Storytelling makes a comeback

5th March 2004 at 00:00
The oral tradition is putting up a valiant fight against the seductive power of multi-media and television, writes Eric Maddern

Some say storytelling is the oldest profession. Perhaps this is why we love tales so much and why stories are easier to remember than rational explanations for events.

Storytellers were key figures in earlier societies, carrying in their heads the history, legend and lore of their people. But with the printing press and, later, mass literacy, the need for storytellers lessened in the western world. The written word became king. This advance brought great benefits but it also exacted a cost. Our capacities to remember, to listen to and enjoy a shared tale were diminished.

Television and computers might have wiped out oral storytelling completely.

Curiously the reverse has happened and a storytelling revival is now sweeping the land. Today it is happening in castles, prisons, pubs, galleries, museums, libraries, theatres, old folks' homes, mansions, forests and, of course, schools. Although traditional tales are the stock-in- trade of most storytellers, there is also a healthy experimentation with new materials - the vibrant shaping of a new oral tradition.

Why is there a renewal of interest in this ancient art? Telling stories is a satisfying means of expression for the teller and an effective means of communication to the listener. Sharing a tale with a group is more of a communal acitivity than reading a book or watching television is.

And the stories themselves contain treasures for the imagination and food for the soul. They speak to us still with wit and wisdom distilled from the inspiration of generations.

Storytelling is especially valuable in schools. The experience of listening to a story - the magic, wonder, suspense and humour, the feelings evoked and the extraordinary images from another world - these are all valuable for their own sake. Naturally storytelling can be an excellent starting point for much schoolwork. Many teachers say children listen to stories in a way that is rare. They are energised and motivated after listening to tales, so why not channel that energy constructively?

Using stories as a springboard for group talk throws up plenty to discuss: What was it like listening to a story being told? How did the storyteller capture the audience's attention? Did the story paint pictures in the mind's eye? How did it compare to reading a book or watching TV? What details stood out and why? Why did the characters behave as they did, and were they right to do so? Could there have been alternative endings? What were the layers of meaning in the story? What might we learn from it? How does the story link with the themes we are exploring? Who would be a good person to tell this story to? How relevant is the tale today?

Re-telling stories can develop confidence with the spoken word.

Storytelling is a creative act and helps children to achieve higher levels of language use than in everyday conversation. Try putting children in groups of five to re-tell a story they've just heard.

One tells the first part of the story, the next child picks up the tale and carries it on and so forth around the circle. It helps to complete the re-telling in one round and the children help each other to remember the story.

It is important to stick to the plot but there is no definitive version.

The children are free to embellish or cut - in other words, to make it into their own story. Encourage them to experiment with gesture, facial expressions and tone of voice to bring alive the characters in the tale.

Then they may tell the story in pairs, perhaps to another pair who've worked on a different tale - or even to another class. They can eventually build up to telling the whole story alone.

Moving on to literacy, I think teachers and children are often too fixed on writing things down. Literacy is important and after a healthy dose of telling it's natural to think about turning a story into a book. Sometimes I show children my picture books and explain how the artist has taken pictures from their imagination and put them on the page. Where students have worked in groups there will be a part of the story they know in detail, so they can write their section and produce an accompanying illustration. These pages can be bound in a cover and made into picture books, which can be shown to other children.

Any work with storytelling is going to have limited success unless teachers are willing to have a go themselves. And while it is an effort to learn a few stories, the rewards make it worthwhile. Stories in mind are weightless (think of dragging around a dozen books) and can spill out whenever needed.

They capture children's attention and improve with telling.

The hardest work is finding tales you want to tell. You may hear one you like. If so, re-tell it as soon as possible. Otherwise scour books of folk stories. When you find the right one, read it through a few times. One way to learn it is to summarise the plot then to fully imagine some of the scenes. These are like the bones and flesh of the tale. But it is only by telling it that you breathe life into it.

An audience of one is enough to begin with. Although there will be some parts you must memorise, it's not like a speech in a play. Let the tale tell itself in your own words. Let it become your story, then it will truly live. And soon you'll be rewarded by smiles of satisfaction all round.

Eric Maddern is a popular schools' storyteller and he is best known for his traditional tales such as The King with Horses Ears and Rainbow Bird: An Aboriginal Folk Tale from Northern Australia (published by Frances Lincoln;

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