Whatever their inclination and ability in telling stories and reading books to their own children, many adults confess to being extremely nervous in trying to tell stories in the nursery group. There seem to be two areas of apprehension – not being able to remember the story and not being able to control the group of children. If other adults are present, as they usually are, a third worry can be ‘making a fool of oneself in front of them.
Every adult can tell a story. We all do it every day. When we meet friends or other members of the family the doings of the day often come pouring out. We neither forget the details nor have difficulty in finding the right words. Automatically we draw in our listeners with ‘You’ll never guess what she did then/ And what do you think he said?/You’ll never believe the next bit’ – and skillfully parry any attempt on their part to interfere with our flow of narrative. This is because we know the story well. After all it happened to us. It has probably been worked out and rehearsed subconsciously all the way home, and the slight exaggerations allowed by poetic licence are nicely cal-culated to add interest but not detract from credibility. There is a lesson to be drawn from this concerning story-telling. First of all we must learn the story, work out the turning points, decide how to re-focus attention on the main theme of the narrative after interesting digressions. Some people learn stories by writing them out, some by telling them to themselves, and others try them out on their own children or family first. Working out a story-line brief enough to put on a postcard so that one has the first line, then each happening, then the last line is yet another method. By the time the full story has been thus far reduced most people can remember it and the postcard can be thrown away. If the worst happens and the story-teller dries up, an appeal to the children – ‘And what do you think happened then?’ – usually brings a helpful response.
Having learned the story one has then to tell it well. Listening to oneself on a tape recorder helps. It is also valuable to listen to good story-tellers and try to work out why they are so successful. The pace is important as young children seem to need time for each new piece of information to sink in. Slowing up and emphasizing important points, perhaps giving them again in a slightly different way helps a good deal… ‘They couldn’t pull up the turnip. It was too fat. It was too heavy. It was too big. It was Emphasis is most important. If it is given on the wrong word this can be disastrous (try repeating ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’ emphasizing a different word word each time – it means something quite different depending on which word is stressed). While BBC diction is unnecessary, indeed may detract from a story, the words should be enunciated clearly and consonants given particular attention. Some variance in pitch and tone will help the story along. A monotone is very difficult to listen to. Those whom all this advice fills with apprehension should take heart. It is meant to indicate that absolutely anyone can become at least a competent story-teller with practice even if they will not sparkle at it as the lucky ‘naturals’ do.
Handling the group of children also needs practice. It helps to start with a small group whom one knows at least well enough to know each name. Tell a story that is firmly fixed in one’s mind. Sit all the children where they can see and be seen which usually means the story-teller sitting slightly higher than the children. Likely or confirmed fidgets can best be controlled by having another adult sat next to them, or putting them directly in front of the story-teller and giving them a soft toy to cuddle. If the children are sitting so close together that an involuntary movement on the part of one is going to distract another then they need more space. For an inexperienced story-teller, or for a group of young, inexperienced children, very short stories are best. It is easy enough to tell another if things go well and this is more satisfactory than having to finish a long story in a flurry because the children have lost interest.
Interruptions can be quite frequent and are not usually meant to be disruptive. If they are relevant to the story they can be dealt with quickly. If they are not, ‘You can tell us about that when we have heard what happened to the Gingerbread Man’ is usually enough. For some children lust a nod and a smile to acknowledge chat they have been heard is sufficient. It is the child who feels he is being ignored who says the same thing again but twice as loudly. It is important, of course, that the child who was invited to wait until the end of the story does get a turn to make his point.
While the presence ot other adults can be disconcerting for a new story-teller, it is usually very helpful to have them within a larger group. Even assuming that all the children have elected to join the group, that something interesting but quiet has been provided to occupy the non-joiners, that any inveterate ‘Want to go to the lavatory right now this minute’ children have been prudently sent off before the story starts, there still can be disruptions. If the extra adults can deal with these the storyteller is left free to get on with the story. In addition there are the advantages of adults knowing each other’s stories and so increasing their own repertoire, of absorbing each other’s technique and so improving their own, and with a bit of luck the listening children automatically follow the quiet example of the adult listeners. This leads to an all-round improvement in the story sessions.