The importance of storytelling in schools.

‘Reading and literacy are so important. It doesn’t matter what your disability is, reading is accessible to all.’

These are the words of Rob Burrow, the former Rugby League player who has Motor Neurone Disease.

Since his diagnosis, Rob has spoken about how much he missed the joy of reading stories to his two children when, ultimately,  the disease took away his ability to speak. Despite this, using the latest specialist eye-controlled technology, he read a CBeebies bedtime story just before Christmas. The technology even allowed him to make full use of his Yorkshire accent. He  read ‘Tilda Tries Again’ by Tom Percival. The story is  about a young girl who finds that one day her world is turned topsy-turvy, nothing feels right and things that were once easy now seem incredibly challenging but discovers a new way to approach her problems and believe in herself.

I believe that this is a really compelling argument to promote the important part story telling plays in the lives of children in 2023. I am in schools most weeks and am always delighted when I come across a school where the love of reading simply oozes from the walls as you walk in.

Reading is such an ideal way for children and young people to make sense of the world as they establish that direct contact with the mind of another human being. A skilled story teller opens up their world to the children so that they can experience all that the author sets out for them to see, hear, taste and smell and walk the world in their shoes. Storytelling is such a precious gift: no matter where in the world you are, children are immersed in their culture and traditions through the art of storytelling. Importantly, as we stumble in to  2023, so many of the world’s children have had to leave behind their own stories, told and read to them for generations, to make the tortuous journey to safety in other communities. The re-telling and valuing of their  stories serves a vital  purpose in allowing all our children to share, not only those wonderful traditional tales from our culture but from all around the world.

A school I visited in inner city Sheffield recently displays  a world map which show the countries of origin for the families which make up their community. There are over 30 of them. What makes this special is that the children have all talked to their peers and shared their favourite stories from their home countries. In discussion, children  were amazed at how much similarity there is in the many themes which stories from different cultures share.. Have a look at worldstories.org which is a great starting point for exploring this with children. Common themes include,  the magic of friendship between children and animals, the beauty of difference, the dangers of boastfulness, the bully getting their come-uppance…the list in endless.

I am currently reading books which I enjoyed as a child. On the 100th birthday of Richmal Compton, I’ve almost finished reading all of her Just William stories which I first read as a 10 year old.

The Hobbit was read to me by an inspirational year 6 (j4 in old money!!) class teacher in the 1960s. He read to us every day from 3.00 to 4.00 without fail. He put on the voices, made the sound effects and even drew maps on the blackboard so we could make sense of Bilbo’s journeys. When television was a luxury and phones stood silently in red phone boxes on street corners, he brought the words of great authors to life in our minds. We could not  wait for the days to pass to hear the next chapters of whatever book he had chosen for us. He read, The Brothers Grimm,  Anne of Green Gables, Tales of King Arthur and the list in my mind is endless.

So why does this nostalgia for stories from my childhood appeal so much? It is undoubtedly because when reading them I am back in my childhood. I share in William Brown’s joy when he is given half a crown by an aged aunt, his consternation at being given 400 lines by the science teacher, his undying friendship with his pals, the outlaws. And here it is!! The reason why it is important that our children today are able to see themselves in stories. The tortuous journeys, the new life and adjusting to fit in here, they and their families’ memories of the former times in their countries, the children and young people struggling with their identity can see that other children have shared that journey.

I firmly believe that teachers are in such a powerful and privileged position  to be the mouthpiece for the stories which will inspire children to develop a love of reading. Once the spark takes hold, then children will devour books which excite, challenge, annoy and delight them. As adults, we must do all we can to instil a love of reading and story telling. Clive James once famously said, ‘Ban poetry. And make sure that anyone caught reading it is expelled from school. Then it will acquire the glamour’

One memorable experience I will never forget from conducting a review of reading in a school was when I was due to meet the literacy leader during the lunch break. The allocated time of 12.15 came and went and I was about to leave the room when the leader arrived full of apologies and then she burst into tears. She explained that she had been reading Then by Morris Gleitzman to her year 6 class in the slot up to lunchtime. Then and the predecessor book, Once tell the story of a ten year old Jewish boy in Poland in 1942 and his six year old Polish friend as they try to escape capture by the Nazis. Morris Gleitzman wrote,  The incidents in these stories are made-up, but most of Felix and Zelda’s experiences are inspired by the real-life experiences of children in the Holocaust.  Back to the meeting in the school and the teacher told me that she had read her class the final chapter just before our meeting and she explained that she, and the whole class had been so overwhelmed that they just had to sit silently and take it in. The teacher, a passionate and enthusiastic leader, had deliberately not read of her class. She explained that she had an inkling of the ending but when she actually read Morris Gleitzman’s words to her class on the final pages, they all  experienced together the raw emotion he had intended at the brutal death of the people who tried to help him.

Thankfully, storytelling is alive and well in our schools because teachers make time in the day to read quality texts to the children. I was speaking to a group of year 5 pupils in a school recently and one girl  told me she was reading Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. I had read it as a child myself and was intrigued to know why one of the ‘old and gold’ texts had so engaged a child in 2023. She explained that the year 4 teacher had read it to the class the previous year but had to wait until her birthday to ask for the book from her grandmother. ‘I could have borrowed it from school but I wanted my own copy that no one else had ever opened’ she explained. How we take for granted that there is spare money in households today to allow children the luxury of having their own book.

In a world where children are in the thrall of electronic communication it has never been more vital that schools continue to allow children to sit quietly, suspend disbelief, and enter the world of books.

#nationalstorytellingweek

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