Storytelling at School

Kristin Wardetzky
Translated by Siobhán Parkinson

Imagine the scene: 27 first-class pupils come storming into the classroom, pushing each other, falling over each other, shouting, laughing, yelling – a right ruaille-buaille The teacher appears in the doorway. ‘Five minutes at the most,’ she says reassuringly to the storyteller at her side. ‘That’s the most they can manage. After that, there’ll have to be something else.’

The storyteller stands in front of the children. Under the eye of the teacher, they go to their places and sit down. There is still unrest. But now it’s in the children’s hands – their fingers are tapping, kneading, fiddling with pencils, rubbers, pencil-cases.

The storyteller waits. She nods at the teacher, who greets her briefly, but she waits another moment. At last she begins to speak in a soft voice: ‘In a land far, far away …’

‘Turkey,’ one boy calls out.

‘Ghana,’ shouts another.

‘… Grandpa lives,’ suggests a third.

‘Oh, I think it’s a lot further than Turkey. Further than Ghana. It’s a country that is so far away that the sun can hardly find it in the morning…’


‘Star Wars land!’

‘Shoot them dead!’

They are all shrieking out wildly.

‘… there lived two children. They were just about your age. Five or six years old?’

Affirmative nods from the children. They start to swing back on their chairs, they’re wriggling, slithering, there’s more noise.

‘And these two children were poor, very poor.’

Sudden silence. Not a sound. The children are spellbound.

‘And one morning, their mother was looking all over the house, to see if she could find a crust of bread. But there was nothing. No matter how hard she looked, not a crumb was to be found.’

The children are hooked. They’re following the storyteller’s every move with their eyes, mouthing her words after her. When the storm bursts in the door of the hut, they duck. When the leaves turn into cake at the end, so that the poor people are always going to have enough to eat, they lick their lips with satisfaction. And after twelve minutes, they clap and call for ‘More! More!’

Nine months later. The first year of school is almost over. The storyteller comes into the same class. Once a week, for nine months, she has told fairy tales to this class. The change is remarkable: the process has become ritualised. The children, obviously engaged, listen for forty minutes, and at the end, Milan, who comes from Bosnia, calls out: ‘The book. Give me the book with the story in it. I want to read it.’

These scenes are from a project whereby professional storytellers told international fairy tales in a Berlin primary school (Wardetzky/Weigel 2008). It could just as easily have happened in any European country. The school is typical of thousands of state primary schools in highly industrialised European countries. Here in a nutshell you have the growing problems that schools in the developed world have to deal with: disciplinary problems, limited concentration spans, the grip on the imagination of consumer media and computer games, the alarming reaction to the theme of poverty in the world’s richest countries. But it also shows what storytelling can do. After nine months of concentrated listening comes a request for a book, in order to read the story again.

I want to investigate with you now how much the storytelling really contributed to the changes I have mentioned. We’re going to examine the power of storytelling in the context of the ordinary primary-school classroom.

We’ll look at four central aspects:

Storytelling as an incentive to read
Storytelling in a media age
Storytelling in the multicultural school
Storytelling and the literary tradition

Storytelling as an incentive to read

Let’s begin with the idea of storytelling as a way of enticing children to read, and we’ll keep in mind the example of the Bosnian boy who wanted to read the book that had the story in it.

On their first day at school, some children can already recognise and write a few letters; others are familiar with picturebooks; but there are others who know books only by hearsay. What’s waiting for them at school is the opening of a door into another world: the world of print, and with it, the world of books.

Letters, as symbolic signs, are the key to expanding the horizon of experience and of knowledge in a whole new way. Can we adults really estimate what the mastery of this key means for the development of a person?

By the time children come to school, they already have an enormous amount of experience and of learning behind them, a phase of learning that does not include writing or, in most cases, books.

At no stage in their lives do people learn so quickly, such complex things, and with such good retention, as in that earliest stage before being able to read. It is the stage of elementary acquisition of highly differentiated knowledge, of unforgettable memories, of complex ways of thinking and feeling. During this pre-literate phase, a child acquires a fundamental appreciation of how people live together in a particular society, and of the values, ideals, prejudices and taboos that constitute the basis of that society, and this basic knowledge is usually decisive for how the child lives his or her life.

The child constructs this knowledge and understanding of the world initially through sense impressions and through the spoken word. Hearing, sight, taste, smell and touch – that’s how a world is grasped and recognised in the short space of five or six years. For children, what they perceive through the senses and the spoken word is their memory store, with which they construct their understanding of the world. That settling into the world is achieved through the immediacy of sensory experience.

But then, on going to school, the child is confronted with a radically different medium of understanding: writing. The immediacy of experiential learning meets something quite new: the mediated nature of symbolic signs. At first, this symbolic system of writing is for the children a strange, dead, cumbersome instrument, which reveals its significance as a key to the world only very gradually (and often with a great deal of difficulty). Even when children know their letters, and make their first attempts at writing, they have only achieved the most basic pre-requisite in order to use writing as a cultural technique and to inhabit the world of the symbolic sign.

For a certain period of time, writing remains for them something impenetrable, something hermetic.
We are talking here about writing, but the same thing applies to the book as medium. Picturebooks aside, a book is as foreign to a child at first as hieroglyphics on tablets of the Gilgamesh epoch are to us. In Germany, we use the metaphor of the ‘leaden desert’ to describe a written sentence in a book. Lead is heavy, a desert barren.

Why should a child bother to give himself up to this leaden desert? Why should she set out to find the stony path into the world of print? In particular, children who have not been surrounded by books at home, and by parents who read, will ask this question. But even in the case of children who do not come from educationally deprived households, we must not underestimate the importance of this question, because learning to read is difficult, or, as Aristotle puts it: ‘Learning hurts.’ Why take on this pain?

In the last 40 to 50 years, academic research, in partnership with teaching praxis, has gone to enormous lengths to develop methods that can make learning to read and write attractive to children. They use practical, playful learning methods that are intrinsically motivational, and many of these methods certainly achieve their aims. But what gets forgotten is the fact that children must realise why it is worth learning to read in the first place. They must get some sense that books are not just dry archives, but a treasure chest of adventure, journeys into unknown worlds and times – treasures in which enjoyment and special pleasures are to be found. They must be made curious about the treasures that lie dormant in books, waiting to be awakened.

How better to get this idea across than by telling the stories into which the leaden desert of print can be transformed? Storytelling is the surest, most reliable bridge into the world of the book. It builds on the method of learning and understanding that children are already familiar with – the oral. As we have seen, children starting school are still learning largely through oral language and unmediated sensory perceptions. We can assume that learning to read is all the more difficult, the further this process is removed from the oral. The oral is the familiar, and therefore the bridge to the unfamiliar.

Anyone who is not at home with print, who has not learned to understand the ‘magic’ of literary models of the world, who does not know what it is that a book promises, such a person will presumably find it difficult to overcome the strangeness of print, and to use it as a transparent medium, in which the mediated is transformed into the unmediated.

If you observe children who are listening to well-told stories, then you don’t need any other proof that they are completely umbilically connected to the oral, and that for them, only the orally transmitted word has the force of truth.

In storytelling, a particular form of apprehending the world is carried through, which has its roots in early childhood, and which is later always experienced as pleasurable, because it links into and affirms primary strategies of perception and processing. The much-quoted pedagogical maxim that ‘you have to meet children where they’re at’ means (among other things) that oral and narrative gateways into the world should take their place as methods of teaching and learning in the classroom.

The orally based superstructure of the child’s view of the world and understanding of life finds its natural continuation in storytelling. Without meaning to question the importance of the didactic process of mediating reading and writing that goes on every day at school, there is nevertheless no more effective way of guiding children towards books and reading than storytelling. For this reason, storytelling must not be just an incidental in the junior classroom, a spoonful of sugar that is offered to the children now and again to sweeten the drudgery of school. Storytelling has as important a part to play in the classroom as mathematics, music and sport. The mediation of literacy cannot succeed without a strong connection to the oral. Therefore storytelling can’t be a marginal or coincidental surplus, a one-off-encounter. It must be a fundamental, daily experience for children.

This means that teachers need to be good storytellers. And this in turn means that they must be taught storytelling by the best storytellers in the country, as part of their training. But this is not enough in itself. Professional storytellers need to be a part of the school staff, alongside teachers, that is to say, storytellers in residence. One-off encounters with storytellers make a nice break in the routine of school life, but this has limited effect. Only through long-term encounters can the storytelling profession really come into its own. Professional storytellers possess different talents from teachers. They have at their disposal a broad repertoire of stories, from which they can choose the most appropriate to the situation. And they are performers. They understand the dramatic structure of a story. They can create and maintain suspense. With their voice, their body language and their miming, they can create imaginary worlds. This is their profession, their craft. And to put this to work in the service of schools is one of the most pressing challenges of current educational politics in the developed world.

‘Current educational politics’ – this is the cue that points us towards another reason for the urgency of our need for storytelling at school.

Storytelling in a Media Age

After the dramatic cultural change that resulted from the displacement of the print age in favour of the age of digital media, we are facing today the challenges of a world in which essential functions of the storyteller are being taken over by technical media. Today, stories are increasingly mediated through the visual language of television, video, film and computer games. Children can easily satisfy their hunger for story through audiovisual media. But what gets lost here – and this is an alarming finding – is children’s ability to create their own images in their heads from the written or the spoken word.

The experience of the school project mentioned at the beginning was that it took about eight weeks before a boy called out in surprise, ‘Oh, now I can see it all in my head!’ We can assume that the imaginative faculty is blocked in a large proportion of children. The map of their fantasy has been filled in with ready-made media images. This kind of colonisation of the imagination corresponds to the difficulty that children have in developing their own images from signs – that is to say, from spoken or written words. This kind of imaginative ability, however, is an essential pre-requisite for the understanding of the spoken and the written word. Literacy has to do not only with reading-readiness but especially with imaginative ability. And, unlike in the print age, this ability must now be taught. Imagination is a muscle, and, as Ben Haggarty says, it needs to be nourished and exercised. Excessive consumption of media allows this muscle to atrophy.

But why is the storyteller the best kind of person to teach children how to develop their own images? The storyteller, after all, mediates a story, as does the television, through image and sound. He himself is a medium. He narrates using the language of his body and his mime and the modulation of his voice – it is an audiovisual experience, just like the TV. What is different, though, is that he is a living medium, and he does not mediate images in pure form. He does not mediate an image in its concrete form, in other words, not materially in colour, shape, movement, but through the ephemeral medium of the word and of body language. He mediates signs of the image. He is a medium of the symbolic. His words, miming, gestures are signs that stand for images and emotions. He transforms images that are in his head into words, gesture and mime. If he is talking about the green scales of a dragon, then he sees them in front of him, and when he describes how the sword falls from the hero’s hands in horror, then he transfers image and emotion to the listeners. He stimulates the fantasy muscle into activity. He feeds it with the energy of his own imagination. And this energy effects the transformation of the sign into concrete images and meanings. How this process is executed by the brain has not yet been discovered. It is a wonderful secret that we all know, without being able to explain it.

The dominance of media-influenced images in the imaginations of children needs a living person, the flesh-and-blood storyteller, to act as a coach to the ‘imagination muscle’. Nobody can dispute the storyteller’s role as king-pin in this process. The significance of storytelling as a way of activating the imagination in the digital age cannot be highly enough estimated.

Sometimes the objection is made that, with the dominant consumption of electronic media, children’s ability to listen to a story that is mediated purely in words has already been lost. This opinion is nonsense! The act of performance that produces the one-to-one relationship between child listeners and storytellers is incontrovertible proof of the fascination with the unmediated contact that is created by storytelling. The transformation of (hyperactive) children into willing listeners is a repeated experience among professional storytellers. If a storyteller is herself moved by what it is that she is unfolding in words and gestures, then this will usually also move the listeners, and open the channels to the fantasy, to the imagination, to sensitivity and to cognition. And this can transform a wild horde into a community of listeners.

The Canadian storyteller Dan Yashinsky describes as follows a drastic experience with a group of youngsters who were outrageous in their behaviour:

These boys […]sitting so rapt around, [...], playing pranks, bashing each other […], farting as noisily and often as possible […] Yet when the storytelling began they became utterly quiet and well behaved. […] By some mysterious power the storyteller was able to transform my wild pack of boys into a community of listeners. Homer himself would have been proud to play for. Every one of them had been labelled by teachers and social workers as having ‘severe attention deficits’ and ‘unmanageable behaviour’. Yet when the stories began, I watched them relax and breathe more deeply, their eyes shining with joyful – and sometimes fearful – anticipation. What was the secret of this astonishing art? (Yashinsky, 21).

The secret seems to be that the over-saturation of children with media experiences engenders a kind of hunger that cannot be satisfied even by the most sophisticated consumption strategies of the media: the ‘hunger for the personal’, as H. v. Hentig has dubbed it. The longing for a living counterpart remains virulent and restless, even in the most perfect media-world. This is the basis of the supposition that as storytellers we are irreplaceable: nothing compares to the auratic space that exists between storyteller and listener.

In storytelling, the circle of childhood and with it, the circle of the oral, is closed again. Children, and indeed adults, enjoy the regressive pleasure of taking part in an orally mediated world.

Storytelling in the multicultural school

Another challenge facing schools in the industrially developed world is that in some of them, a large proportion of the children come from a variety of countries, and that their grasp of whatever the national language happens to be, is poor. Immigrant children acquire the language of their new country as a formal language at school, and as an everyday sociolect, which is superimposed on the interaction with the formal language. In addition, a not inconsiderable proportion of them learn classical Arabic in Koran-school.

In other words, at least some of the children are shifting in and out of four different languages. This Babel renders them literally ‘speechless’ – in other words, helpless – in many situations, and this hinders them from responding verbally in a way that is appropriate to the situation. This often leads to compensatory physical activities to make up for this helplessness. A large part of the problems that schools experience, especially the escalation in violence, has, among other things, to do with pupils’ inability to express themselves verbally and thus to resolve conflict verbally.

Work on the national language of the country is essential to successful integration. The children have to suss out an emotional path that can lead them safely through this linguistic Babel. This is the only way it is possible to put them in a position where they can later take an active and self-determined part in commercial, cultural and political life.

Even from this point of view, storytelling can play a key role in the life of the multicultural school. It differs from other pedagogical methods that are used to teach national languages to pupils in that it does not mediate language in the abstract, conceptually, grammatically or orthographically, but through suspenseful, exciting stories. In this way, the children experience language primarily in its emotional qualities, and it is exactly this that turns out to be the most effective means of persuading the children to listen and to actively use the language. The acquisition of language is achieved through a process that is high in emotional participation. This may be the decisive factor in the effectiveness of storytelling as a method of mediating language.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of storytelling in the mediation of linguistic competence may be explained through a parallel with mother-tongue acquisition. What happens when a mother-tongue is acquired? Every child finds its own way, and certainly at its own pace. No child learning his or her mother-tongue acquires vocabulary and grammatical rules consciously and systematically. The child finds his own way in the ocean of words and independently builds up the lexical and grammatical system that constitutes the mother-tongue. He learns the language implicitly, not through regular lessons.

A child experiences much the same thing through listening to stories. Here too he or she is confronted with an ocean of words. Here too she or he acquires an implicit understanding of the lexis and grammar of the foreign language. The child acquires the foreign language through a self-directed, autodidactic learning process, through which she determines her own way, at her own pace. This method of language acquisition is based on the principles of self-optimisation and self-correction. Through repeated encounters with linguistic patterns and turns of phrase, lexis and rules are internalised, without explicit mediation. And it is the child herself, and not some ready-made, one-size-fits-all curriculum, that determines how fast and how much she learns.

We have to expect that there will at times be some resistance to all of this, but in my experience, negative attitudes are limited, and in most cases can be attributed to a kind of contagion brought about by the group dynamics of the classroom. The refuseniks soon come to realise that their schoolmates are curious and delighted listeners. They don’t want to lose out on this, and they gradually let go of their resentment. And the story reveals its seductive nature: anyone who has become engaged by the conflict in the story wants to know how it is resolved. Carrot rather than stick: the long-recognised pedagogical recipe for success succeeds once again.

The scene I described at the beginning also reveals another, socially relevant element that is of burning concern in the multicultural school. The children who took part in the school project described earlier were electrified by the theme of poverty. Wherever and whenever this theme is touched upon, there are spontaneous reactions. Scarcely any other theme creates such an unreservedly obvious effect. A few examples …

In one story, a merchant is mentioned at the beginning. The question comes unbidden: Is he rich? A girl has golden hair: Golden? I’d cut it and sell it. Bones are buried in the earth: Money will come out! The fisherman has one wish left. What will he wish for? Wealth! The protagonists find a chest in the castle: It’s full of gold, and they use it to buy food! The children have found a golden bird. They took a photo of it. It was 569 gold, and they got lots of money for the photo.

One child made up a story of his own: A man and woman were very poor. The man fished and the woman cleaned. When the woman went out to get some air, a man came riding by on horseback. He gave her a bag and said, ‘You can wish something for yourselves, and it will be granted. But softly, and always into the bag.’ They wished for everything they needed and they got very rich and lived in a castle. And they gave some of their money to the poor, and then everyone was rich.

In stories like this, the children identify so much with the hero that they switch into the first person: A boy finds a hen. I had a hen, and it could spit out money. Then I bought an enormous house, twenty rooms. Every room has a cupboard. I sleep in one of the rooms. There are three toilets and a room in which the hen sleeps. It is called Gold-hen.

These examples make it quite clear where it is that the desires of these children are ignited – in that area of their lives where they experience the most basic deficits: in material neediness. Overcrowded accommodation, the search for work, hunger, lack of money – this is where the fairy tale becomes a mirror where they see their own social reality reflected. Here they find articulated things that otherwise are not spoken of. They experience poverty and unemployment as existential themes that at the same time are taboo. Poverty is often an extreme burden in their everyday lives. At school it is seldom communicated, or not at all, or only superficially. And then suddenly the children encounter characters who are in the same social and material predicament as they are themselves. The majority of fairy tales rock the shaky ground under their feet, and in fact many fairy tales thematise that very shakiness. Wide awake and with obvious concentration, they follow how the fairy tale heroes manage to change their destiny and gain wealth and prestige.

In the promises of happiness that characterise the folk tale, these children trace their original, inscribed meaning. The elemental longings of the folk are located in the material: in conquering all-consuming poverty and the vain search for gainful employment. For these children, poverty is not a metaphor, not a symbolic representation of deprivation or lovelessness. For them, it is what it was for those with whom the folk tale originated: actual lived experience.

We need to keep constantly in mind the close relationship that exists between social and linguistic problems. It is not that social problems can be solved through language-learning, but that language problems can spring from and can reinforce social problems. But that’s another issue.

Storytelling and the literary tradition

Finally, I want to look briefly at the significance of storytelling for the teaching of literature. We must not forget that the extent of literary education today and of our relationship with the treasures of world literature is very largely determined by, restricted by and possibly even suppressed by the media. This is an indication of the loss of part of our cultural memory.

I have extensive experience of telling old stories (ancient Greek myths and epics and fairy tales and sagas from different cultures); and a constant of all this experience is that storytelling is a reliable bridge over which ancient materials can be conveyed right into our time. These centuries-old stories were certainly orally narrated and came to be written down only relatively lately. And they have, through a process of ‘communicative imprinting’ (Blumenberg), retained for centuries, an ability to touch and engage the listener and, more recently, the reader. Something is addressed or articulated in these stories that relates to the fundamentals of our experience of being in the world: they tell of birth and death, love and jealousy, loyalty and betrayal, mercy and greed, wealth and poverty, desire and disappointment, covetousness and renunciation, things that are always and everywhere significant. Told in the most intimate or the most sociable of narrative spaces, and later transmuted into literature, these stories have created a substrate that is ‘so pithy, so valid, so authoritative, so affecting, that they are constantly offering themselves as the most useful substance in any search for the elemental behaviours of human existence’ (Blumenberg, 166).

In my work telling traditional stories, I am constantly reminded that in spite of the inertia of stories trapped between the covers of a book, the germ of orality that is immanent in the text can be brought to life in the telling of the story. Ovid considered his texts principally as something to be read out loud, and so did Basil. The Grimms’ and Perrault’s sources are mainly oral. This germination only expresses itself with full validity when it is restored to its most appropriate medium – the oral. Their inscription in print has congealed these stories; their sensuousness is released only in living narration.

And that is the reason for my appeal to all of you here in this room: tell the old stories that can only be rejuvenated through us. The violence and the pithiness of their imagery, the hardness and the ruthlessness of their existential conflicts, the tension and the explosiveness of their action – these cannot be exaggerated. They are like the ocean, whose fathomless depths are inexhaustible. You will see how, when they are told, these stories lose their age, their fustiness and their strangeness, and acquire brilliance and abundance, and the listeners – children as well as adults – will thank you for it: the shiver you have made run down their spine, the laughter that they share with you, the suspense that makes time stand still – these are magic moments, and for the sake of such moments it is worth while always and everywhere to tell stories.


Hans Blumenberg: Arbeit am Mythos. Frankfurt/Main 1984.
Kristin Wardetzky/Christiane Weigel: Sprachlos? Erzählen im interkulturellen Kontext. Erfahrungen aus einer Grundschule. Hohengehren 2008 (im Erscheinen).
Dan Yashinsky: Suddenly I heard footsteps. Storytelling for the twenty-first century. Toronto 2004.