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Benefit Blog 1: ORACY

We began 2020 with a post about the benefits of teaching and learning the storytelling way. Our intention was to publish 20 short comment pieces discussing the benefits that storytelling teachers get excited about. The year took off with a whizz and a flurry of exciting growth in the number of teachers and organisations contacting us for training. These past months have been full of travel, meetings, training events and connection with new schools. Needless to say, the comment pieces were not happening. Now, with our current COVID-19 way of life and only one week into ‘lockdown,’ perhaps we can catch up.

During this time, we should also gain momentum towards publishing our own collection of stories. Along with Judy Sachdeva, my partner in writing for New Zealand classrooms, we are preparing 20 narrative and 20 non-fiction texts for telling. Schools will be able to combine our 'stories for telling' about Aotearoa's people time and place, with stories from around the world. Many schools who train with us go on to use our services for curriculum design. We combine stories that carry; local curriculum, cultural narrative and plot type into a learning hierarchy for literacy, science, history and social studies, designing a story journey right for each school.

In these ‘comment’ pieces, we will describe the benefit to literacy progression, learner behaviour, engagement and meta-cognition when a storytelling model is established. From time to time, we will share podcasts or readings. These are intended to support reflective practice in teaching with ‘storytelling’ at the centre of learning. No one shared item will define our opinion or stance on a subject. They simply help us move forward with grace, to respect the various fields of information and to form a greater ability to inter-think as storytelling teachers.

As a training provider, we are asked, what evidence supports that storytelling works as a literacy learning method? We explain what and who has influenced our practice model. But then, we ask that teachers put into practice what they learn from us, begin their storytelling journey, and judge the ‘evidence’ from within their own teaching context. It’s a try and see for yourself response! The benefits of teaching and learning the storytelling way are quick to emerge, exciting in so many ways. Most importantly, when a whole-school becomes a storytelling school, the benefits are cumulative.

Before discussing an array of benefits that we attribute to teaching the storytelling way, it is important to share our perspective on ‘evidence-based practice’ and the ever-changing landscape of advice for educators. Our profession certainly needs the research questions and evidence from cognitive phycology as a means of challenging, refining and informing ‘chalk face’ practice. But, to simply assume that everything from a research field is immediately applicable to the classroom leaves us open to all sort of experimental journeys. ‘Small-scale’ and ‘short-term’ studies given blanket application to all manner of learning contexts, may well be why, as teachers, we feel the constant winds of change.

Listening to Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, we can consider the example of research into working memory and how direct application to the classroom did not result in the sustained benefits anticipated. But, never-the-less teacher understanding of working memory has helped teachers improve their practice and make informed judgements. The conversation here may be helpful in understanding the environment we operate in between research and education. To delve further would lead us into the conversation regarding the drivers to research, the commercial interests and the marketplace of education.

At our face-to-face events, we ‘unpack’ and discuss ‘learner needs’, particularly in respect of spoken language. Often, the ever-changing scene in research delivers a start point for educator conversations. We encourage a longitudinal view of studies into language and communication. In particular, we ask, what sustains engagement, supports inclusive education and promotes a love of learning, language, and literature? Even as a training provider, our expertise and that of advanced storytelling teachers, continues to grow. Listening to and reading widely, enables us to glean information, ideas and ‘evidence’ from across the fields of science, education, and storytelling in education to explain the behaviours and benefits we attribute to learning through storytelling. This, in turn, helps tune our reflective radar to notice the nuances of change in the classroom. Fundamentally, we are on a sustained ‘inquiry’ path.

Over the coming months, we will describe the many ‘hidden wonders’ of teaching through storytelling. Yes, we will describe the acceleration benefits for reading comprehension and composition for writing. We will share with you, the possibilities for storytelling to ‘un-level’ learning and take everyone along for the ride, for storytelling to reach across the curriculum carrying knowledge and content. We will talk about and share the observations of storytelling teachers reflecting on the many key competencies supported in a storytelling pedagogy and teaching model. But here and now we will talk about Oracy. The term oracy was coined by Joy Wilkinson, a British researcher and educator, in the 1960s. This word is formed by analogy from literacy and numeracy. The purpose is to draw attention to the neglect of oral skills in education. We feel it gives the same status to spoken language as to print communications.

The quality of children’s early language experience and aptitude remains a powerful predictor of future educational achievement not only in literacy but across the curriculum (Hart & Risley, 1995). We all work in environments where children enter school with variance in that language experience and aptitude. We cannot ignore the socio-economic influence on language where many children are delayed in reaching developmental ‘milestones’ for spoken language. Or that, increasingly, such delay is noted across all demographics. Societal change is having its own impact on spoken language. It is within this context that as educators we can be excited that, ’Storytelling’ offers a solution; a means to ‘bridge the gap,’ to accelerate language abilities, to challenge the prediction of sustained and generational low achievement, and to ward off an overall decline in spoken language and eloquence. Teaching the storytelling way is proven to accelerate spoken language fluency, articulation of ideas and effective oral language communication. We can make this statement confidently backed by observations in many, many classrooms, and by formative assessment comments, and feedback from storytelling teachers, school leaders, and parents.

Most of us deliver our first ‘telling’ of a story in our classrooms with some trepidation in our ability as storytellers. But we pull it off and commonly teachers tell us how ‘attentive’ their students were, how, they felt the support and admiration of their students. That, their students seem to understand the effort taken to learn and tell the story to them. That to learn to tell a story to others is an achievement and that the reward is a pleasure shared.

In all settings, we have watched teachers introduce their students to learning the storytelling way with relative ease. The first stories are considered an opportunity to learn to teach as a storytelling teacher and for students to learn how to learn within each element of the storytelling sequence. However, even at this ‘learning phase,’ teachers tell us that using the given memory and practice strategies, children quickly become storytellers. That across all abilities and dispositions, children gain language from the story. Teachers soon hear the linguistic quality of the story reflected in the children’s retellings, play-based reenactments, song and role-play. Often, hearing the voice of more introverted, speech-delayed, or second-language learners for the first time gain volume and confidence. The rich vocabulary and literary phrases from the story are adhered to in retelling, played with, and reapplied in changing stories. This ‘imitation’; a retelling of the story by the child, not only mimics the vocabulary, language variation, structure and literary techniques but we see children are able to use body, voice and gesture to convey the mood and dramatic qualities of the story.

Our observation is that the ‘story’ told presents an authentic context for listening to and learning language, content and ideas as a shared platform for story exploration and development. In this way, learner variance in prior knowledge and language experience is accommodated. Everyone can begin from imitation, from a level playing field with no ceiling.

A literacy learning hierarchy moves from listening to speaking. Later, success in reading and writing is predicated by success in the former two. Storytelling gifts children ‘the words’ they need, and sentence structure and flow of language that is closer to print than that of ‘everyday chatter’. Our children need to be able to talk at and beyond the sentence level that we present in reading and writing tasks. In this way, we ‘lighten the load’ for them to read and write within familiar contexts.

Some recent comments from teachers at Bromley School, reiterate the effective movement of language from passive listening comprehension to active use in the retelling, long-term retention and reapplication to new tellings and future writings. Loitering with a story beyond imitation gives many opportunities for vocabulary to become embedded; understood and extended. For schools that have adopted our pedagogy and teaching model, this benefit emerges quickly.

I first started my Storytelling journey with Liz at the start of 2018 when I completed the first training day with her...and I was hooked! The theory behind the storytelling method just made complete sense to me and the engaging delivery left me wanting to know so much more! I was delighted to feel so energised about teaching Writing again, and I immediately gave storytelling a go with my class.  They absolutely loved it! The engagement of the tamariki and amount of improvement in their oral and written vocabulary over the course of the year was incredible. The rest of our kura began the training with Liz in Term 4 of 2018 and staff responses mirrored mine.

“I have loved the extension of vocabulary developing within our class because of Storytelling.”

“The children are more confident because their writing comes from an oral language base.”

This mastery of language comes from learning the story but also from the many talk- related tasks that are used to loiter and explore within stories. When we engage the children in arts, drama, dialogic teaching and collaborative talk-tasks; as a core to oracy education, we enable them to think and inter-think. To steal a wonderful description from Cambridge University Press; Ways of talking shape ways of thinking, and ways of thinking are expressed in ways of talking.

However complex or uncertain our world becomes, our prime responsibility as teachers, our core business if you like, is to ensure that going to school is every child’s route to becoming independently literate and numerate, opening a doorway to lifelong learning. But schools go well beyond this. We have identified attributes for our children of today that we believe will best prepare them to participate effectively in all of their tomorrows. Today we market our schools on these qualities. We sell school ‘culture’, ‘ethos’ and ‘priorities’ to our parent community. ‘Education for 21st-century learners, student agency, critical thinkers, resilience’ and the list goes on…. And yes, the passage of time will bring change and place new demands in adulthood on our people, workforce, communities and global partnerships. But, when stripped back, the actual skills and abilities, the values and attributes that we want are the same as they have always been, we have just given them new names and titles. The realisation of these skills, abilities, attributes and the communication of values rests in our ability to think and communicate. Both rely heavily on reaching for competency and new heights in oracy.

We are not born with language ‘hard-wired’ into cognition but with the capacity to learn language from our parents, our society and our teachers. However, we do seem ‘hard-wired’ for 'story.' The evidence suggests that our human brains like the arrangement of narrative as a strong memory enhancer. For narrative carries a world of language, ideas and imagining! Read either of the two books shown below and ask; are we losing language? Voices in History and Written in History share the speeches and letters that changed the world. Aside from the subjects and content of these, I think most of us will read vocabulary, expression and eloquence that we no longer hear or strive for. Language helps to define and enrich us and perhaps we can rescue it and gift it back to future generations.

To authenticate the acceleration in spoken language as a benefit from the storytelling method, we invite our community of storytelling teachers to add their comments.

“Storytelling is the best thing you could do for a job cos it’s fun and you teach people what it is and it’s fun for them.  It’s like making a path of people and it leads back to you teaching people, like a boomerang!!” (Girl, aged 8)​


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