Literacy loves storytelling


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Proud as punch at In Other Words. ©100 Story Building 2012. Photography by Percy Caceres. Used with permission.

When we think of advancing children's literacy we most often think in terms of teaching and learning around reading and writing. However, oral language plays a vital role in the development of successful literacy. Perhaps because it is transient and everyday, talk can be taken for granted and slip past quickly. Nevertheless, researchers such as James Gee (2004) tell us that rich oral language is a strong predictor of literacy success, especially what Gee calls the development of 'unusual vocabulary', that is language beyond the conversational, the type of language found in literary and information texts.

Allied to this is the power and appeal of story, of narrative: it is how we shape our identities and lives; how we make sense of what happens to us. And children, even young ones, have valuable and important stories to tell. They also enjoy listening to and learning from the stories of experts and their peers.

A student points out his masterpiece. 100 Story Building 2012. Photography by Percy Caceres. Used with permission.
A student points out his masterpiece. ©100 Story Building 2012.
Photography by Percy Caceres. Used with permission.

Expanding repertoires of oral language, exploring and celebrating those 'unusual' words (palindromes, neologisms, portmanteau words, homonyms, homophones) can be a great pleasure for teachers and learners as can sharing meaningful, crafted stories. An exciting example is demonstrated in an innovative program, In Other Words at Dinjerra Primary School, Melbourne. Students from 25 different nationalities attend the school, including recent arrivals, and the program aimed to develop literacy and stronger home/school/community partnerships for the benefit of these students. The program began in 2012 as part of Maribyrnong City Council's River of Words initiative, and has become a self-sustaining project incorporated into the early years classrooms. The resulting children's stories were lively, told with animation, intonation and a clear desire to communicate something important to the teller. See examples at

In Other Words, designed to build foundational literacy skills of students in years Prep to Grade 2, was an extensively planned, eight week program which is briefly described here as an example of how learning to tell and shape stories, and listening to the stories of others, advances literacy, a sense of community and deep engagement in learning. It involved the school community, students and parents, and professionals from creative industries in the telling, illustration and video recording of stories. But at the heart of the program were the children and their stories.

Oral storytelling was to be the basis for the literacy curriculum for term two at Dinjerra, and In Other Words was delivered as a series of weekly workshops led by 100 Story Building. It incorporated three expert storytellers, oral language skills, visual literacy skills and ICT skills, culminating in a celebratory 'Red Carpet' event - a film premiere of the recorded stories on a very cold evening, which nevertheless attracted over 200 people, including families, teachers and supporters.

Oral storytelling is crucial to literacy. 100 Story Building 2012. Photography by Percy Caceres. Used with permission.
Oral storytelling is crucial to literacy. ©100 Story Building 2012.
Photography by Percy Caceres. Used with permission.

Pivotal inspiration and models

'We read to them every day. They know about storytellers through books and authors. But to actually meet a storyteller, for them, was inspiring,' said teacher Ivy Leach.

Writer and lawyer, Alice Pung, an ex-student of the school, whose published work draws on her family's experiences of coming to Australia from Cambodia, told of an event when she was a student at the school. This evocative story captured the imaginations of the children and modelled for them that their experiences hold rich possibilities for storytelling.Many students chose to tell stories about their families.

Performance poet and actor, Tariro Mavondo, originally from Zimbabwe, works with African and Indigenous community storytelling, musical and poetry groups. Her active, animated, poetic storytelling provided rich rhythmic oral language for students and teachers to draw on.

Bernard Caleo, comic creator, inspired the students through his knowledge and experience with Kamishibai, the ancient form of Japanese visual storytelling, which uses words and pictures together to tell the story. So engaged were the students by this form of storytelling that telling stories through Kamishibai directed the project from that point.

Celebrating - film premiere

Fifty-eight student stories were presented at the culminating film premiere at the school. All kinds of stories were shared: some were fairytales, or about playing sport, or about vampires; others were touching stories about arrival at the school, about having no pens or books at home, about the struggles of families.

Confidence-building and the development of oral literacy were clear outcomes. The children's language developed as students watched themselves on the recordings, reflected and improved. They learned to use their voices to animate their tellings, to think about their story, and how they would present it visually. It was their story and they knew it well. They learned to listen to others and to offer thoughtful and polite feedback: 'I liked the way you did this, but you could try this...'

The final performance demonstrated those learnings. For a grade 2 girl, the storytelling journey brought out something deep for her as she told the story of her journey to Australia. She gained the confidence to write from the oral storytelling experience. A less engaged student, initially reluctant to draw, created illustrations and gained confidence. He was captivated by Bernard's story: he took it, reshaped and added to it until it became his story. He demonstrated willingness to share, perform, use the equipment, and offer feedback to others. He was proud of his story and was often the first to tell it in class. A prep student was timid and initially reluctant to speak. At the end of the eight weeks, her parents had become eager to come into the school; she had grown in confidence, wrote about her picture, and is now 'flying in the classroom'. Her whole family is excited. Conversations within families flourished. Lachlann Carter of 100 Story Building said, 'The children were good little marketeers... [they] really wanted people to see what they had created'.


In terms of language, there were clear indicators of success. Children were using elaborated, extended language such as 'When my sister was tired, she had a cup of tea with my Mum'. The take up of literary language was evident in such examples as 'the stroke of midnight', and 'all the stars came out'. Visual literacy understandings and skills were also displayed in the use of colour to convey mood, use of saturated colour, choice of focal points and perspective.

 Who said storytelling couldn't be fun? 100 Story Building 2012. Photography by Percy Caceres. Used with permission.
Who said storytelling couldn't be fun? ©100 Story Building 2012.
Photography by Percy Caceres. Used with permission.

Your storytelling school

In Other Words was a thoroughly planned, collaborative program from which much can be taken:

  • Enjoy and celebrate language in the texts you choose to share, including poetry. Literary language is very different from conversation and can provide that 'unusual vocabulary', for example, Sonya Harnett's Sadie & Ratz, Ursula Dubosarsky's Two Gorillas, Dick King Smith's Friends and Brothers.
    As children's author Aidan Chambers (1991) says, 'We cannot easily read for ourselves what we haven't heard said'.
  • Model expert storytelling - find out who the experts are in your community and invite them to share their stories and storytelling.
  • Invite families to be part of the development of the stories, to share in the storytelling.
  • Provide clear expectations, scaffolding and plenty of practice for entertaining and informing the audience.
  • Integrate oral language with the use of drawings to combine the strengthening of visual literacy with oral language: as Bernard Caleo says in his workshops, 'Drawing is writing'.
  • Celebrate the stories: roll out the red carpet, 'frock up', invite the paparazzi and have a special event to share and validate the storytelling with the wider school community. A popcorn machine is a winner!


Chambers, A. (1991), The reading environment. Stroud: The Thimble Press, p 51.

Gee, J P (2004), 'A strange fact about not learning to read', Chapter 2 of Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. (pp 7-20). London: Routledge


Pam McIntyre

Dr Pam Macintyre

Pam is a lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. She is editor of the quarterly review Journal Viewpoint: on books for young adults. Pam sits on the 100 Story Building board of directors