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Teaching students the shortest tale

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This is one of the quickest ways I know of teaching a tale and boosting students’ confidence in themselves as storytellers.

David Heathfield


Practise telling this short and simple rhythmical action tale until you know it confidently without looking at the text:

Once a poor man dug the ground
And what he found was nothing
Again the poor man dug the ground
And what he found was a box
Again the poor man dug the ground
And what he found was a key
With the key he opened the box
And what he found was a mouse’s tail
And if that tail was longer, this tale would be longer.


  • Tell students that they’re going to learn the shortest tale using their bodies as well as their voices.
  • Ask them to stand up and get ready to repeat after each line, mimicking actions as well as language.
  • Tell the tale rhythmically line by line using definite and simple rhythmical actions to underpin each line. For example the first line can be accompanied by a rhythmic digging action and an ‘empty hands’ gesture. You don’t need any props.
  • As soon as you’ve finished the tale and they’ve understood the word-play tale/tail, tell them to tell the tale again together with you without repeating, again with the actions so that they will remember it.
  • As soon as you’ve finished this second whole-class telling, ask students to stand in circles of 4 or 5 and to tell the action tale a third time, this time without help from you.
  • Celebrate the students’ ability to learn a short tale in a matter of minutes and challenge them to remember the story and tell it/teach it to other people they meet and tell them to remember it for the next class.

Note: The Shortest Tale has been adapted by me from a traditional Polish tale. Any short action-based tale with repeated phrases can be taught in this way. You can watch me teaching it to a group of teachers on YouTube.

See article Rhythm, rhyme, repetition, reasoning and response in oral storytelling.

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

Language level
Language Level: 
Upper intermediate: B2