Spellbinding ways with words

It's story-time, but there isn't a book in sight. The oral tradition can reach the children other methods leave out. Kate Lee reports

The play-dough is back in the fridge. The morning's creations are drip-drying in the corner, and the fruit is all ready for snack-time.

There's just time for a story before everyone washes their hands, so it's on to the carpet, find a space, no talking, no wriggling, it's time to listen.

As every early years teacher knows, story-time, when approached in this way, can be a challenge. Sitting still is no mean feat for a pre-school child, since it requires a level of control that young children are still developing, involving mastery of muscles and the art of balance. Listening is a tall order too, especially when surrounded by multiple distractions: the shoe fastening that makes a wonderful ripping sound when pulled, the gleaming pony-tail that begs to be touched, a piece of fluff that quite patently does not belong on the carpet.

Trying to read a story aloud while dealing with crowd control can be stressful for even an experienced early years practitioner, especially in settings where some children may be unaccustomed to listening for more than a few moments at a time. Story-time can be frustrating for children who find it hard to engage, and also for those who want to listen, but are distracted by others.

It is worth remembering that story-time does not have to involve books.

Most cultures have an oral tradition of story-telling based on memory and delivery, with little or no reliance on pictures to help. Instead, the emphasis is often on musical accompaniment. Factors such as the timbre of a voice, the use of dramatic pause and the repetition of key phrases have great value in relation to communication, language and literacy. Together, they produce the "spellbound effect" and this, in turn, has a great influence on a young child's desire to listen.

Happily, the art of storytelling is alive and well in the UK today. You just need to know where to look. A visit to www.barefootbooks.co.uk gives access to a good range of resources, including the option to hear the storyteller of the month in action. Their stories come from all over the world. Story Tree, (Barefoot Books, audio CD pound;9.99), read by professional storyteller Hugh Lupton, is a collection of folk tales from around the world, featuring specially-commissioned folk music. The tales themselves are beautifully and memorably told. A useful addition to any nursery's library.

If we're considering how to tell a story without a book, why not bring information and communication technology into the picture? One of the great advantages of the CD-Rom "book" is that children can dictate the pace, clicking to "turn the page" when they are ready, for instance. This can help more tentative children, since it gives them control. When a small group uses a computer to experience a story, they also gain valuable practice in turn-taking - another key aspect of communication.

Telling stories to children in smaller groups helps reduce the "distraction factor". It also enables practitioners to meet the differing needs of children of, say, three and five years of age, and allows you to make more use of the space available, perhaps holding story sessions in the home corner or in a shady spot outside to ring the changes.

Relaxation is another aspect that may be overlooked. Try dimming the lights, drawing the curtains, inviting the children to lie down on the carpet or lounge on cushions.

This broader approach to story-time aids inclusive practice. For instance, if everyone is listening with their eyes closed, a child with a visual impairment is treated no differently. Similarly, touch-and-feel props help give meaning to the story-telling process for children with hearing or speech and language difficulties, and to everyone else.

And then there's the direct approach. Try writing to authors or illustrators and asking them to divulge their own favourite stories. If you have internet access, children can search for the writer: it is helpful for young children to know that stories are written by real people. The Society of Authors can tell you about authors in your area who are happy to visit schools and nurseries, while local bookshops often have contacts with picture-book authors or illustrators.

* The Society of Authors Tel: 0207 373 6642

Lesson ideas

One interesting approach to story-time is to choose a classic tale, say, the Three Little Pigs, and find as many ways as possible to tell it. Invite a range of people to come and share their preferred version of the story with the children: a parent or grandparent, a drama student, or someone in the wider community whose work links in to some aspect of the story (an amenable builder, perhaps).

Borrow or buy books which tell the same story in different ways; listen to the story re-told on tape or CD; read it on the computer. Then invite the children to tell the story in their own ways, reversing the process so that the adults listen and the children perform or "read". This gives scope for lots of fun and games (perhaps the adults in the audience giggle or fidget, allowing the children to point out "you're not listening"). This helps diffuse the tension that can grow around listening. It also enables children who need to be very active to use their natural learning style in an atmosphere of adult encouragement and approval.

Pick out aspects of the story and use these to create an environment in which to experience it. Building room-sets with straw, wood and bricks may be going a bit far, but you could encourage the children to paint pig pictures for display or find materials that are straw-coloured to create a cosy corner.

Inviting a music group in to help the children express aspects of the story - especially emotions such as fear and triumph - is an excellent way to bring a story to life, with masks or costumes adding still more depth to the experience. Another way is to simply use your existing supply of musical instruments and a large dollop of enthusiasm - perhaps the most important factor in bringing any story to life.

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