Storytelling and Language Learning

by Regina Ress

ressBy the age of three or so, most of us can speak our native language. We’ve learned its basic structure, a lot of the vocabulary, and, remarkably, how to play with it to create fluid sentences. It is not memorized: it is “acquired.” How do we do that? The great linguist, Noam Chomsky, has suggested a kind of built in “Black Box”….something inherent in all human beings that fosters this fundamental and oh-so necessary skill. What triggers that first learning? Listening to language. That is why is it so important for babies to be talked to, to be read to, to be told stories!

Because language learning begins with listening and speaking, storytelling is a fabulous tool for teaching language, whether one’s first or tenth. Along with telling and listening to the basic narrative, traditional storytelling often has repetition and rhythm, audience participation such as “call and response,” audience involvement through making predictions or suggestions during the telling, and often some opportunity for role play. From the original text come fluid telling, extemporaneous responses, and opportunities for linguistic improvisation. Reading and writing can be brought in as extensions, of course; however it is the oral-aural-oral experience which so directly opens the way for linguistic learning.

Besides enhancing the practice of the “four skills” (listening, speaking, reading and writing), storytelling teaches vocabulary, functions (making requests, asking questions, etc), and grammar.

It engages the “whole learner” and the “multiple intelligences.” And it is a great way to create community, encourage cross cultural awareness and provide a safe space for personal expression.

I am a big advocate of the use of folk tales. Because they are simple in form while not being simplistic in theme and can be told with simple to complex vocabulary and grammatical structures, they are readily accessible and engaging to all ages and all learning levels. As they come from all cultures and often address shared problems such as dealing with the wily foxes and dangerous crocodiles of life, they are inclusive and can address the students experiences and challenges. The stories and the activities spun from them (including personal stories based on them) definitely help to promote a communicative classroom. And it makes teaching and learning enjoyable.

Join me at the NSN National Storytelling Conference in Kansas City for some language learning pedagogy wrapped in the form of storytelling fun.

Come learn more about this topic at Regina’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri.

About Regina

Regina has performed and taught from Brazil to Broadway, from homeless shelters and prisons to Lincoln Center and the White House. She’s appeared in national and international storytelling festivals and August 6th will mark her 24th year telling stories in NYC’s Central Park.   She teaches storytelling for NYU’s Educational Theatre and Multilingual/Multicultural Studies Programs and ESL/Presentation Skills for foreign students at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Regina produces the long running series Storytelling at the Provincetown Playhouse (NYC) and is the recipient of the 2015 NSN ORACLE Award for Regional Excellence – Mid-Atlantic. Her CD of New York stories won a 2014 Storytelling World Honor award.

Contact Regina


The Hero’s Journey: Storytelling in the Language Arts Classroom

By Jennifer Munro

munroFor many years, I had the privilege of teaching eighth grade English in a school in Connecticut where the curriculum was based on Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth – and it was stirring, important stuff. We were teaching kids about life, the realities of the human condition, and the need to discover the person we were truly meant to be. Sounds grandiose, I know, but the kids loved it – because it resonated with a truth for which they were hungry.

What is the monomyth? What is the hero’s journey? And why does it matter? Campbell studied the world’s myths, many of which have survived for thousands of years, and discovered a specific type of myth whose structure is common to all cultures and all times. He called it the “monomyth.” His exhaustive study is detailed in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Campbell explains that although the heroes of these myths have different faces and come from different cultures and time periods, they all follow a similar path, which he called the heroic journey. The heroes in these stories receive a call to adventure that forces them to set forth in search of an object or a spiritual truth which has the power to transform the hero and heal his world. Filled with perilous obstacles, the journey tests the hero repeatedly, but he returns triumphant.

The important point for teachers is the pattern can be found in many different forms of story. Most notably, it exists in fairy tale, folk tale, wonder tales, myths, and legends. However, it can also be found in other media such as biographies, news stories, and especially movies. It is a rich treasure trove which has great appeal for students of all ages, but most importantly, it provides important opportunities for them to become storytelling practitioners in a deep and meaningful way.

Our eighth grade curriculum began with a study of ten classic virtues and vices, which evolved into a storytelling unit in which both teachers and students became storytellers. The unit also contained a technological component and authentic ways to differentiate the curriculum. Students then went on to explore heroes in their own lives in the form of personal narratives, which they also shared orally. Telling stories increased their self confidence enormously, and hearing one another’s stories forged the strong bonds of a supportive community. They continued with an examination of the hero journey motif in various genres: literature, myths, legends, and movies (think Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, The Lion King, and even Step Up – the first one with Channing Tatum, among others!) The year concluded with the study of non-fiction heroes, which also contained a vital oral component.

The arts of speaking and listening as stated educational goals have largely been neglected by the educational establishment, which is a tragedy. Great value exists in having students of all ages listen to and retell fables, folk tales, fairy tales, and myths. In doing so, they absorb the moral compass of a shared cultural heritage. As they grow older, they will also recognize that the themes, character types, and patterns of traditional stories resurface repeatedly in all forms of literature, thus deepening their appreciation of the importance of oral tradition.

Our sweeping curriculum awakened young people to the truth that they have powerful voices and important stories to tell – that they, too, will receive the call to adventure again and again during the course of their lives and, because they know that the heroes of all time have gone before, they will know the path well and will venture unafraid.

If you choose to teach the hero’s journey and incorporate storytelling into your curriculum, you will find yourself embarking on a magical journey where you will connect with your students in deeper ways than you can possibly imagine.

Come learn more about this topic at Jennifer’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri.

About Jennifer

A dynamic storyteller, Jennifer’s original stories are populated with memorable characters that spring vividly to life. Her repertoire also includes myths, legends, fairy and folk tales. She has performed at major festivals across the nation, most notably the National Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Utah. She has produced two award-winning CDs, and her first collection of short stories, Aunty Lily and Other Delightfully Perverse Stories, will be available from Parkhurst Brothers in 2016. Also a gifted educator, Jennifer has taught middle school English and now teaches Storytelling in Education at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.

Contact Jennifer

Phone: 203-421-0625 or 203-376-7220


Finding The Sweet Spot For Relevant Curricula

by Sue O’Halloran

ohalloranIn order to make curricula more relevant to the vast array of cultures represented in our classrooms, teachers and artists need to look for the “sweet spot” where four areas of learning can overlap:

  1. The core curricula for a subject
  2. The individual interests, motivations, personality, learning styles and communication styles of each student
  3. The family and community context in which the student lives – what students already know and learn outside of school and bring to the classroom with them as a way they understand and experience their lives
  4. The sociopolitical, economic and historical context in which students and their families and communities live

The more time teachers can spend in the sweet spot, students are more engaged because they feel seen, valued and respected. Put simply, students do not learn if they don’t feel they belong Lucky for us, storytelling plays a huge role in bringing a sense of belonging and being cared for into each of these four areas.


For this short article, let me give a few examples of bringing stories into junior and high school subject areas, that, unlike English or social studies class, we might not think to use storytelling:

In math class for family and community context, students can investigate:

  • What did things cost when your parents and grandparents were growing up?
  • If your family lived in a country outside of the U.S., what form of money did they use?
  • Compare inflation rates and conversion rates when your parents were children to today’s rates.

For physical education and health:

  • What games and sports did/does your family play?
  • When you get sick how are you taken care of?
  • What health remedies does your family use? How have they changed over time or when moving to another country?

These real world applications are essential for involving students because they value the students’ current knowledge base and recognize the immediate world the students inhabit.

Science, math and any other subject need not only be strict transfers of knowledge about proven theories and principles. They can also be an integrated reflection of how people view and function in the world. We always want to give our students mirrors -where they see themselves and their families reflected in respectful ways – and windows -where they come to understand all the different ways people live, make sense of their lives and survive and thrive. To investigate the larger sociopolitical, economic and historical context for math and science, for example, a class might explore:

  • Tell the story of one day in the life of a family of four in our town who are living on two minimum wage salaries and what they do to make ends meet. Include their budget for shelter, food, utilities and day care.
  • Tell about a moment of decision from the point of view of a child living in a dwelling other than a “house”. Include the home’s shape, size, floor space, amount of private and communal space.
  • Tell the story of a community leader who takes a stand for the air and water quality in her neighborhood. Include how the decision was made to locate a toxic dump near her home.

This is just a small snippet of ways teachers and artists can make their teaching more relevant and engaging. Some of the most challenging work, however, is the introspection educators must do on themselves. Cultural relevancy isn’t just about adding other cultural references but also understanding our cultural lens and our subject matter from new perspectives: For instance,

  • What was I taught about other group’s families, communities, history and ability to achieve? How much connection do I have now with the communities in which my students live?
  • How has literacy in your subject been a gatekeeper to educational and personal success?
  • How do issues of race and class affect the teaching and learning of your subject?

It is not easy to teach what we may have never learned or to examine the ways our beloved subject matter may have added to our country’s exclusion, but the effort is well worth it when you see the look in students’ eyes that says, “Yes, this subject is about me, my family and my world! I love learning!”

Come learn more about this topic at Sue’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri.

About Sue

Susan O’Halloran has been seen on PBSABC Nightline and in the New York Times, Boston Glove and Chicago Tribune. Sue has presented over a dozen times at NSN conferences and is a recipient of NSN ORACLE Leadership and Service and Circle of Excellence Awards. She brings a comprehensive 7 Step Program to organizations who are serious about avoiding strained relationships plus PR nightmares from “incidents” and the possibility of harassment and discrimination suits.

Sue has videotaped over 170 social justice stories by professional storytellers and produced the first online storytelling festivals that had a Facebook reach of over 112,000 and where people in over 50 different countries participated.

Contact Sue


How to Get the Big Commissions

by Maureen Korte

korteOne day, before I was about to head off to University, I asked my Mother her secret to a happy marriage as she and my Father had been married for forty blissful years. She said:

  1. Never marry a man who is picky about their food. If he is picky about food, he will be picky about everything else.
  2. Buy everything when your husband is out of town and tell him it was on final sale and can’t be returned.
  3. Most importantly make everything his idea.

I looked back on what I had seen Mother do and realized I could hone my skills to get what I wanted too.

When working in education and not having money, I made arts programming the administration’s idea. I told them how much art increased knowledge, gave them information on artists and ideas how to fund programs. When they looked at it and said things like:

“Are you thinking you would like artists in our schools?” I responded with statements like,

“Oh What a Good Idea you have; can I help you get them here?”

Suddenly it was not my idea but theirs. I praised them in public and gave them credit for selecting the artists, getting them there, and paying for them, even if I wrote the grant or raised the money. I also made sure they ate lunch or had a wine date with the artist and so on.

When I started working for a theater I did the same thing.

Maureen: “Minnesota has a big children’s festival.” “You should see it.” “Although I think we have a better space for it, theirs is still successful.”

Director: “Where would we put such a thing?”

Maureen: “Oh, do you want to talk about putting it on the Plaza? I can call the Mayor and he can come hear about your idea as we look at the space.”

When I began telling stories I started, like most tellers, with myths, legends and folktales. I shied away from personal stories as I felt my life was not that interesting to others. I did find stories of other people’s lives very intriguing though.

Because I love the process of collecting stories and retelling them, and presenting historical stories I started researching historical time periods or movements and told the stories of the people who lived through them. I knew that if I worked alone and was low tech I would always find a job, so I started selling these one person shows.

I wanted to get paid to create these shows and do research though, so I began looking for commissions employing the make it “their idea concept.”

In the past I have done commission pieces for the Lt. Governor’s Conference on Diversity, The State of Iowa, school districts, and numerous non-profits. Currently I’m working under a Commission from the League of Women Voters. Next year I hope to write an advocacy show about individuals with disabilities. Many times I bring in other artists to do photographs or add new elements to my shows and make them more interesting. I almost always get an agency or a non-profit to write a grant to pay for the show – I just make it their idea.

Come learn more about how to ‘make it their idea’ at Maureen’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24 in Kansas City, Missouri.

About Maureen

Maureen Korte writes, adapts and tells stories of every genre from every country to every kind of audience. She enhances her tales using sign language, puppets, pantomime, accents, paper cutting and folding, costumes and audience participation. You can find Maureen at festivals, conferences, one-woman shows, schools and universities, working with businesses, with the grieving and dying, and with individuals of all abilities. Teaching programs focus on storytelling, creative writing, poetry, and acting. She produces events, delivers keynotes and consults with non-profits. Maureen travels worldwide for fine arts tours and to study culture and collect the tales of other lands.

Contact Maureen

Maureen J. Korte
Des Moines, Iowa
Professional Storyteller, Bringing Wit and Wisdom to the Stage


Why Sound Matters

by Simon Brooks, © 2016

brooksSound is important in our job as storytellers. It is, for the most part, an oral art form for an aural audience. Obviously, this is not always the case. There are amazing storytellers who are deaf and use sign language, there are storytellers who use tell tales using a digital format, but for the rest, it is our voices that do The Job.

In an ideal setting we would never need amplification. In an ideal setting we could use our ‘indoor’ voices and everyone would hear. We would never get sore throats, or infections. We would all instinctively know the best way to use our voices to maximum effect with minimum effort. But this is not the case. The hall is massive and our voice is lost or echoes so much there is an eerie delay, the wind takes our voice, or the acoustics are so bad people whispering at the back are as loud as you are annunciating and articulating with your best projection from the front! Sometimes we need amplification.

In my youth I was in a number of bands and always into the equipment side of things: the mixing boards, the microphones, and speakers, both in and out of the studio; even though I was ‘just a drummer’ and never had the voice to sing outside of a shower or car! I discovered that different voices did not always sound good on the same microphone. Some mics were okay all round microphones, but some mics worked well for one singer and another mic worked better for a different vocalist. Guitarists choose amps to project a certain sound or feel. Drummers use different skins, have kit and cymbal manufacturers they preferred over others.

As a storyteller I was able to bring all this knowledge with me, and when I got ‘kitted up’ for larger performance spaces and for venues where the acoustics were lavatory quality, I knew what to do. (All my old equipment was left in the UK and sold, or given away over 20 years ago.) I tried out a number of microphones when I recorded my first CD as I know my voice has a strong sibilant side. For fun, I tried out the most expensive mic the studio (Pepperbox Studios in Vermont) had in their collection. My voice sounded scratchy, and hissing to the point it might make one wince. The mic sounded great on someone, just not me! I tried out a few other microphones and found one that cut the sibilance down and brought a slightly deeper resonance to the mix. That mic I liked a lot. It is the same with speakers. They have their own ‘colour’.

Our art requires us to be heard and understood. As storytellers we need to have equipment which allows us, even in the most horrendous of situations, to be clear as a bell, to be heard over traffic, wind, heating/cooling systems, or rude patrons, amongst other handicaps. As professionals we need to be aware of what is available, what makes us sound good or bad, and most importantly how to set equipment, and a room up for success. We display our professionalism and that we are worth our salt. We show we know what we are doing. People then know we take our profession seriously. It shows our customers, be they libraries, museums, businesses, theatres, etc. that we can be trusted to do a great job and that we can be hired again, and that means more work for all of us.

We want an audience to go home having felt they were in an intimate setting, having an intimate experience, no matter the size of venue, or number of bums on seats. Maybe we get the room set up so perfectly, they leave not even realizing there was amplification. We need to know how to amplify a room for ourselves. Finding and using the right equipment properly is so important. As I implied, and can confirm, the equipment does not have to be the most expensive. But it does have to be right – for us, as individuals.

Why Sound Matters by Simon Brooks, © 2016

About Simon

Simon Brooks hails from Britain and has been perfected in the States. Simon performs all over New England and his storytelling recordings have won awards. Simon has been telling stories in front of a captive audience since 1990. Most of the time his audience forgot they were locked in. Simon’s early experience with bands as well as being a storyteller made sure he knew how to make himself heard. Be Loud, Be Loud, But Not Too Loud is his response to other tellers who might also need this knowledge! Simon’s four CDs are available from his shiny new look website.

Contact Simon

603-877-0033 | |