6 Goals of Oral Storytelling in the Classroom

I worked seven years as a primary school teacher before I became a full-time storyteller. In this article, I’ll share six goals I had with oral storytelling in the classroom.

Teachers need to be able to explain what goals they are trying to achieve with storytelling in their lessons.

“Why did you choose to tell that story at that moment in your lesson?” my principal asked. She had just watched a lesson in which I told a story.

I paused before I answered. It wasn’t a strange question.

After all, as a teacher and educational professional, you need to know what you are doing and why you are doing it.

What was my goal in telling this specific story at this specific moment?

I answered her question that day but realized it would be worthwhile to think more about this subject. This led to these six goals of storytelling:

  1. Telling stories to build community
  2. Telling stories for social and emotional development
  3. Storytelling to stimulate creativity and imagination
  4. Storytelling for language development
  5. Storytelling as a didactic tool
  6. Telling stories because of the stories

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1. Telling Stories to Build Community

My 10-year-old students have a field day—soccer, hockey, jumping, spear-throwing, and other sports. At lunchtime, they join me with their lunch boxes. Red faces above sweated shirts.

One boy sits next to me on the bench. He opens his bright green lunchbox to find out what’s inside. In the middle of a bite of his sandwich, he suddenly looks at me like he just thought about something important. Something very important.

I wait until he has emptied his mouth. Then he says:

“What story will you tell in class tomorrow?”

I worked for 7 years as a primary school teacher (grades 3, 4, and 5), and told many stories in my classrooms. It became something my students looked forward to. They listened intently and many of them could easily reproduce the stories themselves with amazing details.

Storytelling in the classroom gets results; I saw it firsthand. But why?

That boy with the bright green lunchbox? He looked forward to the Friday storytelling, which had become a tradition in our classroom.

Of course, Friday wasn’t the only day I told stories. But the Friday stories were something else. In these stories, we went on an adventure together.

Sometimes I told a long fairy tale, other times a bible story, and, depending on the year’s season, a Halloween or Christmas story.

The main goal of these storytelling sessions was to build community. Children learn the most when it’s pleasant in the classroom and when they get along with the teacher and the other children.

Telling stories works very well for building this kind of safe community in your classroom. Why?

First of all, in these storytelling sessions, there was a clear leader and a role for every child. I chose and told the stories, but each time, they were adapted to the children and what they gave back during the telling.

This resembles the situation in the classroom during the teaching of other subjects: children are guided by the teacher but also have their interpretation and influence.

Second, going on an adventure in a story means laughing together, being frightened together, or being touched by the story together. Having these experiences together builds a bond.

Storytelling in the classroom is going on an adventure together!

2. Telling Stories for Social and Emotional Development

“The day started all wrong. Bobbie, her stuffed bear, was gone. No matter how long she searched, she could not find him. Had he left her for another girl?

Her mum scolded her for not coming downstairs for breakfast. She tried to tell about Bobbie, but there was no time. Breakfast, bag, coat, shoes, go.

On the way to school, she bumped her bicycle into the pavement and fell. A boy biking behind her almost rode into her and screamed: “Loser, can’t you bike?”

She was late at school and, with tears in her eyes, settled down on her chair, only to find out that she was the only one who had forgotten to do her homework.

I tell this little beginning of a story with a red paper heart in my hands. Whenever something hurts, I crinkle or rip a part of my heart.

When I’m finished, we look at the heart together and talk. Does anybody understand how the girl feels? What could you do or say to help this girl?

Your listeners can get in the characters’ skin when telling a story. They have feelings and thoughts about what happens to the characters. They can experience difficult things in a safe environment and reflect upon them. What would they have done? Is it stupid what the main character does?

I would argue that it is often better to wait a little before talking with children about a story. Many children need some time to let the story land in their hearts. Talking about the story a day afterward can have a great result.

Through a story, children experience characters different than themselves and experience situations they never experience themselves. Even when you have other goals with your story, storytelling always leads to…

  • getting to know others, their situations, and their culture
  • stimulating respect and understanding of others
  • encouraging empathy
  • encouraging personal reflection and opinions

Focus your story on the social/emotional skill you want to grow

The story I started telling is about all the feelings of disappointment, sadness, and not being good enough that students sometimes carry into the classroom. I aimed to recognize these feelings, accept them, and give the children tools to deal with them.

I told this story because in that specific classroom were many children that came to school already with many hurtful things thrown at them in the morning by parents and other caretakers.

When you want to teach something specific with a story, it is crucial to choose a story that fits that goal in content, theme, and atmosphere. As a storyteller, I know a lot of stories and can craft a story with a specific goal in mind, but I also make use of story collections that are specifically built for this purpose.

You might want to look at the story collections of Susan Perrow (link to Amazon). She produced books with stories for challenging behavior, therapeutic healing stories, stories for dealing with grief, and more).

3. Storytelling to Stimulate Creativity and Imagination

At school, we try our best to prepare children for a future that does not exist yet, and that we don’t know yet. Have you ever thought about that?

To adapt and give form to their lives in such a new future, our students will need creativity and imagination to overcome new challenges.

One way to stimulate children’s creative problem-solving and imagination is by telling them imaginative / fantasy stories.

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Albert Einstein (supposedly)

Storytelling for Imagination

Children nowadays consume an enormous amount of visual stimuli. Audiovisual information flows prepackaged through tv, movies, and games, only slightly filtered into their minds. They don’t need much imagination to process this information because everything has already been imagined for them.

Use your imagination or lose it

Imagination is like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets. You lose your strength in this muscle when you don’t need to use it.

You need imagination to imagine yourself in a new situation, to imagine what it is like to be somebody else, to picture what is written in a text, and to look at things from a different perspective.

Oral Storytelling appeals to the imagination. You’re not giving the children any moving images. They need to make the images themselves while being told the story.

These images are multisensory: full of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Images are unique to every child because they are constructed from all the multisensory sensations a child has already experienced.

The more you call forth their inner imagination, the stronger they will be in seeing the story (or informational text) come alive before their inner eyes. When you can see what you are reading and create an inner image, you can understand it better.

Storytelling for Creativity

We teach children reading, writing, and math. Mostly skills you can test. Often skills in which each question has one and only one good answer. Think math problems, spelling, grammar, and reading words.

However, in real life, very few problems and challenges have only one solution.

Contrary to many school assignments, real life features mostly problems and challenges that have many possibe solutions.

Scientists and entrepreneurs, designers and police agents, teachers and psychologists are daily solving new problems and challenges. To do so, they need their creative and imaginative skills.

Characters often make unusual choices in fairy tales, myths, and other highly imaginative stories. In these stories, so-called impossible solutions save the day. They are full of examples for children to think ‘out-of-the-box’ and open up a space for their own new, inventive solutions.

Children open up to more creative and imaginative solutions by listening and experiencing such stories in their imagination.

Storytelling and the Creative Arts

Ever given children an assignment to draw, paint or construct something and gotten a blank stare back? Children that can’t think about what to do? I have.

I found that the solution often was to stimulate and awaken their imagination. You can do that easily by telling a (part of a) story that brings forth their own images in their head. And then help them take the step from these story images into the assignment.

For years I have been telling about how the people on George’s street built their own fantasy houses. Whenever I have told this story, almost all children are full of ideas for their own fantasy houses. After the story, it is easy to give them the assignment to draw, paint or build it.

When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.

Albert Einstein (supposedly)

4. Storytelling for Language Development

Let me summarize some key points related to different parts of language learning/development.

Storytelling and Speaking & Listening

Toddlers listen and listen and listen and then slowly start to talk. Listening is a prerequisite for speaking.

Storytelling gives the children in your classroom a chance to listen and immerse themselves in a story. Integrating storytelling into your curriculum also allows students to practice their speaking skills in a format (the story) that is native to how their mind works.

For practical suggestions, see Storytelling: Boosting Speaking & Listening.

Storytelling and Vocabulary

It’s hard to listen or read when there are many words you don’t know. It’s equally hard to speak and write when there are many words you can’t actively use. A student’s vocabulary plays a big part in many subjects.

Words are better learned, remembered, and used when they are taught in a context. Storytelling provides a rich, multisensory context in which new words and concepts can be more easily learned.

See also Oral Tales: Enriching Vocabulary Skills

Storytelling and Reading

We would love all students to read books because they have discovered how great an experience it is. We wish them to be drawn in by the characters, touched by the story, laughing from the humor, and shivering from the tension.

The reality is often different.

After children have learned to read, we often push them to read more and to read faster. We have the best intentions, but most children lose the fun of reading somewhere on this road.

Storytelling can help recapture the magic of the world hidden in books. Telling scenes of books might make students enthusiastic enough to read them for themselves.

For three years, I ran a program at a library. The central part of this program was retelling a few chapters of a great book. I always ended this telling with the question: “Who wants to borrow the book to know how it ends?” Invariably, all of them jumped forward.

Discover some more practical tips on how to use oral narratives to promote reading.

Storytelling and Writing

Some of them are writing like their life depends on it. Red cheeks, pencils are scratching on the white paper. You can hear their brains churning and almost see the steam blowing out of their ears.

Others, however, stare silently at the blank paper. One gets up to sharpen his pencil. Another fiddles with his eraser.

Do you recognize this?

Storytelling can help.

First, it would help many students to tell their stories orally before writing them down. And second of all, as a teacher, I can inspire the students with the first images they need to get their inspiration flowing. Thirdly, oral stories can provide a structure for writing their stories.

I offer more tips in this article about oral storytelling and writing.

5. Storytelling as a Didactic Tool

Stories are the main way we understand and make sense of life.

Because stories are the way we remember things, storytelling is often a great tool to share information, knowledge, and wisdom.

In these situations, storytelling works exceptionally well:

  • when you want to introduce a new subject/theme
  • when you want to activate the knowledge students already have concerning a subject
  • when you want to strengthen the connection of students to the subject
  • when you want to transfer new information that fits with the knowledge they already have

Is storytelling in the classroom always a good idea?

Trying to hammer in a nail with a screwdriver is not smart. Storytelling is one of the teachers’ tools, not the tool for every goal.

Exact skills are often not a good fit for storytelling. For example, subtracting big numbers or spelling words. Storytelling can even be distracting for students in this case.

6. Telling Stories Because of The Stories

At the beginning of secondary school, I had a teacher who told us a bible story each morning. So vivid and full of action, I still remember not only many stories but also the way he told certain scenes. Maybe you also remember such a teacher who could entrance you with stories?

A simple reason for telling stories is wanting your students to know the story.

Telling religious stories

I worked for seven years as a teacher at a Christian primary school. I was expected to tell the bible stories, which was great.

Many of these stories are great stories to tell because they come from an oral storytelling culture and have been told before they were written down.

Secondly, I knew most of those stories from my youth and time in church, so I only needed to refresh them.

Third, telling these stories regularly is a great way to become a better storyteller. You are lucky if you also work at a school where stories are important in the school’s curriculum.

Telling historical stories

I can still see him riding through the classroom on a horse, into the battle. We heard the metallic sounds of weapons; we felt the tension of the battle.

Historical stories are perfect for storytelling. In the past, great teachers of history were great storytellers.

💡 Are you an elementary school teacher? I have 30+ practical storytelling tips for elementary school teachers for you.

Storytelling in the classroom: what’s next?

So, now you understand the different goals you can accomplish with storytelling in the classroom. You can answer the question of your principal: “Why are you telling that story at that moment in your lesson?”

But more importantly, you have become a better teacher for knowing better why you do what you do, and you see more easily the opportunities for some great storytelling in the classroom.

Of course, often, you will be accomplishing multiple of these goals by telling one story. However, I recommend choosing a primary goal. It will give your storytelling and your lesson focus.

So. What’s next?

Go and tell a story in your classroom!

Do you want to find out more about storytelling first?

Check out my page about oral storytelling in school with the best books, websites, and research articles I have found so far.

Photo credits: 14995841 from Pixabay

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