Story Telling in Teaching English

by Sara Cone Bryant

I have to speak now of a phase of elementary education which lies very close to my warmest interest, which, indeed, could easily become an active hobby if other interests did not beneficently tug at my skirts when I am minded to mount and ride too wildly. It is the hobby of many of you who are teachers, also, and I know you want to hear it discussed. I mean the growing effort to teach English and English literature to children in the natural way: by speaking and hearing,—orally.

We are coming to a realization of the fact that our ability, as a people, to use English is pitifully inadequate and perverted. Those Americans who are not blinded by a limited horizon of cultured acquaintance, and who have given themselves opportunity to hear the natural speech of the younger generation in varying sections of the United States, must admit that it is no exaggeration to say that this country at large has no standard of English speech. There is no general sense of responsibility to our mother tongue (indeed, it is in an overwhelming degree not our mother tongue) and no general appreciation of its beauty or meaning. The average young person in every district save a half-dozen jealously guarded little precincts of good taste, uses inexpressive, ill-bred words, spoken without regard to their just sound-effects, and in a voice which is an injury to the ear of the mind, as well as a torment to the physical ear.

The structure of the language and the choice of words are dark matters to most of our young Americans; this has long been acknowledged and struggled against. But even darker, and quite equally destructive to English expression, is their state of mind regarding pronunciation, enunciation, and voice. It is the essential connection of these elements with English speech that we have been so slow to realize. We have felt that they were externals, desirable but not necessary adjuncts,—pretty tags of an exceptional gift or culture. Many an intelligent school director to-day will say, "I don't care much about HOW you say a thing; it is WHAT you say that counts." He cannot see that voice and enunciation and pronunciation are essentials. But they are. You can no more help affecting the meaning of your words by the way you say them than you can prevent the expressions of your face from carrying a message; the message may be perverted by an uncouth habit, but it will no less surely insist on recognition.

The fact is that speech is a method of carrying ideas from one human soul to another, by way of the ear. And these ideas are very complex. They are not unmixed emanations of pure intellect, transmitted to pure intellect: they are compounded of emotions, thoughts, fancies, and are enhanced or impeded in transmission by the use of word-symbols which have acquired, by association, infinite complexities in themselves. The mood of the moment, the especial weight of a turn of thought, the desire of the speaker to share his exact soul-concept with you,—these seek far more subtle means than the mere rendering of certain vocal signs; they demand such variations and delicate adjustments of sound as will inevitably affect the listening mind with the response desired.

There is no "what" without the "how" in speech. The same written sentence becomes two diametrically opposite ideas, given opposing inflection and accompanying voice-effect. "He stood in the front rank of the battle" can be made praiseful affirmation, scornful skepticism, or simple question, by a simple varying of voice and inflection. This is the more unmistakable way in which the "how" affects the "what." Just as true is the less obvious fact. The same written sentiment, spoken by Wendell Phillips and by a man from the Bowery or an uneducated ranchman, is not the same to the listener. In one case the sentiment comes to the mind's ear with certain completing and enhancing qualities of sound which give it accuracy and poignancy. The words themselves retain all their possible suggestiveness in the speaker's just and clear enunciation, and have a borrowed beauty, besides, from the associations of fine habit betrayed in the voice and manner of speech. And, further, the immense personal equation shows itself in the beauty and power of the vocal expressiveness, which carries shades of meaning, unguessed delicacies of emotion, intimations of beauty, to every ear. In the other case, the thought is clouded by unavoidable suggestions of ignorance and ugliness, brought by the pronunciation and voice, even to an unanalytical ear; the meaning is obscured by inaccurate inflection and uncertain or corrupt enunciation; but, worst of all, the personal atmosphere, the aroma, of the idea has been lost in transmission through a clumsy, ill-fitted medium.

The thing said may look the same on a printed page, but it is not the same when spoken. And it is the spoken sentence which is the original and the usual mode of communication.

The widespread poverty of expression in English, which is thus a matter of "how," and to which we are awakening, must be corrected chiefly, at least at first, by the common schools. The home is the ideal place for it, but the average home of the United States is no longer a possible place for it. The child of foreign parents, the child of parents little educated and bred in limited circumstances, the child of powerful provincial influences, must all depend on the school for standards of English.

And it is the elementary school which must meet the need, if it is to be met at all. For the conception of English expression which I am talking of can find no mode of instruction adequate to its meaning, save in constant appeal to the ear, at an age so early that unconscious habit is formed. No rules, no analytical instruction in later development, can accomplish what is needed. Hearing and speaking; imitating, unwittingly and wittingly, a good model; it is to this method we must look for redemption from present conditions.

I believe we are on the eve of a real revolution in English teaching,—only it is a revolution which will not break the peace. The new way will leave an overwhelming preponderance of oral methods in use up to the fifth or sixth grade, and will introduce a larger proportion of oral work than has ever been contemplated in grammar and high school work. It will recognize the fact that English is primarily something spoken with the mouth and heard with the ear. And this recognition will have greatest weight in the systems of elementary teaching.

It is as an aid in oral teaching of English that story-telling in school finds its second value; ethics is the first ground of its usefulness, English the second,—and after these, the others. It is, too, for the oral uses that the secondary forms of story-telling are so available. By secondary I mean those devices which I have tried to indicate, as used by many American teachers, in the chapter on "Specific Schoolroom Uses," in my earlier book. They are re-telling, dramatization, and forms of seat-work. All of these are a great power in the hands of a wise teacher. If combined with much attention to voice and enunciation in the recital of poetry, and with much good reading aloud BY THE TEACHER, they will go far toward setting a standard and developing good habit.

But their provinces must not be confused or overestimated. I trust I may be pardoned for offering a caution or two to the enthusiastic advocate of these methods,—cautions the need of which has been forced upon me, in experience with schools.

A teacher who uses the oral story as an English feature with little children must never lose sight of the fact that it is an aid in unconscious development; not a factor in studied, conscious improvement. This truth cannot be too strongly realized. Other exercises, in sufficiency, give the opportunity for regulated effort for definite results, but the story is one of the play-forces. Its use in English teaching is most valuable when the teacher has a keen appreciation of the natural order of growth in the art of expression: that art requires, as the old rhetorics used often to put it, "a natural facility, succeeded by an acquired difficulty." In other words, the power of expression depends, first, on something more fundamental than the art-element; the basis of it is something to say, ACCOMPANIED BY AN URGENT DESIRE TO SAY IT, and YIELDED TO WITH FREEDOM; only after this stage is reached can the art-phase be of any use. The "why" and "how," the analytical and constructive phases, have no natural place in this first vital epoch.

Precisely here, however, does the dramatizing of stories and the paper-cutting, etc., become useful. A fine and thoughtful principal of a great school asked me, recently, with real concern, about the growing use of such devices. He said, "Paper-cutting is good, but what has it to do with English?" And then he added: "The children use abominable language when they play the stories; can that directly aid them to speak good English?" His observation was close and correct, and his conservatism more valuable than the enthusiasm of some of his colleagues who have advocated sweeping use of the supplementary work. But his point of view ignored the basis of expression, which is to my mind so important. Paper-cutting is external to English, of course. Its only connection is in its power to correlate different forms of expression, and to react on speech-expression through sense-stimulus. But playing the story is a closer relative to English than this. It helps, amazingly, in giving the "something to say, the urgent desire to say it," and the freedom in trying. Never mind the crudities,—at least, at the time; work only for joyous freedom, inventiveness, and natural forms of reproduction of the ideas given. Look for very gradual changes in speech, through the permeating power of imitation, but do not forget that this is the stage of expression which inevitably precedes art.

All this will mean that no corrections are made, except in flagrant cases of slang or grammar, though all bad slips are mentally noted, for introduction at a more favorable time. It will mean that the teacher will respect the continuity of thought and interest as completely as she would wish an audience to respect her occasional prosy periods if she were reading a report. She will remember, of course that she is not training actors for amateur theatricals, however tempting her show-material may be; she is simply letting the children play with expression, just as a gymnasium teacher introduces muscular play,—for power through relaxation.

When the time comes that the actors lose their unconsciousness it is the end of the story-play. Drilled work, the beginning of the art, is then the necessity.

I have indicated that the children may be left undisturbed in their crudities and occasional absurdities. The teacher, on the other hand, must avoid, with great judgment, certain absurdities which can easily be initiated by her. The first direful possibility is in the choice of material. It is very desirable that children should not be allowed to dramatize stories of a kind so poetic, so delicate, or so potentially valuable that the material is in danger of losing future beauty to the pupils through its present crude handling. Mother Goose is a hardy old lady, and will not suffer from the grasp of the seven-year-old; and the familiar fables and tales of the "Goldilocks" variety have a firmness of surface which does not let the glamour rub off; but stories in which there is a hint of the beauty just beyond the palpable—or of a dignity suggestive of developed literature—are sorely hurt in their metamorphosis, and should be protected from it. They are for telling only.

Another point on which it is necessary to exercise reserve is in the degree to which any story can be acted. In the justifiable desire to bring a large number of children into the action one must not lose sight of the sanity and propriety of the presentation. For example, one must not make a ridiculous caricature, where a picture, however crude, is the intention. Personally represent only such things as are definitely and dramatically personified in the story. If a natural force, the wind, for example, is represented as talking and acting like a human being in the story, it can be imaged by a person in the play; but if it remains a part of the picture in the story, performing only its natural motions, it is a caricature to enact it as a role. The most powerful instance of a mistake of this kind which I have ever seen will doubtless make my meaning clear. In playing a pretty story about animals and children, some children in a primary school were made by the teacher to take the part of the sea. In the story, the sea was said to "beat upon the shore," as a sea would, without doubt. In the play, the children were allowed to thump the floor lustily, as a presentation of their watery functions! It was unconscionably funny. Fancy presenting even the crudest image of the mighty sea, surging up on the shore, by a row of infants squatted on the floor and pounding with their fists! Such pitfalls can be avoided by the simple rule of personifying only characters that actually behave like human beings.

A caution which directly concerns the art of story telling itself, must be added here. There is a definite distinction between the arts of narration and dramatization which must never be overlooked. Do not, yourself, half tell and half act the story; and do not let the children do it. It is done in very good schools, sometimes, because an enthusiasm for realistic and lively presentation momentarily obscures the faculty of discrimination. A much loved and respected teacher whom I recently listened to, and who will laugh if she recognizes her blunder here, offers a good "bad example" in this particular. She said to an attentive audience of students that she had at last, with much difficulty, brought herself to the point where she could forget herself in her story: where she could, for instance, hop, like the fox, when she told the story of the "sour grapes." She said, "It was hard at first, but now it is a matter of course; AND THE CHILDREN DO IT TOO, WHEN THEY TELL THE STORY." That was the pity! I saw the illustration myself a little later. The child who played fox began with a story: he said, "Once there was an old fox, and he saw some grapes;" then the child walked to the other side of the room, and looked up at an imaginary vine, and said, "He wanted some; he thought they would taste good, so he jumped for them;" at this point the child did jump, like his role; then he continued with his story, "but he couldn't get them." And so he proceeded, with a constant alternation of narrative and dramatization which was enough to make one dizzy.

The trouble in such work is, plainly, a lack of discriminating analysis. Telling a story necessarily implies non-identification of the teller with the event; he relates what occurs or occurred, outside of his circle of consciousness. Acting a play necessarily implies identification of the actor with the event; he presents to you a picture of the thing, in himself. It is a difference wide and clear, and the least failure to recognize it confuses the audience and injures both arts.

In the preceding instances of secondary uses of story-telling I have come some distance from the great point, the fundamental point, of the power of imitation in breeding good habit. This power is less noticeably active in the dramatizing than in simple re-telling; in the listening and the re-telling, it is dominant for good. The child imitates what he hears you say and sees you do, and the way you say and do it, far more closely in the story-hour than in any lesson-period. He is in a more absorbent state, as it were, because there is no preoccupation of effort. Here is the great opportunity of the cultured teacher; here is the appalling opportunity of the careless or ignorant teacher. For the implications of the oral theory of teaching English are evident, concerning the immense importance of the teacher's habit. This is what it all comes to ultimately; the teacher of young children must be a person who can speak English as it should be spoken,—purely, clearly, pleasantly, and with force.

It is a hard ideal to live up to, but it is a valuable ideal to try to live up to. And one of the best chances to work toward attainment is in telling stories, for there you have definite material, which you can work into shape and practice on in private. That practice ought to include conscious thought as to one's general manner in the schoolroom, and intelligent effort to understand and improve one's own voice. I hope I shall not seem to assume the dignity of an authority which no personal taste can claim, if I beg a hearing for the following elements of manner and voice, which appeal to me as essential. They will, probably, appear self-evident to my readers, yet they are often found wanting in the public school-teacher; it is so much easier to say "what were good to do" than to do it!

Three elements of manner seem to me an essential adjunct to the personality of a teacher of little children: courtesy, repose vitality. Repose and vitality explain themselves; by courtesy I specifically do NOT mean the habit of mind which contents itself with drilling children in "Good-mornings" and in hat-liftings. I mean the attitude of mind which recognizes in the youngest, commonest child, the potential dignity, majesty, and mystery of the developed human soul. Genuine reverence for the humanity of the "other fellow" marks a definite degree of courtesy in the intercourse of adults, does it not? And the same quality of respect, tempered by the demands of a wise control, is exactly what is needed among children. Again and again, in dealing with young minds, the teacher who respects personality as sacred, no matter how embryonic it be, wins the victories which count for true education. Yet, all too often, we forget the claims of this reverence, in the presence of the annoyances and the needed corrections.

As for voice: work in schoolrooms brings two opposing mistakes constantly before me: one is the repressed voice, and the other, the forced. The best way to avoid either extreme, is to keep in mind that the ideal is development of one's own natural voice, along its own natural lines. A "quiet, gentle voice" is conscientiously aimed at by many young teachers, with so great zeal that the tone becomes painfully repressed, "breathy," and timid. This is quite as unpleasant as a loud voice, which is, in turn, a frequent result of early admonitions to "speak up." Neither is natural. It is wise to determine the natural volume and pitch of one's speaking voice by a number of tests, made when one is thoroughly rested, at ease, and alone. Find out where your voice lies when it is left to itself, under favorable conditions, by reading something aloud or by listening to yourself as you talk to an intimate friend. Then practise keeping it in that general range, unless it prove to have a distinct fault, such as a nervous sharpness, or hoarseness. A quiet voice is good; a hushed voice is abnormal. A clear tone is restful, but a loud one is wearying.

Perhaps the common-sense way of setting a standard for one's own voice is to remember that the purpose of a speaking voice is to communicate with others; their ears and minds are the receivers of our tones. For this purpose, evidently, a voice should be, first of all, easy to hear; next, pleasant to hear; next, susceptible of sufficient variation to express a wide range of meaning; and finally, indicative of personality.

Is it too quixotic to urge teachers who tell stories to little children to bear these thoughts, and better ones of their own, in mind? Not, I think, if it be fully accepted that the story hour, as a play hour, is a time peculiarly open to influences affecting the imitative faculty; that this faculty is especially valuable in forming fine habits of speech; and that an increasingly high and general standard of English speech is one of our greatest needs and our most instant opportunities in the American schools of to-day.