Many ESL teachers are interested
in storytelling as a resource in teaching. We already know that stories can be used for a
wide variety of instructional purposes. For example, they may be a means to activate
learner schemata before reading or writing. Storytelling linked with writing projects can
be used to engage learners in the sharing of personal narratives, cultural experiences,
and folktales. A story theater classroom can work on pronunciation, intonation, and oral
fluency. Activities that complement storytelling can be used to practice focused and
global language skill building. Storytelling can also prepare academically bound students
for further study of literature by helping students to become familiar with structural
elements and such literary concepts as episode, plot, setting, characters, climax, and
The list of storytelling applications to the teaching of English seems
endless, yet very few teachers have exposure to the specific "how tos" of
storytelling. The storytelling tips given in this article are meant to help the
teacher-as-storyteller as s/he prepares for a storytelling "performance" for
Table 1 provides guidelines on how to
select appropriate tales and what to consider both during and after storytelling.
When choosing your tales
Language difficulty and content appropriateness are normally the first considerations
when selecting which tales to use. The level of difficulty should be within the
students grasp, yet be a bit challenging. As teacher-as-storyteller, consider your
own interests, enjoyment, and stylistic talents. Next, examine the story text to see what
it lends itself to in terms of language, concept, and critical-thinking development. Write
down appropriate instructional objectives in each area, and consider these as lesson and
learning guide resources you will need. Note especially the language skills and elements
your learners could gain from the interaction. Think about global level skills that could
be developed, and consider making an audiotape or videotape of the storytelling event to
use later for discrete language skill-building.
Consider how to introduce new vocabulary and reinforce old vocabulary. If the story is
likely to be difficult for the students and if you plan to continue with the story event
as a regular part of your curriculum, develop multilevel learning guides for before,
during, and after story events to keep all learners active. Decide how to provide enough
language support and descriptive information for audience familiarity and comfort within
the story environment. To further augment the groups comprehension, introduce
crucial vocabulary. Follow up by repeating key ideas and vocabulary throughout and after
the story event. Extend into interpretive, reflective, and applied activities to encourage
further language and concept exploration.
It is usually best to keep the tale simple, with few characters and with built-in
repetition. This reduces cognitive load. Repetition also allows for more participant
interaction. Ask your students to make noises, move, and to "tell along" with
you when story sections can be predicted. An established purpose and participatory roles
help listeners take a more active role during the storytelling event.
Diversity of cultural backgrounds within your group will of course influence the choice
of material. A homogeneous group will have a shared oral tradition that will be reflected
in your instructional choices. A heterogeneous group may benefit from stories that emerge
as similar tales from several cultures. Many folk and fairy tales resemble similar tales
from several cultures. Character study or theme plot analysis can similarly provide
interesting universal themes that contribute to storytelling group cohesiveness.
Selecting interactive tales will allow the audience opportunities to predict outcomes,
to solve problems, and to think critically by comparing, contrasting, and synthesizing.
Encourage your learners to consider alternative solutions or endings. Use cues to elicit
vocal or physical expressions and responses. Help listeners to empathize with characters,
and even to assist with the plot and character development.
Consider your class calendar. For an upcoming curricular theme, the story could
instructionally activate interest. With a current curricular theme being studied, the
story could reinforce or extend instructional targets. Stories can provide historical
notes, express societal moral concerns, or serve as a springboard into fantasy and hero
quests of a particular group being studied within a language unit. Interpretive and
productive use of English can be woven throughout the instructional plan.
Do your best to prepare the environment. If possible wear clothing that complements the
storytelling event. Use props, teaching aids, and sound effects or background music native
to the culture in the tales. Arrange seating to "set a stage" and diminish
distractions. If inside, always have the backs of audience members toward the doors or
windows. If outside, similarly reduce visual distractions and seat the audience in shade
or with their backs to the sun.
Prepare the audience for listening by drawing upon background knowledge about the
context or theme. If you have adapted a tale from a book, show the book while giving
credit to the author and source used. If you plan to be a narrator or character within the
tale, introduce your specific position or role. Plan how you can provide a chronological
and geographical entrance to the story. Briefly explain cues, and rehearse the audience in
If you sufficiently practice aloud your storytelling in advance, you should know where
you are going with the tale and how to get there. Whenever possible, integrate props, key
words, gestures, and descriptions specific to the culture and region portrayed in the
story. It is very important that the storytelling event flows smoothly, so be careful
about ad-libbing. Vary voice inflection and tone along with body movement to keep momentum
and audience focus. Evaluate the audience reaction continuously, and increase or decrease
involvement depending on the need to stimulate or calm the learners for better story
effectiveness. Pay special attention to the most and least involved members of your group.
Do not get too involved in how you seem to be doing, simply maintain story focus.
This may sound blatantly obvious, but always remember to provide an exit from the
story. If you set the stage accordingly, a retraveling of the path will help group members
clarify segments and elements of the tale.
Make this shared experience real and meaningful. Consider how to make an immediate
transition into activities that encourage reflection and extension and that maintain group
enthusiasm. Provide means for individual and shared reflection, and organize group sharing
and assimilation of information into the current unit being studied.
Along these lines, consider the advantages of team teaching. Students may enjoy
interacting with students of another class. This can make the story even more of a special
event. The two teachers can take turns as the storyteller and instructional guide; they
may even wish to tell the story as a team.
Regardless of whether you work by yourself or with another teacher, plan formative
evaluation such as peer review, student feedback, and self evaluation. If possible,
videotape the session; later, view and evaluate yourself. Do not get discouraged. Work
through the glitches before you have your next storytelling session with students.
Practice, then do it again! You will only get better. Good luck!
A short bibliography of folktales
Erdoes, R. and A. Ortiz (eds.). 1984. American Indian myths and legends. New York:
Forest, H. 1996. Wisdom tales from around the world. Little Rock, AR: August House
Holt, D. and B. Mooney (eds.). 1994. Ready-to-tell tales: Sure-fire stories from
Americas favorite storytellers. Little Rock, AR: August House Publishers.
Opie, I. and P. Opie. 1974. The classic fairy tales. New York: Oxford University Press.
Vathanaprida, S. and M. MacDonald (eds.). 1994. Thai tales. Englewood, CO: Libraries
Waugh, C. and F. McSherry. 1991. Spooky sea stories. Camden, ME: Yankee Books.
Weaver, M. (ed.). 1995. Many voices, True tales from Americas past. Jonesborough,
TN: National Storytelling Press.
Yolen, J. (ed.). 1986. Favorite folktales from around the world. New York: Pantheon
Zorn, S. 1992. Classic American folk tales. Philadelphia: Courage Books.