Five habits of highly successful storytellers

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Huw Thomas describes how to have young listeners hanging off your every word

National Book Week approaches and in many schools this will prompt a visit from a professional storyteller. Great stuff - I love listening to a story told well, but let's not leave it to the professionals. As teachers, we should all be seeking to tell tales and share a love of story. So, are you sitting comfortably? Then here's five thoughts to start the storytelling.

1 Pick carefully

Enjoy hours hunting through collections of stories. When you find a good one, take a copy or make some notes. It's worth being selective and always narrowing down to the few that you're sure will work with children.

One good tip for selecting a teller-friendly story is to read it, then close the book. If you can still remember the basic plot, that's a good start.

2 Avoid boredom

Make sure you like the stories you choose. If you don't, then I guarantee your telling will be boring. One suggestion - pick short stories.

Dewy-eyed, folky epics of how Celts crossed seas to Carmarthen end up unmanageable for tellers and unbearable for listeners. The story of the Houses on Rock and Sand takes up two verses of New Testament, but how that story lives on.

3 Find the map

The biggest step in storytelling is to let go of that book, to stop reading and start telling. To begin with, this means knowing the tale. Most stories come with a hidden wiring that makes them memorable - they have a pattern to them, like the three houses the little pigs inhabit. Get the pattern and you've mapped out the story. Having said that, if I'm telling a story I still stick a piece of paper on a wall where I will be able to see it, giving key words that prompt my recall of the events I'm recounting.

4 Enjoy your voice

It's worth telling every story to yourself before trying it out on a crowd of children. The fun part is experimenting with points where you will go oh-so quiet before booming out a surprise, and moments where you'll sound frail and weary and milk the emotion. Try finding games your voice can play a few times in each story. Give your characters voices, allowing that frustrated actor to come to the fore. Draw on favourites characters, impersonate people - anything that builds up the repertoire of voices.

Every story I tell has at least one character who sounds like a Monty Python woman.

Find special refrains where children can join in. The "wooooh" of the wind or the repeated "fee fi fo fum" of a giant are the sorts of hooks they can latch on to.

5 Trial and error

When it comes to the telling, the only other point to make is that some stories don't work and some do. When I started telling stories in assembly I always insisted other adults left the room. It left me feeling less embarrassed by the ones that flopped. Other than that, you ditch the ones that fall flat, keep the ones that work well, and build up the repertoire. Have fun - happily ever after.

Huw Thomas is head of St Johns Primary School, Sheffield


Good sources of stories are:

* Golden Myths and Legends of the World Collected by Geraldine McCaughrean Orion pound;5.99

* South and North, East and West Edited by Michael Rosen Walker Pounds 10.99

* Anyone Can Tell a Story By Bob Hartmen Lion Hudson pound;5.99

This last publication is an excellent, practical and inspiring book on storytelling by my favourite storyteller.

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