Face-to-Face storytelling: Freedom to share physical and sensory space

David Heathfield looks at the benefits of using storytelling in face-to-face English language classes and gives practical advice with clear examples.

Storytelling is a communal activity, ideally suited to creative and playful language learning. In my article about online storytelling I shared ideas about adapting storytelling to the online environment. As so many of us return to in-person teaching, it is a good moment to reappraise and ask the question: How can we make the most of the space we physically share with our students?

Adapting the physical space

We can adapt physical spaces and what we do in them to make learning through storytelling as effective as we can. We might have a designated storytelling zone or a regular storytelling time which students prepare for and anticipate. Alternatively we might break routine by moving the classroom furniture aside and sitting on the floor or standing in a circle. When preparing the space, we can think about how well-lit our face is, what our listeners see behind and around us, our proximity to the listeners and whether we are sitting or standing at a similar or different level to them and whether and how we want to move around that space. We can anticipate and avoid any sounds that might be distracting and check the acoustics.

Benefits of face-to-face interaction

Choral speaking, chanting, singing and call and response can combine with vocal sound effects such as whispering, body sound effects such as tapping thighs and playing percussive instruments such as shakers. All these kinds of group participation work more successfully in person than online and allow learners to naturally acquire the rhythms of English. They create a sense that we are all sharing a collective experience and make the storytelling fun and memorable.

Another feature of face to face storytelling is that it is easy to break off mid-storytelling, ask students to instantly respond or predict with a partner and then resume without losing the momentum.

We can easily bring sensory features such as touch, smell, taste and of course movement into in-person storytelling. Each student can hold and stroke a feather from a magical bird, breathe in the smell of a hot fresh-baked loaf of bread as it is passed around, experience tasting the sweetness of an Arabian date from a box we have shared, feel the power of a dragon’s wing as we beat the air in front of them with a large fan or piece of fabric. We can move between and around our listening students as if we are looking for our child among them in the busy marketplace, asking ‘Have you seen my daughter? Her hair is red. Which way did she go?’. We can invite them to all mime hauling in a heavy fishing net together.

The language learned through storytelling is memorable because each listener experiences the story through a rich and complex combination of real and imagined senses.

Using different spaces

We can do storytelling in any undisturbed location. For example, we can take our students into a quiet school canteen and sit around a table and share a cake just like the cake in the story we are telling.

We might make a visit to a historic building to tell a story inspired by an actual event or go to our local museum to tell a story about a particular artefact.

An outdoor natural environment is ideal for storytelling, especially while we have to take precautions not to breathe over each other. Many students have been deprived of contact with nature during lockdown, so we can give them opportunities to reconnect. Details of the imagined world of the story become intertwined with the students’ sensory experience in the parallel physical world, so they often blend into one. Linking landscape and story is deeply part of our common heritage as humans and makes language meaningful and memorable.

Let’s look more deeply at sensory storytelling in different shared physical spaces, and take the beautiful Northern European folk tale The Silver Birch as our example. We can adapt the story and the proposed activities that follow to the students we teach. The text below is adapted from my telling of the story during the recent webinar.

The Silver Birch

Once upon a time there was a poor shepherd girl and her job was to look after her flock of sheep. At the end of the day, she was tired and ready to go home. She counted her sheep but there was one sheep missing.

She left the flock where they were and went looking for the lost sheep.

Sheep sheep

Where are you, sheep?

Sheep sheep

Where are you, sheep?

In the distance she could hear the lost sheep’s bell, so she went in that direction. She saw piece of wool caught on a twig, so she took it and twisted the wool around her finger. She called again:

Sheep sheep

Where are you, sheep?

Sheep sheep

Where are you, sheep?

Again in the distance she heard the sound of the bell, so she walked towards the forest. It was getting dark now, but still she went looking for her sheep.

Sheep sheep

Where are you, sheep?

Sheep sheep

Where are you, sheep?

She found more wool and twisted it around her finger. She walked deeper into the forest.

Now it was dark. She was lost and her sheep was lost.

She sat down under a birch tree which shone white in the dark night.

She began to cry, when she heard a voice:

‘Why are you so sad?’

She looked up above her and there she could see the eyes and the face of the birch tree spirit looking down at her.

‘I have lost my sheep and now I am lost. Please help me.’

‘I will help you’ said the tree, ‘if you will show me how to dance. Will you show me? You have legs and feet. I have my roots deep in the ground. Please teach me how to dance.’

What do you think she did?

The shepherd girl picked up the corners of her apron and she danced.

One step to the left.

One step to the right.

Back to the left.

And she danced around the tree.

The tree reached down with her branches and caught hold of the girl’s hands.

She was turning around the tree dancing and the tree pulled her roots out of the earth. The tree and the girl, and the girl and the tree, danced round.

Round and round faster and faster they danced and the girl was carried from the ground and up into the sky, dancing around the tree. Oh, it was so beautiful but so tiring. The girl was so tired and she said:

Sleep sleep

I need to sleep

Sleep sleep

I need to sleep

The tree let go and the girl flew high into the sky. Among the stars she flew and then down down down.

The tree caught her in her branches.

The tree rocked her in the breeze.

And the shepherd girl slept.

In the morning when the girl woke up the sun had risen.

‘Put me down.’

The birch tree set the girl down on a pile of golden leaves that had fallen during the dance.

The girl stood up and the tree said:

‘Now I know what dancing is. Thank you.’

‘Where is my sheep?’

See see

Just look and see

See see

Just look and see

There was her sheep near the tree. So she took the sheep and she was going to leave and the tree spirit spoke again:

See see

Just look and see

See see

Just look and see

She looked and there in the branches of the tree was the wool that she had gathered.

The wool had been spun in the dance into a fine skein.

‘Thank you.’

She took the wool that had been spun.

The tree said again:

See see

Just look and see

See see

Just look and see

She looked at the leaves that had fallen in the dance and they seemed so beautiful and golden. So she picked up some leaves, holding them in her apron, and she walked with the sheep and the wool, saying ‘Goodbye’ to the tree.

She was no longer lost. She could easily find her way out of the forest.

She soon found the rest of the sheep.

They walked and they walked until they came to the hard road.

The shepherd girl’s apron was now so heavy that she had to let go, but there were no leaves. Golden coins rained down from her apron onto the road. The birch leaves had become golden coins.

The poor shepherd girl had gold all because she taught the birch tree how to dance.


You can tell the story The Silver Birch in any one of a variety of locations. If you are telling it in the classroom, move the furniture aside so that your students can sit in a circle around the imagined tree. If moving the furniture is not possible, is there an undisturbed communal space either indoors or outdoors where you can take students for a memorable storytelling experience? Perhaps there’s a tree in or near your school grounds under which you can sit comfortably. The tree in the story does not have to be a silver birch.

I have told this story many times to students visiting Bystock Nature Reserve near my home in Devon, England as part of an environmental arts event. I place sheep’s wool tangled among twigs along a path leading to a beautiful silver birch. I begin the story at the start of the path and rest of it is told sitting under the tree.

One summer day I told The Silver Birch to children sitting under a tree in a school garden. Later, the teacher contacted me to let me know what her students had been talking about since my visit. The children said that during the storytelling the natural environment around the tree had seemed more vibrant. They felt more aware of the shade given by the tree and the coolness of the grass they were sitting on. They noticed the movement of the gentle breeze on their skin. They could imagine that same tree at night pulling its roots out of the ground and dancing. They said that in the autumn they would look at the leaves that fell around the tree and imagine them turning into gold coins. The teacher said that when her students sit under this tree or walk past it, they will always remember the story of The Silver Birch.

Before telling

You can prepare your students for sensory storytelling. Invite them to stand together in a circle in preparation to be told an old European folk tale. Show them a simple bag and tell them that there are three things from the story inside. Ask them to focus on their senses and remain silent. Ask them to hold out their hands, palms up, keep their eyes closed and imagine it’s night time. Go to the furthest corner of the room and take out and ring a sheep bell (or similar sounding bell). Next go around placing raw sheep’s wool into each of your students’ hands in turn, so they have a tactile experience. Finally place a few leaves or twigs from a silver birch tree (or other tree) in each student’s hands. Invite them to open their eyes and look at the leaves and twigs in their hands. Then ask them to quietly place them in a little pile in the middle of the circle. Invite them to sit and get ready to be told a folk tale about a shepherd girl, a lost sheep, some sheep’s wool, a sheep’s bell and a silver birch tree.

Gently introduce the first rhythmic rhyme and encourage students to repeat it together with you a few times:

Sheep sheep

Where are you, sheep?

While telling

Signal to students with your hands that they can join in the repeated, rhythmic rhymes. You could give each student a percussive instrument such as a shaker to evoke the increasing tempo and energy of the dance.

After telling

Invite students to stand in a circle around a real or imagined tree (this might be represented by the pile of leaves and twigs).
Younger children enjoy dancing around the tree. They can do this by skipping behind each other or by holding hands and circling the tree.
An older group of students can all make a simultaneous freeze, a powerful still image of the shepherd girl out of control in the middle of the dance looking up into the tree with the branches twisted around her hands. Then in pairs they can improvise the dialogue between the shepherd girl and the tree spirit when she wakes up in the morning.

Invite a volunteer student to stand among the seated students and to answer your questions spontaneously as The Silver Birch while the other students listen. Tell them to imagine how they would answer the same questions if they were The Silver Birch. To give a framework, only ask questions that could also be answered by a human such as:

  • How do you feel about where you live?
  • Who is your best friend?
  • Do you like dancing?
  • What kind of presents do you like giving?
  • What’s your dream for the future?

Include questions to follow up interesting answers. For example, "So you say your best friend is a bird. What do you like doing together?"

Once the framework of the interview has been established, invite students to ask The Silver Birch further questions. When the interview is complete, ask students in pairs to stand and, speaking as The Silver Birch, to take it in turns to tell their partner the answers they would have given differently eg ‘My best friend is the North Star – we sing soft songs to each other when the night sky is clear.’

Students then interview each other as a favourite tree that they know well in their own life eg for me it would be the Rowan tree growing in our back garden. The fact that they have just been told a magical tale makes it more likely that your students will answer imaginatively and may be inspired to each make up a story about their chosen tree. Perhaps their stories will also be about giving and receiving gifts as so many traditional stories about trees are. This activity would be ideal for students to do while walking in pairs in an open space in the school grounds. Walking and talking can free the imagination. Afterwards you can encourage students to turn their answers into a story and tell it to a new partner. Encourage them to go and retell the story to their favourite tree or write it as a letter to the tree. They can share their story with other students in the class. Finally they might tie the letter to their chosen tree as a gift.

If you have not tried storytelling in your teaching before, now is a good moment to try. Remember that you are the ideal English learning model for your students. Storytelling brings healing and wellbeing which is urgently needed these days and you will discover a new and very special connection with your students.

Initially it might be you the teacher who is telling the stories, but soon your students will be learning and retelling those stories. Then they will want to select and tell a story that they learned from their grandmother or read in a book. You can invite them to work on that story and then tell it in pairs. Next they can work towards telling it to the whole class.

Students at all levels of English can grow in confidence as storytellers. It is remarkable how storytelling has a powerful impact on all aspects of English learning with students of all ages following all kinds of courses.

I have mostly taught young adults preparing for university and we look at similarities between what makes a good story and a successful academic presentation and discover that essentially the same skills are involved.

Let’s look at storytelling not simply as part of the curriculum but as a celebration of human culture and identity. Once you start telling stories with your students, there's no looking back.

Multi-sensory approach
  • Individual listeners experience stories in different ways
  • Many describe seeing mental pictures of scenes from the story
  • Many feel physically close to the action and may become a main character 
  • Auditory learners tune into the storyteller’s voice patterns and may hear sounds in their imagination
  • Most listeners experience different moments through a combination of senses
  • To enhance the experience, you can:
  • refer to different senses in the oral text
  • provide stimuli for these senses through movement, gesture, voice modulation, song, music, percussion, touch, use of props or costume
  • Avoid showing detailed pictures so that your listeners’ mental imagery is given creative freedom
  • There is a strong link between language, emotion and mental imagery.
Rhythmic chants, percussion
  • Listeners can become co-storytellers by joining in during a story
  • They can chant a rhythmic repeated phrase or rhyme
  • Accompany it with percussion (body or instrument)
  • As the story progresses, listeners can move from repeating the chant after you to joining in the chant together with you to leading the chant without you. It’s a natural and fun part of storytelling.
Storytelling beyond the classroom


  • Storytelling can happen in various indoor locations beyond the classroom from communal spaces in the school to museums and historic buildings to cafes and coffee shops


  • Interconnectedness with nature in traditional stories worldwide is part of everyone’s heritage
  • Find a comfortable, undisturbed location to suit the story
  • Telling a folk tale in a natural environment gives students a connection between the imagined world of the story and the sensory experience of being in a parallel physical world
  • Details of the physical surroundings may become intertwined with the world of the story and etched into listeners’ memories
  • Through storytelling  we can work towards a greener world

David Heathfield is a freelance storyteller, teacher and teacher trainer. He is the author of Storytelling With Our Students: Techniques for Telling Tales from Around the World (DELTA Publishing) and runs online Creative and Engaging Storytelling for Teachers courses. www.davidheathfield.co.uk

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