I was an elementary school teacher for many years, primarily teaching 8, 9, and 10-year-olds. I told hundreds of stories to all elementary school ages as a storyteller.
These storytelling tips for elementary school teachers have all been tested in my and many other classrooms.
In my work with teachers, I find that some simple tips can make storytelling a (much) bigger success. Obviously, experienced teachers will already know and apply many of them.
I’ve tried to order these tips logically: preparing, telling, ending, and further development.
1. Follow the red thread of your story
You don’t need to memorize the whole story you want to tell. That’s too much work! Prepare by summarizing the story in 5-7 sentences in your own words. Or, if you like drawing, sketch the story in 5-7 scenes.
When you tell the story, this structure acts like a red thread. Just follow your red thread, and you will get from the start to the end.
2. Know your goals: why do you tell this story?
In the article ‘6 Goals of Oral Storytelling in the Classroom‘, I write about how my principal asked me this same question. I boiled all the possible answers to this question down to these six goals:
- Telling stories to build community
- Telling stories for social and emotional development
- Storytelling to stimulate creativity and imagination
- Storytelling for language development
- Storytelling as a didactic tool
- Telling stories because of the stories
3. Think about what your students need to know
When you tell a story, children make pictures in their heads.
However, they can’t make a picture of something they haven’t seen before. If they have never seen a castle, they can’t picture it in the story you tell them.
A little movie clip or a picture book can help to give them the pictures before they start listening to your story.
4. Remove distracting things to see
Children are easily distracted. They will mainly look at you and at what’s behind you.
So, what’s actually behind you?
Don’t stand before a digital board with a lot of distracting images. Don’t stand before a window. And, if possible, don’t stand before a clock.
5. Remove distracting things to hear
One of the main channels you use in telling stories is audio: your voice, your sounds.
Whenever possible, shut out the noise from the hall or from outside. You don’t want other things to compete with you and distract your listeners.
6. Check that you have enough time to tell the story
Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a great lesson when the signal sounded for a break? I have!
A quick check of the time available, before you start, might be the difference between a wonderful story and a story abruptly cut in half.
7. Give the students time to focus on you
Before you start telling a story, focus their energy on you and put them in ‘story listening mode.’ It involves letting them put their things away, sitting comfortably, and becoming silent to listen.
Don’t start your story if your students are not with you.
8. Make sure your students know how to behave
Maybe you want the children to be silent. Maybe you want them to actively respond, call out, stand, act out, etc.
Be aware of what behavior you, as a teacher, want and make sure they know. Sometimes, I tell them beforehand that I will tell a story to which they can silently listen; other times, I tell them I need their help, and there are many places in the story where they can join.
9. Use a storytelling ritual
Children love rituals. When you start telling a story the same way each time, they will automatically go into ‘storytelling mode.’
I often started with this call-and-response, but I have also used unspoken rituals:
- Teacher: I have a story!
- Students: Please tell, please tell!
- Teacher: Once upon a time…
- Students: … far, far away.
10. Give your students something to care for in the story
Avoid explaining a lot at the beginning of your telling. Minimize the background information.
Start with an action scene. Something exciting. Something scary. Something surprising. Something that makes them care.
You want them to be invested in how the story unfolds, so give them something to care about.
11. Make it interactive: ask questions
Children love to be part of the telling of the story. There are many ways to involve them; one is asking questions.
When you ask them a question, make sure it is straightforward.
If you ask a closed question, you can let them answer by raising their hands.
If you ask an open question, announce that you will pick three children to answer. Otherwise, all of them want to answer.
Involving children in the telling of the story is not a trick. If you ask them a question, they expect you to do something with their answers.
12. Make it interactive: let’s move!
Children love to move, and young children need to move.
In your story, you can include specific repetitive movements that you can all do together. Or you can make a moment when they all can ‘dance as the chicken danced.’
Ensure you have a friendly way to bring their attention back to you!
13. Sing together
Do you know a part of a song you could use in your telling? Or a verse you can teach them?
This works best when the song is short and straightforward, and you use it multiple times throughout your story.
14. Discover the fun of call-and-response
I use a lot of call-and-response in my storytelling.
A famous call-and-response that storytellers worldwide use is the Haitian ‘Cric!’, to which the listeners reply by calling out ‘Crac!’ (but only if they want to hear your story).
Like songs, you can use the same call-and-response throughout the story. They are usually a little easier to remember for children than songs.
15. Stand if possible
Your body speaks. Sitting down, you silence half of your body and confine yourself to a smaller space. So stand and use the area that you have. Don’t be afraid to be seen.
Exceptions are when talking to a small group or sitting in a circle with the youngest students.
16. Look your students in the eyes
Storytelling happens in connection. Tell your story to each student, looking them softly in the eyes and making actual contact. This can be scary, but it is essential.
I always try to tell each sentence to another student, looking them in the eyes and giving them the feeling that that sentence (and the story) is especially told to them.
Don’t miss the kids in the back!
17. Adapt your telling to your listeners
Are your students tired? Focused? Do they need to move? Do they want to add their suggestions to the story?
Don’t feel like you need to tell the story a certain way. You only need to tell it in such a way that it is a good fit for your students.
Storytelling is two-way communication. Listen to what your listeners send back and adjust accordingly.
18. Be alert to the ‘huh?’
When students are into your story, they often react to something they don’t understand. Often not aloud, but with their eyes or whole face.
When I notice this, I often repeat/explain in the following sentence what I just said without stepping out of the story.
“I slowly walked up to city hall.” (Huh?)
“Because I knew that city hall was that big building where I could find the mayor, the boss of the city.”
19. Don’t tell them everything
The more you tell your students, the less their creative minds have to work. Tell them less if you want them to be more involved in the story. Just enough.
And stay connected; when they look bewildered, you know you must tell more.
20. When you forget what’s next, don’t panic
There are three things you can easily do:
- Pause. Just give yourself some rest and time to think. Lean back a little. Stroll to another spot. Pick up your glass and drink a bit of water. And then pick up the story again.
- Ask the students how they think the story will continue. Give them a little time to think and react. And then pick up the story again if you have remembered.
- Tell the students you will finish the story after the break, in the afternoon, or the next day.
21. Expect the unexpected disturbances
A colleague will knock on your classroom door. A child will need to go to the toilet. A spider will descend from the ceiling.
Unexpected things happen. The best initial reaction is often to pause, to receive them as a surprise gift, and to think for a moment what you will do.
Generally speaking, there are three actions:
- When it takes all attention away from you, stop telling. Deal with the disturbance, get the attention back, backtrack, and continue.
- When it takes the attention away but will soon be solved, try to incorporate it in your telling.
- When only a few students react to it, try to ignore it.
22. Ignore what is possible to ignore
The deeper you are together in the story, the more your listeners will ignore what you ignore. That child wildly jumping up and down in the back of the classroom? Or the loud sounds in the distance?
Only give it attention when it has already taken all your students’ attention away from your telling.
23. Become a friend with silence
When you tell a story, three seconds of silence can feel like an eternity. But silence is oh so powerful before starting, after a scene, in an emotional moment, in building up tension. Learn to be comfortable in silence with your class. It supercharges your telling.
24. Let your students draw their own meaning
If you need to tell them afterward what your story was about, the story wasn’t very good. More importantly, children will quickly forget a lesson you give them but easily remember a lesson they took from the story themselves.
There are two exceptions. First, when you need the story lesson in the next assignment you are giving them. Second, for the youngest children, it can help to end with a clear moral.
25. Have a clear ending to your telling
You know when your story ends, but your students don’t. Make it clear to them with a strong last sentence, a nod, or a little bow. When they still don’t get it, you can always say something like: “And that’s the end of the story of ….”
Explain what’s next after giving your students some time to wind down.
26. End the monsters
For the youngest children, the division between reality and the story is not always so clear. So, if there was a big bad wolf in the story that did not die, it could easily be hiding under the child’s bed in the evening.
Ensure the monsters are dealt with when the story is finished—no need to take them home.
27. Give your students time to process
Some students immediately want to react to a story when it is finished. Others, however, need some more time to process the story. Generally speaking, it’s best to let the story rest a little. Later in the day or after a good night’s sleep, students often discover more meaning for themselves in the story.
28. Tell the same story again and again
A good story is like a good pair of boots. You need to break them in. Walk a little, walk a little more. And after a while, they will fit you perfectly, and you will happily walk in them.
When you work with younger children, they don’t mind to hear the same story more often. When you work with older children, at least you can tell your story for each new class you teach.
29. Find a simple way to save your stories
One about farm animals, one about friendship, one about Christmas, one about…Tell different stories and grow your repertoire over time.
An easy way to save the stories for next year is to write a summary in 5-7 sentences or sketches. Add a print or copy of the story itself to it.
Add all your stories to a folder and look through it before starting each new period.
30. Upgrade your storytelling skills
Every story you tell makes you a better storyteller.
However, if the storytelling bug has caught you, I recommend looking at this article about oral storytelling in school. It contains links to the best books, websites, and research articles I found online.
Are any storytelling tips for elementary school teachers missing?
As teachers, we both know that no day is the same in the classroom.
These tips are meant to give you some guiding principles; they don’t apply in every situation you will encounter. Trust your intuition.
I hope some of these storytelling tips for elementary school teachers were helpful to you. If so, feel free to share this article with your colleagues.
Photo credits: Pixabay