The Tradition of Oral Storytelling

14134388517_b65d0cae99_zOnce Upon a Time Circa 1950

I think I have always been a storyteller. When I was a child, even before we had electricity, I looked forward to the evenings with my family when we would sit around the kitchen table and talk about the day’s events.

I can still see the warm glow from the gas lanterns casting shadows on the walls. Sometimes I would make up wild adventures about a ferocious alligator living under our dock. Or scare my sisters with tales of a mysterious creature lurking in the icehouse in our backyard.

That was all before hydro wires reached my house and “I Love Lucy” invaded my living room, and when Apple was still just a fruit.

Tuning Out is Way Too Easy

I believe that television and other electronic mediums so readily available now in every home, have contributed to shutting down the human voice. As many of our children are growing up on a diet of bland TV sitcoms and computer games as their intellectual junk food, they become desensitized to the tug of their own emotions.

It’s very hard to return to the traditions of oral communications in a world of sound bites, where we simply ‘turn off’ or ‘tune out’ if we don’t like what we hear or see. It’s much too easy for children to transfer this behavior into real life situations.

 Stories Help to Connect the Dots

It hurts my heart to know that oral storytelling is becoming a dying art for many families. In my view, it’s the most practical and natural means of talking about ordinary or profound matters that would otherwise never be discussed.

It’s a way to teach children and adults how to listen respectfully to each other’s voices and to feel connected by hearing our own feelings expressed by others. And as sure as a love of stories is connected to a love of reading…oral storytelling is connected to building confidence and self-esteem in children.

Now how cool is that?

When a Story is More Than a Story

It’s my belief that teaching the art of oral storytelling is an investment in the futures of our children and grandchildren. It gives them a basic training in sequencing events, and organizing thoughts and experiences into chunks; an invaluable skill to have at any age. And it teaches them how to listen and be heard; a basic ability so many adults have never mastered.

Children tell stories as a way to solve problems and understand the world around them. If you want to know what your child is thinking about, listen to their stories. So maybe it’s time to put away the tablets, cell phones and laptops and let our imaginations do the talking.

Welcome to Storytelling Boot Camp and a Few Creative Exercises 

  1. Young children love to hear stories about themselves, especially when they were babies. Repeat the stories often and ask them to tell you the stories back.
  2. Have the child “picture read” from a favourite book; don’t read the words. The child will go from page to page telling you the story from what they see.
  1. Write story starter ideas on strips of paper and create a story jar. Take turns choosing from the jar to tell your stories. (IE: If I had a magic carpet, I would…)
  1. Tell them lots of stories from your childhood, and add funny details that will appeal to young listeners. They will love to hear the shenanigans you got up to.
  1. Ask the child to choose 3 things they want in a story. (IE; a bear, a kite and a boy.) Make up a tale that includes these items, then ask the child to tell you a story with your 3 things.
  1. Put together a storytelling tray by gathering a variety of small objects from around the house. Take turns choosing an object from the tray and make-up stories about each of them.
  1. Have fun telling continued stories. This can be done with one of more children, as everyone adds a portion of the same tale as the story progresses.
  1. Create a magical space to tell your stories. This can be anywhere – like in a soft cozy chair, under a favorite tree or on a simple blanket on the floor. Special snacks can also set the mood.

The Hidden Rewards

Two of the most important skills we can have as adults, is our ability to adapt to change and be proficient in public speaking. It’s been said that some people would rather choose death over speaking in public! Now how silly is that?

By consistently developing our narrative skills from an early age, we become comfortable with shifting plots and thinking on our feet, as it were. And as we mature, we learn to embrace change and gain confidence in our ability to speak out and engage others.

These are huge life-skills that go a long way in helping children to become successful adults.

My Final Word on the Subject

Through oral storytelling exercises, I believe the power of language can help to develop thinkers, imaginers and status-quo shakers. By exercising our creative muscles from an early age, we learn to be inventive, ask questions and look outside the lines.

What a simple but powerful gift we can give to our children and grandchildren – a gift that will keep on giving for many years to come. Now isn’t that a legacy we would all like to leave behind?


See you between the lines and on Twitter @PatSkene

Note: This post was originally created and published in Feb 2016 for


11 thoughts on “The Tradition of Oral Storytelling

  1. I fondly remember family gatherings and listening to all of the fun adventures my parents and grandparents got up to when they were kids. I am finding that as time goes on, the kids I watch are slowly getting away from reading and rely upon youtube to do the storytelling. So, even books are going to be a thing of the past eventually. Very sad.


    1. Yes, the allure of easy access to electronic entertainment can make for lazy imaginations. It’s hard work to keep kids interested in reading books. I think family routines that include telling stories at dinner and talking about the day’s events, is an important thing to hang on to.


  2. Thank you for these excellent suggestions to foster the love of stories in our grand children. Quite by accident, I stumbled on the technique of making up stories about lived experiences on a day when I cared for my then 2 ½ year old grand daughter after she had a severe fall that necessitated a trip to the emergency room. When I was putting her down for her afternoon nap, I made up a story of a girl going to the hospital. Although I wasn’t present for the event, I made up a description of the fall after tripping on a flagstone walkway, the trip to the hospital in the car, the bleeding from her forehead, how mommy and daddy were worried, how the nurses and doctors responded with stethoscopes, bandages, and cold popsicles. She went to sleep comfortably and upon awakening asked for the story to be repeated — again and again. Not only did this story provide comfort, it helped her to make sense of a frightening event in her life. Since then, I’v made up stories about other life events. I find story telling more interesting and fun than some of the books that we read over and over again.
    I’ve also used your suggestion of having my grand daughter ‘read’ stories from the pictures. With the encouragement of your excellent post, I will go back to this technique now that she has more words to express what is happening in the pictures. I’m interested in helping her to learn how to express a range of emotions and also to recognize emotions and feelings in others by using the pictures.


    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment Jeanette. I’m so happy you hav established this wonderful connection with your granddaughter. It builds a bond and special relationship between the two of you, as well as teaching her how to cope with life. Enjoy every minute!


  3. Janice Birnie

    We’re a family of storytellers too. Sure hope we never lose this great way of communicating…even if this new generation make up stories about their electronic devices!! I passed along your last blog relating to this subject to a few teacher friends. They agree.


    1. Yes Janice, we all grew up in a time of storytelling – especially since we didn’t have electricity. So we made our own entertainment. Thanks for your comment and for forwarding my post.


  4. My friend Jeanette told me about your post. I have put together a reading approach, based on current brain science ideas, that helps children expand their feelings vocabulary. The science behind it basically is if one can name it, then one can tame it. The main premise behind the REST approach (Reading To Enhance Self-Regulation Tasks) is to be able to provide the child with more feelings words to describe the basic feelings of sad, mad, happy and scared. And to also teach how the face (eyes, eyebrows and mouth) and body looks while expressing certain feelings. Anyone can be taught this approach, but I notice as a retired social worker, that people do not tend to want to pay for wellness services, but will pay when there is a problem. I can teach this approach to parents, educators, and even older siblings and students. Teachers how have been exposed to it love it. Your boot camp suggestions are a wonderful incorporation and addition to this whole approach. Simply taking your picture reading idea, it would be so easy to incorporate some of the REST questions: What is that character feeling? What else might she or he be feeling? Can you tell me a time when you felt that way? Do you think this character likes what is happening right now? How can you tell? The other thing I really try to teach with this program is how to respond from a position of CALM. C= make it Child-led and Child-driven (follow the child’s interest and lead); A= keep it Affect-neutral by embracing the feeling, tone, and expression in a fun way without embracing the actual feeling (don’t ket child get caught up in a negative feeling); L= Listen for the child’s unique contribution and repeat what he or she has said (there is no such thing as going off topic with this approach); and M= Make it work, make the child’s unique contribution fit in with the learning and the story. Thanks for such a great article. I feel really inspired!


    1. Thank you so much for such an interesting comment Barb. Your REST approach to reading is remarkable and I applaude you for developing this wonderful program. You have inspired me in return. Good luck with your endeavours.


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