Telling tales to master
the art of speech
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Good speaking skills can be taught, but how? Through practice, with stories.
The predominance of written culture over oral culture remains prevalent in many European countries. Oral language is mainly considered as a preexisting and pre-requisite competence at the beginning of the school curriculum. Writing, on the other hand, is the result of a structured learning process in a school setting. Oral communication is relegated to the background, as if oral communication were simply a means to pass on information ultimately destined to be written down.
However, oral skills are at the heart of all key professional interactions, whether it be defending ideas and convincing someone (job interviews, sales, politics…), or interacting as part of a group (debate, citizenship). In a society based on communication, the need for selfexpression is growing.
Oral proficiency is the foundation of all learning: before learning how to read and write, children must learn how to speak. The gap between children who benefited from a social environment that favoured rich and complex conversations during their early years and those from less privileged backgrounds is immediately noticeable from their very first learning experiences. Far from being bridged, this gap further expands throughout their school years and later tends to have strong repercussions on both their professional and their social life.
Before learning how to read and write,
children must learn how to speak
Orality in School
The notion of orality in school is difficult to grasp because of the variety of meanings it entails. In a broad sense, it can allude to a kind of teaching centered on student/teacher dialogue. More specifically, the word ‘oral’ can also refer to oral examinations that are mainly designed to test the students’ knowledge. But neither of these are specifically intended to develop oral skills. Though teachers often make use of oral presentations and readings, they seldom consider orality itself as a main work focus.
However, there are teaching situations that essentially aim to develop oral communication (learning to recite texts, to debate, etc.) The Seeds of Tellers project was conceived for this type of situation.
Three key points have been our main focus in designing Seeds of Tellers
A different method
From a pedagogical point of view, teaching oral communication cannot be done according to a traditional course framework (lessons to be learned…) as if it were academic knowledge. Indeed, the notion of oral communication refers to a set of skills whose mastery is rooted in practice, through a process of repetition that allows for learning. The goal of this project is to allow children to tell stories in their own words, without reading off of any textual support. From a didactic point of view, assessing oral performance demands an attention to new sets of skills that cannot be directly derived from those used for textual analysis (grammar, syntax, etc.).
Seeds of Tellers needed to use a fundamentally oral material capable of conveying varied, structured, and universal content. It is for this reason that we have chosen to explore tales and other stories derived from oral traditions (from nursery rhymes to myths and legends). Oral tales represent one of the oldest and most universally shared oral forms. They represent the core foundations of our societies and the cement of our cultures.
The child at the heart of the project
Speech is not just about vocabulary and grammar. Giving storytelling a place in children’s education allows their imagination to develop and flourish while they create their own mental images; their minds are stimulated, and their language skills and abilities are enriched by the desire to explore and discover the different forms of language (beginning with listening, then speaking, reading and writing). It allows for the structuring of thoughts, the establishment of the individual as a social being and the development of a personal vision of the world. Oral language is associated with a whole spectrum of skills that are used for the child’s intellectual and emotional development: control over one’s body and emotions, confidence building, imagination, memory development, logical reasoning, empathy, interaction and communication with others… The development of these skills is also of great benefit to children with specific learning disabilities, who are an integral part of this project.
Tales allow children to learn
without realizing it.
Seeds of Tellers aims to defend this vision of orality and the founding role of tales.
We have chosen to present content aimed for children aged 5 to 11 because these are crucial years for learning fundamental skills, and for building their identity and their relationships with others.
The situation in the European Union
There is now a growing interest in oral communication in schools in some European countries. In France, for example, a “grand oral” is to be introduced into the baccalaureate in 2021. Beforehand, students will have to learn to speak out, express their knowledge and defend their ideas in public. Furthermore, eloquence competitions are flourishing, rhetoric is an increasingly popular topic… in short, oral expression is back in the spotlight.
School does not teach the art of addressing people in public
French school curricula stress the importance of “oral language as a means of expression and communication”. The French National Education programme, in 2018, for cycle 2 (6 to 8 years old), states that “the teacher ensures the relevance and quality of the pupils’ oral language on all occasions during the cycle”, without however giving a precise teaching method. Learning texts “by heart” is a common method: asking the pupils to recite a text or poem; oral presentations, too, are often prepared as written texts to be memorised; oral examinations are similarly prepared… There are therefore, in official texts, injunctions to oral communication, and yet, according to surveys, the average weekly oral communication time of a student is a handful of seconds!
You are not born a speaker, you become one!
We tend to believe that some are born speakers with a natural charisma, while others may seem inherently shy and uncommunicative. However, confident and skilful public speaking is within everyone’s reach. Storytelling teaches techniques of rhetoric and eloquence, while also offering opportunities for children to develop their self-confidence, imagination, listening and communication skills.
A 2011 survey of French 6th graders (11 years old) who regularly took part in storytelling workshops revealed that 90% of students had told stories, in the classroom or at home, that 40% had read more than ten books in the year (95% read more than two) and that more than 80% reported making progress in written exercises. Moreover, while 66% of the students said they had no interest in reading when they entered middle school, more than 77% had developed a taste for it by the end of the year.
Promote speaking opportunities
This may seem obvious, but for children to speak, they must be given a chance to speak, and opportunities to speak must be promoted. This is why this method is different from what is usually practiced in schools, and can be surprising: here, no recitation by heart, they have the right to speak, and they have the right to make mistakes! The objective is to encourage the child to speak up and give them a framework in which to do so. To do this, it is necessary to create an atmosphere of benevolent listening. Because the ability to speak depends on how the child is listened to, we must create the conditions that allow the child to take risks and confront the challenge of speaking in public, so that they can feel the pleasure and pride of seeing their efforts pay off.
To this end, the child will have the right to try as much as necessary, from one session to the next. They will understand that it is normal to experiment. Mistakes here have a constructive value. Similarly, repetition is not negative in any way. (It takes about 2000 unsuccessful attempts for a baby to actually start walking!) Stories will be transmitted and practiced exclusively orally, without resorting to the support of a written text. This will allow children to avoid any difficulties related to reading and understanding a text and to avoid reciting it by heart.
Limiting the psycho-pedagogical approach
The richness of the symbolic content of the tales is such that they naturally lend themselves to analysis and interpretation, and are not limited to a single interpretation. These aspects may be of interest to the teacher, but it is not necessary to know them to tell a story. Tales are stories with deep and hidden meanings, symbolic images that reflect the problems we face from a young age, and it is good to let everyone grasp them in their own way. Explaining the message of a story is like imposing a reading. Remaining simple and communicative in the pleasure of telling a story is enough to transmit it; it leaves space for the listener who will be able to connect to it all the better by creating their own mental images, according to their own personality, sensitivity, emotions, experience.
It is ideally a long-term project: throughout a whole school year, if possible; or for a few months. Every week, a fixed time slot will be dedicated to it: same day, same place and same time. A regular meeting between the students and the practice of speech through tales and other stories.
Storytelling at school to master the art of speech