Chain Link between the Word and the World
As a child, when I was five years old, I used to be read bed time stories out of large picture books. I loved stories which had lines that I could remember and when the next time the same story would be read to me, to say those lines out loud in unison with my mother or even better when my mother would stop and expect me to finish the lines would make me ecstatic. It was this intimate moment between my mother and me every night where we communicated, laughed, got scared, and became curious through these wonderful stories. Some of the lines that will never leave me
- ‘Little pig, little pig, let me come in. No, no, by the hair of my chiny chin chin. Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.’ – The Story of the Three Little Pigs
- Rapunzel Rapunzel let down your hair…(My imagination would run wild thinking about Rapunzel’s long golden tresses).– Rapunzel
- To-day I bake, to-morrow brew, the next I’ll have the young queen’s child. Ha, glad am I that no one knew that Rumpelstiltskin I am styled. – Rumpelstiltskin
One notices two things happening here. One, a bond created between my mother and me and two, me being able to find a space where I get undivided attention, am heard and valued. In the process what also happens is creation of a space for imagination, thinking, decision making, relations between word and Self and development of new ideas. When starting out storytelling (though not a hard and fast rule) it is helpful to pick up stories which have words/phrases that repeat themselves. It acts as a starting point for the child also to get involved in the process shifting the act of storytelling from being a monologue to giving space for potential dialogue. Basically, to create a community atmosphere should be the starting point. This means an atmosphere in which children want to live – where they’ll feel heard and respected and where they’ll want to spend more time. Through storytelling in a community atmosphere the child starts to develop language by getting an opportunity to interact and play with it and in the process develop associations with the Self and world through this medium. Ideally storytelling as an activity should start at home but the ground reality is that more often than not it is not the case. In primary education storytelling plays an important role in language teaching. In fact great pedagogues like Tolstoy and Gijubhai gave a lot of importance to storytelling. In their books they talk in detail about why storytelling is important in language teaching in schools, why and how should it be practiced and in doing so how will it bring about changes in the school environment and in the language teaching classroom. It needs to be mandatory to have storytelling sessions as part of the curriculum every single day (I cannot stress this point more).
Sadly in schools what exists is the opposite. I am sure if you also try to look back you will agree with me. Storytelling was never considered an important act worth doing in schools. In my school experience there existed a ‘non’ reading culture or reading for cramming culture especially during the beginning years. Basically there was neither a reading culture and therefore neither a listening culture. With the objective being to only finish a chapter and the teacher’s monotonous way of reading out the story lead to the death of literature in the classroom. I do not even recall the stories that were part of the curriculum as I had never got an opportunity to truly interact with them and learn from them. It was only in the later years between 8th to 10th grades when reading in terms of literature started to find its place in the curriculum. We were introduced to wonderful characters like Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain), Portia and Antonio (Merchant of Venice), Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre) and many more. There was also a collection of wonderful short stories as part of prose where I will never forget the letter the man in the cell wrote in the story, ‘The Bet’ by Anton Chekhov. I really believe that if any of you who have yet not stumbled upon this wonderful piece to spare some time and read it (interestingly it is about how a man lived his life through stories in books and in the process understood himself and the world he lived in). All this wonderful literature was read by our teacher with all the right emotions and intonations that would strike a chord in all of us without fail. We would read passages from books, stories and plays and then discuss and try to read between the lines for example why a certain character responded in a certain way, does that metaphor have a historical context because it does not directly relate here, etc.
If I try to summarize this experience what becomes evident is that storytelling is not just about enjoying the story but to engage with the story which automatically results in enjoyment. Therefore the story was not just there in print secluded from our world but was very much made a part of ours. If a character took a decision related to some moral dilemma we would also put ourselves in the shoes of the character and wonder what would I have done and debate with peers if the arguments kept were contradicting one another. This space for encouraging literary engagement is part of successful storytelling and should start soon after a community atmosphere for storytelling has been established. Encouraging literary engagement makes children touch upon socio-cultural aspects, learn new vocabulary, enhance their comprehension through collaborative meaning making, and learning a thing or two about listening to peers as well.
A year back I got an opportunity to spend time in a pre-nursery classroom in a school in Shimla. There were activities like singing rhymes together, working on the alphabet and numbers and also working with clay, drawing, and some outdoor physical activities as part of their curriculum. There was no reading time set aside. One day the class teacher was running late and I was suddenly informed to take over the class until she arrived. Sitting and observing as the third person, being critical and appreciating (or not) the teacher’s role in her classroom was one thing but doing it all myself, well that was definitely another. Suddenly the chaos of the classroom started to affect me in a very different manner, as though it was now ‘my’ job to curb it. But then I thought to myself, are children supposed to be made quiet and asked to sit in their chairs and not throw stationery and not…and not… Or are they supposed to feel like doing that on their own wherein my job would be to only facilitate an environment in which they would want to sit quietly, want to listen to me or one another in an orderly fashion. All these thoughts were zooming in my head. I started to feel giddy. Just then I recalled the stick puppet I had been working on at home as an independent craft activity. I had only succeeded to make one crocodile’s head on a stick which on moving a lever would make the crocodile’s jaws open and close. Well I needed to do something and fast. I sat down on the floor in the middle of the classroom with the puppet next to two girls who were chatting with each other. I started to tell them the story of ‘The Crocodile and the Monkey’. I played the Monkey with all the gestures and the puppet played the role of the Crocodile.
The mother tongue of almost all children in this classroom was Hindi so I narrated the story to them with a mix of English and Hindi words. Well the classroom environment started transforming. The children who were engrossed in their own activities and were not listening to me started to gather around. By the time everyone was absorbed staring at me with those piercing eyes of imagination and excitement the story was over. The children started to scream, ‘didi ek baar phir se’ (once more). I started again and since I was recalling the story from memory the words kept changing and so did the sentence structures. This resulted in something interesting. While in the previous narration children sometimes translated a word I used in Hindi into English or the other way round out loud seeking approval or one would ask questions about what would happen next or even better, give their own rendition. The second time I narrated the story though the pattern of the children’s responses were similar the words changed, the questions changed and so did their renditions. I was amazed at the realization of what one little story could hold. Just one story could give them a rich bank of words, ability to analyze text, question the plot in various ways and create their own ideas and plots in the process. Alongside in a classroom where the children are voluntarily choosing to listen, participate, shush each other to listen carefully, what more one would want I thought to myself! When I was asked to repeat the same story the third time, yes the ‘third’ time I also realized children’s love for listening to a story they like over and over. It took me back to my Rumplestiltskin phase. My dedicated mother had to read it out to me for almost 2 weeks at a stretch every night. I knew the plot by heart and within a few days I started remembering the words and then the phrases. This helped me one day narrate the story aloud with my mother even though I could not read much then. I think that’s the most thrilling moment where you connect and bond and I think something of the kind was taking place in this pre-nursery classroom as well. The more I repeated the more they participated and the more we all bonded.
If I were to put all my experiences together I will need to analyze what was going on in my mind when I used to be read to or that how I used to try to make meaning even though I could not read on one hand and on the other to analyze what was going on in the mind of the children when I now read stories to them. What is it that stories hold that can bring so much order and systematization in the classroom and in the process also develop and strengthen language of the child? The experience of storytelling in the pre-nursery classroom helped in two aspects. One, bringing in a sense of discipline, order and attention among the children and two, engagement with the story narrated. While the first point is an important pedagogical tool which I will not elaborate here and come straight to the second point on engagement with literature as this directly connects to the aforesaid stage two that a storyteller should aspire for. For children to engage with the story it helps to either have a story with a child character in it that helps the child connect himself/herself with the character and in the process engage with the story or narrate such stories that have unexpected plots, characters or events. This gets the children fired up. The storyteller can also create questions for the children so that they can start engaging with the story. A storyteller could pose questions like:
- [Once a paragraph or two is complete] Wait a minute. I’m confused. What do you think is going on? (Engaging the children, making them feel heard and that their opinions are respected)
- [Just when the Monkey is told that the Crocodile wants his heart] I would have felt so betrayed if my friend would have done something like this to me. How would you have felt? Do you have any experience of a friend betraying you? (In questions you can introduce even more new words to add to their vocabulary bank. In this case ‘betray’ would be an example)
- ‘You have a big body but no brains’. What do you think this sentence means?
In using questions or comments similar to the ones above, you have a chance to model ambiguity, showing your own doubts, hesitations and wonderings on the one hand and developing trust in the child by building a space for dialogue on the other. Because children are asked to retrace paths of known information questions, they can initially be suspicious of questions that ask them to explore the unknown territory of interpretation. Still, if you persist in demonstrating the unexpected, you will make room for your children to try on and test out ideas without apprehension about “right” and “wrong” answers. By emphasizing the uncertainty of your own literary interpretations, you will provide more space for your children to take risks in articulating their opinions. This is also when the children start moving from the story controlling them to them taking control of the story. What one notices is that the child transitions from listening to the story through the storyteller to listening to the story through his/her own thoughts and interpretations. Slowly the child starts to engage with the story directly and this is an initiation of the children towards independent reading and engagement with stories.
Storytelling can be done in a variety of ways. It could be a story read out from a book, recalled from memory or just made up on the spur of the moment (though one has to have the knack for it). Stories can be expressed and communicated through enormous forms of voice modulations, materials like puppets (which in my experience works really well with young children) of a huge variety, through dance, drama and music. In other words one can say storytelling is an art. Another important point to keep in mind is the way you tell the story. Children hear a story through their choices in intonation, accent, and vocal characterization. Storytelling should never be flat for monotony can kill a story. Knowing when to scream, when to be soft, when to pause or when to stress are all part of the process of telling a story and of course just as in everyday communication we use our body to further convey our thoughts similarly using our body in terms of hand movements, gestures, etc. go hand in hand with voice modulation that compliments storytelling in its entirety. Stories are a starting point for the children to connect with the world and with their loved ones. A part from children being able to connect with the world and the people around them through stories they also in the process start developing their ‘Self’ through the characters and events in the stories heard. Storytelling has immense importance in school. One and the obvious reason is that many children do not experience a reading culture and a print rich environment in their immediate surroundings. The second point is that in schools storytelling a part from nurturing the child’s ‘Self’ also acts as a powerful pedagogical tool (as we witnessed above). If one wants to develop a child’s concentration span and analytical thinking skills stories play an important role. It also can and should be a participatory activity where in children are constantly involved through the process. Stories are words used in context. Through story telling the child tends to develop a stronger vocabulary, faster. The better the vocabulary the more the child’s fluency increases when s/he starts to read. This fluency during reading when developed helps the child free his/her mental faculties from single word (isolated) meaning making to making meaning as a whole or comprehension of the text. Only when children comprehend text can they start to take control of the text, otherwise till then the text controls them and storytelling propels this process from word-meaning to fluency to comprehension to finally becoming text critiques (in control of the text).
Therefore storytelling has its importance in developing a child’s own ideas, values, and beliefs and in turn the ‘Self’ on the one hand and also acts as a strong pedagogical tool to develop a strong grasp over language on the other. Stories are text in context and isn’t that what we work towards in language teaching? Providing children rich text ‘in context’ of the child? To start with creating a community atmosphere and within which encouraging literary engagement helps is successful storytelling. So weather you are a parent, teacher or elder sibling do narrate your day’s events to the young ones, if you read a story and liked it, simplify it (if required) and narrate it for I believe storytelling is the chain link between the word and the world for the child. Help them nurture and strengthen that link.