Storytelling - turning passive consumers into
narrative explorers

distinguishing between story reading, story viewing and storytelling
what makes storytelling entertaining and engaging
immersion and culture
different session formats
selecting appropriate stories for multiple age audiences
storytelling styles and techniques
involving different ages in different ways
regular storytelling activities and projects
benefits of incorporating storytelling into early childhood programs

1 - Storytelling and story reading
It is always worth distinguishing between storytelling and story reading because they are quite different activities with quite different benefits. I define storytelling as the act of telling a story in an entertaining, impressive or dramatic way.

Telling is standing or sitting and using ones voice or sign language to present a story without reading from a book. It can be listened to on site or broadcast via radio, tv, video, podcast or vodcast.

Story reading is, of course, reading a story.

2 - What makes storytelling entertaining and engaging?
Around the world, in every human culture, stories and storytelling are valued because the human brain is set up to use story or narrative structure as our way of understanding, recording and passing on our experiences.

Most children can tell stories by age three. We've all experienced that request of 'tell the story about ......... again'. Children like hearing stories a number of times because they use these retellings to think and learn about different things contained in the story.

One of the follow on programs from 'Sesame Street', 'Blue's Clues', was so sure of the value of repeating stories to children that they convinced Nickelodeon to repeat each episode for five days before moving onto the next week's stories. The idea worked as well.

So much for the early Sesame Streets premise that children can only concentrate for 3 - 5 minutes on the one story. Of course, storytellers have known for years that children will listen to much longer stories and be enthralled so long as they are told the right story in an interesting way.

They enjoy them even more if the storyteller is 'bringing the story alive', telling it as if it were true and telling with it the energy and expression it deserves.

So entertaining and engaging stories are ones that:

follow narrative structure (Character, Setting, Problem, Resolution)
are relevant to the audience
and are 'brought to life' by the teller

3) Immersion and Culture
When we learn our home language there are two things that make the learning easy and ensure that it stays with us for life.

The first is immersion. Right from birth we are immersed in the language and the culture of the language. Every day we here competent speakers speaking to each other and speaking to us in light playful ways.

The second is it is happening while our brains are young and plastic. Our young brains are structured to absorb and learn many things but especially language.

So this is the best time to be immersed in the language of storytelling. This is the time when we can most easily learn but also the up about the age of three or four our brain development is such that this is the main way we can make sense of the world.

By age three children can tell and create basic narratives and use it to process and communicate.

So an early childhood program that immerses children in a wide variety of story, storytelling and story creation processes is providing children with a communication tool for life.

The most important part of, what makes anything entertaining and engaging from football to bookclubs is that is undertaken in a culture that values and rewards it.

Look at the energy, emotion and playfulness that fans put into a football grand final. They do so more and more creatively and energetically because we sanction and encourage it.

So what will help make an entertaining and engaging storytelling culture in early childhood programs?

modelling telling all sorts of stories with energy and lightness
rewarding and acknowledging participants who join in
meeting the energy of the participants and of the stories
adding games, fantasy, fun, mystery, ritual and surprise
experimenting with different activity formats for different groups

4) Different session formats
tell three stories
- for example 1 fairy tale, 1 personal story and 1 adventure story
- or 1 young story, 1 medium story, 1 older story(for mixed age group)

tell two stories and improvise or create a third story
- the second story can be one improvised by students from somewhere else and retold as an example

tell a story, read a story, improvise a story
- the 'Who Unlocks the Story Chest?' activity is a good way to add some surprise and mystery to this one

tell a story, read a story, act out a story
- the story that is acted out can be either the told story or the read story
- the acted out story can be a team activity with each team telling its version of the same story but with two twists
- teams can be same age or age mixed (age mixed gives the opportunity of asking older members to assume leadership and caring roles)

tell a story, play a storytelling game, share personal stories
- 'All the People Who' is a great warm up to personal stories

tell a story, watch a story from a DVD or YouTube, create a story based on the watched story or retell either the told story or the watched story in teams

5) Selecting stories appropriate for a multi-age audiences
One of the most important decisions of storytelling is selecting appropriate stories for each audience. Basically you can divide audience likes and appropriateness around their average age and to a lesser extent gender.

If you ask a group of younger children, "What sort of story would you like me to tell?" Boys might say, "a monster story", while girls might say "a fairy story". Boys might say "a pirate story" while girls might say "a mermaid story".

Solution 1 - give them both or all in the same story.
One of my stories could be called 'Captain Hook tries to rob a mermaid but is stopped by Peter Pan, Tinkerbelle and a monstrous dragon.' It's a real hit with both young boys and girls. I don't call it that but will often ask the audience afterwards what it should be called.

One of the realities is that the sex role stereotyping doesn't run very deep when it comes to stories told well. If asked, girls might say that they don't want a story with a monster in it but, when it comes to it, they will enjoy Captain Hook getting his firey desserts just as much as the boys.

Solution 2 - adding older (or younger) references
The above story sounds like a story suitable for young participants but there's no reason why older students won't enjoy it as well if you add some older references to it and if you don't draw to much attention to the fact that it's meant to be a younger story.

While younger children need their stories to make sense, older children like novelty, more action and more detail.

So, for example, the dragon in the above story can be described in more detail, adding appropriate similies to describe how sharp its claws are or how smelly its breathe is. Maybe the dragon talks like a rapster and does a little beatboxing before it blows fire?

One of the reasons that Sesame Street survived for so long is that the writers were careful, right from the start, to include jokes for adults so that parents wouldn't be bored.

Solution 3 - dividing a session up into young, medium & old stories
As a visiting storyteller I will often ask an audience how old they are and then say something like, "Mmmmm, I'm going to have to tell a story for the younger children, a story for the older children and a story for the in between ages. Is that OK? Good, all right which story will I tell first? One for the younger children or one for the older children?"

They will almost always agree to do the younger children's story first. The older children don't seem to mind waiting so long as they know when they are going to get their older story.

6) Storytelling Styles
Children really do want their stories told well with good energy and commitment to the story.

don't be afraid put your own personality and style into your storytelling
add plenty of variety of voice, volume, feeling, characters
have lots of audience participation opportunities but don't push it
work out ways to make the storytelling session a special, nourishing, treat

7) Involving different ages in different ways
Storytelling is always a two way process. Even though the teller might be most active, the audience is always giving feedback that the story is being listened to and is appreciated or not. As the teller hears this feedback, he or she modifies the telling and so the connection becomes stronger. This is one reason why it is such an important cultural tool.

There are a lot of different ways of encouraging active audience involvement.
sound effects
- For example, with a young audience, you usually just have to ask or direct - 'Can you roar like the lion?' and model doing it yourself. You can have a bit of fun with it as well: 'the lion got closer and louder' 'roar' 'and louder' 'roooaaarrr!'.

- You can have fun with environmental sounds. In one of my stories I have a repeating set of environmental sounds. 'Aidan and his Dad could hear the bees buzzing up in the gum tree flowers, bzzzzzzzzzz, a kookaburra in the distance, kook, kook, kook, kook, ka, ka, ka, ka, and some sheep across the river in the showgrounds, baaaaaaaaaah.' Children enjoy joining in with this and, after a only a couple of repetitions, all I have to say is 'they could hear ....' and the audience enjoys doing it in the right sequence.

A nice addition to this is to throw in something different such as 'a dog rounding up the sheep over in the showgrounds'.

Age variations
- have young animals and old animals, small waterfalls and big waterfalls etc with the different age groups doing the different sounds
- give the different age groups different sounds. For example, in the 'Aidan' story the young children could be the bees, the middle aged the kookaburras and the older students the 'sheep in the showground'

'and do you know what happened next?'
- audiences love it when you ask this question. I ask for a number of suggestions and then either take a vote or make a decision myself and put the chosen suggestion into the story.

Age variations
- ask the different age groups in turns
- ask girls and boys in turns
- ask older children for suggestions but younger children vote to decide & vice versa

What stories next day or next week
- a regular part of a story program can be a request story or a request theme

Age variations
- take turns in which group makes the suggestion or have both a young and an old request story each time

8) Regular storytelling activities and projects
One of the best ways of building the energetic, creative culture refered to at the start of these notes is with the choice and development of regular storytelling activities. Regular activities allows students to take on more and more of the roles in the activities. This encourages creativity, confidence and self esteem and is something students really thrive on.

Storytelling show
Roles - Presenter/Compere, Introducer, Storytellers, Sound Effect Team, Musicians, Improvisor, Appreciators, Advertiser

Development - The basic idea is to start simply at the level appropriate for the age group and gradually add more roles. For example, with young children I will seize the opportunity when someone wants to tell me something. I ask them out the front to do so and ask who will introduce the student. I rehearse the introducer in how to do it and then invite the student storyteller to tell his or her story. On completion I always make sure he or she gets a big clap for volunteering and telling a story (or singing a song ).

Public speaking is something many adults have high fear levels about but most children love when given the opportunity in a supportive environment.

I remember well an under two year boy who had watched older siblings and acquaintances take on the compere role in one of my regular library storytelling sessions. He wasn't speaking at this stage but enjoyed the stories and, when, I asked for volunteers to introduce the next storyteller, he walked out the front and, with gestures and sounds, he introduced the next storyteller. He was duely applauded for his excellent effort and sat down with a big smile on his face.

One of the traps to watch out for in a case like this is not to laugh in pleasure at seeing this happen. Children so often think they are being laughed at and that hurts.

When you are organizing tellers for future shows you can also organise an introducer for that teller. As introducers get better at the role you can ask them to add interesting details to the introduction, for example, 'one personal detail and one thing they are really good at'.

- as confidence and participation builds add more roles and more opportunities for participation
- at the end of each show get the group to decide what the theme for the next storytelling activity will be eg pirates, mermaids, playgrounds, jungle, dinosaurs
- ask who will bring a special painting or drawing to be the stimulus for the 'brand new made up story'?
- who will bring a sound effect? eg shaker, drum, toy with sound etc
- who will bring a book or select a book for the read story?
- one possibility is to have rosters for these

Storytelling Club
The storytelling club is a further development. It puts an emphasis on membership, with all the members actively taking turns at trying out different storytelling roles.

There is enormous potential in storytelling, story creation and story publishing activities to develop confidence, self esteem and creativity of early childhood participants and have a lot of fun in the process.

Immersion in stories, narrative structure and storytelling fun will ensure that all children have a life long story language and communication skill.

It can involve and enthrall all ages.

Storytelling activities are low cost and most use few resources or equipment.

They can be developed over time and can be structured to involve all ages.

Storytelling is firmly embedded in state and national curriculums so playbased storytelling activities will reinforce school learning and be valued by parents and teachers.

Return to Top of this page. Return to 'Storytelling in Australia' entry page.

2010 Daryll Bellingham. One copy of the above notes is available for your personal use for developing your storytelling skills. If you would like to copy them or publish whole or in part please seek my permission.

Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller
P.O. Box 5300, West End, Q4101, 
Brisbane, Australia
Tel. 61 (0)7 3846 3135
Mob. 0417 478408

All contents copyright 1998, Daryll Bellingham. All rights reserved.
Last update: 26th August, 2010.
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