Blogger Kaitlin Frick

Oral Storytelling: Not Just for Grandma Anymore

Some of my best childhood memories revolve around my Grandma Juanita’s stories of her childhood. From tales of picking cotton – a story that taught me grown-ups always know when you’re lying – to a yarn about being chased by a bull, Grandma Juanita told the best stories. She also instilled in me a deep and lasting love of oral storytelling.

It wasn’t until attaining my MLS that I’d come to realize the literacy benefits of such storytelling. While little formal research has been done into the effect of oral storytelling on early literacy acquisition, anecdotal evidence supports the theory that storytelling (as distinguished from story reading): teaches social and emotional skills; builds vocabulary; helps children become better listeners and readers; reinforces the importance of imagination and creativity; and promotes cultural awareness and expression, among other things.

But oral storytelling can be daunting, and even the most experienced, talented storytellers need practice. Don’t let that scare you away, though; there are lots of ways to ease into storytelling. In the storytelling course I took at IU-Bloomington (shout-out to Christina Jones, librarian and adjunct professor extraordinaire), the first oral story I tackled was actually a felt board version of Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Moose a Muffin.

Taking some of your favorite picture books and turning them into oral tales can be a great way to introduce oral storytelling into your repertoire. For instance, classics with less vibrant illustrations such as Millions of Cats (Wanda Gág) make excellent oral stories when sharing with young audiences. For such stories, you can create visual elements yourself to make the tales more accessible; I love to tell Millions of Cats using felt pieces. Other great felt-interpretations of picture books include Mouse Paint (Ellen Stoll Walsh), Froggy Gets Dressed (Jonathan London), Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons (Eric Litwin), and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? felt story

Beyond felt stories, however, there are a variety of ways to adapt picture books for storytelling. The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle) has become a favorite of many librarians, at least partly because it’s so well-known. It can be told using a puppet or, as I suggested in a previous post, using a tissue box decorated to look like a caterpillar. My latest favorite is a version of Karen Beaumont’s I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More that uses a poster-sized drawing of the child from the story. Depending on the size of your storytime crowd, you can color the image yourself or give crayons to the children in the audience so they can assist.

I Ain't Gonna Paint No More visual

The classic go-to for oral storytelling is of course folktales, fairytales, myths, and legends – and you can find an endless supply by browsing the 398.2’s at your library, checking out ALA publications, and searching the web. I have a ready-to-use rotation of about ten tales, but one of my personal favorites is a French folktale called Three Perfect Peaches – which I tell with the help of stick-figure puppets.

Three Perfect Peaches puppets

But why stop there? Maybe you’re full of great personal anecdotes your young patrons will never forget. Or maybe those young patrons would love the chance to invent their own stories, with you acting as narrator. Once you’ve gained some confidence, the possibilities for oral storytelling are pretty much limitless.

Interested in learning more about the importance of oral storytelling or finding story ideas? Check out these resources:

National Storytelling Network

Story Arts Online

The Moth

WBUR’s Circle Round

Stories to Grow by

SurLaLune Fairytales


The Storyteller’s Sourcebook by Margaret Read MacDonald

Folktales Aloud by Janice Del Negro


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: III. Programming Skills, IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials, and VII. Professionalism and Professional Development.

One comment

  1. Pim Coffeng

    Great article and wonderful list!

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