Speaking and listening are some of the earliest skills we pick up in life. How does storytelling in school help students to become better speakers and listeners?
After writing an article about the Goals of Oral Storytelling in the Classroom, I wanted to write more practical advice about improving speaking and listening skills through storytelling.
The importance of listening skills
As a primary school teacher, I know the importance of listening.
- Language learning starts with listening. Toddlers listen and listen and listen… and slowly start to talk. Listening is a prerequisite for speaking.
- Listening makes the difference between understanding what to do and being clueless about what is happening.
- Reading comprehension skills build on understanding what you hear.
- Listening to another person benefits your comprehension, vocabulary, and empathy.
The role of active listening in storytelling
When children listen to a story, it might seem like they are not very active. However, inside their heads, the neurons are firing. Scientific research shows that the circuits activated when you actually smell a scent, are the same as when you hear about it and imagine it.
Storytelling promotes active listening because it involves co-creating your own unique version in your own head. You can’t just listen to a story; you are a partner in the process of experiencing it.
Many times, after telling a long story, I have asked students to describe a character in the story. Invariably, they had different hair colors, different skill colors, different clothes, etc.
They had actively created their own version of the story by listening.
How oral storytelling enhances speaking skills
Speaking skills are like any other skill: you need to practice to become better at it.
Because our mind thinks in stories, and from a young age, students tell stories, oral storytelling is the easiest form of ‘public speaking’ for students.
Regularly letting children tell stories helps them:
- overcome their fears of speaking up
- increase their awareness of the structure of stories
- increase their awareness of what their speaking does to their listeners
- grow in confidence
Sure, there are other forms of speaking (presentation, debate), but oral storytelling is fundamental to human beings. Why not use that?
3 Storytelling activities boosting speaking and listening
Let me give you three suggestions on how to work on speaking and listening in the classroom. We will start at the beginning of the week and end after school is finished.
1. Practicing speaking and listening in the circle
It’s Monday. Students can’t wait to tell what happened on the weekend. They want to speak! Of course, you go with this flow. And you also give them clear goals to work on.
Een great activity to get as many students involved as possible is the Inside Outside Circle. Let the students make two circles and team up in pairs. See video.
Step 1: Warming up
Give your students some time to think. They are to choose one thing that happened on their weekend to tell about. It can be something simple.
Give them the time to tell these little stories to each other. When finished, all students have told and listened to a story.
Step 2: Give them a goal
All children in the inner circle pass to the right. Now everybody has a new partner.
Let them tell the same story, but give them a specific goal to work on. They get time to think about how they can work on that goal.
- Show with your body language that you are (interested / not interested).
- Use your hands to make gestures when telling the story.
- Take pauses in telling the story.
- Change your emotions in telling the story (sad, angry, happy, etc.).
Pro tip: you can ask experienced students to retell the story they just heard as if it happened to them.
Step 3: Evaluate
Let the students express what they have experienced in this exercise. Point out some interesting things you saw and heard.
2. Listening and summarizing the story in a schema
Oral stories have clear structures. They are excellent for practicing summarizing a text in a simple schema.
Tell a story and give your students the assignment to put it on paper so they can retell the story a week later.
A folktale that lends itself well to this exercise is the folktale of The Runaway Pancake (link to Prof. D. L. Ashliman’s folktale website).
Students will choose different ways to summarize this story on paper. Some will draw, others will write words. Talking through their way is as important as the exercise of doing it.
3. Debate about a story
A story allows the students to empathize with the characters much more than giving them just an opinion to defend.
Stop your telling of the story at a crucial moment. What should the main character do now? How do you think the story will end?
Only finish the story at the end of the day or the next day. The students will continue thinking about it and processing the story.
Extra: Challenge them to tell a story at home!
“Dear boys and girls, I have an impossible assignment for you—something you can never do. Well… maybe you can. I will only tell you a new story when you have succeeded!
Every time you have retold this story to somebody who does not know it yet, write them down on this list with your name.
I will tell a new story only when there are 20 names on the list. Of course, you will never succeed!”
When I was a teacher and did this in my classroom, usually more than half of the class told the stories at home. I was surprised by how much some children liked it and told the story many times to different groups of people.
I hope I have inspired you to use storytelling to boost your classroom’s speaking and listening skills.
I wrote a few articles on how storytelling can help with other language skills. You might like them too:
- Oral Tales: Enriching Vocabulary Skills
- Oral Narratives for Reading Development (to be written)
- Inspiring Young Writers with Oral Stories (to be written)