'The art of storytelling? You Welsh are naturals'

6th February 2009 at 00:00
Children's laureate is full of praise - and practical advice - after two months in a Cardiff primary

Every teacher can be a great storyteller, says one of the UK's finest, as long you learn to become a show-off. But Michael Rosen, the children's laureate, says teachers in Wales have got it down to fine art after spending 10 weeks at Cardiff's Springwood Primary.

The renowned poet and author kick-started a literacy programme at the school for a BBC 4 documentary, Just Read.

His verdict? Teachers in Wales are more likely to tell a good tale compared with their colleagues in England because they are freed from the constraints of a prescriptive curriculum and exams.

Mr Rosen taught the Springfield teachers the art of expression and how to banish shyness to hook children. "The reception class teachers - in a very subtle way - also taught parents to read to their children, he said. "That was so important."

The poet and author said anyone could learn to be a good storyteller, but it needs confidence. "You've got to be very aware of what will engage the children in front of you," he said. "You should be constantly looking for different tricks and formats."

But Mr Rosen also believes it is equally important for secondary pupils to read aloud. "Shakespeare was meant to be read out loud."

It is a sentiment strongly shared by Catherine Aran, a former actress and teacher, who won an Arts Foundation fellowship for storytelling last week. Since starting work for Gwynedd, Ms Aran has told stories at dozens of schools in Wales. "If children don't enjoy stories at primary school, it makes the job all the harder at secondary age," she said. "When I go into secondary schools, they start by laughing at me, but then they start laughing with me and enjoying themselves."

She said teachers instinctively tell stories to other adults, so it should come naturally with their pupils. "When we gossip we build up tension, we give gaps between sentences to create anticipation. You need to recognise the techniques and adapt them for children - by exaggerating gestures and voices."

Just Read will be broadcast on BBC 4 at 9pm on Monday.

Narrative tricks

  • Love the story: You have to choose one you enjoy. If you don't, it will show and be boring.
  • Learn your material: Know the story or poem by heart so you can alter it to suit your audience or tell the same story from a different character's point of view.
  • Repetition: Don't feel you have to keep using new books. Children love repetition and need reinforcement to learn new words and visualise a story's structure.
  • Use props: Puppets, costumes and instruments are invaluable for bringing your story to life.
  • Use your voice and body
  • Give each character a defined voice: squeaky, booming or frail. Don't worry if you mix the voices up - your pupils will remind you. Animate the story using your eyebrows and big arm movements.

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