Rhythm, rhyme, repetition,
reasoning and response in oral storytelling
By David Heathfield on 28 June, 2011 -
TeachingEnglish Newsletter 29 June 2011
Live storytelling is a spontaneous creative
process which fires the imagination. The listener experiences and participates
in the story creatively. If the storyteller allows, the listener can have a
direct influence on the story as it unfolds. When being told a folk tale
orally, a group of listeners can also be offered the added opportunity to be
physically and verbally active. In many cultures, overtly active participation
in oral storytelling is often associated with young children.
However, adults are just as willing to
participate, as long as the storyteller makes it possible for
them. I work as a storyteller with adults and
children in the UK and abroad and storytelling is also very much part of my
work as an English-language teacher to mixed-nationality classes of adult
learners in the UK at all levels. Of course there is significant cultural
variation: in my experience adult listeners from Arabic-speaking cultures will
respond and participate and interject without any prompting from their teacher,
whereas those of, for example, Japanese and White British heritage may need to
be given signals that their involvement is welcome.
In language learning there are good reasons to
encourage active participation. Participation opens pathways of communication
between the storyteller and listeners as well as among listeners and builds a
sense of class community. Listeners become more conscious of their co-creative
role in the storytelling experience which raises their confidence in their
ability to express themselves creatively in the target language.
Below are 5 Rs for getting listeners actively
involved in your storytelling in your language-teaching classroom. I suggest
watching me tell www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKJuVKGEMCo
Juan and the Magic Tree to a group of English learners to get a sense of these
ideas in action.
Heightened speech is a common feature of oral storytelling, somewhere
between conversation and reciting poetry. Speech patterns are more
rhythmic and words more clearly enunciated, especially during repeated
phrases within a story. This makes it easier for students to repeat
phrases after the storyteller or join in, especially if the storyteller
pauses briefly just before those phrases. Many traditional folk tales
involve the repetition of episodes within the tale, so there is an overall
rhythm to the story structure, making comprehension and participation
easier. Many storytellers often use percussive instruments such as shakers
to accentuate the rhythm of these phrases. Students can also be invited to
use percussive instruments themselves to underpin the rhythm in the
Short and simple rhymes are easy for students to learn and join in with
during storytelling. Stories for young children may be entirely in rhyme
form, but rhymes can successfully be included in stories involving
repetition for students of all ages. Typically oral storytelling is
unscripted and the text varies from one telling to the next, but rhymes
within the tale are fixed and the transition between non-scripted text and
rhyme is often signalled by a pause, a gesture and a change of speech
Repetition is a feature of traditional folk tales which makes them
particularly suitable for language classrooms, where repeating words and
phrases is common practice. When the same phrase is repeated on three or
more occasions during the telling of a story, students can move through
three stages of repetition: 1 repeat after teacher, 2 say with teacher, 3
say without teacher.
This repetition provides scaffolding which supports the learning of
collocations, structures and pronunciation. It is not only words and
phases that are repeated in storytelling. Sounds and gestures can also be
repeated and support the learning of language, for example when they match
or clarify the meaning of the words spoken.
Stories teach people about life. This is partly because each story
provides a case study which stands alone so listeners can bring their
reasoning skills into play. In the course of the narrative, characters
might give or receive advice and they usually need to solve problems,
while story listeners generally consider their own attitudes to the advice
and solutions being offered. While listening, students predict what will
happen next and after listening they will often reflect on the meaning of
the story and are ready to evaluate aspects of the story. While listening
to Juan and the Magic Tree, for example, students will be predicting what
the magic stick might do and they can be invited to advise Juan what to do
when his so-called friend comes and asks for a share in Juan’s wealth. A
story like this is an effective way of opening up a discussion about
social cohesion and justice. After listening, students could be asked to
comment on the relationships between Juan and his ‘friend’ and between
Juan and his mother, so starting a discussion about social and family
Stories touch listeners’ emotions, especially when they are told orally.
The storyteller’s voice as well as the narrative itself will trigger
emotional responses and for every listener these responses will be
individual, depending on factors such as personal experience, mood,
attitude and interpretation.
The storytelling teacher is likely to notice students responding
spontaneously while they listen, both verbally and non-verbally:
exclamations, moans, sighs, laughter, gestures, nods, facial expressions,
Rather than setting comprehension tasks after listening to a story,
teachers can more productively invite students to respond personally.
Imagination and emotions are closely related and students often
communicate creatively and listen closely to each other when asked to
describe feelings and mental images that appeared when they were
listening. Some students will vividly describe colourful and richly
detailed visual images, while others describe textures, sensations and
movement. Students may find themselves identifying with particular
characters in a story, most often the central hero like Juan in the tale of
The Magic Tree, but some identify with the impatient and exasperated
mother. Students are generally interested to listen closely and find out
about other students’ individual responses.
After listening to a story, there is wide scope for creative response
tasks such as drawing a picture, acting out a scene in roleplay, writing a
letter from one character to another, choosing a gift for a character or
representing an aspect of the story through song or dance.
Storytelling has been at the heart of education
from the beginning, thousands of years before classrooms appeared, so let’s
keep this most participative way of learning strong and healthy.
About the Author:
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).