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Stories on the spot: introducing students to impromptu storytelling.

Fifty 1st-graders sat on the carpeted floor, entranced. Some did not move at all, and their mouths had fallen open. More were wriggling, absolutely unable to sit still as the suspense built. No one said a word during the scant minute it took the storyteller to slowly dangle the question, "And then do you know what happened?" As soon as that last syllable was whispered, a great noise suddenly gushed forth as the dam of enthusiasm broke loose into a torrent of responses. Some children knew just how to end the story right then. Others were ready with further complications or delicious ways to keep the story alive and going. It was evident that the children had a clear sense of the story's direction and what ought to happen. It was a magic moment for the storyteller as the children transformed from listeners to participants, becoming storytellers themselves. They had taken ownership of their own learning.

This scenario exemplifies the joy and satisfaction of storytelling - the moment when the audience becomes one with the story. Storytelling is not a skill that can be isolated. Rather, it is a complex and vibrant interactive experience. Its process contains three essential elements: the story itself, the teller of the tale and the audience (Colwell, 1983). Each ingredient is necessary to the mysterious potion called good storytelling. The mix creates something that is wonderfully more than the mere sum of the parts, something that is as old and deep as the human race itself. Hamilton and Weiss (1990) remind us that well-told stories can tap into our subconscious, and that storytellers have the power to make the "here and now disappear." It takes very little reflection and introspection for us to realize just how powerfully stories can affect our perceptions of the world. Storytelling, which speaks to us through the ages from nearly every known culture, is far from a lost art.

Children are natural storytellers. They build story frameworks to help themselves understand the world. They incorporate story scenarios into their play. Eavesdrop on young children's nearly plotless dramatic play and you will likely hear fragments, and even extensions, of familiar tales. The more that children are read to and hear stories, the more likely they are to slip story pieces into their play. But even those children who are not read to will spice their play with bits and pieces of stories they glean from television and other sources. By incorporating stories into their play, children demonstrate that they make sense of the world partly through stories, which they constantly accumulate and share as part of the culture.

Children show their fascination with stories when they try to imitate and initiate attempts at humor. After young children hear adults and older children telling jokes and riddles, many will soon try to duplicate the form. While the results of these attempts may be puzzling to adults and older children, the stories do make sense as experiments with the storytelling form. As Hart (1990) noted, the human brain is a pattern seeker. Young children will delight in riddles, for example, without quite understanding what actually makes one funny. They are usually enormously amused by and pleased with their own efforts at making riddles.

Few teaching experiences are more satisfying than telling stories to children. A teacher can see immediate appreciation in a child's excitement and interest. Storytelling provides a sense of scaffolding (Searle, 1984), or creating the supportive structures that children must have to give meaning to information. Furthermore, if teachers can help children become better storytellers themselves, they can help develop children's awareness of the logical and precise ways that events are sequenced. Storytelling experiences can help children become better observers, teaching them the importance of detail and description. In fact, elements of story may be the basic atoms of human comprehension and understanding. Nessel (1985) found that storytelling aids the development of those cognitive frameworks necessary for children to understand and remember what they have read, a view also supported by cognitive psychologists (Smith & Bean, 1983).

Children will naturally be fearful and insecure when they first try speaking in front of people. Educators should not let this deter them, however, because peer storytelling experiences are important. Children will learn a lot about storytelling just by listening to others' stories and by trying to tell their own. They should learn to laugh at each other and at themselves, not in derision but rather in shared enjoyment. Children also need to learn that "messing up" can make a story better. Many great storytellers have made their goofs permanent elements of their presentations.

Above all, no child should ever be so discouraged that he or she feels incapable of telling a story. It is an experience that everyone should enjoy. The very first thing that children need to learn about storytelling is that it can be an enjoyable and creative experience. Rudimentary formal instruction can begin when children want to know how to improve their storytelling skills. At that point, emphasize three fundamentals: know your story, love your story, live your story (Turner, 1990).

Early storytelling experiences should simply involve imitating the patterns of children's dramatic play. Impromptu storytelling activities offer broad possibilities for doing just that. Impromptu storytelling differs from most forms in that the stories are not learned and remembered tales, but rather are made up as they are told. They are the storyteller's instant creations, springing from his or her imagination.

Impromptu storytelling techniques can be creative and interesting ways to introduce young people to the adventure and allure of storytelling. Such techniques offer a number of advantages. Impromptu stories do not have to be learned, taking a lot of the work out of storytelling and making it easier to get started. They also alleviate the nervousness, bordering on sheer panic, that accompanies trying to remember and then tell a story. These on-the-spot storytelling experiences allow one to "goof up," say things that are "dumb" and incorporate elements just to be funny when nothing else comes to mind. The entire atmosphere is relaxed, open and accepting - the ideal setting to enjoy storytelling.

Impromptu storytelling sessions also allow the teacher to concentrate on teaching just a few things at a time about the process. A session could focus almost exclusively on expressive speech and descriptive language, for example. Students do not, at this point, have to worry about the story's plot development. Dorothy Heathcote (Wagner, 1976), who taught children through creative drama, used the expression "easing into drama" to describe the necessity of gradually trying a new and different activity.

Studying the American tall tale is one very effective way of preparing children for impromptu storytelling. Tall tales were, and continue to be, spur-of-the-moment whoppers, sometimes told to explain some natural wonder, and almost always told for fun. Once the students start feeling comfortable with this kind of exaggeration and understand its underlying humor, they can make an easy transition to impromptu storytelling techniques such as those that follow. Most of these activities can be used with a variety of grade and ability levels. Most are adaptable to any type of classroom as well as to less formal settings, such as campfire sessions. Such impromptu experiences can serve as warm-ups for a storyteller's performance or as lead-ins for creative writing, drama or oral discussion exercises.

* Sentence Stories. Prepare the students by starting a story in a familiar genre. Tall tales, fables or fairy tales work well. Ask each student to add a sentence to the story. A different twist can be added by having other students follow up by supplying a sound effect for each sentence; others can sing or hum background music.

* Name Tales. Start by making up very brief, far-fetched stories about how different students got their names. After modeling the technique for several students, involve the group in making up such stories.

* Problem-solving Episodes. This story approach helps children to think about solving problems with available resources. The task has two steps: 1) Ask the students to make a list of five items they would take with them if they were changing environments. Describe the change very specifically, complete with a distinct time/place setting. They might think about immigrating to America, moving west with a wagon train in the 19th century, or going to live in a different city or country today. 2) After they have made their list, think of some obstacles or problems that they might meet in their new circumstances. Have the students tell a quick little story explaining how they will overcome the obstacle by using one or more of the items they chose to bring. Obstacles for the immigration trip might include a storm at sea, problems with immigration authorities, becoming ill while on ship or not speaking the language. For the westward journey, they might have to contend with a swollen river crossing, a broken axle on their wagon, water shortages, a steep mountain to climb or losing the trail.

* "Every Day Is Special" Stories. Hand out calendars and have students pick dates (not holidays or birthdays) and make up a quick story about what makes that date special. Encourage them to make up fantastic events and far-fetched explanations. Give them an example like the following: "September 5 is Worldwide Fallen Apple Day. It is the anniversary of the event that caused Sir Isaac Newton to discover gravity. Apples everywhere pay tribute to the brave apple that took the plunge and gave apples their place in history. It is also Against Apples in History Day. Worms of the world march down roads carrying signs saying that they should get the credit for causing Newton's apple to fall."

* The Unusual Object. This technique is similar to the old game sometimes called "Dictionary," in which participants make up definitions for unfamiliar words. Bring an unusual object to class, one that you are fairly certain the students will not recognize. Ask the students to use their imaginations to make up a tale explaining some use for the object. Make sure that they understand they do not need to guess the real use. They have free rein. In fact, the more preposterous the idea, the better.

* Making an Object Unusual. Take an ordinary object that the students can see and touch and structure a stimulus for telling a story about it. Have the students imagine that the object is not at all what it appears to be. You might say, for example, "This is no ordinary chair. Do you know why? Actually, this chair once saved a person's life." Once you have set up the situation, ask several students to tell how such a thing might have happened.

* Food Stories. Encourage creative explanations for particular meals. The catalyst may be an example like the following: "Do you know what I had for breakfast? I had a bedbug omelet. Just before I went to bed, my mother said to me, 'Don't let the bedbugs bite.' Well, those little critters just chomped away on me all night long. So, come morning, I scooped up all of them, took them downstairs, mixed them with three eggs and cooked them into the prettiest omelet you ever saw. It was delicious!" You can add as much "grossness" as you can stand. (The students will "eat" it up.) You can also experiment with exaggeration: "For breakfast, I had 2 1/2 dozen eggs, 3 pounds of bacon, 16 pancakes, a mixing bowl full of oatmeal with 16 bananas, and one strawberry." You can also add locational elements. "If I could go anywhere in the world for lunch, I would go to Hawaii for the freshest, sweetest pineapple in the world, where I would eat it in the shade of a coconut palm tree on Waikiki Beach." The students can model their own food stories from whatever example you give.

* Picture Stories. Show a variety of pictures to the group and use them as springboards for stories. Begin by asking the students to describe what they see and what they think is happening in a picture. Then have them use their imaginations to create fantastic connections. A photograph of an individual, for example, might inspire a story about a distant relative who lived an unusual life. What made it unusual? Well, that is where the story starts. Pictures of animals could be the basis for unusual pet stories.

* Grab Box Stories. Fill a box with various objects, pictures, cards, etc. Pass the box around and have everyone take an object from the box and make up a quick story about it. As an alternative, write down names of various objects on cards and have each student draw a card and make up a quick story about the object named. The items might be books, toys, articles of clothing, ticket stubs, old snapshots, school supplies - anything goes.

* Finish the Plot. Have some outsiders (other teachers, parents, friends) stage a simple drama at the beginning of the session. The drama will present the "end of a story." It can be as simple as two people shaking hands, a group tiptoeing out of the room or one individual walking into the room and making a sudden loud noise. Once the mini-drama is finished, tell the students that it was the final scene of a play. Ask them to describe the events that preceded that final scene.

Storytelling is experiencing a great revival today. Storytelling festivals are held at the local, state and national levels. Traveling storytellers often go to school and community events, and storytelling contests for students are becoming more common. Arbuthnot's (1964) observation from more than 30 years ago is still true:

It seems that the art of storytelling is far from dead. It may have moved from the fire lit cabin to the florescent-lighted classroom or the marble corridors of a museum or some other equally unlikely spot, but the old, old art of storytelling still has its power to charm. (Arbuthnot, 1964, p. 377)

The truth is that part of storytelling's power has always been its interactivity. Impromptu storytelling is one of the ways that story listeners can put their understanding of story to work and become storytellers themselves.


Arbuthnot, M. H. (1964). Children and books (3rd ed.). Chicago: Scott Foresman and Co.

Colwell, E. (1983). What is storytelling? Horn Book, 59, 279-86.

Hamilton, M., & Weiss, M. (1990). Children tell stories: A teaching guide. Katona, NY: Richard C. Owen.

Hart, L. (1990). Human brain and human learning. Oak Creek, AZ: Books for Education.

Nessel, D. D. (1985). Storytelling in the reading program. The Reading Teacher, 38, 378-381.

Searle, D. (1984). Scaffolding: Who's building whose building? Language Arts, 64, 480-483.

Smith, M., & Bean, T. W. (1983). Four strategies that develop children's story comprehension and writing. The Reading Teacher, 37, 295-393.

Turner, T. N. (1990). Stand up and cheer. Chicago: Scott Foresman.

Wagner, B. J. (1976). Dorothy Heathcote: Drama as a learning medium. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Resource Addresses

American Storytelling Resource Center. 1471 Chantacleer Ave., Santa Cruz, CA 95062 (408-475-8939).

Story Telling World. East Tennessee State University, Box 70647, Johnson City, TN 37614-0647.

National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling. Box 112, Jonesboro, TN 37659 (615-753-2171).

Thomas N. Turner is Professor, College of Education, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Tommy Oaks is a recent Doctoral Graduate of the University of Tennessee, and a freelance speaker and storyteller.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Association for Childhood Education International
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Author:Oaks, Tommy
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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