Children all over the world love listening to stories. If told the right way the stories draw them into a different world, where they freely associate the setting and the characters.
„The stories you have been listening to are very, very old;
many centuries, even thousands of years old.
Today those stories have been alive – because you have been here to listen to them. Now it is your task to keep those stories alive by going out into the world,
and telling them to other people!“
The original workshop by Richard Martin
It was in early July 2017 when I heard Richard Martin say this, at the University of Education Karlsruhe. The British storyteller (and former teacher) conducts workshops all over the world sharing his experiences and expertise in how to tell tales. Prof. Martin regularly invites him to our university to do a workshop about Storytelling for young learners for the students – soon-to-be English teachers. Hanna, Lara, Lea, and I – members of Team V – joined the workshop, alongside many other PH-students. For us it was another important part of our preparation for our work in Laos.
In Laos we give didactic and methodological support to the local English teachers of our three partner schools and one partner college. We also teach general General English, speaking (fluency), grammar (accuracy), and pronunciation to our tandem-teachers.
In order to bring in some change and variation to our tandem-teachers’ English lessons, we first observe their lessons and then offer new, interesting teaching techniques and explain or demonstrate how to incorporate them into the EFL-classroom (English as a Foreign Language) on an everyday basis. We then tandem-teach their classes together until our partners feel ready to use the new techniques on their own.
As additional encouragement for variety and professionalization, each volunteer also offers one afternoon workshop during their stay, where we get the chance to work on linguistic, intercultural, didactic, or methodological topics together in depth.
Richard Martin’s request – tell stories! – and the way he told the stories inspired me to hold a workshop based on his ideas myself, for our Lao teachers.
My Storytelling workshop in Laos
I hosted the workshop on Monday, the 6th of November 2017, in the Lending Library of Ban Sikeud primary school after school had ended and most of the children had gone. The workshop took place in the very same building where Richard Martin himself had shared a storytelling session early in 2016. I had invited the two English teachers of Ban Sikeud primary school, Ms Mittaphone “Mit” Sichampa, and Ms Phovang “Noy” Inthavong, as well as Ms Bounpheng Singhalath, the English teacher at Ban Phang Heng primary school.
I started the workshop by telling a story myself in order to raise my audience’s interest in the topic. I first lit a candle indicating that story-time had begun (which they immediately noticed) and changed my voice into „storytelling voice“, speaking much more clearly and slowly and adjusting the intonation, pitch, volume, and speed of my voice to fit each unique character. I also kept my body relatively still, so as not to distract from my words, and for poise. After telling the story „The Frightened Mouse“ I blew out the candle and switched to my regular „teaching voice“ again.
The warm-up phase
For a short warm-up activity I then divided Ms Mit and Ms Noy into one group of partners A and B and Ms Bounpheng and Lea, who is Ms Bounpheng’s tandem-teacher, into another group of partners A and B. First, partner A had to talk for 60 seconds about a topic that I had pre-chosen, in this case „weekend activities“. This might sound easy, but it can really be challenging: It requires vocabulary and forces one to continuously keep talking in English without being allowed to stop. After partner A is finished, it is partner B’s turn to talk about another topic, for example „a day at school“.
Warm-ups enable the students to become comfortable in the new learning situation. They can provoke a positive attitude and foster interest.
The follow-up activity
The follow-up activity focused on the body language of the teller. Whoever tells a story uses his or her body and more explicitly his or her gestures and facial expressions to “illustrate” (semanticize) and contextualize, in order to deliver a more comprehensive understanding of the story. Thus, it is important to pay attention to one’s face, hands, body, and even feet. I therefore told the story „The Frightened Mouse“ one more time, and this time the teachers had to observe my performance closely and write down their observations and impressions.
When I had prepared the workshop I was not sure if the variations that I had intended to be noticed – from “teaching voice” to “storytelling voice” – would actually be registered by the teachers.
However, I was positively surprised, because they did note my body language (for “far distant land” or “small mouse”, for example), and the changes in my voice, my facial expressions (e.g. wide open eyes when saying the word “magic”), and the way I was securing their attention by lighting the candle.
Mit also noticed that I did not use any pictures for visualization of the story. This supports the children’s imagination and ensures that the children do not lose track of the plot. They closely follow – “read” – what happens in my face and voice.
Afterwards I added further tips for preparing a story:
- Do not learn the text by heart, but find its logical structure. Use a “skeleton” of the most important key-words of the story (up to 10 words).
- Rehearse the story! Tell it to a friend or another teacher to get some practice.
- Do not overuse descriptive detail! Otherwise children could get bored or distracted because they do not understand the details.
- Do not be afraid of mistakes! Mistakes are a natural part of spontaneous communication, so do not panic.
- As a little help: Learn only the first and last line by heart. This can give you a lot of confidence as you then know how to start and how to end your story.
- And lastly, Richard Martin’s golden rule: Never tell with the text in your hand. You will lose touch with the listeners. (Martin, 2017)
But when it boils down to it, according to Richard Martin, there are only two rules for Storytelling:
Rule 1: There are no rules for Storytelling except rule 2.
Rule 2: Don’t read.
I told the story “The Frightened Mouse“ one last time so that each teacher could write down a “skeleton” in order to then be able to freely tell the story themselves. By knowing only the logical structure of the story one builds one’s own sentences and speaks much more freely.
A skeleton for the story “The Frightened Mouse“ could look like this, for instance:
mouse, cat, dog, horse, tiger big – bigger
frightened – proud
asked – changed – did not say – thank you
Now that each teacher had written down a skeleton we discussed the 6-10 words they had chosen. Had they found the most important words of the story in order to be able to retell it themselves? There is no better way to find out than by trying it out!
So they retold the story in partner-work. When telling a story one always has to step out of one’s comfort zone and behave in an extrovert manner, which is especially hard for the shy Laotians. This is why I chose the first presentation to be delivered to only one partner, not the entire group, as a first step towards becoming a storyteller. This worked out well because they gradually enjoyed telling the story more the more often they repeated it.
“If you want to be a storyteller, tell stories! If you want to become a better storyteller, tell more stories!”
As a final task they now had to work on a new story on their own. I chose the tales “The Giant Turnip“ and “The Noisy House“, as both stories are suitable for the young learners that Ms Mit, Ms Noy, and Ms Bounpheng teach: The vocabulary is not abstract and there are no cultural barriers that could cause confusion on the children’s side. I handed out a script containing all of the stories of the workshop so they would be able to practise independently.
Firstly the teachers read out the stories to their partners. Then each teacher wrote down a skeleton, which provided the basis for retelling the story. After some practice time I asked one of the two partners to volunteer to present the story in front of everybody.
Ms Mit presented „The Giant Turnip“ and Ms Bounpheng „The Noisy House“.
I was really satisfied with the results. Our tandem-teachers might have needed a little more time to practise in order to speak even more freely, but they did really well. Hanna, who is Ms Mit’s and Ms Noy’s tandem-teacher, will now continue with this topic in her teacher-lessons. Lea and Ms Bounpheng also told the story „The Noisy House“ in their English class during the following week.
„Above all, storytelling is a skill to be experienced and worked on practically. Just as you cannot learn to swim by reading a book, the only way to improve as a teller is to tell.“
In the end I rewarded everyone by telling one more story myself – “The Old Woman who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle“ (cf. note 1) – so our tandem-teacher-friends could relax and listen to a story one more time before we all headed to the Villa and had a delicious dinner together.
All of the stories mentioned and many more can be found on Richard Martin’s website, where he also uploads new tales and videos on a regular basis.
Overall I can say that all participants had a lot of fun listening to the stories and telling them themselves, which is what storytelling is all about. I am very happy about the outcome and hope the tips help them to step out of their comfort zone once in a while and try something new in their classrooms – like telling a story.
Text by J. Porscha
Photos & videos by V. Golla
Martin, Richard (2000). The Strongest of Them All – Tales and Music for Young Learners (Cornelsen ISBN 3-464-04006-2).
Martin, Richard (2003). “The frightened mouse: How to tell a participation story in class 4” (Primary English 1/2003), p. 20-21.
Martin, Richard (2002) “Discussing Mr Fox” (Humanising Language Learning http://www.hltmag.co.uk/jul02/sart6.htm) (last accessed on 12/26 )
Martin, R. (2017). “Storytelling for young learners”. Handout 12 skeletons [hard copy], page 8.
Note 1: “Vinegar-bottle” is the British name for a narrow house with one room upstairs, one downstairs.