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Helping Children Anticipate and Predict

Storytelling/Writing Tip

I am a firm believer that storytelling in the early developmental years is one of the keys to literacy and literacy efforts. I am not just talking about reading a story to a group of kids, I am referring instead to the art of storytelling, which is more of a performance and less of a recitation. I will share storytelling tips here which are great for writers too, because tips for good storytelling often can directly correlate to tips for good story writing. First tip: Helping kids make predictions while story telling.

Don’t you just love feeling smart? Kids aren’t any different, and storytelling is a great opportunity to make kids feel like little budding Einstiens. Remember, when children feel clever while listening to stories they feel less intimidated by “literature” which makes them more receptive to books and reading. And books and reading make kids smart, which in turn begins the circle anew.

With the right kind of book and the right kind of body language, you can help kids predict lines, story developments, upcoming rhymes, etc… As my example, I will use one of my stories that I regularly perform, Frog in the Bog–rhyming books. In that story I have a repeating, but unrhymed line, “And the frog grows a little bit bigger.” My aim with any repeating line in a story is to get the kids to anticipate the upcoming line and say it, in rhythm, with me.

To help kids anticipate the line I need to firmly set the pattern the first time I say the line, and cue the listener in to what they need to listen for to join in. This means that there is a definite dramatic pause before I say the line, then I scan the audience making eye contact as I sweep my eyes from one side of the room to the other. This lets them know, “Oh, something interesting is going to happen.“ Then as I say the line I emphasize the most important word (bigger) by saying it louder. For Frog in the Bog the cadence is almost like a scale, going higher and louder as the sentence flows: And the frog grows a little big BIGGER!

(Writers tip: Include font cues in your manuscript to indicate when there should be a change in flow, inflection, etc…: In Bear Snores On my font size changes and formatting were written by me into the manuscript.)

The vocal qualities are important, but so is body language. As I say the line I use one of my hands to demonstrate the frog’s growth (palm flat, outstretched, and I raise it up as I speak).

Usually by the second line the audience has come to recognize what to look for (I pause, look across the room, and widen my eyes). They often hesitantly join in. If that happens it is my job to reward their participation with a head nod and a smile signaling approval (kids aren’t always encouraged to speak out during stories–so they need to know in this case it‘s okay).

But if they didn’t quite get it, I have to cue them in that I want them to join. I do this by holding my hand up to my ear as I say the word “bigger”. I have never read the story in a school and had them not join in by the third time I say the line.

But later in the story the line changes to the “And the frog grows a whole lot smaller”. This gives us another opportunity to make children feel ahead of the story. Since I want my reader to be able predict that the line changes, I wrote it so that this time the reating line DID rhyme with the preceding line (holy tongue twister Batman!). In this case:

And right in the middle of his holler,
That frog grows a whole lot smaller!

To further emphasize the change from “bigger” to “smaller” I hush my voice a bit, and bring my hand lower to indicate shrinking. Most audiences guess the word smaller with these cues.

Rhyming books are great for helping children predict, but there are other types of story patterns that also work. Circular stories, unrhymed stories with repeating lines, etc. And of course, when reading picture books you can always point out clues in the art to help clue in your reader, or dramatically pause when you read a line that offers a plot clue.

I’m sure many of you are much better story tellers than I, but breaking down the process can help us understand what makes a great read aloud so successful and hopefully nail it in our own writing endeavors. And there is a special thrill in hearing an auditorium full of eager, bright-eyed little learners yelling your story at the top of their lungs!