Story Telling and Talk for Writing

Chris Smith’s session on storytelling during our day at the Story Museum included many ideas that could effectively complement our Talk for Writing work.  The suggestions in this post centre mainly on the imitation stage, although the Storytelling School approach of Tell, Deepen, Shared Writing and Independent Writing span the entire T4W process.  Specific details on each of these steps can be found in the Storytelling School Handbook: what follows is some thinking about how they can be applied in a T4W unit.

Imitation – Internalising the text

Hear it, map it, step it, speak it.

Children’s first interaction with the story is told by the teacher, not read aloud. Teachers should be prepared to tell the story with skill (see the Storytelling School Handbook for Teachers for a toolkit for great story telling).

Get children to map the story from memory.  In the first instance this can be a simply structured map depicting the main things that need to be remembered for the plot to work.  This should be a fairly short activity but it can be added to over time.  Children could have their text map in front of them as they listen to and practise the story during the imitation stage.  Before children use their text map to retell the story, they need to practise recalling the meanings of the symbols.  Try getting pairs to talk through their plans: ‘This is the bit where…’  There will still be a need for a teacher text map for the teacher to model retelling and for some children to use themselves.  It can be used later to support the planning of the innovation.

Stepping the story (details in the handbook) gets children to focus on key moments that trigger memories of the finer details for later retelling.  Each step could include words and actions to trigger those memories.  When children write at a later stage, each step could become a paragraph or a scene.  Consider here the planned repetition of tier 2 focus words to increase the number of interactions that children have with this vocabulary.  Stepping the story could focus on different things.  They could step the settings so that at each key moment in the story, children are thinking about the details of the setting.  They could step the characters so that at each key moment, they are thinking about bringing the characters to life.  They could step the dialogue, thinking hard about the interactions between characters.  Consider the intended effect for the story and the toolkit that will be later co-constructed.  By tweaking the ‘step it’ stage, foundations for great Reading as a Writer can be laid, preparing children for co-constructing the writers’ toolkit(s) later on.

Once children have internalised the main parts of the story through hearing, mapping and stepping, they practise retelling the story.  Paired retelling, taking turns, allows for flexibility which communal retelling may not provide.  The first person tells part of the story and then the other continues before passing the story back again.  This is not to say that communal retelling is not useful – many children, particularly those new to English, will need to hear and rehearse specific language patterns.  Some children may need to be encouraged to speak one idea at a time to get a feel for sentence demarcation which will support later writing accuracy.  Get children to build the sophistication of their story by magpieing phrases from others’ retelling.  One partner can tell the story while the other listens, text map in front of them, adding ideas that improve their version.  Something similar can be done with a group retelling performance: a group pass the telling of the story between them while the rest of the class listen, adding to their text maps.

Reading as a Reader – Deepening the storytelling

The sophistication of children’s storytelling will develop through the imitation stage and will be supported through established aspects of T4W such as shared reading, book talk etc.  The Storytelling Handbook includes other opportunities to deepen children’s understanding of the story.

Reading as a Writer

During this stage, we get the children to analyse how good writing is created.  Children need to have a sound knowledge of the underlying story structure but it is also useful to summarise the structure even more simply, for example, ‘Annoying thing won’t stop so… accept it.’  Boxing up the story helps children to analyse the writing section by section, which then contributes to planning the innovation.  Chris’ plot matrix (see the Handbook) may be an interesting alternative.

Whilst co-constructing the writers’ toolkit, it may be useful to return to ‘stepping the story’ with the intended effect in mind.  If the intention is to bring the character(s) to life, then thinking hard about the language use at each key moment that does this sets children up well to analyse other writing for how it could be done.

Non Fiction

A similar approach can be used with non-fiction writing.  Non-fiction arguably presents a different challenge in that the speaker / writer must have mastered the subject content as well as the appropriate language of non-fiction in order to effectively get their message across.  It is the subject content that must come first, though – children need something to think about before learning and using the language associated with non-fiction writing.

Imitation – Internalising the subject content

Just as the teacher would be expected to tell the story when working with fiction, so too with non –fiction.  The first interaction should be told, not read.  The teacher should tell the text in role in simple language so that children get to know the subject content quickly – informally tell children about the content from memory, making a connection just as for storytelling.

Get children to map the subject content, following the same structure as for fiction, including stepping it.  When children know the content well, the teacher can begin to change their retelling to make it more formal and to include the non-fiction language features necessary.  Children can then do the same throughout the Reading as a Reader stage, so that when they come to Read as a Writer, they would have already been talking some of the non-fiction language that we’d be asking them to analyse in other texts.

Great non-fiction writing relies on the writer knowing the subject content very well.  Sequencing some non-fiction work immediately after some fiction work and using the same subject content contributes effectively to writers’ subject knowledge.  For example, after a fiction unit on ‘Beating the monster’ using George and the Dragon, children could work on non-fiction, informing novices on the different types of dragon, arguing that dragons should not be held in captivity or instructing knights on how to defeat them.


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