Rhythm, rhyme, repetition, reasoning and response in oral storytelling

Live storytelling is a spontaneous creative process which fires the imagination. The listener experiences and participates in the story creatively. If the storyteller allows, the listener can have a direct influence on the story as it unfolds.

When being told a folk tale orally, a group of listeners can also be offered the added opportunity to be physically and verbally active. In many cultures, overtly active participation in oral storytelling is often associated with young children. However, adults are just as willing to participate, as long as the storyteller makes it possible for them. I work as a storyteller with adults and children in the UK and abroad and storytelling is also very much part of my work as an English-language teacher to mixed-nationality classes of adult learners in the UK at all levels. Of course there is significant cultural variation: in my experience adult listeners from Arabic-speaking cultures will respond and participate and interject without any prompting from their teacher, whereas those of, for example, Japanese and White British heritage may need to be given signals that their involvement is welcome.

In language learning there are good reasons to encourage active participation. Participation opens pathways of communication between the storyteller and listeners as well as among listeners and builds a sense of class community. Listeners become more conscious of their co-creative role in the storytelling experience which raises their confidence in their ability to express themselves creatively in the target language.

Below are 5 Rs for getting listeners actively involved in your storytelling in your language-teaching classroom. I suggest watching me tell www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKJuVKGEMCo Juan and the Magic Tree to a group of English learners to get a sense of these ideas in action.

  1. Rhythm 
    Heightened speech is a common feature of oral storytelling, somewhere between conversation and reciting poetry. Speech patterns are more rhythmic and words more clearly enunciated, especially during repeated phrases within a story. This makes it easier for students to repeat phrases after the storyteller or join in, especially if the storyteller pauses briefly just before those phrases. Many traditional folk tales involve the repetition of episodes within the tale, so there is an overall rhythm to the story structure, making comprehension and participation easier. Many storytellers often use percussive instruments such as shakers to accentuate the rhythm of these phrases. Students can also be invited to use percussive instruments themselves to underpin the rhythm in the language.
  2. Rhyme
    Short and simple rhymes are easy for students to learn and join in with during storytelling. Stories for young children may be entirely in rhyme form, but rhymes can successfully be included in stories involving repetition for students of all ages. Typically oral storytelling is unscripted and the text varies from one telling to the next, but rhymes within the tale are fixed and the transition between non-scripted text and rhyme is often signalled by a pause, a gesture and a change of speech pattern.
  3. Repetition
    Repetition is a feature of traditional folk tales which makes them particularly suitable for language classrooms, where repeating words and phrases is common practice. When the same phrase is repeated on three or more occasions during the telling of a story, students can move through three stages of repetition: 1 repeat after teacher, 2 say with teacher, 3 say without teacher.
    This repetition provides scaffolding which supports the learning of collocations, structures and pronunciation. It is not only words and phases that are repeated in storytelling. Sounds and gestures can also be repeated and support the learning of language, for example when they match or clarify the meaning of the words spoken.
  4. Reasoning 
    Stories teach people about life. This is partly because each story provides a case study which stands alone so listeners can bring their reasoning skills into play. In the course of the narrative, characters might give or receive advice and they usually need to solve problems, while story listeners generally consider their own attitudes to the advice and solutions being offered. While listening, students predict what will happen next and after listening they will often reflect on the meaning of the story and are ready to evaluate aspects of the story. While listening to Juan and the Magic Tree, for example, students will be predicting what the magic stick might do and they can be invited to advise Juan what to do when his so-called friend comes and asks for a share in Juan’s wealth. A story like this is an effective way of opening up a discussion about social cohesion and justice. After listening, students could be asked to comment on the relationships between Juan and his ‘friend’ and between Juan and his mother, so starting a discussion about social and family relationships.
  5. Response
    Stories touch listeners’ emotions, especially when they are told orally. The storyteller’s voice as well as the narrative itself will trigger emotional responses and for every listener these responses will be individual, depending on factors such as personal experience, mood, attitude and interpretation.
    The storytelling teacher is likely to notice students responding spontaneously while they listen, both verbally and non-verbally: exclamations, moans, sighs, laughter, gestures, nods, facial expressions, etc.

    Rather than setting comprehension tasks after listening to a story, teachers can more productively invite students to respond personally. Imagination and emotions are closely related and students often communicate creatively and listen closely to each other when asked to describe feelings and mental images that appeared when they were listening. Some students will vividly describe colourful and richly detailed visual images, while others describe textures, sensations and movement. Students may find themselves identifying with particular characters in a story, most often the central hero like Juan in the tale of The Magic Tree, but some identify with the impatient and exasperated mother. Students are generally interested to listen closely and find out about other students’ individual responses.

    After listening to a story, there is wide scope for creative response tasks such as drawing a picture, acting out a scene in roleplay, writing a letter from one character to another, choosing a gift for a character or representing an aspect of the story through song or dance.

Storytelling has been at the heart of education from the beginning, thousands of years before classrooms appeared, so let’s keep this most participative way of learning strong and healthy.

By David Heathfield

David Heathfield is a storyteller and English teacher. Find related ideas in his teacher resource book Spontaneous Speaking: Drama Activities for Confidence and Fluency (DELTA Publishing).



Submitted by Fernando Díez … on Wed, 06/29/2011 - 16:50


Hi David Heathfield,

Thank you for your thorough article.

I've taken some clues for my storytelling when I implement this nice and active - both for the teacher and for the students, as you state - activity in the class.

Your tips seem useful, and more when a teacher like me has practised this fruitful activity. I've seen - in my case - that young boys and teens love being told stories.

Thank you again.

Fernando M Díez Gallego

English-language teacher. Teacher trainer

Granada, Spain


Hi and thanks Ferdinando

You're right David Heathfield reinforces my conviction that storytelling is a relevant part of language learning process. I enjoy listerning my student telling short stories or tales, the student too are very fond of storytelling. Since teacher have always to try to make student do things they like in order to get better achievements of the objectives.

Submitted by firsatgunum on Wed, 06/27/2012 - 21:58


David Heathfield is a storyteller and English teacher. Find related ideas in his teacher resource book Spontaneous Speaking: Drama Activities for Confidence and Fluency (DELTA Publishing). good sharing

Research and insight

We have hundreds of case studies, research papers, publications and resource books written by researchers and experts in ELT from around the world. 

See our publications, research and insight

Sign up to our newsletters for teachers and teacher educators

We will process your data to send you our newsletter and updates based on your consent. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of every email. Read our privacy policy for more information.