‘Everything’ a story – you are a story – I am a story’
(Frances Hodgson Burnett)
Stories make up our lives. As we talk about our day, our ideas, and our dreams, we’ll often talk through a story. These stories naturally flow from us in the form of our routine conversations. I have always loved stories, whether I’m reading a book, watching a movie, sharing an experience with a friend, or working with the children in my kindergarten. I know stories have the power to help us remember, to instil passion and to connect us with others. Therefore, when I was presented with the opportunity to become one of the Dr. Vince Ham eFellows for 2016 with CORE Education, I grabbed it with both hands. Having wondered about the link between stories and literacy, I titled my research, ‘Building oral language skills through storytelling in an early-years context.’
My initial inspiration to look at the links between oral language and storytelling resulted from a visit to the Opal School in Portland, Oregon. It was listening to the shared stories from the teachers regarding how their philosophy supports a play-based curriculum which draws heavily on the arts and storytelling, that inspired me.
There were several reasons I wanted to see if storytelling could support oral language skills in early childhood education (ECE). Research supports how integral the preschool years are for the development of oral language, and how strong oral language at an early age means the likelihood of a child becoming strong in literacy is very high (Sheil et al, 2012). And on a personal level, from talking to some of the new-entrant teachers at my local schools, they shared with me how they felt that today, more than ever, students are coming into school with insufficient language knowledge. This means that many children’s oral language skills are not developed enough to support the curriculum objectives. It seemed to me that children would need well-developed oral language skills before they could be expected to become fluent readers, writers, and even fluent thinkers.
As my research began, I immediately hit a brick wall. I had assumed that children would find it easy to tell and share stories, and that they would have the same understanding as me of what stories were. This was a big misunderstanding. Eager not to have my research fall at the first hurdle, I began to talk to all the children about stories, and it became clear that they felt stories were only found in books, on book shelves, and in the library. This clearly wasn’t going to help children tell their own stories, so it was at this point that I realised I needed to ask the right question, which, incidentally, ended up setting the direction of my research. The question was, ‘Where do stories live?’
After turning the topic of stories into a question the children could relate to, and by focussing my research on concentrating on this one question, something magical happened. Stories were no longer just related to books. In the children’s words:
‘Stories come from my mouth, some come from words, some from pictures…Stories aren’t just in books, they come from Lego as the Lego is magic…Stories come from inside of me…you can get stories in your dreams, ‘cause I’ve had them…Stories are also in your imaginations…Or they can be real, like real life stories, not made up.’
As my formal research ended, the stories continued to flow freely in all corners of our kindergarten, I spent some time analysing and reflecting on my findings and I realised that the children were exploring and experimenting with language more. They were beginning to use many descriptive words, and words they may have heard from friends or peers. I saw how the language used in stories was very different from the language of conversation.
Another observation was that, as the children increasingly began to share their stories, they became more expressive. They were expressive both verbally with words and language, and non-verbally with gestures and facial expressions. Alongside this, the more stories children told, the more their confidence increased and the clarity of their voice improved. As they gained more confidence, interestingly, I noted how this supported children in taking some risks with their stories. Children began to try out words and ideas that they may not have been quite brave enough to do at the very beginning of my research.
Although these made up the main findings of my research, I also discovered some beautiful surprises. I discovered more about the children, their passions, their interests, their worries; the things that delighted them as well as the things that scared them. Through storytelling I had my eyes opened to the uniqueness of each child. Through their stories, I developed a much deeper and personal connection with the children.
I also learnt a lot about myself as a teacher. In the words of Stephen Covey, I soon learnt to listen ‘with the intent to understand, not with the intent to reply’. This was significant learning for me, and I realised children didn’t want someone to solve or fix a problem that they were sharing through a story; they wanted a listener.
Just when I thought I could relax, uLearn16 quickly approached. Having never been to a uLearn conference before, the experience was new and I was a little overwhelmed when I realised the significance of the event with over 1500 attendees. However, when it came to sharing my own work, I found myself presenting with two other researchers at the Research and Inquiry Symposium. Listening to the findings and highlights of their research projects both excited and enraptured me, and my own nerves soon dissipated.
uLearn is a wonderful mix of teachers, educational researchers, and leaders. To be able to present alongside them was an honour I will never forget. To be able to listen to the many international keynotes alongside more local, New Zealand-based speakers made me realise the passion there is for providing the best professional practice in our classrooms/kura/centres as teachers across the globe. It was a novel experience to attend a conference with not only ECE teachers, but also primary, intermediate, and secondary colleagues. All too often, we work and learn in our own sector’s bubble, but being able to consider issues that cross all sectors is amazing. This is how I feel all professional learning should be; we are one big family in education, we should be working together, learning from each other, listening to each other’s stories and valuing and honouring the work of our colleagues. Surely it is only when we do this, to come together and connect, that we can ever hope to truly transform our practice.
G. Shiel, Á.Cregan, A.McGough and P.Archer, “Oral Language in Early Childhood and Primary Education (3-8 years)”, National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), Research report number 14, 2012.