawings. No words, just pictures or symbols.
- In the last rectangle, loosely draw the characters at the end. Again, no words.
- When it’s time to fill in the rest of the panels, kids can go any direction they wish: working backwards from the end, working forwards from the beginning, or even both directions.
The first times students tell their stories, they’re just working on their own, telling their stories out loud in their own spaces. This is a chance for them to work out how they want the story to go without worrying about others.
- With the thumb and forefinger or middle finger, pinch the first panel. Talk about what’s happening in that picture or section of the story. The physical act of touching the paper helps keep focus on the story itself.
- Move the thumb and finger to the next panel, and talk about what’s happening in that section of the story.
- Continue moving from panel to panel until the end.
- Good news! If a teller doesn’t like their story, they can always back up and tell again. Twenty seconds later, they’ve changed their story at a very low cost to them or their time.
Note: You will have some students who want to just “think through” each panel rather than say the story aloud. Encourage them to use their mouths to tell the story, even if no one is listening. It feels weird at first, but it’s a critical part of the process!
Adding and Elaborating
Once students are comfortable in the story they have crafted, it’s time for them to “level up” their composition with description, dialogue, or characterization. At this point, they may wish to share stories with classmates as listeners, either one at a time or in small groups.
Circling Back to Writing
My students often tell their stories orally as their final “publishing” work. Other times, we have used tech features such as voice memo/dictation and speech-to-text to transform the oral story into a written format. Either way, it’s wonderful when kids see the power of their words. And, if you’re lucky…
…a reluctant writer will soften
…a student, previously underestimated by others, will knock the socks off their classmates with their level of humor and cleverness
…the stories your children create will go beyond your expectations – and theirs.
Are you thinking of trying these strategies? Are you wondering how to handle logistics in the classroom, or with certain populations of students? What excites or scares you about making the leap to storytelling? Leave a comment below.