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Embracing the power of storytelling is “crucial to children’s enjoyment in books and in particular in reading for themselves in the future”, according to Allison Winship, head of childcare at Kids 1st Nurseries.
Noted storytellers and language development experts everywhere endorse this opinion and yet literacy rates in the UK remain in decline, despite the act of learning stories being associated with ‘fun’ and, according to the Literacy Trust, disadvantaged families are twice as likely to be poor readers.
Professor Alan Dyson, of the University of Manchester, sums up why children in the early years of education are ideally positioned for their intellect to get maximum benefit from a keen focus on telling stories. He writes: ‘Young children from diverse sociocultural backgrounds bring their symbol-producing proficiency to school – their talking, drawing, playing, storytelling and, in our society, some kind of experience with print, all of which offer resources with which both teachers and children can build new possibilities’.
Oxford professor of philology and creator of hobbits and Middle Earth, JRR Tolkien, once wrote on the importance of constantly challenging a child’s reading ability, believing that parents and teachers should not restrict their focus to material they know each child to be comfortable with.
‘A good vocabulary,’ Tolkien wrote, ‘is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one’s age-group. It comes from reading books above one.’
The benefits of a childhood with a healthy focus on telling stories are extensive; storytelling inspires the imagination, encourages thought-processes, the questioning of one’s actions, the development of morality, communication, empathy and compassion. Seen as a crucial link between oracy and literacy, a strong storytelling presence within the early years curriculum harbours wonderful potential for later learning, although because a person’s love of story originates from the early years of childhood, there is also pressure on nurseries to get it right.
Understanding this fact has inspired many nursery providers to champion storytelling within the heart of their curriculum goals and daily activities.
Ms Winship, of Kids 1st, explains her company’s approach, saying: “Storytelling is an important aspect of a child’s day at Kids 1st and we always try to make each session really special. Kids 1st have devised a unique approach called ‘the no interruption zone’ so whenever staff see this sign, they know that a storytelling session is taking place.”
She continues: “Kids 1st decided on this approach as we want the children to consistently have the very best experience. This has allowed the children to be fully engaged in a story without interruptions and this has helped their concentration and understanding.
“Along with this approach we feel it is important for staff to be fully prepared for story time. They need to choose the right book for the age group they work with, as this can certainly be the difference between success and failure. It is vital that staff keep the stories exciting and use their voices as expressively as possible to help maintain the children’s interest.
“A final point to make is the importance of keeping this fun as this is crucial to the children’s enjoyment in books and in particular in reading for themselves in the future.
“Kids 1st is committed to this approach as they understand the benefits of good storytelling. We invited author Neil Griffiths to one of our staff training days as he is totally passionate about books and inspirational in his storytelling techniques.”
kidsunlimited Nurseries is another day nursery provider that takes a proactive approach towards storytelling. A spokesperson comments:
“At kidsunlimited we teach our practitioners that storytelling is an essential part of child development. A love of stories is common to all young children, and by telling stories, rather than reading them, a storyteller can really bring the tale to life and make it a more interactive experience for the children. Stories help children learn about the wider world and the people and animals we share it with.
“We encourage our practitioners to offer the children the opportunity to both tell and hear stories to develop their active speaking and listening skills. Storytelling also helps fuel children’s imagination and enables them to develop their own mental images of the story.
“To further engage the children, we teach our practitioners about the importance of tone and actions when reading a story and encouraging them to act as the particular characters within the story.
“In a recent staff training session at our Broadgreen nursery in Liverpool, staff members were taught about the importance of setting a scene during story time. Miriam Brown from kidsunlimited’s Early Years team led the session and encouraged participants to build a den using bed sheets, pegs, cushions and torches. They then had the opportunity to feel what it was like to be a child by telling each other stories inside the den. They were then asked to write down how reading stories in the den made them feel, with positive responses such as ‘safe’ ‘secure’, ‘exciting’, ‘magical’ and ‘amazing’ being fed back.
“At kidsunlimited our aim is to inspire children to love learning, and storytelling is a natural part of this journey.”
For Busy Bees Childcare, these learning initiatives even inspired a National Storytelling Competition, which the company saw as demonstrating its commitment to language skills and communication, but also to the development of the storytelling abilities of their large workforce, which will continue to benefit generations just around the corner for many years to come.
The competition was supported by poet Michael Rosen, who commented on his enthusiasm for the results, saying: “Watching the trainees and newly qualified nursery workers performing their stories, was a moving experience for me. Here were people who would never regard themselves as performers or actors putting heart and soul and thought into stories for young children. We have to make books come alive for the children so that they can hear and feel the words and pictures in their minds and bodies. What the competitors were doing was precisely this, filling their performances with ideas for participation, sensory experiences and mind-extending ideas.
“This is both education and popular entertainment, combining ideas, feelings and fun in sound, image and movement. And I am utterly sincere when I say that the standard was of the very best.”
The competition culminated in an awards ceremony held at the House of Lords in November, with the winner of the newly qualified sector category, Laura aged 25 from Busy Bees Nurseries Ltd in Burntwood, Staffordshire, commenting:
“I’ve always loved reading stories – I get into the voices of the characters and the children love it. This competition has been fantastic for me – and getting chosen for the finals was just amazing. Michael Rosen is one of my all time favourite authors. It was really nerve-wracking but he put me at ease straightaway, and joined in with the story as though he were one of my children. I hope this campaign will inspire my peers, colleagues and parents across the UK to read stories and other fellow qualified early years educators to take part in future competitions.”
More local councils need to get involved with these initiatives if literacy rates are to improve. The Wales Government has recently made funding available for authorities to make books and stories more accessible, in the shape of the bilingual scheme ‘Pori Drwy Stori’, which includes Welsh adaptations of popular stories.
Swansea Council is one authority to embrace the funding, with many libraries having signed up to host events and children are provided with their own ‘book bag’ to encourage them to keep hold of the stories they are attracted to and keep reading them.
Cabinet member for learning and skills, councillor Will Evans, said: “The more children read the better they are at reading and the more pleasure they get from reading. That’s why access to reading materials out of school has proven to make a significant difference in a child’s attainment at school.
“This is just one of the initiatives taking place in Swansea to help parents work in partnership with schools to encourage their youngsters to read, listen and talk. It’s a bit of fun that could make a big difference to how well they get on at school.”
Children’s author Julia Jarman helped to launch the project in Swansea, saying: “Reading is essential. How can anyone manage without it? It’s not just about being good at school. How can you go on the Internet, read a food label, text or communicate with friends on Facebook, or apply for job without reading?
“I hope this programme will encourage more families to enjoy and benefit from storytime at home.”
Other campaigns groups are looking to target the role of parents, with reading charity Booktrust believing more should be done to convince fathers in particular that reading to their children is essential.
The recently launched ‘Get Dads Reading’ came into being after an Opinium poll estimated that only 13 per cent of dads are succeeding in being the main reader for their child, while the charity’s research on this issue records a poor attitude amongst many fathers who see reading as the mother’s domain. Figures also show that, at formal literacy events, only 10 per cent of attendees are dads.
Booktrust chief executive Viv Bird comments: “The most crucial thing for dads to understand is that if kids see their dads reading they’re more likely to enjoy it themselves. There is evidence that boys are slipping further behind girls in reading – and this emphasises how important it is that dads are positive role models to their sons as well as their daughters when it comes to reading.”
The Scottish Storytelling Centre offers some tips on how childcare staff can use stories and ideas to help children learn: these include the use of props and puppets for visual stimulation, the use of storyboxes to help children tell and create their own stories, inviting parents and grandparents into the class to share their own stories, as well as embracing the use of rhyme and song where they can be put to good effect.