10 Storytelling Tips to Capture Your Students’ Attention

Storytelling has been around as long as humankind. It is one of the most effective ways to communicate an important truth to another person. It is a connection point between two people. Storytelling gives meaning, context, and understanding in a world that is often filled with chaos and disorder. Because of this, educators must use stories if they hope to reach their students. Here are some storytelling tips that can help you capture students’ attention.

1. Keep it simple. Complicated stories aren’t necessarily better. If your audience is young, simple is obvious. However, even older audiences can be profoundly impacted when you take a complex idea and reduce it to a nugget that can be remembered. Scientific principles like gravity and electricity can be difficult for young minds. Using analogies can help. For example, to explain an electrical circuit, describe how a train can only move along tracks that are connected to each other. A broken track means the train must stop and electricity is the same way.

2. Use vivid language (that kids can still understand). Some psychologists think telling stories is one of the primary ways humans learn. Even if you are teaching science or math concepts, pick a word or two that your student’s haven’t heard of before. Describe and define the word first, and then use it throughout the story. For example, if you are talking science, identify the word ‘energy’ and then use it several times. By the end of the story, they will have learned the concepts of the tale plus some vocabulary.

3. Use movement. As the storyteller, you can paint pictures with your body- using your hands, feet, legs, and head. Similarly, you can ask the student’s to perform movements during certain parts of the story. This will help activate their memory and keep their attention focused on what you are communicating. Perhaps you could research a dance that might go with your storytelling, or make up your own.

Storytelling4. Tell the truth, even when it’s difficult. Adults are tempted to lie to children when the situation seems too complex or mature for younger audiences. However, telling the truth is always preferable, even if you have to adapt some of the details and adjust your language for younger audiences. Kids are notoriously smarter and more intuitive than adults realize, so don’t use storytelling as a way to mask the truth.

5. Appeal to their senses. When preparing your story, activate as many senses as possible. Humans have five senses; sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. The more a story activates the senses, the more memorable it becomes. For a lesson in geography, you can use a visual map first. Add a song to help memorize the countries or cities. Use props that the students can hold. Maybe you can offer a food from each locale to activate touch and smell. It may seem like more work, but ultimately the principles learned will not soon be forgotten.

6. Make it trustworthy. It can be called “cheating” when a storyteller twists the laws of the universe to make a piece of the story work. Don’t offer coincidences that magically solve the problem. Whatever world or situation your character is in, don’t break the rules just to end the story. According to Pixar, coincidences can be used to get your protagonist into trouble, but should NEVER be used to get them out of trouble.

7. Invite interaction. At certain points in the story, open up an invitation for questions. When your students are able to offer their predictions, they are more invested in the future and ending of the story to see if they were right. Depending on the subject, you may want to enlist your student’s help in solving the problem. Perhaps you could tell the first half of the story and ask them to write or act out an ending that solves the problem. Students can work in groups and learn from others who may have chosen to solve the story a different way. It drives home the idea that stories can have multiple solutions.

8. Find the extraordinary in the ordinary. A story doesn’t have to be dramatic in order to drive home a point. In many cases, taking a mundane event and looking at it from a different angle is just as profound. For example, if you are talking about accepting other cultures, try this tactic. Pick a common ritual (like men shaving their faces), and tell the story from the angle of a character from another world that has never seen such a thing. Better yet, treat the students like they are from another world. “Did you know that I saw someone put a knife to his face the other day?!” Use different vocabulary words (like knife versus razor). “Then, he smeared this unknown substance all over his face and used the sharp edge of the knife to rub it off!” Your students might be shocked when you reveal that you were simply talking about shaving. Then you can go into the idea and philosophy behind prejudice and discrimination against other cultures that are unfamiliar.

9. Play some music. Music is an excellent way to learn and memorize long lists. If you are teaching the fifty states, a song with a catchy rhythm will help solidify the memorization process. Songs have long been used throughout history to help cultures preserve traditions and historic events. What could be impossible for the human brain to do without music (like memorize the periodic table of elements) becomes possible when you create a song with a recurring chorus.

10. Don’t give away too much. When you tell a story that has some mystery, you invite the listeners to try to figure out the solution for themselves. When they do, chances are it will be more memorable and long lasting. Read a few mystery novels and watch how the author leaves crumbs. The key is to give enough information so the student can solve the problem, but not so much that it is obvious. If you leave no trail of hints and clues, then it will be frustrating and impossible to solve.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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