Reading and writing? Let’s start with storytelling.
Before we made marks we made sounds. In the formation of humankind storytelling predates any form of written communication. The entire histories of civilizations were passed down through stories prior to written communication. While we do not pass down history in this manner any longer, it is still one of the most valuable ways to learn culture, societal norms, and skills.
When we thinking of children’s development we all know that naturally speaking would come before holding a pencil, why then do we as a norm in this country continue to push down the age we expect children to be mark marking: with 4 now being a National Curriculum goal for children to “use a pencil and hold it effectively to form recognisable letters, most of which are formed correctly. Write own name and other things such as labels and captions” These children might not have really navigated their own bodies, their own speech. I would argue that our national obsession with age related goals hurts not harnesses children’s potential.
So many children by the time they are rising 7 already feel like they are failing, disengaging with learning because it is not filled with wonder and excitement. Research tells us that children who read in their primary school years do better then, but also continue to be better in education right through University and beyond. For me that doesn’t mean the highest grades or the exclusive pursuit of Maths and English: but being an engaged learner.
Engaged in their own education.
Building a love of reading is critical to building a love of education: creating a foundation in stories is one of the ways children can navigate through their education independently. Storytelling opens this door- inviting them to become lovers of literature. If we want children to love reading first we must help them to love stories.
Let us first invite and nurture children to love stories, listening to stories, making stories up, acting stories out, eventually wanting to read stories – then – let’s invite them to write those stories down and see the eagerness within the children to learn the skills need to do that; as they thirst to share their own stories with the world.
Stories have been used, always, to reinforce and guide social and cultural concepts. Look at the storytelling employed in propaganda, guiding the group norms of entire countries. Storytelling is still very much alive in our cultures, around the word, we see it now taking different forms but it is still there, ever present. The Brothers Grimm, Aesop, Hans Christian Anderson and countless others began their careers as storytellers rather than book writers. Many of them took stories that had been passed on to them and created new written forms of old stories. These stories remain popular because of that key wisdom in them, the balance of architypes in the characters and the lessons learned on the heroine’s journey. These stories were not invented by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm or Aesop. They were merely told by them. These stories have always been used to demonstrate the morals and ethics that society expected others to live by, even if they were not fables.
Teaching through Storytelling
In the Waldorf tradition storytelling is used extensively. Topics are often introduced to a class by a story, then after the children have slept, they will recall and begin earnest work on that topic.
The cross curricular approach of Waldorf Schools or International Baccalaureate schools can be seen in this element, while the story theme and topic might be about dwelling around the world or mathematics, children are also learning vocabulary, grammar and structure concepts. Language also demonstrates structure of the linguistic patterns of stories. They can learn sentences, paragraphs, and vocabulary. Unfamiliar words and phrases can help children strengthen vocabulary and reading skills. They learn to ask questions about meaning or usage.
In our home we don’t only read classics, as the children have got older, writers like Dr. Seuss or CS Carol are phenomenal for learning word play. Both have so many fictitious words and use words in ways that children can understand so that they recognize that it is not a real word or phrase. This may not seem like a way to teach grammar, but because of the way that others use language, children as young as three can identify when things are used incorrectly.
Therapeutic stories are also a wonderful tool in the parenting basket and one I have used extensively. There is a wonderful book Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour (Early Years) by Susan Perrow, I would love this book renamed because for a while I read ‘challenging’ like naughty and so resisted it! It’s not, she means all the hard situations: also in the book she teaching you ways to construct your own stories for your children which I’ve found invaluable.
Imagination in learning and tomorrow’s workforce
Let’s talk about imagination how can imaginative thinking help skills like English? What we’re talking about is a bigger question how could the world develop to meet today’s challenges without imagination. Imagination is one of the most critical skills to develop in children. Imaginative thinking is what large employers are looking for in future employees, it’s the spark inside us that turns an idea into a business.
Imagination is part of our soul-purpose as human beings. I love the idea that we could encourage creativity into core English curriculum blocks: I love the idea of a child coming to their desk and rather than being confronted with flat worksheets seeing an opportunity for them to create something truly original, and being valued for doing so.
Human voices in a digital world
Let us not underestimate the importance of children, young and old hearing our human voice. More than that seeing an animated human: being alive and engaged with a story. When we tell a story we are rooted in the imaginative: that place of endless possibilities – seeing adults cross with easy from this physical world to the extraordinary world of imagination can take children on that journey too. Learning the invaluable skills of visualisation and free thought as they journey.
Language, social norms and cultural skills can be learnt through storytelling. When we are introducing a new skill to students or covering a new topic, vivid and enlivened storytelling can reach the children on an imaginative level. As the question and replay the story, characters, and words in their minds eye they will naturally be learning and recalling the academic skills and information.
On a human level stories build connections, between the teller and listener, between the content and the imagination. It is critical we weave stories into the pattern of our children’s learning to enable them to fully experience and engage with learning.