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How to Teach Storytelling

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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This past fall, our center took on an exciting professional development project. We were privileged to have Katherine Lyons work with us as our artist-in-residence. Katherine is an actor by profession and works for the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning through the Arts. She is a teacher trainer using drama to address learning standards. I hardly need to reiterate my own passion for teaching through the arts. I pursued a certificate from CETA (Changing Education Through the Arts). What was unique to me, among other things, was a particular chant she used to teach our three to five year olds what older children usually learn in elementary school English.

I have taken children’s stories in dictation for many years, and have a collection of them that I share with college students. I even conducted a study in graduate school of the differences between dictated stories among boys and girls in each age group from two and a half through five. I have always allowed children to dictate their stories without a particular framework. There are many books, videos and articles about children’s stories that support this approach. This chant, and the Wolf Trap approach, went much further…

“A story…a story…a story…a story! Let it out, and bring it in! Let it out, and bring it in” (gesture with arms forward and then back, like casting and reeling for a fish).

Who-o-o’s in the story? Who-o-o’s in the story?

The char-ac-ters (clap each syllable). The char-ac-ters.

The setting, the setting (gesture as if laying a table).

It’s where it takes place. It’s where it takes place (clap on “where”, “takes”, and “place” each time.

And when it takes place (tap an imaginary wristwatch on “when, “takes”, and “place”).

The Problem. The Problem. The Problem (serious face, rubbing two fists together).

Sol-u-u-u-tion! (with arms overhead, high “u-u-u”).

No problem! (Happy voice, hands brushing themselves off)

The beginning, the middle, and the end. Ta-dah! (Repeat, hands in front, demonstrating a time-line to mirror the concepts)”

As we worked with Katherine, we repeated this chant with the children during story time. Both threes and fours learned and used it with us, correcting us when we messed up! Eventually, I began using it when I took story dictation.

My first post-chant she started talking about a little girl who went shopping and then to the park, then to another store and so on. Her story mirrored countless stories I have heard from little girls, in particular, for many years.  I wondered if the story chant would help her move her story in a more meaningful direction.  Stopping her for a moment, I asked her, “What’s the Problem? (I used the clenched fists gesture). She immediately said, “She can’t find her mommy”. Bingo! Using the gesture for “solu-u-u-tion”, I asked, “What is your solution?” She didn’t hesitate.  “The little girl jumped from her story to another story and found her mommy”. Brilliant!  She had created a rather advanced literary device (think of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels!) to solve her literary, and existential, problem. I imagine, had I not mentioned the chant, she might still be dictating, “Then she went to the park, and then she met a friend, and then they went out to play, and…”

A few months later, our older children were dictating a long bedtime story for my teaching partner. She is going to have a baby, and the children were very excited to participate in making a book with drawings to be read aloud once the baby was born.  I called children from my own group to a table, one at a time, to dictate their portion of the story. One of our best story tellers, a five year old boy, interrupted his block play to stand beside me. In a very grown up voice, he asked, “What’s the Problem?”  I knew exactly what he meant.

I share this chant (courtesy of Georgia Wolf Trap©Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts) because it has become an important literacy tool with our young children. Communication between students and teaching staff about stories is at a more thoughtful and appreciative level. The children’s understanding of stories and story-books is multi-layered. They are not only listening, but critiquing! All ages are more confident story tellers. Once again, young children demonstrate that they are savvy learners, capable of higher order thinking. I feel terribly proud of them.

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Gail teaches Early Childhood Education as an Adjunct Associate Professor for Northern Virginia Community College, one of the largest community college systems in the country. She is a popular trainer in the DC area, leading workshops on such topics as Engaging, Arts-Based and Outdoor Learning, and Guiding Behavior. She is a member of the Virginia Community College Peer Group which collaborates with the Virginia Department of Social Services to train and license childcare professionals throughout the state. Her blog on BAM's EdWords is referenced in several arts websites, and is used in Early Childhood courses throughout Virginia. She is also a member of NAREA, the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance. You can contact her for more information about Professional Development opportunities. 


Gail lives and works in Northern Virginia. Her special interests include arts-integration, play, Reggio Emilia, music and yoga. 

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Guest Sunday, 20 August 2017