Teaching students the shortest tale

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


Submitted by Fernando Díez … on Thu, 07/07/2011 - 11:23


Hi David,

Thank you again for your articles on storytelling. Very useful.

If I'm honest, on my own I would have never tried such a procedure with my students. Simply because I think my students cannot do such a thing.

However, I suppose I should challenge myself to challenge my students to embark in the conducting you suggest regarding storytelling.

Best wishes.

Fernando Díez Gallego

Granada, Spain


I did like the tale, because of the repetition, the rhythm, the sequence, the mimicking.

Sorry for any small possible format setting problem.

Submitted by Sevva on Sun, 08/14/2011 - 19:54


Hi Mr David,

I liked this way of teaching English, it's very interesting, I've never met it before, thank you for this article

Submitted by Sama33 on Sun, 09/11/2011 - 19:24



H! all

Thank you for sharing the idea here ..


Good one, but normally it might not meet all students ..

Submitted by Suzanneross on Mon, 09/12/2011 - 11:17


Hi David

I found the article extremely valuable as I am currently doing research on Strorytelling as teaching tool to empower teachers in Grade R classes (South Africa). The idea is that they should use the story integrated with arts -such as visual and performing- to teach across the curriculum. Furthermore it should serve to create greater sensitivity and tolerance towards HIV and AIDS affected children. Thus far I have found that teachers seem to shy away from addressing HIV and AIDS. I hope to be able to keep in touch to share some of my findings and my ideas in this very important phase at school, which unfortunately is not such a priority yet. Many of our pre-schools are private and under-resourced.  I use a story and plan lessons around the story using role-play, movement and songs, and visual art in different media.

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