LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Literacy, little boys and fairy tales

There are some great conversations happening on the 'We Teach' forums about getting boys to read- eg here Literacy for boys.  Today a related story turned up in the SMH- Tell teenagers stories and they'll read - which is really worth a look if you're interested in motivating teenagers about anything at all.

It got me thinking about the energetic little 4- and 5-year-old boys I read to; I'm talking about those little boys who love pretending to be superheroes, wrestling with each other, climbing trees, riding bikes... the ones who have trouble sitting still for long enough to eat their lunch, let alone long enough to hear a whole story.  I thought I'd share a few specific tips for engaging this group in story time, because since I've realised what catches their interest, I've never had trouble getting them to sit and listen.

A perfect example was a mat time I held last week.  I'd decided that I'd read the group- which consisted almost exclusively of these very active boys- the story of 'Sleeping Beauty'. Does that strike you as the sort of thing to grab their attention? No? Are you thinking that's more suitable for our little pink princesses?

Wrong! Sure, the girls will love this too.  But fairy tales are perfect little-boy fodder- unlike most of the politically-correct modern books we read to the kids, they have high drama and constant action.  Threats, evil, dark magic, death... all those things we keep out of the preschool literary plate for fear of frightening them or warping their little minds are still there in the traditional fairy tales.  Yes, even in Sleeping Beauty. And just like in the superhero tales, there's almost always a rescue at the end. Little boys LOVE that stuff.

Of course, if you just pick up a book and read the story straight, you'll probably lose these boys by page 2.  It's all about how you tell the story, what you stress, what you gloss over- until you capture them... and then you've got them till the end.

I make sure I know the story inside out and can tell it to myself without the book before I start.  I actually rehearse my storytelling in the car on the way to work until I'm completely confident (I'm sure any motorist who looks through my window thinks I've lost the plot, as my rehearsals are complete with exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures!).

As I tell the story, I use the pictures in my fairy tale book (yes, the one I got for the princely sum of $1 at the op shop) as a visual tool, but I don't use the words at all.  I make lots of eye contact with the kids- especially with the boys- the more someone is wriggling at the start, the more likely he is to find himself the focus of my attention as I start to tell the story (this WORKS, try it! - just look straight at him, telling the story, until he notices- or his wriggly friends notice, at which point they'll nudge him...).

I use simple, colloquial language- the language that the children are most familiar with- and I insert references to absolutely anything which the boys will identify with and understand.  And I get to the dramatic, naughty or evil bit as fast as I can.

So here are some sample story beginnings, especially designed to lure little boys...

"Once there were a king and queen who didn't have any children. Then AT LAST the queen had a baby! (Okay, the boys are still wriggling...) They were SO happy that they decided to have a HUGE PARTY to celebrate  (hmm... mild interest in the party...) and invite all the fairies. BUT.... (dramatic pause- silence will make them look!)... they made ONE HUGE MISTAKE.  (dramatic pause) They forgot to invite... (voice dropped to a whisper) the Bad Fairy!" (By this point the little boys have stopped wrestling and are sitting facing me.) "She came BURSTING through the door and said 'RIGHT! You are SO in trouble! I'm going to make you SOOOO sorry you didn't invite me! Abracadabra... the little princess is going to prick her finger on a needle and DIE!!!!' "

Abracadabra indeed- 'die' is a magic word for superhero-obsessed 4-year-olds.  Little boys successfully captured by Sleeping Beauty.  Now we can go on with the bits about the presents the other guests gave the princess... and how there was one fairy who still had a present to give... but still being very dramatic, and emphasising the wickedness, and building up to the dramatic rescue... once you've got them, the combination of the story unfolding with evil still to be righted, your voice's modulations and your dramatic gestures will keep them.

Here's another one:

" 'CINDERELLA! Sweep the floor!' 'CINDERELLA! Wash my clothes!' 'CINDERELLA! You LAZY girl! Why haven't you made my breakfast yet?' THAT is the sound of Cinderella's three mean stepsisters, and that's what poor Cinderella had to put up with every single day since her mum died and her dad married a really horrible lady. They picked on her from the moment she got up in the morning till the moment she fell into bed completely exhausted at night."

Hah, bullying... that gets little boys in every time. From the moment you bellow that first line, you've GOT them.


"Once upon a time, there was an old man called Gepetto who loved carving wood with a knife." (You've got them.  You said 'knife'.) "He didn't have any kids, and he really wished he had a little boy, so he carved one out of wood- it was like a puppet, and he called it Pinocchio.  He did it SO well that when he'd finished, the puppet stood up and came alive!" (Abracadabra, boys love magic... got 'em again.)

Little boys who've been captured by these stories will then inevitably ask me for my book to look at by themselves.  I tell the stories they like best over and over again, till they know them too, and can tell themselves the story by looking at the pictures.  This is what a love of literacy looks like in small boys- picking up a book of their own accord and using their own words to relate a familiar story. Before you know it, they'll be into the dress-ups and acting out their own version of the story.

So don't worry too much about warping little minds with traditional fairy stories.  Little boys will find their gore and evil on the TV and at the movies, whether you ban it from the story mat or not.  Get onto their turf, use the abracadabra words that grab their attention, use stories that have deep darkness as well as light- and make some books 'special', so they have to ask for them when they want them. You'll be doing them a huge favour by connecting the concepts of 'literacy' and 'pleasure' in those hungry little minds.


  1. I have come over from the Teach Mama newsletter where you were featured. I have been reading your posts with great interest and have enjoyed my time here. I am your newest follower.

  2. Thanks Elise- pleased to have you here!

  3. Very interesting way to look at this. I would never have thought of reading Sleeping Beauty to my adventure-crazed son. You method, though, would be great! When I watch him in imaginative play he is always creating "rescues" of some sort. Love your blog. It gives me a lot to think about!

  4. My son loves Sleeping Beauty! It is all about the soldiers chasing the prince in the woods! It is so fascinating how different girls and boys are! My daughter loves the kiss and the wedding.

  5. Best bit of advice: 'practice in the car'

    We really are 'on-stage' and need to consider how we can hone our skills to bring the presentation in an engaging manner.... practice is such a benefit to the end product.

    Filled with great insight, thanks!

  6. Yes, Debbie- exactly- teaching is a constant performance. I think that's why I love it so much. So who cares if the driver in the next lane thinks I've lost the plot? lol


PLEASE leave your comments here so all readers can see them- thank you!