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Teaching the tale: language and memory
In the most popular English versions of some traditional tales the exact same phrase is repeated unmodified, e.g. ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,’ Wolf threatens each of the Three Little Pigs. In other tales a phrase is repeated but amended each time, e.g. ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’ 'Who’s been eating my porridge?’ and ‘Who’s been sleeping in my bed?’ Goldilocks causes the Three Bears to wonder. Another example of this is Little Red Riding Hood’s exclamations ‘What big eyes/ears/teeth you have, Grandma!’ The telling of these stories can usefully support English language students’ learning of the ‘will' future form, the Present Perfect Continuous and ‘what+adjective+noun exclamations’ respectively.
In many cultures listeners are invited to join in with these kinds of language chunks when being told a story in their mother tongue, so it makes sense for us to invite learners of a second target language to join in. Where the story being told in English is already known to learners in their mother tongue (this may well be the case in many parts of the world regarding the three stories mentioned above) this knowledge will provide additional support when joining in with the teacher and retelling the story partly or wholly in English. When orally reproducing the language chunks after the teacher and saying them along with the teacher in the context of the story, learners are also being given the chance to express character and mood meaningfully through voice, rhythm, intonation, posture, expression and gesture. This happens naturally in storytelling.
Storytelling for all ages
The three tales referred to above are often thought of as children’s fairy stories and some teachers may hesitate before asking older children, teenagers and adults to join in with these tales. Wide-ranging experience tells me that playfulness in language learning can be effective at any age and the familiarity and positive associations people usually have with oral storytelling experiences in their lives leads to enthusiastic participation. It is worth remembering that repetition is not only a feature of tales associated with childhood. Many stories from religious texts involve repetition and it is also a feature of many longer jokes and humorous tales.
Teaching the tale
Of course a tale does not have to be already familiar to language learners in order for this kind of participation and repetition to work in the language classroom. Huge numbers of suitable folk tales involving repetition are to be found on the internet – see links below. Here is one way of teaching students to retell the West African tale of Akakro. This story was contributed by Gerry Abbott to Storytelling in ELT (IATEFL). I learnt it from this source and focused in my telling on the high frequency language chunk ‘Have you got something to ... (eat/drink/wear)?’ I have followed the steps below with young learners, teenagers and older students - you can view this process in practice by going to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5Rr54snUdE You can view me telling the whole story at www.youtube.com/watch?v=0t6htD1lCWM
- First I tell the tale, using pauses and gesture to indicate to learners that they can join in with the ‘Have you got something to…’ phrases.
- After telling the tale, I invite a confident volunteer student to play the role of the boy and I play the role of the old woman. I ask the other students to focus on our postures and voices while the two of us act out the scene at the old woman’s house. By getting into the role of the old woman through posture, mime, voice and concern for the boy I model that these features are as important to the dialogue as the text itself.
- All the students then stand in pairs and act out the scene at the same time (but not chorally). As long as the target language chunk ‘Have you got something to...’ is reproduced adequately, the rest of the dialogue can vary to a small extent and certainly the performances are naturally very different from each other in style, mood and physicality.
- I might invite one pair to show us their scene. One suitable task for students watching is to notice something that impresses them about the way the pair plays the scene and afterwards give feedback directly to them. This often leads to interesting or unexpected comments such as ‘You looked really hungry’ or ‘The old woman you played is just like my grandmother’ or ‘I felt the gold shining from you both’.
- Stepping the Story: This is a whole-body approach to story-learning where pairs of students walk through and remember the story as they go. First I make as much space as possible in the classroom. I model this with a confident volunteer student. We stand next to each other, link arms, and together we remember and retell the story. When we have told the first part of the story (what would be the first paragraph if it were written down) we pause and take a step forward together. Then we tell the next part before taking a second step. Observing the two of us stepping the tale reinforces the first half of the story in the minds of the rest of the students. We continue until we have got to the point where the boy comes to the door of the old woman’s house.
- Now all the students are ready to step the story all the way through from the start. They remember the scene between the boy and the old woman when they get to it because they re-enacted it earlier. I remind students to take their time. Each pair finds their way through the story at their own pace. I make myself available to prompt pairs if they get stuck. Each pair of students tends to step through a story differently. Some narrate it in unison. Others take in turns. Some elicit from their partner. Some tell events in the story as if they are checking off items on a list. Some act the story out physically and mime as they go. After finishing, many students have commented that they imagined the landscape of the story setting as they stepped through. Some felt they were journeying through the story as invisible onlookers. Others said they were active protagonists in the story. Some even felt the heat of the African forest or tasted the fruit the old woman offered the boy.
- Students often need support with the final part of the story, so we gather and retell it together.
- Now students are ready to retell the story individually to a partner. A show of hands tells me which students feel most ready and these find a less-ready partner and they sit face to face. The listener’s role is vital as it will have a direct bearing on the confidence of the storyteller and therefore the success of the storytelling. The listener can also support the teller if prompting is required. The listener often has the confidence to have a turn at telling the story afterwards.
- A suitable follow-up task is to encourage students to retell the story orally to someone they know outside the class. This can be done in a very controlled way, for example students visit another group of students in another classroom and each finds a new partner, this time someone who doesn’t already know the story, to tell it to. Alternatively, or additionally, this can be an oral homework task: students tell family members or friends from outside (and perhaps teach them some English at the same time!). By this stage students are starting to innovate and ‘make the story their own’.
Many activities can supplement or replace stages in this process and more stages can follow, including discussion of ideas in the story, visually representing the story, researching and/or retelling folk tales on related themes, creative writing.
Memorising language chunks through repetition is an effective way of scaffolding learners’ language use and is also at the heart of how people have always told stories. Storytelling is a co-creative experience connecting teller and listeners and is a fundamental aspect of who we are as human beings. Giving language students the opportunity to be storytellers themselves gets to the heart of good teaching practice.
For a shorter procedure see activity Teaching students the shortest tale.
Many of the ideas behind this article come from a session led by fellow storyteller Chris Smith from The Story Museum for teachers in UK state schools. Go to www.storymuseum.org.uk click on stories at school and then click on ideas that work then click on mapping and stepping.
There are huge resources of folk and fairy tales from all over the world published in English on the internet – here are just a few of the ones that I recommend:
- http://www.sacred-texts.com/ (huge resource)
Especially for children:
By David Heathfield
David Heathfield is a storyteller and English teacher. Find related ideas in his teacher resource book Spontaneous Speaking: Drama Activities for Confidence and Fluency (DELTA Publishing).