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Wonderful world of language

Alison Davies explains how to develop your storytelling skills - and boost pupils' literacy.

Finding the heartbeat of a tale is something I do a lot as a storyteller.

If there's ever a magic formula to the oral tradition of storytelling, it is this. It is this core truth that touches adults and children alike.

Storytelling used to be a way of documenting history, of passing on wisdom and discovering your particular place in the world. Today, storytelling can have a revolutionary effect on literacy. It is immediate and entertaining, and it is exciting to watch the windows of an imagination being opened.

Working in schools, I've come across this many times. I've seen the effect a tale can have, and the way different pupils grasp the concept of creating a story in the oral tradition - even those who otherwise struggle with language often become animated and involved. They are encouraged to use words, to broaden their vocabulary and create tales.

Children develop better communication skills by working in groups and learning how to express their ideas to others. Storytelling is a way of getting them to appreciate and learn the value of other cultures.

Storytelling activities fire the imagination and motivate young minds, and are an excellent way of getting a message across.

But what happens if you can't get a professional storyteller into your school? Storytelling activities can easily be implemented. An entire lesson plan can be arranged, including starter, main and plenary exercises. It's about having the confidence to have a go. Anyone can tell a story. We base our lives on stories; it's the way we pass information on.

To tell a good story, to capture and hold your audience, you need two things: belief and presence. The first gives you the conviction to impart your tale; the second gives you the colour and resonance to connect with your listeners. Children want to believe, to get lost in the story. The key to start with is to pick the right story. It doesn't have to be a complicated plot with twists and turns. A simple tale with a clear meaning can be far more entertaining and effective. If you can write your own, then do so. The characters will have timbre, and developments in the plot will be driven by your imagination.

As the narrator, you are in complete control. Anything is possible: if you choose "Cinderella" and you would like her to turn her back on the prince and make a new life out of town, then that's up to you. As long as you can see this clearly in your mind's eye, it will hold truth. Finding the truth of the tale is imperative. Fables - part of the national curriculum - are an excellent choice for this. Children love to discover the moral lessons and, in turn, create their own fables. Treat each story in this way, discover the message within and you have a head start.

Once you have a story, the next step is to retain the piece in memory (see box). This is important because when you read to a class, the book can act as a physical barrier that detracts from the tale. When you put the book down and perform, you make the tale your own: you engage the class with eye contact and draw the children in. This also demonstrates to children that they can construct a tale and tell it, regardless of the level of their reading or writing skills.

Once you know the story you can add special touches that will bring the narrative alive and form the basis of class activities. For instance, KS2 children enjoy repetition, so insert a key phrase that is repeated and get them to say it along with you. Ask questions within the tale; get them thinking about where the story is going. Remember the tale is fluid; you can stop and start at any point. Get the class to decide how they think the story should end. Opportunities will arise to use storytelling to illustrate something you are doing in class. The trigger that makes a good story into a truly fantastic piece is presentation.

Storytelling motivates. You only have to look around a class while a teller is working to see the sparkle of eyes. It can be used to promote discussion, to develop an idea, or simply to hone communication skills. The joy of watching children create stories from picture storyboards, of seeing them work in groups to deliver a tale, is amazing. Children who struggle with words on a page can suddenly see a way forward. They enjoy being creative with ease. The introduction of storytelling in the classroom will encourage even more exploration into the wonderful world of language.

* Alison Davies is available for workshops, events and school visits and is happy to provide further information on storytelling and its applications.


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