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The magic of story time

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Have you ever noticed children listening to a story so attentively that the classroom is completely quiet? Or have you ever noticed children participating in a story so actively that everyone in the class wants to contribute? If so, then you've witnessed the 'magic of story time'!

Carol Read

Where the 'magic' lies
Stories provide shared contexts for rich, natural language development from a very young age, and throughout the primary years. The 'magic' lies in the way stories potentially engage children's hearts and minds, as people and as thinkers, with issues that are relevant, real and important to them.

Sources of stories
The stories we use in class may come from a variety of different sources. These include authentic picture books from the English-speaking world, specially written children's readers, course books, educational and other sites on the internet, or English versions of local cultural tales and fables. The important thing is not so much the source of the stories but the appeal and interest they have for the children themselves.

Supporting children's understanding
Stories may frequently contain some language structures and vocabulary that are beyond children's current level of productive competence. However, this does not need to be a problem as long as we actively support children's understanding in the way we read or tell the story, especially the first time. We can support children's understanding of stories through:

  • the way we use our voice – varying our intonation, pitch, tone, speed and volume to create interest and variety, and to express emotions such as delight, anger, surprise, worry or fear. We can also use different voices to portray different characters, for example, a deep voice for Father Bear and a high-pitched voice for Baby Bear in the traditional Goldilocks story.
  • using facial expression – to enhance the way we express a range of emotions such as the examples given above.
  • using mime and gesture - to demonstrate the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary e.g. the way the giant 'strode' across the room, or pretending to show the tiger's 'sharp teeth' as if they are our own.
  • eliciting and asking questions – to encourage prediction, to check understanding of key moments in the story, and to personalise the story to the children's own lives and world.
  • using pauses – to create suspense, to encourage participation, and to give children thinking time in order to assimilate what the story is about.
  • using repetition – to reinforce key vocabulary and phrases, and to give children opportunities to listen to the language of the story more than once.
  • pointing to illustrations – to help children associate sounds, words and meanings, as well as make connections in the ways different elements in the story relate to each other.
  • maintaining eye contact – to ensure that all the children stay actively involved and focused as they listen to the story.

The storytelling process
The storytelling process refers to the way in which we can use a story as the basis of a unit of work over several lessons, or weeks, in order to maximise children's learning and enjoyment. There are five key features of the storytelling process which are as follows:

  1. It is cyclical
    Children may come back to the story up to as many as three or four times during the course of a story-based unit of work, although not necessarily in consecutive lessons. In the lessons in which children do not work directly on the story, they practise and extend their use of the language and vocabulary it contains. This cyclical process allows children to naturally progress from an initial global understanding of the story to using more of the  language productively. It culminates, for example, in children acting out the story or creating their own parallel version.
  2. Scaffolding is vital
    Scaffolding refers to the way in which we support children's learning and lead them to greater competence and independence. Children's initial responses to a story are likely to be, at least partially, in their first language as they spontaneously express their opinions, show empathy or dislike of the characters, and relate what happens to their own experience. However, each time children come back to the story, they are increasingly able to respond and participate in English. This is due to the cyclical process described above and the inbuilt scaffolding that this provides. With each re-telling, children become more confident and fluent in using the language the story contains.
  3. It caters for diversity
    The storytelling process allows for all children to participate successfully at the level at which they are ready to do so. By the end of the storytelling process, some children may only be producing key vocabulary or phrases from the story, whereas others may know the whole story off by heart, and others may be ready to invent their own. In either case, stories provide a context for learning which allows all the children to participate fully and to fulfil their own individual potential for learning.
  4. Variety is essential
    In order to keep children engaged, variety is essential in the way we re-tell the story. As a rule of thumb, it is advisable never to tell a story in the same way twice, and always to get the children to do something different (increasing the level of challenge each time) in response. There are many techniques we can use for doing this, such as getting children to hold up vocabulary cards when they hear the words in the story, or move cut-out characters on their desks as they speak, or act out the story with pencil or finger puppets. A wealth of ideas which can be adapted to different stories can be found in the books and online resources listed below.
  5. There are opportunities for transfer
    As part of the storytelling process, we need to provide frequent opportunities for children to transfer the language they learn from stories to other personalised, relevant and meaningful contexts. In terms of evaluation of the storytelling process, it is this that ultimately provides us with feedback about the learning that has taken place, and the level of competence and independence in using the language which the children have achieved.

In conclusion, the 'magic of story time' provides a powerful vehicle for language learning throughout the kindergarten and primary school years, and the storytelling process enables us to maximise the benefits for all the children we teach.

Resources for story time

  • Ellis G., Brewster, J.  Tell it Again!  The New Storytelling Handbook for Primary Teachers, Penguin Longman 2002
  • Read C. 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom, Macmillan Education 2007
  • Wright A. Storytelling with Children (2nd Edition), Oxford University Press 2009

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