National Story-telling Week Special: How To Tell Stories Like A Pro



“The Story – from Rumpelstiltskin to War And Peace – is one of the most basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but no societies that did not tell stories.” Ursula K. Le Guin

We all know that stories are powerful teaching tools. I used to base most of my teaching around a story, as do many primary school teachers.

The secrets behind good storytelling

Some people are born to tell stories, while the rest of us sort of…grow into it.  Luckily for those of us that have children, or who work with children, we have plenty of practice with an eager and non-critical audience! To me, telling a story is drama. I do not pretend to be anything more than a sub-mediocre actress, but I feel I’ve certainly learned some things about what good story-telling/acting involves. And – to me – it is these four things:

1. Props!

Puppets, real or artificial objects, masks, wigs, books, or any other visual aid. These are best pulled out of a bag or box to maintain suspense. We all love a surprise, and we all love to put “clues” together to guess what might be coming next.  And babies and children are no different.

2. Voices

Varying the pitch, volume and quality of your voice for different characters or to convey emotions helps to clarify the meaning of the story you are telling.  It also helps children to begin to understand the feelings and motivations of the different characters, something that will help them develop good emotional intelligence.

3. Timing

You can build suspense and keep your little listeners on your toes with a dramatic pause before something exciting is about to happen.

4. Body Language

A simple action to support your words – such as a wiggly arm for a snake, or arms wide for daddy bear’s big bowl –  can help your little listener to understand what’s happening in the story.

I am no drama expert, but I think that, if you can start using those four things, you can tell a story as well as the best of them!

Telling stories with books

I reckon the best place to start if you are new to story-telling, is to use the books you are already reading to your baby, toddler or child. Have a go doing different voices, raising and lowering your voice and pausing before a significant moment in the story to ask “what happens next?” Or “what animal is on the next page?”. If there is a “bump” in the story, make sure you make it an emphatic “bump”.

Create suspense by pausing before you turn the page or lowering your voice to just a whisper before revealing what happens.

Of course, your baby may be teeny tiny and not actually answer yet, but I’ve found that T really responds to me using all these “tricks” – I can tell by his facial expression that he is engaged and interested.

Telling stories without books

If you are already doing the above (which is very likely if you are a parent!) the next step really is to try telling some stories without a book.

Obviously, you will need to choose some stories that you know very well.  The stories you know will depend on your background, cultural experiences and nationality.  It doesn’t matter if these stories are new to your little one, because you will have plenty of chances to repeat them, and she will love the repetition!

Below is a list of the stories I plan to tell over the next few months. I’ve chosen them as they are simple and repetitive, and involve concepts and things that T is familiar with, such as size, numbers and colour, animals, fruit and houses. Some are traditional fairy tales and some are stories T knows well from books:

The Three Little Pigs
The Gruffalo
Goldilocks and The Three Bears
The Three Billy Goats Gruff
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Walking Through The Jungle
Handa’s Surprise
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
Room On The Broom

Different Ways To Tell A Story

The brilliant news for us all is that there are SO many cool ways to tell a story! Here are just a few that I can think of.

  • Acting out the story (whilst chanting the words) – a great book for doing this is We’re Going On a Bear Hunt
  • Using puppets to tell the story – popping up from behind a box, or with other props – such as a little bridge for the Billy Goats Gruff
  • Using instruments to represent different sounds in the story
  • Using a flannel board with felt pieces (as I have done in the picture above – I used puppets too as I already had them, but you could easily make the characters out of felt).  A flannel board is SO quick and simple to make – all you need is a cork board or artist’s canvas, some fleece in any colour, and a staple gun to attach it.  Click on the highlighted words “flannel board” above to read an excellent tutorial on how to make one of these.  Then you just make some simple shapes to represent your story out of felt. I love a creative idea that is quick and versatile.  This took me one lunch hour to make, and I can keep adding different stories, so it will last for a while yet.
  • Using small world characters and a story boxI love story boxes – they are so easy to make and you can use whatever materials you have to hand.  If you have an older child, you can have so much fun collecting all the materials for the box.  Story boxes are great for encouraging children to make up their own stories, but can also be used to recreate familiar tales.
  • Modelling the story from play-dough or plasticine – this is best done with older children and is a wonderfully tactile and creative way to tell a story.  The process of making the characters, setting and props helps cement the story into the child’s memory.

How will story-telling benefit my child?

Here are the many ways that regular story-telling sessions will enrich your child’s education:

1. It will develop their imagination

Telling a story without a picture book (or at least with-holding some of the pictures and either revealing them later or just missing them out altogether) really helps fire up your child’s imagination. Instead of being fed the images in the story, they have to visualise what  – for example – the pigs, the wolf and their three little houses look like, and the setting of the story.

2. It will improve their memory skills

As you are telling a story, you can ask questions that encourage children to think back to what happened earlier. This – as well as the act of recounting the story themselves, without a book to prompt them – helps develop their memory.

3. It will develop their creative and language skills

When you are telling a story, you are in charge. You can get children to predict what might happen next, or come up with their own ending. Throughout the story-telling session, you can stop and ask children to describe (eg.) grandma’s house, what the giant’s castle looked like or what was in Red Riding Hood’s basket. This helps develop their creativity, their vocabulary and their language skills.

4.  It will improve their listening skills

Story-telling improves children’s listening skills. It is less passive than reading a picture book aloud. Children need to actively listen to the story, and visualise the story in their head to understand what is happening.

5. It is fun!

This ought to be number one really. Story-telling is FUN – both for the listener and the story-teller. It is like going on a series of little adventures together, where each time, the journey is different.

What stories will you be telling your little ones this week? And how will you tell them? What is your child’s favourite story? Do you have your own little tips for making familiar stories more fun and interactive?  Have you made your own felt board or story box? 

If so, don’t be shy, lovely readers!  I know your creative brains will be buzzing with all sorts of ideas for story-telling activities.   And I and my readers would love to hear them.  Let’s share our stories!

A Happy National Story-Telling Week to all!

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