This article was first published in HWRK magazine in August 2023.
Storytelling is deeply engrained in the essence of being human. It is a powerful tool that has shaped our cultures, facilitated learning, preserved history, fostered social connections, and nurtured our imaginations.
The primary curriculum is full of wonderful stories. From EYFS to Y6, we share a vast and diverse range of different tales, each one an opportunity to teach our pupils something new about the world or ask them to look at something from a different point of view.
Daniel Willingham writes about the power of stories and describes how psychologists argue they are 'psychologically privileged[i]': our brains are wired to make sense of the world through narratives. Stories provide a structure that helps us organise information, remember details, and comprehend complex ideas. They engage multiple areas of the brain, activating sensory, emotional, and cognitive processes, which enhance our ability to remember and internalise information.
Writing stories is also a quintessential part of primary education. Writing narratives, whether real or fictional, is commonplace in the primary classroom.
In the Spoken Language section of the English National Curriculum there is also the requirement that children are taught to: “give well-structured descriptions, explanations and narratives for different purposes, including for expressing feelings”.
The act of oral storytelling stretches back to ancient times. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Homer's Odyssey to the Norse myths of the Vikings, stories have been passed from generation to generation across the world for centuries. These stories told the narratives of heroes and heroines, gods and monsters, and the struggles of the human condition, as well as explaining how the world was created, such as in the Māori legend of Ranginui and Papatūānuku.
The legend explains how a mother and father, whose tight embrace kept the world in eternal darkness, were pushed apart by their children, the gods who craved to be freed. This separation caused Ranginui to cry so intensely that the tears formed the oceans, seas, and rivers of the Earth. The bond between Ranginui and Papatūānuku is so strong, however, that despite being separated, they remain close to each other: Ranginui, as the sky, watches over and protects Papatūānuku who is the land below.
These days, the advancements in scientific knowledge allow us to impart a contemporary knowledge base to our children. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the centrality of stories to communication, culture, and connection.
Even with scientific advancements and increased literacy, storytelling remains as relevant and valuable to the modern world as ever. From books and literature to television and films, journalism and news reporting to advertising and marketing, stories underpin arguably more parts of society than they have ever done. Being able to tell a story helps people build relationships, captivate an audience, and inspire others. I would argue that everyone of us benefits from acquiring and mastering such a skill.
The curriculum is full of stories which teachers can use to convey the information they want children to learn. We know that the structure of stories helps both comprehension and memorisation of content. Concepts such as the water cycle, dissolving, volcanic formation, and natural selection to name but a few can all be developed through stories.
Whilst storytelling by teachers is commonplace in primary schools - whether to entertain or teach - there is perhaps less emphasis on nurturing children's storytelling abilities. By this I mean orally - well before we ask them to put their ideas into writing, if indeed they need to write down their ideas at all.
Emma Turner[ii] writes about the 'products of the curriculum': something that children produce as an outcome of what they have been taught. Whilst not every concept in the curriculum naturally fits into a narrative structure, there are many which do. By planning for such outcomes, we can identify the necessary components and relationships children need to master, making storytelling not only an insightful outcome but also a useful tool for curriculum design.
What might this look like in practice?
Willingham explains the power of stories as the inclusion of the 4Cs: causality, conflict, character, and complications. These provide a framework by which we can structure curriculum content.
To guide Year 4 children in describing the narrative of the 'digestive system,' we can structure the content as follows:
Characters: Our bodies need to get nutrition from food, which we ingest.
Conflict: Ingesting food doesn't allow us to get all the nutrients from the food we eat.
Causality: Each part of the digestive system is connected: what happens in the mouth helps the food be broken down further in the stomach before it can be digested in the intestines.
Complications: Some parts can't be digested and so leave our bodies as poo.
An example from KS1 is why deciduous trees lose their leaves.
Characters: Deciduous trees.
Conflict: The warmth and light from the sun keeps the trees healthy. As it gets colder and the days begin to shorten, the trees get less of this warmth and light.
Causality: The colder temperatures and shorter days cause the trees to lose their leaves.
Complications: The leaves start to turn different shades of oranges and reds before they fall off and help the soil below stay healthy. New leaves will grow once it starts getting warmer and the days get longer.
Here's an example of the 4Cs applied to river formation:
Characters: Rainfall/Springwater, gravity, and the river
Conflict: Water needs to flow around obstacles and so the path it takes begins to wind as it moves downhill.
Causality: Rainfall or spring water starts to gather on high ground. Gravity causes the water to move downhill.
Complications: The flow of water causes the land it travels through to be eroded. The erosion moves land from one place to another, changing the shape of the river as it flows towards the sea.
Once the curriculum content has been mapped out in a way such as that above, learning activities can focus on understanding the key components from the story we want children to learn. This could include learning about Tier 2 or 3 vocabulary, sequencing processes, and exploring representations of the content (e.g. video, hands-on activities, observation etc). Teaching can support understanding through descriptions, explanations, and analogies which children can then use to deepen their schema of what they are studying.
Once children are secure with the content, we can ask them to tell us the story of what they have learned. Children can practise telling the story of the concepts and processes they have learned about, all the time thinking about the connections between each of the components and using the correct terminology to speak accurately and with confidence. When we're confident that the children have had sufficient practice, we can assess their understanding by listening to their stories.
This focus on oral storytelling rather than written makes learning more accessible and thereby inclusive as it removes the cognitive demands of writing. If teachers want children to write the story, skipping this critical step means that children can be overloaded when tackling both the curriculum content and the act of writing, reducing the chance of the content being remembered. Oral storytelling also means that children can quickly correct themselves, and listening out for the points at which their coherence might start to fray can provide valuable feedback to both the child and the teacher in terms of how well they understand the content and its respective connections.
What are other benefits?
A focus on oral storytelling also develops children's ability to speak clearly, audibly, articulately, and confidently. Regular speaking about curriculum content also develops children's command of the language and their ability to engage the listener. In an era where oracy development is rightly receiving more attention and awareness, storytelling as a learning activity and children's storytelling (both the act and content) as a worthwhile product of the curriculum should be considered both as a means and an end in themselves.
The narrative structure of stories and the psychological privilege it brings also supports children's memorisation of the content. In our endeavours to help children remember more of the curriculum, narrative structure offers an advantageous learning tool. Moreover, asking children to generate stories from the content they have learned offers a valuable learning activity which has the potential to demonstrate so much more depth of understanding than the retrieval of definitions or facts. As teachers, we can be confident that children have mastered curriculum content when they can speak back to us in their own terms rather than through parroting a rote-learned script.
The power of stories already propels our teaching of the curriculum. By using storytelling as a learning activity, we can unleash even more of that power to strengthen curricular knowledge, understanding and memorisation as well as children's ability to speak confidently, fluently, and articulately.
[i] Willingham, D.T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? : a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
[ii] Turner, E. (2022). Simplicitus: The Interconnected Primary Curriculum & Effective Subject Leadership. Hachette UK.