Story time, with crossed-legged pupils silently lapping up adventures read to them by their teacher, has long been regarded as a highlight of the primary school day. But one project, which is making waves across the country, turns the tables on tradition by getting pupils, not teachers, to do the storytelling.
At the heart of Storytelling Schools' approach to driving up attainment in reading and writing is the idea that learning a repertoire of stories by heart helps pupils to memorise information - not just what they're told but also how stories are structured. This, in turn, gives them the skills to tell their own stories.
An independent evaluation of the project's work with more than 1,600 children in seven primaries across East London has found that the method is helping to improve children's writing. Organisers are now hoping to expand the programme throughout England.
The technique isn't just about literacy: embedding storytelling into lessons can have a powerful effect across the curriculum, according to Chris Smith, director of Storytelling Schools.
"All the children learn to be storytellers, starting in Reception and going up to Year 6, with a curriculum based on stories from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to The Epic of Gilgamesh," he said. "Each half-term has a new story, and the storytelling is used as a springboard for the literacy and topic content that term, so it is cross-curricular and can involve science and history."
Learning poetry by heart is part of the new primary curriculum introduced in September 2014. Primary pupils must also be taught to "gain, maintain and monitor the interest of listeners while speaking".
This goal is shared by Storytelling Schools, which begins each half-term with a story recited out loud by the teacher.
The children map the story using pictures and a few rough words. They then move on to "stepping" the story. This means physically getting up and moving around the room to mark out important points in the plot. Pupils work in pairs, each telling the tale to the other. Once a story has been learned, the teacher can then introduce work around it to develop the key themes.
The plot thickens
To illustrate how the project works, Lorna Drummond, deputy headteacher and English leader at Stebon Primary School, uses the example of the story of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god.
"We can deepen the character through role play, interviews. We could ask children to imagine Ganesh on the phone to his mum," she said. "We also use storytelling techniques for non-fiction work. So we might teach non-chronological reports using the method. We say, `Here's an introduction and subheadings', and the children map it out in pictures using key words and then step it out with actions. So it develops their memory.
"Stepping it out really helps the children, so the quality of their retelling becomes extremely good. It's not a free-for-all. The children are just so engaged, it is phenomenal."
The evaluation, by Jonathan Rooke at the University of Winchester, found that during the first year of Storytelling Schools, two-thirds of children made two sub-levels of progress in writing compared with the expected one-and-a-half. Children on free school meals were also found to make good progress.
The new report reveals that 84 per cent of children who take part think that storytelling has helped them to improve their writing skills.
Mr Smith added: "After telling [a story], the teachers deepen [it] using poetry, drama or song, so the story may be behind three or four hours of literacy work before any writing is done. The key to raising standards in writing is to wait.
"If you are drilling writing and not given a rich input to what is being written, you get stuck. We don't want it to be a scheme where you have to do this. The idea is to train teachers in how to use this to make teaching great."
Pupils with English as an additional language find the scheme particularly beneficial, the evaluation finds, as the focus on speaking and discussion helps them to remember elements of English that they may find difficult, such as verb tenses.
To date, more than 100 schools have received some storytelling training as part of the project. Accreditation to recognise schools' involvement is now being set up.
`It's a natural way of teaching'
Dee Bleach, headteacher of Mayflower Primary School in East London, says the Storytelling Schools programme has been hugely beneficial for pupils.
"It fits in very naturally with early years and key stage 2," she adds. "The pupils took to it because it is a really natural way of teaching for them. It does engage children particularly well.
"You have these really complicated stories, which you think they are never going to remember, but they do. It is a really successful way of getting them to learn stories and then you can go on to do a lot of deepening activities."