Storytelling: using it to empower children

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers
at the Directorate of Primary Education Programme (DPEP) storytelling workshop in Trivandrum, 2001

What is most appealing about storytelling is its accessibility to both tellers and listeners – anyone can tell a story and anyone can listen to a story. Storytelling is a skill that all of us possess as we are all doing it all the time – narrating everyday incidents, jokes, telling the story of a film that we last saw or what happened in last night’s episode of a particular t.v. serial, and of course, many of us retell stories to children when we have the opportunity as the most natural thing to do. Stories that we have heard or read or imagined.

              As teachers you are all concerned about making your classes enjoyable and are constantly thinking of ways of capturing the interest and imagination of the children. One strategy that has stood the test of time is the story. Having adopted this strategy, the first task of the teacher is to set out the teaching goals – the purpose for which storytelling is being used. It can be used to teach any of the following:

  •     learning to relate to life
  •     listening skills
  •     language skills
  •     encourage children to communicate confidently
  •     discuss values and moral issues
  •     specific concepts in subjects
  •     dramatic skills
  •     writing skills
  •     initiate questions
  •     reasoning skills
  •     social skills

    When using storytelling as a teaching tool the teacher must believe that children have the capacity to transform and create out of what they receive. The teacher has to have enormous confidence to believe that something new and good will come from every child. Above all the storytelling has to be fun both for the teller and the listener.

    The preparation will involve (1) the choice of story (2) the storytelling itself (3) the follow-up activities.

    The Choice of Story: While preparing a lesson plan using a story there are several things the teacher has to keep in mind.
    Be clear about the teaching goal – why you are telling the story
    Find a story that you personally enjoy very much
    Get all the facts and details together even what you may reject later
    Decide what you are going to include and note down the sequence

    The Storytelling itself: Visualise the start precisely – how you are going to begin the story. This will help in making the story become enjoyable. We know this from our experience of hearing and telling of everyday events. All of us unconsciously add details real and imagined to capture the spirit of the event we are describing and to captivate the listener by the telling. Storytelling involves the same process – thus even a very familiar common story becomes unique in each telling.

    The Follow-up Activities: Talking about a story after it has been told can be tricky. It is very common to ask “What does the story teach you?” This question hardly has any value as a starting point for any meaningful discussion. The moral value of the story has no special interest for children, they are more interested the story itself. If the teacher wishes to focus on the values in the story then he or she must initiate a discussion which leads the child into discovering the values/moral themselves. This creates a far better understanding of the morals and values without the children losing interest in the story.

    A comprehension exercise where the child is asked a series of questions at the end of the story has a similar disastrous effect. The anticipation of the questions makes children anxious and takes away the fun of listening to a story. The other common mistake is to expect children to repeat the story verbatim. If we stop to think there is really nothing that this sort of exercise achieves. Repetition of the story word for word goes against the spirit of storytelling and stifles the child’s natural spontaneity and imagination.

    We must understand that the important thing for the story-listener is to relate to the story and that every child relates to the story in his or her own way. The child’s own experiences and personality determine his response to the story. He may imagine a character quite differently from how the character has been described in the story. He may find one incident far more emotionally meaningful than all other incidents. The freedom to recreate a story and its characters in a way that is more meaningful to oneself is a right every child must have. A teacher who believes in the right of the child to imagine the characters in any way he wants will create opportunities for children to talk about a story in any way they like, to distort it, extend it, substitute its characters and to make up their own stories.

    Encouraging children to retell the stories they have just heard makes them confident of their literacy skills – skills in understanding and communicating in a language. If this confidence is built up at the oral level it gets reflected in children’s writings as well. It not only develops their spoken language but the self-esteem and social skills of all children. Storytelling creates the kind of imaginative space for the child which lets her/him flower without feeling threatened as it is an area they are familiar with and see it as an extension of play.

    In the retelling there is often a strong influence of television and film. Not to be judgemental about that – it can often give children the entry points for their stories. Using what is familiar – in this case, T.V. and film - can lead them into venturing our to explore the unfamiliar or the not so obviously familiar. Especially useful with older children.

    When children are given the opportunity to tell stories, they quickly grow in confidence and influence each other. The less eager children will gain in confidence.