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Storying the Past: Part 1

Bringing History to Life with Storytelling

This is blog is the first of a series of five on the topic of storytelling and history. While I am not a historian, I have had a life-long love of history and have been privileged to work as a storytelling consultant to national museums. Writing this blog provides me with a way of working out and articulating my method when telling historical stories.

This series of blogs is structured as follows:

Part 1 - Storytelling

Why Stories Stick: Narration and the Organisation of Ideas

Structuring Story

Part 2 - Character-Focused Storying (using the example of the story of the Suffragettes)

Part 3 - Event-Focused Storying (using the example of the Battle of Hastings)

Part 4 - Artefact-Focused Storying (using the example of a wooden Spindle)

Memorising and Telling Part 5 - History and The Tales That We Tell Summary|

If you are interested in more of my thinking on using storytelling to teach history, I have an article, 'Storytelling the Past' in the Historical Association's magazine Primary History (Issue 86, Autumn 2020) CLICK HERE - please note that this article is behind a 'pay wall'.


The English words ‘history’ and ‘story’ suggest very different kinds of knowledge, despite their common derivation from the Latin ‘historia’ and the relationship between story and history is not always a comfortable one. When historical evidence is presented as story, someone has chosen between versions of events, filled-in gaps in the evidence with supposition, and presumed how people other than ourselves thought and felt – a process that is at odds with a more detached approach to the past. Whilst the distinction between these approaches have to be acknowledged (and are explored in more detail in Part 5 History and The Tales That We Tell), this article will explore why a combination of ‘storying’ (as it is sometimes called[1]) and oral storytelling can be a powerful tool in the history classroom, and bring the past to life for children.


The first thing that needs to be established is the meaning of ‘storytelling’. One of the struggles of being a storyteller is that people conflate storytelling with story-writing, story-acting and story-reading. In this article, storytelling refers specifically to the oral retelling of narrative, and a retelling that does not involve reading from a text.

The idea of telling a story to a class of children without a written text to refer to can be daunting at first thought, but the key thing to remember is that we are all storytellers: story is how we organise ideas and communicate them to other people so that they can understand our lives. When we tell a story in the classroom, all we are doing is putting a communication skill that is both familiar and fundamental to pedagogic use. One of the reasons that storytelling can be seen as frightening, is the model of storytelling that has been dominant in the primary classroom over the last two decades, in which children learn a text off by heart and recite it, a practice that I would refer to as ‘story recitation’ rather than ‘storytelling’. For storytelling to be of practical use in the classroom, and pedagogically embedded, it needs to be recognise that:

- Everyone is a storyteller

· The words that we say when we tell a story do not need to be fixed. We are capable of telling friends stories about our experiences without preparing the script or rehearsing. Therefore, we do not need to memorise the words that we are going to say, but rather know who and what a story is about, and what we want to say about them.

· storytelling can last for 30 minutes, or 30 seconds; we can tell a complete story, or a fragment of a narrative to prompt dialogue.

· storytelling need not be monologic, but can be dialogic in the same way that retelling anecdotes in social situations is often conversational

None of this is to say that the language used in a story is not important. It is, but it need not be poetic or even fixed. When you are exchanging anecdotes with friends you may struggle for words, e.g. ‘The paella was delicious, no it was more than delicious, it was…. It was…” and someone else could jump in with “scrumptious?”. When these moments happen, they confirm that the story is not simply about the person telling it, but about encounters between people. In Vivian Gussin-Paley’s words, storytelling is ‘the social art of language’.[2]

Why stories stick: narration and the organisation of ideas

Story has a powerful hold over us as it is the way in which we communicate our lives to those around us and through which we understand the lives of others. This applies in the curriculum as much as in daily life, and Gudmundsdottir puts it in this way, ‘By using narrative form we assign meaning to events and invest them with coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure’ (1995: 31). In particular, I want to emphasise that element of coherence, and consider about how story helps to structure historical events coherently.

Anyone who has participated in training for the new Ofsted framework will be aware of the word ‘schema’, and the need for children to understand connections between aspects of their knowledge. The way that information is connected varies between schemas (or schemata), with story being a particular type of schema that exists within a broader category of event schemas[3]. The distinction between these schemas lies at the heart of why understanding story is vital to teaching history effectively.

The principal characteristic of an event schema is the chronological listing of things that have happened, are happening or will happen. This is a broad category of organisation which informs a timeline or a witness statement. A story schema, on the other hand, is more specific, being (in addition to the chronological ordering) characterised, I will suggest, by the following[4]:

· We follow a principal character (or group of characters) through a series of events, as they attempt to overcome obstacles that lie between them and their goal(s);

· Coherence is maintained through a relationship of cause and effect between events, so that Event B was a result of what happened in Event A;

· Only those events which relate to the goal(s) of the principal character (or group of characters), and their attempts to achieve that end are included.

Structuring Story

Having established that the elements which make narrative compelling are human desire, struggle, success and failure, we will now go on to consider how to build a simple story around a character’s goal(s). It is this structure which will ensure that coherence is maintained through cause and effect, and that only relevant events are included in the narrative. We will then apply this structure to historical accounts focussed on character, event or artefact.

Figure 1: Simple Story Structure

Most primary school teachers will be familiar with the idea of structuring a narrative around a ‘story mountain’. Such an approach goes back to the work of Gustav Freytag in the nineteenth century (although his model is often referred to as a ‘pyramid’), and researchers have since identified similar structures across a range of narratives from conversational storytelling to complex literary forms. Unfortunately, however, the version of the story mountain with which most teachers will be familiar (inherited from the Primary National Strategies) is not aligned with the model that Freytag proposed (and which has been supported by the research that has followed it) and so, in Figure 1, I have presented a story mountain which does follow this established structure. This means that it better reflects the the way children experience stories (both hearing/reading and telling/writing) than that promoted by the National Strategies.

To illustrate how this model aligns with the way in which we naturally structure stories, here Is an outline of a simple story from my own childhood:

· Introduction - my mother and I came home after a shopping trip to the next village

· Problem - my mother went to open the door, but she had locked her keys inside the house and we couldn't get in.

· Rising action - we walked round the bungalow trying to find a way in. We saw that a small window, at the top of a window frame, was open, and my mother decided that I could climb through it. This meant I had to stand upside down with my hands resting on hers as she pushed me, feet first, through the window.

· Climax - so there I was, upside down with my feet going through the open window, being pushed through by my mother. As I went through the window I bent double so that my feet dropped towards the window-cill below.

· Falling action - I found my footing on the window-cill and jump down to the floor. I then ran through the house.

· Resolution and ending - I opened the front door for my mother and let her in. She never forgot her keys again.

The point of choosing a story from my childhood is to illustrate how story making is a fundamental skill through which we organise our experiences. The good storyteller (or story writer) knows how to hold their audience by creating cause and effect relationships between the initial goal, the problem (that is preventing the main character(s) from achieving that goal) and the story’s resolution (which is not always happy). They also understand that the journey should not be complicated with irrelevant material, and that tension is needed to hold their audience’s interest. This tension, or building excitement, is created by the main character’s attempts to overcome the obstacles that lie between them and their goal. Of course, in complex narratives (such as novels), there are a series of peaks and troughs, rather than one single mountain top, but this simple model can still be seen as describing overall story arc, within which there are individual episodes (see figure 2).

In the sections that follow, we will take this familiar story structure and turn it to pedagogic ends, applying it to creating historic narratives focused on character, event and artefact.

Figure 2: Multi-Problem Story Structure


[1] The use of ‘to story’ as a verb may feel uncomfortable, and I am certainly known to wince at words being adapted to new uses but the notion of ‘storying’ as an activity is useful and, I would suggest, easier to understand than White’s (1981) equivalent term of ‘narrativizing’ . Livo and Rietz (1986:5) refer to storying as ‘a vehicle for transcending time, for binding people together with the future, the past, and one another, for extending commonality of experience, for ordering events to make existence more sensible and meaningful. Storying brings a higher level of comprehensibility to the things we do.’ [2] Gussin Paley (1990), p23 [3] These ideas around schema are broadly based on the work of Jean Matter-Mandler [4] I am leaning heavily on the work of Jerome Bruner and Kendal Haven here.


Bruner, J. (2002) Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

Daniel, Alastair (2012); Storytelling across the primary curriculum. London: Routledge

Freytag, G (1863. 1900 edn) Technique of the drama: an exposition of dramatic composition and art,Trans. E.J.MacEwan, Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company.

Gudmundsdottir, Sigrun (1995) ‘The Narrative Nature of Pedagogic Content Knowledge’ in McEwan, H. And Egan, K. (eds.) Narrative in Teaching Learning and Research. Teachers College Press, pp24-38

Gussin Paley, V. (1990) The boy who would be a helicopter: the uses of storytelling in the classroom Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press

Haven, Kendall (2007). Story Proof; Westport CT: Libraries Unlimited

Kemper, S. (1984) The Development of Narrative Skills: Explanations and Entertainments. In Kuczak, S. A. Discourse Development: Progress in Cognitive Development Research. New York: Springer-Verlag:

Lacey, R. (2004) Great Tales form English History: Chaucer to the Glorious Revolution, London: Little Brown

Livo, Norma J. and Rietz, Sandra A (1986) Storytelling: Process and Practice. Littleton CO: Libraries Unlimited

Matter Mandler, J (1984) Stories, Schemas and Scenes: Aspects of Schema Theory. Hillsdale NJ

White, H. (1981) The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality. In Mitchell, W.J.T. (ed) On Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp1-23


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