Tales are us

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Children's enthusiasm for literacy can reach new heights when they do their own storymaking says Carolyn O'Grady

At Ivy Lane Primary School, children often want to tell a story. They stand up in class, inspired to narrate a tale; they go home to tell stories to their parents; and they enthusiastically recite stories in the playground.

Pupils at the school, in Chippenham, Wiltshire, are becoming storytellers, and as they learn the art, it is becoming clear that their writing, too, is improving.

The school is one of 14 in South Gloucestershire and Wiltshire working on a storymaking project designed to encourage children to internalise the conventions and structure of stories as a way of helping them write their own.

Starting from the assumption that children who have few or no stories inhabiting their imaginations will have little to draw on for inspiration and method, the project involves learning numerous traditional and other tales by heart. Stories are carefully chosen "to teach key language features and conventions, for example connectives, use of adverbs and powerful verbs; and the story structure will often have a basic pattern, for example a list or a journey," says Mary Rose, senior adviser at the International Learning and Research Centre, which runs the DfES-funded project.

Teacher Lisa Morgan begins her receptionYear 1 storymaking session by putting on the "story cloak". She and the class are learning the folk-tale of the Hobyahs together, enlivening it with funny voices, actions and sound effects. They already know it, after focusing on it for two days. When they have finished, Lisa asks one of the pupils to take her place and lead the class in another recitation of the story. He puts on the cloak and they're off again - with no apparent resentment at the repetition: "In fact, repetition gives them a sense of achievement, because they gradually come to know the story better," says Lisa.

From learning stories told by the teacher, the children go on to compose their own, and the teacher becomes a listener. Sarah Davis has prompted her reception class, who know the story of the Hobyahs, to compose their own story based on it. Characters change: instead of hobyahs there are ghosts, and an "old policeman" is performing a central role. Some dialogue and situations have been altered.

They recite their story while she draws visual stimuli on a piece of paper - a policeman's hat, for example. Story maps created by the teachers or by the children themselves help them to remember the events and characters.

A key feature of the project is the use of a variety of learning strategies and styles: pupils are encouraged to draw characters and engage in role-play. Later, they will write their own tales, perhaps helped by a story mountain to show the structure of a story.

The impact on children's writing has been significant. Research done by the centre with a representative sample of children from October 2003 to March 2004 indicates that pupils are transferring the patterns and language learned from oral storytelling to their writing, which is more imaginative and better structured. They use connectives appropriately and employ more interesting vocabulary than they did when the project started.

"In a school where many children have poor speaking and listening skills, and few have had any pre-school education, the project has had a huge impact," says headteacher Chris Marshall. "We'd been concerned about the children's writing, and had tried all sorts of things without success. It's not just an add-on: all the children can be involved and all benefit, and it's a fantastic grounding for them."

The International Learning and Research Centre promotes innovation through school-based research. The storymaking investigation is funded by the DfES for a year and run by Mary Rose and educational consultant Pie Corbett. Tel: 01454 868 029 E-mail: marie.jones@sblonline.org.uk

Lesson ideas

Steps to success

The storymaking investigation has identified three stages: imitation - pupils learn, remember and can repeat a story; innovation - children take the original story and adapt it to create a different narrative; invention - children apply their knowledge of structures and pattern to create increasingly sophisticated stories. During these stages the teacher uses a variety of strategies and multi-sensory teaching approaches. These include:

* The use of a storytelling cloak, chair or candle to create the right atmosphere for the telling of the story.

* Teachers use different voices for different characters and lively intonation: where appropriate they introduce a strong rhythm.

* Story actions or sound effects are very important in helping pupils establish patterns and the correct sequence of events.

* Children try out their stories with "talk partners" to gain confidence.

* Puppets can be useful during storytelling.

* Some children like to listen to the stories on tape or record themselves.

* Story maps, story staircases and story mountains are used to show how stories are built up with, for example, an opening, a problem and a resolution, or to help children remember the sequencing of events.

* Pupils can role-play stories, perhaps using props and costumes.

* They also draw, paint or make characters from play dough.

* At the invention stage, pupils can be given "a bank" of characters, feelings, places and situations to help them create their own story.

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