Inspiring Young Writers with Oral Stories

How can oral storytelling help students in writing better stories and essays? What about writer’s block: those children who stare at the paper but can’t think of what to write?

After writing an article about the Goals of Oral Storytelling in the Classroom, I want to give you some practical advice. Let’s examine how you can use oral storytelling to improve your students’ writing skills.

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💡 As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I get a little percentage whenever you buy something after clicking one of my affiliate links. Thanks!

Writing a story is not so easy

A few students write like their lives depend on it. Red cheeks, pencils running over their papers. They almost explode with imagination. Their story needs to get down on paper now.

However, others stare at the wall, looking frustrated. One takes his time sharpening his pencil. Another plays with his eraser.

At the end of the lesson, some beg to continue; they want to fill another sheet of paper. Others barely filled one sheet with blood, sweat, and large handwriting.

Do you recognize this from your classroom?

Writing a story is not so easy. There are always students who can’t seem to start.

Furthermore, most students’ writing lacks internal structure and dramatic buildup. Even older children often produce texts filled with: “Then…, and then… and then…, and then…”

Are there easy, practical ways to help them write better stories?

Oral storytelling as a model for narrative writing

The Speaking & Listening and Writing skills are often practiced in different lessons. That might be convenient, but those skills are closely connected.

Language development starts at home and in school with listening. After that, the child learns to speak. At school they learn to read and, finally, to write.

These skills build on each other. It’s hard to read words you have never heard. It’s equally challenging to write a story without ever telling it.

💡 A simple guideline that will improve their writing skills enormously is to let children always tell their story first before writing it down. It’s not difficult to design activities that accomplish precisely that.

The role of storytelling in overcoming writer’s block

When you start writing a text, you first need to know enough about the topic and the audience. What do you already know about your topic? Do you feel like writing about this topic? Are ideas bubbling up?

This orientation phase, before the actual writing, is crucial. Students often get stuck in this phase. How to start?

Whether they are supposed to write about their holiday or craft a fantasy story, most students can use a little help initially.

You can use storytelling to help them in these three practical ways:

  1. Tell the first part of the story using a lot of imagery. They will see the scenes in their own imagination, which is a great start to finish the story. You already gave them images and the beginning of a plot to work with.
  2. Before they write down their story, let the students share their ideas with a partner. Instruct the partners to listen and to help each other with ideas.
  3. Offer the students a plot scheme for their writing. You might even ask them questions and let them write down the answers to produce a short plot:
    “What is your favorite animal?”
    “Where would that animal live?”
    “What is its favorite food?”
    “Which animal does it dislike?” etc.

Guiding students in turning oral stories into written form

Too often, I find textbooks hammering on a ‘beginning,’ ‘middle,’ and ‘end.’ That’s not the most helpful way to look at stories, though.

A structure that better models our own thinking in stories is that of characters who have plans or run into problems

Dramatic arc of simple stories

After a short introduction, each story needs a moment when the reader starts to wonder how it will end, signified by ❓ in the picture above. Then tension mounts, and at some point, the reader gets his question answered, signified by ❗ in the picture above.

‘When you regularly tell stories in the classroom, children absorb this structure through listening. They learn, subconsciously, how stories ‘work.’

The more you feed students good stories, the easier they will write better stories themselves.

Please take a moment after telling a story to talk it through with your students. Together, find out what the story is about. What was the central question, and when was it answered?

Research: understanding story structure leads to better writing

In his book ‘Story Proof ‘ (link to Amazon), Kendall Haven describes an experiment he did with older elementary school students.

Within the same school, he gave some classes a workshop, teaching them about the structure of stories (characters, plans, problems, dramatic tension, ending, etc.). Other classes did not get this workshop.

The students who got this workshop scored significantly better on a standardized test that asked them to write a text.

His conclusion: ‘Learning the structure of stories improved students’ skills in writing stories and informational texts.

I hope this article has given you some practical ideas on how oral storytelling can help the young writers in your classroom.

The main takeaway is to always provide your students with the opportunity to talk through their story before they write it down.

You might also like these articles about how storytelling can help with other language skills:

Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

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