Telling stories is how humans traditionally pass knowledge from generation to generation.
Engaging children in oral storytelling (without the use of a printed book) is also an effective teaching practice for oral language development.
Storytelling is a special way of sharing ideas, language, and stories with children.
The benefits of storytelling
When educators share engaging stories with children, it provides numerous opportunities for language learning. As Arnold Zable has noted:
Whether we are young or old, stories connect us and add meaning to our lives.
Educators can use storytelling as an opportunity to develop numerous language foci including making meaning (listening skills), vocabulary, grammar, understanding of stories/narratives and more.
Choosing your story
We can choose any story that appeals to children, and that allows us to embed lots of new vocabulary, concepts, and grammar into the story. These can include:
- cultural/traditional stories (including Dreamtime or other Indigenous stories)
- fables and fairytales
- myths and legends
- other fictional stories
- recounts and personal stories (like educators’ or children’s own experiences).
See the focus
Stories and Narratives for a full list of different kinds of stories.
When choosing your story, think about:
- the age and language skills of your audience
- what language (sounds, vocabulary, grammar) you would like to embed within the story
- how the characters and events within the story will appeal to your audience
- the length of the story.
Creating your own story
Creating your own stories is a great way to meet the learning intention of your experience. Educators can think up their own stories beforehand; or can come up with their stories in the moment—while they are telling it.
A complete story episode
When creating a story, try to include all the elements of a complete “episode”:
- Setting - characters, place, time
- Problem starting event
- Character - reaction and plan
- Attempt(s) to solve problem
Some strategies for creating your own stories include:
- think of a clear setting
- create identifiable characters
- make the story’s starting event (or problem) interesting
- include character reactions, feelings, and plans
- explain how characters attempt to solve the problem (not all plans work out!)
- provide multiple attempts and consequences to the characters actions
- include a clear resolution
- consider what themes or messages can be embedded in your story.
An example of a complete story episode
Jack and the Beanstalk
Setting - Jack is a young, poor boy who lives on a farm cottage with his mother and a dairy cow. One day, Jack's mother tells him to sell the cow at the market.
Problem - on the way, a bean dealer convinces Jack to trade the cow for some magic beans. When he arrives home, Jack's mother is angry and throws the beans away.
Reaction/plan - The next morning, Jack is thrilled to find a giant beanstalk has grown outside his window. He decides to climb the beanstalk.
Attempt 1 - Jack enters a land high into the sky, sees an enormous castle, and sneaks in.
Consequence 1 - But then, the castle's owner, a giant, comes home. He sees that Jack is nearby by smell, and yells: Fee-fi-fo-fum! I smell the blood of an English man
Attempt 2 - When the giant falls asleep, Jack sneakily steals a bag of gold coins. But the giant wakes up and chases Jack down the beanstalk. Jack races down.
Consequence 2 - Before the giant reaches the ground, Jack cuts down the beanstalk, causing the giant to fall to his death.
Resolution - Jack and his mother live happily ever after with the treasure that Jack had brought home.
Creating your own story downloadable.
If you are telling a known story, make sure you know your story well enough to tell it without reading it.
If you need to refer to any notes, keep a few dot points of ideas. However, if you are reading the story, it’s no longer a storytelling experience!
Practice telling your story a few times before you use it in a learning experience
Think about If you are telling a known story, make sure you know your story well enough to tell it without reading it what resources/materials you can use to tell your story (see below).
Think about what questions or pauses for discussion you might use to engage children in the story.
- clearly pronounce the words of the story
- include all the parts of the narrative (setting, characters, plot, resolution)
- create emotional suspense by emphasising certain words and phrases, and by using pauses.
- use your voice to support children to make meaning
- use changes in your pitch (voice highs and lows), tempo (speed), and rhythm
- show changes in the emotions of characters
- use pitch and speed to build suspense and enhance the story meaning.
Gestures, body language and facial expressions:
- use gestures to go along with key phrases in the story, to help improve meaning making
- how we move in space can help demonstrate how the characters interact, or events take place
- when there is a moment of suspense in the story, the storyteller can move or lean closer to the audience, and show the emotions of the characters in their facial expressions.
- different-sounding voices, body language, and gestures for different characters can be included in the storytelling to enhance the experience.
(Fellowes & Oakley, 2014, p. 91)
- pictures, puppets, toys, or objects
- can help audience make meaning and keep their interest in story
- can be used to signify characters, actions, or parts of the scenery.
- we can encourage audience to contribute to the storytelling experience
- can ask audience to say a recurring phrase or rhyme
- can encourage children to provide sound effects
- can pause to ask for reflections, opinions, or predictions.
Music or musical instruments:
- playing recorded music or sound effects to enhance mood or provide a soundscape
- instruments including drums and other percussion instruments, bells, whistles, keyboards
- can be used to show a change in tone or mood of the story, including when different characters move, arrive, or do certain actions(Fellowes & Oakley, 2014, p. 91).
Key questions to engage audience
Asking questions is an effective strategy for engaging children in the storytelling:
Here are some key question types we can ask during storytelling (Sipe, 2008):
- invite children to reflect or interpret
- 'What do you think is happening here?’, ‘How do you think the Lion is feeling?’, or ‘Oh no! What’s happening now?’
- use open questions to encourage children to share their ideas
- ‘What else could she do?’ or ‘What do we think about that?’
- check whether children are understanding the story
- e.g. ‘How do you know that?’, ‘But who was it this time?’
- encourage children to consider what might happen next
- ‘What will the Lion do now?’ ‘What do you think is going to happen?’
- check which facts from the story the children remember
- ‘Where does the Lion live?’ or ‘Who ate the bears’ porridge?
Creating stories with children
When educators co-construct stories with children, it is a great opportunity for children to practice telling stories themselves.
Educators can do this by starting a story, and asking children for their own ideas, as it is told:
- What do you think happens next?
- Did they find the treasure?
- What was inside the box?
Creating stories with children is similar to shared sociodramatic play experiences, but is more educator-driven, as we work to guide the story to a logical conclusion.
Some general strategies for creating stories with children include:
- Encouraging children to contribute one idea at a time
- Taking turns with ideas and contributions
- Working in a small group (2-5 children)
- For older children, you can also try one sentence at a time, which is a more difficult challenge
- Recapping story at the end (from start to finish)
Ideas for embedding language in storytelling
Educators can use storytelling with any of the ‘interacting with others’ learning foci. Here are some ideas to embed in storytelling experiences:
Making meaning and expressing ideas:
- practising eye gaze, gesture and joint attention
- listening and observation
- remembering the main events of a story
- noticing links between information in one medium (experience, picture, song, storybook) to another (oral story)
- modelling clear pronunciation of words
Concept development and vocabulary:
- introducing new concepts
- using descriptive words
- modelling examples of advanced language like ‘as fast as a rabbit’, ‘if she forgets her wand, then …’, ‘the little old lady who lives in a shoe’.
Stories and narratives:
- ability to sequence events in a logical order
- familiarity with story structures—e.g. beginning, middle, end
- story language such as ‘Once upon a time’ or ‘Long, long ago’
Higher order language:
- using language for humour
- using language for similes (e.g. quick like a fox) and metaphors (e.g. her smile was a shining star).
Theory to practice
Bruner observed that storytelling allows us to use language to “create possible and imaginary worlds through words” (Bruner, 1986, p. 156).
When children engage with stories, in either written or spoken form, the ‘magic’ (or literary response) comes from the interaction between the spoken word (text), additional media (e.g. props, costumes, sound effects), the storyteller and the audience.
The storyteller and the additional media they use play a big role in bringing a story to life. Adapted from Adam’s (2014) review of the “literary response”.
Magic = Literary response:
- Storyteller - interpretation, performance
- Audience - prior experience, knowledge, values
- Spoken word - genre content structure
- Additional media - visual, physical, auditory.
We can think about how these four factors can affect children’s meaning making when listening to an oral storytelling. We can also change these elements to embed language strategically into the experience.
Storytelling with children is an effective way to enhance the language of children, including vocabulary, grammar, and narrative skills (Isbell, Sobol, Lindauer, Lowrance, 2004; Nicolopoulou et al., 2015).
It is helpful to expose children to language which is supported by additional visual/auditory cues. Storytelling provides an engaging and authentic way of embedding language in a learning experience.
Links to VEYLDF
Victorian early years learning and development framework (VEYLDF, 2016)
Outcome 1: Identity
Children develop knowledgeable and confident self-identities:
- use their home language to construct meaning
- develop strong foundations in both the culture and language/s of their family and the broader community without compromising their cultural identities.
Outcome 2: Community
Children become aware of fairness:
- begin to understand and evaluate ways in which texts construct identities and create stereotypes.
Outcome 3: Wellbeing
Children take increasing responsibility for their own health and physical wellbeing
- respond through movement to traditional and contemporary music, dance and storytelling of their own and others’ cultures.
Outcome 5: Communication
Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts:
- listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhymes in context
- listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme
- view and listen to printed, visual and multimedia texts and respond with relevant gestures, actions, comments and/or questions
- sing chant rhymes, jingles and songs
- explore texts from a range of different perspectives and begin to analyse the meanings
- actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways
- recognise and engage with written and oral culturally constructed texts.
Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media:
- share the stories and symbols of their own cultures and re-enact well-known stories.
Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work:
- listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme.
Links to experiences
Language and Emergent Literacy Learners (30 - 60 months):
Links to learning foci and teaching foci
Stories and narratives
Adams, H. (2014). Children’s literature, in J. Fellowes & G. Oakley (Eds.) Language, literacy and early childhood education, 2nd Edition. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.
Bruner, J. S. (1986, 2009). Actual minds, possible worlds. Harvard University Press.
Fellowes, J., & Oakley, G. (2014). Language, literacy and early childhood education, 2nd Edition. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.
Sipe, L. R. (2008). Storytime: Young children's literary understanding in the classroom. Teachers College Press.
Isbell, R., Sobol, J., Lindauer, L., & Lowrance, A. (2004). The effects of storytelling and story reading on the oral language complexity and story comprehension of young children. Early childhood education journal, 32(3), 157-163.
Nicolopoulou, A., Cortina, K. S., Ilgaz, H., Cates, C. B., & de Sá, A. B. (2015). Using a narrative-and play-based activity to promote low-income preschoolers’ oral language, emergent literacy, and social competence. Early childhood research quarterly, 31, 147-162.