Education Blog

Oral Storytelling

In the first of our staff reflections on their research interests, Fiona Ramsay discusses the power of storytelling as an educational technique.

Four of the best words to hear and say? Once. Upon. A. Time.

A pattern of words which have become embedded in story language.

They describe both the story and the storytelling equally well. This story which took place as a singular event in the past, or this telling of a story which will be different every time.

Once upon a time. When this well-rehearsed, well-shared and well-loved phrase is read from a text – it’s the signal that it is time to sit back and enjoy a story. When these words are shared during the telling of a story, the energy of the room is different. At least that is what I have found to be the case in my classroom experiences. In fact, this is not only a familiar feeling in a classroom but in my daily interactions with friends, family, colleagues and students. Telling a story is one part of it but listening to a story is just as enjoyable. In this month’s blog post I want to explore with you what storytelling is, how you can use it and recognise it in the classroom and importantly why use it as part of your practice and pedagogy.

Researchers don’t always agree on what the key purpose of storytelling is, though there are common themes in the literature. Roney describes oral storytelling as both a creative and participative process (1996). Cremin agrees that creativity is one of the key competences developed in oral storytelling (1997). She establishes that storytelling practices “sow in children the seeds of curiosity” (1997, p. 9). Oral storytelling involves the teller delivering a story to an audience of one or more people whose responses and reactions help shape the story. Harrett (2004) describes it as a “shared experience” (p. 4). Roney’s description of oral storytelling being a “co-creative interchange” (1996, p. 7) highlights the demand on both the teller and the listener(s) to be actively involved in this shared process. He highlights that the story being told in an oral retelling will not be the same one told the last or the next time; it will be created by the teller and listeners involved in that particular telling on that particular day. This means that it can be a spontaneous event as well as a planned-for one.

Oral storytelling is different to reading a story aloud. In the latter practice, the written text is a physical part of the story sharing process whereas in oral storytelling, whilst the teller may be drawing from a written text, the physical object of the written text is not present. Hibbin (2016) differentiates between reading aloud using a written text and “relating” a tale in oral storytelling. Bage exemplifies the difference in these two practices in his interview with a classroom practitioner where she shares that she regularly and confidently reads tales aloud however had never “told” her class a tale (2000, p. 39).

I have been thinking much more recently about how to develop oral storytelling in the classroom. In thinking about this, I have been reflecting on what would help me as a practitioner and what also might help others. I am inclined to think that developing confidence in telling a story/stories without a written text is one of the first things that would support practitioners in developing this practice. Grugeon and Gardner hypothesise that it may be an intimidating experience to “leave the safety and authority of a written page” (2000, p. 1). As a classroom practitioner, I can relate to the feeling expressed in the interview. To develop this confidence, practitioners need to feel that they know a story or a bank of stories. The simple answer to this of course is to read a wide variety of stories and texts although it should not be limited to short stories. Within a longer text, the reader could pick out a shorter tale to retell.

As well as reading, listening to others as they are telling stories can be really useful; what kinds of gestures do them make; how do they interact with the audience throughout the retelling; what kinds of facial expressions do they use; how do they shape the story. You may be fortunate enough to hear a professional oral storyteller telling a story. However it may be that it is also a friend, a colleague or a family member telling a personal anecdote.  Bruner emphasises that the story can be either real or imaginary without “loss of its power as a story” (1990, p.44). As well as building a repertoire of stories, it may also reduce practitioner nerves of telling a story to think of the story being told as having a particular story shape and outline rather than memorising the story word for word. Alastair Daniel, professional storyteller and Principal Lecturer in The School of Education at The University of Roehampton emphasises Vivian Gussin Paley’s description of storytelling as the “social art of language” (1990, as cited by Daniel, 2018). He then shares his experiences of telling stories which he describes as “created between teller and audience” (Daniel, 2018). This resonates with much of the reading on participative and responsive oral storytelling where the the teller will have the confidence and ability to make changes to stories in response to the children in front of them rather than sticking to a word for word memorisation.

When it comes to why to include storytelling as part of everyday teaching practice there is much agreement. Practitioners who work with children including but not limited to teachers, librarians and storytellers have identified multiple benefits to the practice of oral storytelling. Cremin (1997) says that it cultivates community and invites participants to be curious and to “celebrate and savour the language of story” (p. 9). Stories in themselves as well as the practice of sharing them builds relationships and connections amongst people (Cliff Hodges, 2000). In her review of literature on oral storytelling, Collins (1999) identifies the significant role story plays to help children shape and understand their own experiences. She also makes other conclusions about the emotional response stories can evoke and children being able to recognise and articulate their own emotions through the understanding and experience of story. After writing a systematic review on the impact of oral storytelling in the primary classroom, I was able to generate 4 major themes. These were:

Oral storytelling in relation to -

  • self
  • learning
  • others
  • the practitioner

There seems to be an effect on children’s interpersonal relationships as an outcome to oral storytelling. The relationships between the child and the characters, the child and the teller and amongst the children themselves were thought to have progressed and developed. It was perceived that the co-creative and participative nature to the live oral storytelling meant that connections were built to the story, characters and the teller. Other outcomes which were reported were children being able to identify with different parts of themselves, increased confidence, development of emotional literacy and development of their own narrative. Active engagement was identified and shown through children’s participation in the storytelling where they asked questions, negotiated their understanding and actively imagined themselves in the story. Children’s interrogation of the story and evaluation of both the story and teller demonstrates the demands upon the listener to engage in critical thinking. Finally practitioners expressed outcomes in relation to changes in their own perspectives about both the abilities of particular students and the development of their own knowledge and skills.

My intention has been to shine some light on the practice of oral storytelling and for practitioners to imagine themselves using it with their children in the classroom. I am sure some readers already do this with great skill and confidence. There will be other practitioners who do use it but who may not recognise that they do so. Wherever you are on the scale of storytelling, it may be something that you try out tomorrow or something you start to recognise in your own practice.

I started this post with Once. Upon. A. Time. But I hope it is not The End of your storytelling journey and just The Beginning.



Bage, G. (2000). Developing teaching as storytelling. In G. Cliff Hodges, M. J. Drummond, & M. Styles (Eds.), Tales, tellers and texts (pp. 36 - 45). Cassell.

Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Harvard University Press.

Cliff Hodges, G., Styles, M., & Drummond, M. J. (1999). Tales, tellers and texts. Cassell.

Collins, F. (1999). The use of traditional storytelling in education to the learning of literacy skills. Early Child Development & Care, 152(1), 77–108.

Cremin, T. (1997). Traditional storytelling in the primary classroom. Scholastic.

Daniel, A. (2018). Story memorisation – to learn or not to learn word-for-word. Talking Storytelling.

Grugeon, E., & Gardner, P. (2000). The art of storytelling for teachers and pupils: Using stories to develop literacy in primary classrooms. David Fulton Publishers.

Harrett, J., & United Kingdom Literacy Association (2009). Tell me another: speaking, listening and learning through storytelling (2nd ed.). UKLA.

Hibbin, R. (2016). Oral storytelling, speaking and listening and the hegemony of literacy: Non-instrumental language use and transactional talk in the primary classroom. Changing English: Studies in Culture & Education, 23(1), 52–64.

Roney, C. (1996). Storytelling in the classroom: Some theoretical thoughts. Storytelling World, 9, 7–9.