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Monday, January 17, 2011

The fine art of active storytelling

Most parents and childcare workers have realised the value of reading to  children.  (There is a very fine book on the subject written by Mem Fox, of 'Possum Magic' fame, which explains how reading to your kids can help them to learn to read themselves.)  But few seem to have recognised the value of told, rather than read, stories; we rely on the pictures to hold small children's interest- perhaps we feel we'll never keep their attention without them. And not too many have worked out how much fun and educational mileage you can get out of a storybook or a told story if you're well prepared.

Here are some hints on how to get the most out of story time by becoming a skilled storyteller.

I would rarely start reading a book to a child unless I had read that book myself first, even if it was just a quick skim.  I don't care how simple the story looks, or how easy the words are to read.  A good storyteller knows the story already.  That enables you to stress important points, use appropriate expression and not misread important words.

The moment you stumble over a word, you 'lose' the mood and the flow of the story. It brings the children jolting back from another world.  Fluency is about preparation. Know what happens over the page, and work out how you'll pronounce the names of imaginary people or places so you're consistent.

What is the book about, beyond the actual words? Is it a riot of amusing sounds and rhymes, a counting book, a tale of discrimination or friendship or welcoming a new baby? Is there some moral to the tale? Do you agree with the message of the book, or is it a bit silly? (Maybe you want to read a different book.) Is it told from the child's point of view or the adult's?

Looking at the story like this allows you to look for teaching points in it.  Are your kids learning their letters? Look for pages where the first letter of your child's name appears as a capital, so you can play 'hunt for your letter' after you finish reading and know you'll get a hit or two.

Is your child learning to count? Look for pictures where you can count the rabbits, or the butterflies, or the tractors- whatever your child's most interested in. Put your hand over one of them. 'How many can we see now? How many do you think are under my hand?'  Remember to keep it light-hearted- story time should not sound like the Spanish Inquisition.

Can you relate any part of the story to your own family, or your own child's needs, interests or circumstances? Say it's a story where a brother and sister have a fight... can you build that into a little chat about the new baby that's coming soon? 'Do you think you'll fight with the baby when it comes? It will be very little... what will you do if it grabs your favourite truck?'  Listen to the answer- story time should not equal the delivery of the Sermon on the Mount, either.

Can you see some links to lessons you're trying to teach your child? I used to read my preschoolers a book called 'Crazy Charlie', about a crocodile that made himself into an object of fear by eating everything in sight- till his teeth broke off and fell out, and a kind dentist took pity on him and made him some dentures.  The story's a hoot.   But I also used it as a lesson in dental hygiene, by asking the children to look through the pictures to see if Charlie ever cleaned his teeth after eating all these things (he didn't!); we also laughed at the difference between the shape of crocodile teeth (triangles) and human teeth in Charlie's dentures (squares), so a bit of Maths was in there too.  And there was social learning too; Charlie was a terrible show-off- 'Is everyone looking at Charlie?' I'd say, and the answer would come back 'YES!' with smiles. 'Does anyone LIKE Charlie?' Silence... and then a quiet 'No...', and we'd talk about how show-offs and bullies LOOK popular, but actually people don't really like them at all.

When you finally read the book to your child, do use an animated voice- but stop short of shouting.  I've heard preschool teachers who seem to think they have to almost scream the story to keep the children's attention- it was almost painful!- save the big voice for dramatic passages, or you'll have nowhere to go in your vocal range. And don't forget that speaking very quietly can be just as riveting- sometimes more so. 

Use different voices for the different characters- this might take some practice! And react to the book yourself.  Is it scary? Look scared!  Is it funny? You can laugh too, you know. You can make comments on the content while you read. Did someone in the book do something mean? 'That makes me angry! He shouldn't have done that!' Encourage the kids to comment too.

A book that doesn't elicit any particular reaction from your child may be too old or too young for your child, or possibly just not a very good book.  Watch for signs that attention is straying- and ask why.  'Don't you like this story much? Will we read something else instead?'

So much for reading.  What other stories do you know? You know lots... you may not have realised it.  Can you tell the story of the Three Little Pigs or Goldilocks from memory?  I bet you can! These make great bedtime stories, especially if you're prepared to embroider them a bit. 

I'll give you an example.  Think of some dreadful thing your child did recently... and use that to explain why Goldilocks was in the forest in the first place.  Like this:

Once upon a time there was a little girl called Goldilocks.  She was very pretty, but she was also very naughty! One day mummy made her some vegemite toast for breakfast, and she made a face like THIS... and said 'NO! I want pancakes!', very rudely.  Her mother said 'Goldilocks, go to your room until you find your manners!' So Goldilocks went to her room, but she was still cross, so she opened the window... and climbed out to go for a walk by herself in the forest!

I used to change Goldilocks' naughty deed nearly every time I told the story.  I had a lot of fun doing it, too- and I certainly got the kids' attention!

Once a few told fairy tales are familiar to your kids, you can let them fill in some of the lines for you.  'And Father Bear said...?' If you've been doing your character voices well, you'll even hear the children trying to alter their voices too.  It's a short step from here to seeing your kids act the story out themselves.

Another fun game with familiar stories is 'spot the mistake', where you 'accidentally' introduce an element from a different story.  'Goldilocks had only walked a little way down the path when out of the trees leapt the Big Bad Wolf!' This usually provokes a cry of 'NOOOOO! That's Red Riding Hood!' and much laughter. Or you can mix up the order of events, which is a great exercise in sequencing for the children; 'Goldilocks opened the door of the cottage, and there in the kitchen were three beds...' 'NOOOOOO! Bowls of porridge!' Or get the numbers wrong: 'There on the table were two bowls of porridge...' 'NOOO! Three!'

Games like these are simple and fun, they give your kids opportunities for success when they correctly spot the mistake... and they don't even realise they're being educated.

You know lots of other stories, too.  What stories can you tell your children from your own life? I still remember my father telling me the story of how he caught some beautiful carp in the creek when he was a child, brought them home and left them outside in a dish- and came back to find a kookaburra swallowing the last one. Many tears, and no more fish left outside, ever! His 'when I was a little boy' stories were always more fascinating than books to me- I could read my books any time, but the told stories were very special 'us' time.

Can you remember what happened to you when you were little? Where did you go in the holidays? What were your grandparents like? Give your children a chance to share the family history like this, and you build a very special relationship and make that story time very precious and unique.

Even in the classroom, personal stories can be riveting for children. One day I was late for work after a big storm had knocked a tree down across my road; I told the story with lots of actions, and soon we were all swaying like trees in the wind, slamming on the brakes of our 'cars' (lucky we remembered to put our 'seatbelts' on!) and operating our 'chainsaws' to cut up the tree.  Children adore hearing about our misfortunes- and we model resilience to them when we tell them how we coped with difficult situations.

Sometimes I would even read short newspaper stories to my preschoolers.  Once when they were all obsessed with sharks, I found a story in the local paper about a woman escaping from a shark by punching it on the nose.  Great hilarity! Then they demanded to see the pictures- there wasn't a picture (I showed them the story in the paper), and I pointed out that they needed to learn to read, or they might miss out on funny stories like that. We ended up talking about when it's okay to punch, which led to a 'stranger danger' talk. So much learning- so much fun.

So get into it, get prepared and make the most of story time. You and your children have so much fun waiting for you!


  1. What a great to-do list for every story teller! Thanks for the "training"

  2. The love of reading was something instilled in me as a young child -- I hope to pass this along to my own children! Thanks for the great tips, reading is an essential part of child care! It's something my grandchilds daycare is great at.


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