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By Taffy Thomas, MBE — Storyteller

Taffy Thomas reveals why the oral storytelling tradition will always have a place in society and in our schools

Taffy Thomas

Taffy Thomas, MBE

The oral tradition

Before Caxton, Marconi and Baird, people communicated and entertained each other through the art of storytelling. The very word ‘history’ derives from ‘his story’. Add to this the rich canon of myths and legends, and almost every hill, land feature or field will have a name linked to a local tale.

Storytelling is perfect for promoting cross-curricular activities

Jokes are an important part of the oral tradition, for after all, good jokes are stories (although not all good stories are jokes). So, too, are dilemmas and riddles, which can be a great way to relax and involve an audience and introduce a story. I often introduce the story of the battle between the sun and the wind with:

I've got no wings but I can fly

I've got no voice but I can cry

I've got no teeth but I can bite.

Strong threads of a rich and varied oral tradition still survive in the 21st century. If I ask, ‘Does anyone know a story to tell me?’ I am often faced with blank looks. But if I then say, ‘Does anybody know the story about the couple whose car runs out of petrol on a remote road, and he goes off to find some fuel. Alone in the car she hears a banging on the roof…’ At least one person can always complete the tale. Yes, the canon of stories loosely bracketed as ‘urban myths’ is still widespread.

Two-way trust

Television has made various attempts to become more interactive; but true interactivity is unlikely to be achieved, for if you switch the television on, it continues whether the people sitting in front of it are laughing, crying or even dead! By contrast, in a live performance, a trust is quickly built between teller and listener. When telling stories to three- to four-year-olds in a nursery, I was set back when a small boy stood up and pronounced,

‘Oi, Storyteller, last night my dad gave my mum a black eye’.

My first reaction was relief that nursery staff had witnessed this. Secondly, I felt it said something of the potency of the story session that it freed this troubled soul to unburden. I also felt a duty to register the unacceptability of violence in the home. So, I gently said, ‘That wasn’t very good, was it?’ The other listening children agreed, and pointed out that my story that had been interrupted was good and needed finishing. Both teller and listener quickly settled for the conclusion of the tale and peace and relaxation again filled the space.

A place in the curriculum

By its very nature, oral storytelling encourages speaking and listening skills, and can improve self-esteem. If a person can stand up in front of their peers and tell a story, then they can stand up confidently at a job interview, a tenants’ meeting, or even in court! The act of storytelling is also useful in memory training, and useful to teachers.

Find out more about Taffy Thomas and his work at the Northern Centre for Storytelling at

Storytelling is perfect for promoting cross-curricular activities. Every country has its own tales which highlight both its history and culture (geography). Most tales express a philosophy and morality (RE/PSHE), and surprisingly there is a small but enjoyable canon of mathematical stories, such as ‘The Three Brothers and the 17 Camels/Sheep’, that can enrich any numeracy session.

Less able learners, chained by their difficulties with reading and writing, can surprise both teachers and classmates when involved in an oral activity. Gaining a love of language this way makes it a shorter step to reading and writing.

Three models for the effective use of storytelling in schools

Model 1: Poetry writing

Follow-up a storytelling session with a discussion on the value of storytelling. Why do we enjoy stories? What place do they have in our lives? Invite the children to express their thoughts through poetry.

The doctor can save a life within a moment
But without laughter, life would be a torment
The policeman can help fight crime
But without words, life would be just a mime
The fireman saves people from the flames roaring,
But without the storyteller, life would be boring.

Sarah Landle (12), Wyndham School, Egremont

Model 2: A first-to-middle school transitions project

(Developed with Meadowdale Middle School, Bedlington, Northumberland.)

For this project, I was sent to perform for the top class at each of the feeder schools, as their leaving present. I concluded the performance with, ‘The next time we meet will be on your ‘invasion day’ at your new school.’

When their first morning at middle school came, I was there to greet the incomers and gave a story performance on the theme of ‘friendship’ for a mixed audience of newcomers and older children. After playtime, we ran a workshop as in Model 3, with older children buddying the younger incoming children.

Through story-sharing, new friends were made and, to conclude the day, both groups of children – now happy to intermingle and sit together – chose a final story from my Tale Coat.

Model 3: So you want to tell stories?

Tell everyone that, by the end of the session, they will have told a story. The reaction is often terror, but gentle questioning will usually reveal that the fear comes from a lack of trust in their memories and shyness about standing up in front of the group. Reassure them that no one will have to stand up in front of the group – rather they are going to swap stories with a partner, and no one has to remember any words because the words can be different every time.

Ask the children to visualise their brain divided into two halves. One half contains their vocabulary – as rich a collection of words and phrases as can be mustered. The other half contains the story, remembered as a series of pictures. All the storyteller does is to paint the pictures from one side of their brain, with words from the other side – and so pass that picture to the listener. Illustrate this technique using a story like The Little Cobblestone Maker (see On-screen resource 1, Literacy Time Ages 7 to 9, September 2007).

Ask the children to choose a partner. One half of each pair leaves the room while their partners hear a story. They must then retell this tale to their partner.

Repeat the activity with another tale, such as The Clever Wish (On-screen Resource 1) but this time the storytellers become the listeners.