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Have we lost the art of great storytelling?

Have we lost the art of great storytelling?

Storytelling may be as old as the hills but it remains one of the most effective tools for teaching and learning. A good story can make a child (or adult) prick up their ears and settle back into their seat to listen and learn. But despite the power a great story can have, storytelling has an endangered statusin the classroom – partly due to a huge emphasis on “active learning” in education. This is the idea that pupils learn best when they are doing something – or often, “seen to be doing” something.

Any lesson in which a teacher talks for 15 or more uninterrupted minutes would be regarded today as placing pupils in too passive a role. Indeed, even in English lessons teachers now very rarely read a whole poem or book chapter to pupils. When it comes to teaching in the classroom, children tend to retain more knowledge when they can connect it with a classroom activity. One of the most common classroom activities is storytelling. Children love listening to their teachers telling stories. While they listen, they begin to focus and follow the story through until its end.

As a teacher, this is exactly what you want: a way to centrally focus the thirty children you have sitting in front of you. Once one child follows, it’s surprising how one by one, every child will settle down and listen.

These are five ways teachers can use Storytelling in the Classroom


When you know you are trying to teach a difficult concept, teach your class with a story of how you managed to understand and remember the concept when you were in their shoes. Explaining the theory of gravity is a hard concept for students to grasp, but by telling a story, they may understand that although we are visibly fixed firmly to the ground, there are forces of gravity constantly working against us.


At the start of a lesson, use a story as a way of introducing a new topic that might fit your topic. Do remember that copied material, whether it’s written text or the spoken word, should not be used in its original form as you may be breaching copyright rules.


Occasionally, straight figures and facts don’t necessarily make for easy understanding, so throw in a narrative to help your class retain these hard facts.


As young people progress through their early years, listening skills become increasingly important, and there’s no better way to improve attention span and listening skills than by telling stories to keep them attentive. Of course, as useful as storytelling is, the stories should be relevant to the curriculum material for students to reap any benefits.


Many kids these days are completely turned off old-fashioned textbooks and even sitting behind a computer screen does not help much. However, storytelling with a useful theme may engage the more lethargic learner. These are the students who you may engage the most if you throw in a few interesting stories to keep them motivated.

At the end of the storytelling session get your class to think about the story, come up with exercises that will allow them to apply what they have learnt, and encourage discussion.This will allow them to interpret what they have learnt, flag up any misunderstandings, and allow you to be sure that the children have taken away what you had hoped from the session.

Be Creative.

Use different facial expressions, and voices or accents to keep children engaged and interested throughout. Using aids and prompts when storytelling, or even better, creating role play areas in the classroom with props, costumes or puppets so that children can explore a story you’ve read to them through role play is another fantastic way of fully immersing them in the story and encouraging them to think more meaningfully about it. Anything you can think of that will keep the class interested and entertained will benefit you and keep everyone focused on what you are trying to teach them.

Teaching, particularly in the humanities, before the 1960s, was heavily dependent on storytelling by teachers. A teacher would give a class, say, an account of the English Civil War, based on her/his own knowledge, reading and imagination.

The teacher would try to bring the febrile context, the battling causes, and the battles themselves to life. She might add an anecdote of her own visit to a village in which Charles I was said to have hidden out. The pupils would then write their own individual accounts of the history – the story – they had just heard, perhaps “from the perspective of a common foot-soldier”. These are certainly some of the lessons I remember most from my school days and which, I am sure, contributed not only to my knowledge and understanding but also to my interest and enthusiasm.

Clearly, this approach has many limitations. There was often very little scope for critical discussion and pupils were over-reliant on their teachers’ view of events. But we mustn’t lose sight of the value of what was happening in those classrooms. Pupils had the chance to become deeply absorbed in a context that was utterly alien to them – and their life experience was extended. Their imaginations were able to stitch this exotic second-hand experience to their library of personal experiences. In their retellings, they were never “just” copying, but making sense and interpreting.

Influential educational thinkers such as Jerome Bruner have recognised the deep, contextually embedded, multi-layered learning that a story enables as a form of knowledge in its own right.  And in this way, the storytelling of teachers and the storytelling of pupils can nourish each other. So if you are thinking of using storytelling to help your pupils to learn, now is the perfect time to start.

Mike Hodgkiss

Mike Hodgkiss has 36 years teaching experience in the secondary sector, twenty years as a deputy head in an 11-18 comprehensive school in Essex. He was a governor of a primary school for several years. He has led and coordinated training for staff in many aspects of teaching, learning and leadership not just in this country but in Europe too. He has written for EuroSchoolNet on international and citizenship projects and for ASCL's leadership magazine. He is currently editor of @Teachtalks.

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