Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

'Once There Was a ...': Reclaiming Storytelling in the Middle Years

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

'Once There Was a ...': Reclaiming Storytelling in the Middle Years

Article excerpt

Storytelling ... is an oral art form where a teller performs a story with a live audience. In this understanding there is no book present to separate the relationship between the teller and the listener. The storyteller holds the story in her mind and uses words and gestures to bring the story alive before the listeners. Phillips, 2013, ii)

Why storytelling?

Over the past decades globally, shifts in English curriculum concerns have seen considerable variance in the place of oral language in classrooms (McIntyre & Jones, 2013). Some might argue that anything oral has always been undervalued in schools (Alexander, 2012; Carter, 2002; Wilkinson, 1965), and the surge of technology has done nothing to stem the ebb. Rapid changes wrought by digital technologies and high stakes testing regimes are identifiable in the movement of classroom priorities. Within this changing landscape, storytelling continues to have incarnations in the US (Sobol, 2009), the UK (Bignell, 2012; Brady & Millard, 2012; Coskie, Trudel & Vohs, 2010), and here in Australia (Leahy, 2013). However, many teachers feel challenged by including storytelling in the literacy program, especially as students move through the school.

Oral storytelling has a less defined place in the middle years than in the first few years of formal schooling. While oral narrative is recognised as an important factor of early literacy programs, the temptation is to reduce oral narrative as children become increasingly proficient (Dawkins & O'Neill, 2011). Digital storytelling has recently been a fashionable way to represent narratives through new media, particularly with older students, and traditional oral storytelling seems to be slipping quietly out of many teachers' repertoires, if indeed it ever was integral to their teaching. We want to argue for the revitalisation of oral curriculum in the form of storytelling. However, our call now is to revisit more traditional forms of engaging listeners in pleasurable and imaginative encounters with story.

Narratives have long been recognised as central to our human experience. Barbara Hardy (1978) in Margaret Meek's collection of essays, The cool web, described narrative as 'a primary act of the mind' (p. 12). Traditional storytelling draws upon familiar and strange forms-fables, folk tales, riddles, fairy stories, myths, conundrums--and is performed, not read aloud. Told well, stories immerse younger and old listeners in rich social, cultural, historical and anthropological content, shaped to engross and encourage wonderment in listeners. Children as storytellers 'become aware of how an audience affects a telling, and they carry that awareness into their writing' (National Council of Teachers of English, 1992, p. 2).

An important question, then, is how does this experience connect to everincreasingly accountable descriptions of learning and assessment? Empathy is a core element of English, particularly as embedded within the literature strand of the Australian Curriculum (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), n.d.) and storytelling provides a link to this element.

Traditional storytelling ranges across cultures and witnesses ways that different cultures represent human experience. Through rich narratives, students are offered access to understanding themselves and their world. Storytelling reveals connections between people across social, cultural, temporal and geographic divides (Australian Association for the Teaching of English, 2009). Who of us can remember the School papers, narrative 'newspapers' in Victoria that were enjoyed by primary school students until the 1960s? Indigenous dreamtime stories were favoured and wellremembered gems among my peers, linking our very white school population of the time to richly different, but familiar, heritage traditions.

Julie F. recalls:

   At Spensley Street primary school in Melbourne a number of years
   ago, a friend's children were asked to bring in three objects that
   were of special value to their family. … 
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