Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 200,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe
Find more Classroom Connections: Start Storytelling
Start a storytelling practice in your classroom or library with these tips and resources from two storytellers with decades of experience.
Storytelling, using voice without books, has been essential in communicating and passing on cultural traditions since long before alphabets were created. In our research, we have found that storytelling was also a common practice among American teachers and librarians from the mid-1800s through the 1930s. This was not storytelling as performance or the relating of personal stories but rather shared, simply spoken narratives.
The use of nonflamboyant, oral stories as a teaching method began to decline when educational practices and policies shifted toward a more industrial model. We hope we can convince you to help reverse this trend. Although telling stories requires a time commitment in order to both identify and learn stories effectively (especially at the start), you will find the results beneficial for both you and your audience, with some unexpected outcomes.
We are both tellers of stories. Donna comes to her practice formally as a librarian and teacher and informally through a long line of Jewish tale-tellers. Patrick is a folklorist and teacher raised in a huge, extended Irish Catholic family. Both of our families found pleasure in telling stories that also maintained our identity, history, and culture. Between us, we have been telling stories professionally for more than 60 years and have hundreds of stories in our repertoires.
We are currently working on a study examining the long term effects of live story listening on young children, which we began after observing that children and young adults who had been exposed to repeated storytelling sessions were more involved in creating narrative. We noticed that they sought well-constructed narratives in both their reading choices and spoken-word experiences. They were better able to listen to extended and complex yet simply told stories (no pictures, props, or exaggerated hand motions) for long periods of time. Clearly, there was something important going on. Now, cognitive scientists and neurologists, including Maryann Wolf, Daniela O’Neill, and Paul Zak, are finding similar results through their research.
In the following feature, we provide some basics tips for the type of storytelling we are describing, but we also encourage you to follow through on your own by sampling the manuals and story collections listed in the accompanying sidebars.
Spoken language is frequently not the same as written language. The most beautifully illustrated version of “Snow White” may not be written in a way that lends itself easily to the spoken word. With experience, you’ll be able to recognize which written versions work for your style, but to make your choice a bit easier until then, we have only included manuals and anthologies that contain stories we know are written in a tellable way. Every title in our bibliographies has been used successfully by us or other librarians, teachers, and/or storytellers. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every one of these stories will be written in a tellable way for you, but we offer plenty to choose from.
Everyone needs to find the prosody, flow, and style of language that fits with his or her own language pattern. Donna’s parents were from Romania, and she grew up in New York City; she finds that she is most comfortable telling eastern European and African tales. Drawing from his family background, along with his fieldwork collecting stories from Irish and Scottish travelers, Patrick is most comfortable telling western and northern European folktales as well as fairy tales from Middle Eastern and Indian traditions. We both also know that Native American and South American stories are structured in a way that is more difficult for us to tell. It doesn’t mean we won’t tell these stories; it means that we will probably have to work with the story a bit more before we tell it. One of the beautiful things about telling a story is that you can adjust most tales for both you and your audience—up to a point, but that’s another story.
How to Begin
Read Professional Resources. The guidebooks we’ve suggested in the accompanying sidebar provide the reader with detailed discussions on a range of storytelling theories and methodologies and include some wonderful stories to tell. The earlier publications contain good advice with lasting relevance in spite of some outdated jargon. They are still very much worth consulting, especially for their stories. The more recent guidebooks discuss findings in neurological and cognitive studies supporting storytelling in child development and relate storytelling practices in the context of the latest educational initiatives. They also have lists of national, state, and local storytelling organizations and links to story collections.
Choose a Story. In general, traditional folktales and fairy tales are a good place to start. They are composed of narrative elements easily remembered and designed for oral telling, qualities that partially explain why they have survived over time. You are probably familiar with quite a number of these stories already and can easily get to the point of telling the story without referring to a text. Think about it: How many times have you read “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”?
In addition, longer narratives with easily summarized plot and character elements, particularly variants of familiar favorites, can usually be retold without much difficulty. “Jack and the Beanstalk” is a good example: you can quickly list the characters, rhyming verses, and main plot points, and retell it in your own way. Finding lesser-known versions of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” such as “Mollie Whuppie” or the Appalachian story “Jack and the Beantree” will provide you with a “new” story that you already nearly know. Also look for stories with repetitive, rhythmic language and repeated actions and events. These features are indicative of tales that are tellable and encourage participation and engage listeners.
If you’re not sure of a story, reading it aloud to oneself, or asking somebody to read it aloud or summarize it orally to you, can aid in choosing and learning material. Although you must keep your audience in mind, only choose stories that really appeal to you. You will be telling this story a lot—to yourself, out loud, to your audience. If it’s a story that leaves you feeling lukewarm, you’re going to hate it after a while. Every storyteller has made this mistake; you don’t want to make it often.
Know Your Audience. Knowledge of what appeals to child listeners and an understanding of their developmental stages are both of great importance when selecting a story. Donna once chose to tell “Hansel and Gretel” to a first-grade class during the first week of school. The children didn’t know her at all and hardly knew their teachers. Halfway through the story, two children were crying, and one child had crawled into his teacher’s lap and was covering his ears. Donna had to stop the story and calm the children down. If she had told that story six months later, it would have been fine. Lesson learned: know your audience!
For example, we have found that four- and five-year-olds love tales containing silly humor, particularly those in which they anticipate an outcome before the protagonist. Stories such as “Soap, Soap, Soap,” “Epaminondas,” and “The Woman who Flummoxed the Fairies” have worked well for us. On the other hand, all listeners respond to stories with clear, strong emotions they can identify with; “Selkie Girl” and “Cap of Rushes” are good examples of this.
Build a Repertoire. The best way to learn to tell is to actually tell. We can’t stress that enough. Learning stories, and developing a library or classroom storytelling practice, is initially time-consuming. We recommend starting slowly—learning just one story a month will eventually lead to a wonderful personal repertoire. The more stories you learn and the more often you tell them, the easier it becomes to learn and tell.
Once learned, the story becomes yours and is never really lost, and it isn’t lost for your listeners, either. Although it is also entertaining, listening to oral stories regularly and frequently has important long-term cognitive effects. You may notice that the child who never sits still for any lesson can sit still for a story, or at recess, you may find that children are telling stories to each other and acting them out. Perhaps your students will be able to relate the stories that they’ve heard in impressive detail, down to mimicking your gestures, vocabulary, phrases, and language patterns. And if this is the case, please let us know! But whatever you do, have fun. It’s not necessary to memorize or imitate or put on a performance—just make the story yours.
The aim of these activities is to demonstrate to participants (whether they are children or adults) that everyone has stories, everyone can tell stories, and oral stories can enhance visualization skills, providing a scaffold for creative writing and reading comprehension.
Everyone Has a Story
Corduroy. By Dan Freeman. Illus. by the author. 1968. 32p. Viking, $16.99 (9780670241330). PreS–Gr. 2.
The Doorbell Rang. By Pat Hutchins. Illus. by the author. 1986. 32p. Greenwillow, $16.99 (9780688052515). PreS–Gr. 2.
Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. By Simms Taback. Illus. by the author. 1999. 32p. Viking, $16.99 (9780670878550). 398.2. PreS–Gr. 2.
Where’s My Teddy? By Jez Alborough. Illus. by the author. 1992. 32p. Candlewick, paper, $6.99 (9781564022806). PreS–Gr. 2.
In the Classroom: Either tell or read aloud Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, by Simms Taback, or one of the other suggested titles above with a similar theme. Talk about how, like Joseph in the story, we all have favorite objects. These objects often remind us of things that have happened to us. Now tell the children they’re going to play a game to find out if talking about a memory makes a story. Ask them to think of a favorite object and then to close their eyes and see it in their mind. While they are visualizing, prompt them to remember times they spent with the object. Then have the children sit in pairs and take turns talking about their objects. Afterward, ask the children if they felt as if they had told a story about what they visualized. Then ask the children if they thought their partner’s memory sounded like a story. In our experience, about a third of the group will think they told a story, while all will think that they heard a story. This demonstrates to the children that they all have stories they can tell. This would also be a good opportunity to have a discussion about story elements.
Mrs. Katz and Tush. By Patricia Polacco. Illus. by the author. 1992. 32p. Random, $16.99 (9780553081220). K–Gr. 4.
Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. By Tomie dePaola. Illus. by the author. 1973, rev. ed., 1998. 32p. Putnam, $16.99 (9780399231087). PreS–Gr. 2.
One Morning in Maine. By Robert McCloskey. Illus. by the author. 1952. 32p. Viking, $17.99 (9780670526277). PreS–Gr. 2.
When I Was Young in the Mountains. By Cynthia Rylant. Illus. by Diane Goode. 1982. 32p. Dutton, $16.99 (9780525425250). PreS–Gr. 2.
In the Classroom: For this activity, use When I Was Young in the Mountains, by Cynthia Rylant, or another autobiographical picture book from our suggested list above. Start by asking the children to close their eyes and recall something that really happened to them from the past when they were little. Tell them it is important that it should be a memory that they are comfortable sharing. As they are remembering, prompt them to replay the visualization in their heads, and each time, to try and notice more details: for example, where they were when this event happened, who was with them, what was said, what sensations and emotions were experienced. (We suggest lots of descriptors here with children.) Then, have partners tell the memory to each other. As in the first activity, ask if the memory felt like or sounded like a story.
Have the students repeat the above steps with different memories two or three times. Then, tell them that you are going to share a book by Cynthia Rylant about her memories when she was young. After reading the book aloud and sharing the pictures, ask if the children noticed anything special about the language and the use of the repetitive phrase, “When I was young.” This is where you might want to discuss the use of repetition and rhythm in spoken and written stories. Ask the children to take the memory-stories they just shared and put them all together, but begin each memory with the words, “When I was young.” You can then extend this activity and use it as the basis for a creative-writing or creative-dramatics exercise.
Cinderella. By Charles Perrault. Tr. and illus. by Marcia Brown. 1954. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $17.95 (9780684126760). 398.2.
Duffy and the Devil. By Harve Zemach. Illus. by Margot Zemach. 1973. 40p. Farrar, paper, $8.99 (9780374418977). 823. PreS–Gr. 2.
Little Red Riding Hood. By the Brothers Grimm. Illus. by Trina Schart Hyman. 1983. 32p. Holiday, $17.95 (9780823404704). 398.2. PreS–Gr. 2.
Rapunzel. By the Brothers Grimm. Illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. 1997. 32p. Dutton, $17.99 (9780525456070). 398.2. PreS–Gr. 2.
Rumpelstiltskin. By the Brothers Grimm. Illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. 1986. 32p. Dutton, $17.99 (9780525442653). 398.2. K–Gr. 3.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff. By P. S. Asbjørnsen and J. E. Moe. Illus. by Marcia Brown. 1957. 32p. HMH, paper, $7 (9780156901505). 398.2. PreS–Gr. 2.
In the Classroom: Take a well-known story title and “stretch” it out with elements of the original tale. For example, “Little Red Riding Hood” becomes “Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf and the Basket of Goodies.” Then, as a group, make up several “stretched-out” titles of well-known fairy tales. After recording these titles on the board, have the children interchange each word in each title with a similar word, except for connectives and articles. So, following our example, the stretched-out “Little Red Riding Hood” could become “Big Blue Baseball Cap and the Tiny Sweet Pig and the Bag of Junk Food.” You end up with several crazy titles. Have children work in pairs or groups to make up stories inspired by one of the crazy titles. Later, you can have them tell their stories to the class or develop them into a creative drama or writing exercise.
Additional story collections to inspire storytelling in the classroom.Books published as youth titles are indicated by grade levels.
The Coming of the Unicorn: Scottish Folk Tales for Children. By Duncan Williamson. 2012. 140p. Floris, paper, $13.85 (9780863158681). 398.209411.
Tales from a much-loved traditional storyteller, who believed everyone was a teller and wanted to share his stories with everyone. This is very accessible.
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. By Philip Pullman. 2012. 400p. Penguin, $27.95 (9780670024971). 398.20943.
We have included Pullman’s retelling of his favorite stories from the Brothers Grimm because we like it so much. However, these tales are not for the faint of heart or the beginning teller.
Ghaddar the Ghoul and other Palestinian Stories. By Sonia Nimr. Illus. by Hannah Shaw. 2008. 96p. Frances Lincoln, $14.95 (9781845077716).
Stories migrated between Asia and Europe for millennia, so this book has echoes of the Arabian Nights and Brothers Grimm, with humor, romance and enough adventure to captivate everyone.
Here, There and Everywhere: Stories from Many Lands. By Liz Weir. 2005. 80p. illus. O’Brien, paper, $9.95 (9780862788698). 823.914.
These tales are just right for students from kindergarten through second grade, and they are also quick and easy to learn.
The Knee-High Man and Other Tales. By Julius Lester. 1985. Dial, o.p.
Originally told by slaves, these six short animal stories are sad, humorous, and instructive.
The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales. By Diane Wolkstein. 1978. 224p. Knopf, paper, $16 (9780805210774). 398.2.
These tales were lovingly collected in Haiti by a well-known and respected folklorist and storyteller.
The Magic Umbrella and Other Stories for Telling. By Eileen Colwell. Illus. by Shirley Felts. 1979. Salem House, o.p.
This collection of stories chosen for telling out loud includes notes for effective telling.
Native American Stories. By Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac. 1991. 160p. illus. Fulcrum, $17.95 (9781555910945). 398.2.
A collection of myths drawn from Native American cultures, these stories are meant “to entertain, teach, and be told out loud.”
The Ocean of Story: Fairy Tales from India. By Caroline Ness. Illus. by Jacqueline Mair and Neil Philip. 1996. HarperCollins, o.p.
Many of our oldest fairy tales and animal stories began in India. This is a wonderful collection for keen beginner storytellers.
The Ogress and the Snake and Other Stories from Somalia. By Elizabeth Laird. Illus. by Shelley Fowles. 2009. 96p. Frances Lincoln, paper, $7.95 (9781845078706). 398.209. Gr. 2–6.
Honestly and accurately represented tales from eastern Africa. The heroines and heroes are tough, brave, clever, and kind, and the stories are fun to tell.
Ready-To-Tell Tales. By David Holt and Bill Mooney. 1994. 224p. illus. August House, $29.95 (9780874833805). 398.2. Gr. 3–12.
This is an accessible collection of easily told stories collected from many cultures.
Sing Me a Story: Song-and-Dance Tales from the Caribbean. By Grace Hallworth. Illus. by John Clementson. 2011. 48p. Frances Lincoln, paper, $9.99 (9781847804266). 398.2. K–Gr. 3.
Compiled by an experienced, highly gifted librarian-storyteller, these are wonderful Caribbean stories with songs and actions to encourage children to join in.
Stories for Children. By Isaac Bashevis Singer. 1962, rev. ed., 1985. Farrar, paper, $17.99 (9780374464899). Gr. 4–12.
Tales of life told by the consummate Jewish storyteller.
The Story Tree: Tales to Read Aloud. By Hugh Lupton. Illus. by Sophie Fatus. 2005. 64p. Barefoot, $19.99 (9781841483122). 398.2. PreS–Gr. 2.
A great collection of easy-to-tell stories, some famous, others less familiar, but all are traditional tales that appeal to younger children.
The Story Vine. By Anne Pellowski and Lynn Sweat. 1984. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, o.p.
A wonderful collection of short stories from around the world that use string, line drawings, and other embellishments.
Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories. By Edna O’Brien. Illus. by Michael Foreman. 1986; rev. ed., 1997. 160p. Pavilion, paper, $8.99 (9781862050716). 823.9.
A marvelous collection, compiled by one of Ireland’s many great writers, this title is full of beautiful, haunting, and funny folktales and legends.
The Tiger and the Rabbit and Other Tales. By Pura Belpré. Illus. by Tomie dePaola. 1964. J. B. Lippincott, o.p.
This collection of well-known, beloved tales from Puerto Rico is out of print, but it’s available in library collections and is worth seeking out.
Womenfolk and Fairy Tales. By Rosemary Minard. 1975. Houghton, o.p.
Written to be told, these lesser-known tales from around the world feature strong women.
Donna Schatt, a librarian, storyteller, and researcher, chaired the storytelling program at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools for 17 years and is currently researching the long-term effects of oral story listening. Patrick Ryan, a storyteller, educator, and award-winning writer, is currently Research Fellow at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the University of South Wales.
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe