The Art of Storytelling in the Montessori Classroom
Reading aloud is a daily event in the Montessori classroom. The many benefits of reading with children are well documented and teachers are the first to encourage parents to read with their children every day. However, in the classroom, teachers can create an experience beyond words. They can transform simple reading aloud into dramatic storytelling. Storytelling is interactive and imaginative. The National Storytelling Network (NSN) writes:
“Storytelling is the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination."
While telling a story the teller may follow text from a book or may choose to use their own words. Teachers should not panic thinking they need acting lessons to tell stories. The usual Montessori activity of reading aloud crosses over to storytelling when the teacher has read a story so often that the words come naturally from repetition. Children, too, remember the words by hearing them said over and over again. Teachers need not make time to memorize stories.
According to NSN, storytelling includes:
- Actions such as gestures, vocalizations, or physical movements
- Presenting a story
- Encouraging the active imagination of the listener
Favorite read-aloud books read frequently over the course of the school year will become part of a teacher’s repertoire and invite variation in gesture and voice. There will come a point when the teacher will not have to read the text word for word. A space for more varied interpretive actions will open and the story will become a unifying experience for the group.
Oral language connects to and enhances literacy. Sharing stories helps students develop language skills, improve comprehension, and exhibit interpersonal skills. Research shows that storytelling is effective in growing students’ reading, listening, and speaking skills specifically. Again, storytelling and reading-aloud can be remarkably similar experiences. However, one study found that storytelling surpassed reading aloud in one area: recall ability, that is, memory.
How to Become a Storyteller
The good news is that if you are using movements, gestures, asking questions, and interacting with your audience during your read-aloud activities, you are already a storyteller. If you are just starting out, then preparing ahead of time can help. Sketching a quick script for how you’d like to act out the story is a great aid to remind yourself when to make a certain gesture or when to pause for audience participation. Even if you are using the book text as a prompt, consider penciling in reminders where particularly dramatic sections of the story take place. Other planning can include asking yourself these questions:
- Is the story I want to share one that I enjoy and show enthusiasm for?
- Have I already committed most of the story to memory so that the text acts only as a prompt? Will I be able to make eye contact with my audience for most of the telling?
- Am I comfortable using different character voices? If not, can I modulate my voice to show feeling?
- Do I need props or will hand gestures and facial expressions suffice?
- Is there room for audience participation? Where?
- Is there time to practice the story at least once before sharing with the class? If so, am I pacing the story evenly? Am I evoking the appropriate mood for the story?
Despite all the planning, the first time you share a new story may not go as expected. Audience reaction and interest may not align with what your expectations were and you may forget a dramatic voice or gesture. Don’t worry, though, storytelling becomes easier and easier with each retelling. Throughout the process you will become more comfortable interacting with your audience, as well as reading your audience. Being able to adjust storytelling technique in response to your audience’s reactions comes with time and makes for a better storytelling experience all around.
There are many resources to guide you in becoming an accomplished storyteller. Check below for books, websites, and organizations to help you take shared reading time to new literacy heights.
- Margaret Read MacDonald’s Teaching with Story: Classroom Connections to Storytelling is a comprehensive and practical guide for teachers to use storytelling to help students develop language skills.
- Margaret Read MacDonald has also published a couple of books with short, easy to memorize stories if you want to try a storytelling session without a book in hand. The author’s books are Peace Tales and Earth Cares.
- Jim Trelease wrote his groundbreaking “The Read-Aloud Handbook” in 1983. The series has been updated by Professor Cyndi Giorgis and the latest edition was released in 2019.
- Baby Read Aloud Basics by Caroline J. Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez is perfect for the Infant & Toddler teacher where storytelling is a more interactive process naturally.
- From Lullabies to Literature by Jennifer Birckmayer is another resource for the Infant & Toddler teacher.
- The Australian State Education website has a free example of a storytelling tale with suggested props and other ideas for audience participation.
- The National Storytelling Network offers workshops and other resources for paying members.
About the Author
V. Kulikow is a former Montessori teacher and youth services librarian. She currently works as a UX designer and enjoys content creation both with words and images.