How to get your students to tell better stories…

First things first.

In education, we need to slow down with our expectations about students as writers.

Before you click away, stay with me for one more minute.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying stop teaching writing or something crazy like that. I am saying something a little less dramatic, and here it is: We need to encourage our students to tell stories.

Of course, we should have our students writing and sharing their stories, but we need to be aware of oral language development first. There is a simple rule: students will learn to listen to stories and talk out their stories before they ever learn to read or write them.

On the surface, that makes sense… right?

No one is expecting a 3 year old to write a novel, however, we start to see the rigor and expectation of writing creep down to lower grades in ways that maybe it shouldn’t.

Maybe we should encourage verbal storytelling for a long time. A really long time…The reason being is our students can become good communicators. Maybe this would cut down on the “ums” and “ahs” that pepper the speaking of young adults today. Maybe encouraging verbal storytelling would help to clarify the message of some of our young storytellers. We want to scaffold and give them support while learning, however, it is also desirable to get them to practice and try their craft independently. Verbal storytelling allows students to do just that.

Historically, the requirement for people to be good orators was essential. Today, I think it’s less important. It would appear that speaking is down in the doldrums with listening because writing and reading have been elevated. While a sound mantra in education is to “wait,” because things will change soon enough we need to be aware of the importance of oral language. These days, it is about the sound bite and reading the crawl along the screen. It’s about reading between the lines instead of someone being clear.

The way we teach our students is the way they will perceive the world. If we put less emphasis on verbal storytelling we might lose (part) of the culture that has brought us this far on Earth.

I shared a great document below for encouraging storytelling in my students. We will typically share this out on a number of occasions:

  • after the weekend
  • after a holiday
  • after a missed school day (snow, bad weather)
  • after a student’s vacation
  • after a school event

These might seem simple at first, but when we “just” ask our students to talk about their weekends, we might not get the whole story.

This kind of visual support helps students in 2 ways: one, we are defining the amount of information we are asking for; two, we are giving them “transition” words to help with putting the story together.

Defining the amount of information is helpful because it allows our students to know that there is an end in sight. It’s not an open ended task that has no end, asking for 5 (or less) aspects of a weekend keeps enough structure that allows our students to share information

Transition words are crucial for having students be able to convey their message smoothly. Sequencing a story with first, next, and last is helpful but some of the other transitions add more sophistication to a student’s message.


Storytelling Visual Organizer

Typically, when working through this document with students I will encourage them to pick out transition words. From there, I will jot a single word in each box as they share a story (remember, it’s not so much about the writing as it is about sharing the story!). As students get older and more independent, I will ask them to jot their word or 2 and then elaborate on their own.

I find that different students will pick out different words and that leads to interesting conversations about word choice and how a story “flows.”

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Helping kids communicate is my day job. Wading through my thoughts to get them out here.

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Dan Fitch

Dan Fitch

Helping kids communicate is my day job. Wading through my thoughts to get them out here.

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