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Tales from the far side

Taahra Ghazi encourages primary teachers to introduce pupils to the power of overseas literature. You're a primary school teacher investigating an overseas locality using photographs, maps and factual data. So what do you do at storytime - re-read an old favourite or introduce pupils to something new from the country in question?

Stories are not only enjoyable, they are powerful tools which influence our views of people and places. They allow pupils to explore new worlds in an exciting and imaginative way, overturn negative pre-conceptions of life in other countries and provide positive role models for children living within a multicultural society.

Contemporary overseas fiction is particularly important because children can relate to its characters in an empathetic way, finding common ground in universal experiences such as growing up, playing and developing relationships. Such texts can play a vital role in supporting work across many areas of the curriculum, particularly English and geography.

Literature can be used to develop geography skills and concepts at both key stage 1 and 2. Many stories evoke a strong sense of place, others touch overtly on topics such as environmental change and picture books often introduce geographical features through their illustrations alone.

Distant locality studies can greatly benefit from the introduction of stories from different parts of the country of study, thus avoiding the impression that one area is representative of the country as a whole. Narratives and characters may move from place to place within a story, allowing the reader to compare contrasting areas and revealing a surprising variety of landscapes, peoples and lifestyles.

Reading also underpins many areas of the English curriculum such as the development of imaginative and evaluative writing, the exploration of ideas and argument through discussion work or the understanding of narrative structures and themes. Overseas fiction adds an extra dimension to this learning, often introducing pupils to new vocabulary or touching on "difficult" topics such as conflict, prejudice and freedom.

In this way it not only fulfils the statutory requirements to study "stories and poems from a range of cultures" (key stage 1) and "a range of texts from a variety of cultures and traditions" (key stage 2), but broadens reading to include texts "with challenging subject matter that broadens perspectives and thinking" (key stage 2). Children are brought closer to a seemingly distant world, while conversely, this sense of distance may give them the security to explore difficult feelings and experiences.

Below are some specific example of stories set in Africa which can be used within both English and geography. Although the characters and situations are fictional, the stories are rooted in a world which children can relate to.

The Gift of the Sun: A Tale from South Africa by Dianne Stewart, Jude Daly (Frances Lincoln). This charming picture book about a lazy farmer and his hard-working wife, has expressive illustrations containing a wealth of detail about rural life in the Veld. By photocopying illustrations pupils can use geographical vocabulary to label farming features; sequence the different stages of growing a crop; identify changing seasons; discuss an illustration before reading the story and predict what will happen next; explore characters points of view by filling in speech bubbles.

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema, Beatriz Vidal, (Macmillan). This is a lovely Kenyan story told in cumulative rhyme which encourages pupils to recognise and use new words, read aloud or enact the story or re-tell it in a different written form, such as a diary or newspaper article. Both text and illustrations clearly explore the effects of drought on people, animals and their environment.

Grace and Family by Mary Hoffman, Caroline Binch (Frances Lincoln). This exceptional picture book sensitively tackles parental separation while taking the reader on a journey from England to The Gambia. It encourages exploration of the similarities and differences between the two countries and its continual references to stories with "wicked stepmothers," set against Grace's far from frightening Gambian stepmother, will stimulate talk and writing about different kinds of families.

For teachers who wish to develop the use of overseas literature in their classrooms, ActionAid is publishing Hadithi Nzuri (A Good Story): Children's Literature from Africa, Asia and Latin America in late December.

The guide includes nearly 200 reviews of picture books, stories novels and poems from more than 30 countries suitable for 5 to 12-year-olds, plus a range of suggested English and geography activities. Normally Pounds 6 plus 90p pp, the guide is on special offer at Pounds 5.50 including pp to TES readers.

To order, please send a cheque made payable to: TESActionAid Special Offer, ActionAid Education, Chataway House, Leach Road, Chard, Somerset TA20 IFA. Offer closes December 31

Taahra Ghazi is a development education writer for ActionAid

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