Playing the Storyteller: Some Principles for Learning Literacy in the Early Years of Schooling

Carol Fox. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

The Centrality of Narrative

While oral storytelling has received much attention from the research on literacy development, major collections of oral stories are rare in the literature and those narrated by young children even more so. In spite of this rarity, literacy educationalists have long acknowledged that narrative is central to the way our minds order experience, whether real or virtual, and over the years, the literature from domains of study as diverse as psychoanalysis, anthropology, linguistics, literary theory and cognitive psychology has tended to confirm the view that human minds order experience in the mode of story. Half a century ago Suzanne Langer (1953: 261) called narrative a major mental ‘organizing device’; more recently Bruner (1986: 1994) proposed that narrative is a fundamental mode of thought through which we construct our world or worlds, while Barbara Hardy (1968) suggested that narrative, ‘a primary act of mind,’ is the medium through which we filter virtually all our experience. Theorists of the way memory works, from Bartlett in the 1930s to the structuralists and cognitive psychologists of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, show that our memory reorders our experience as stories, since narrative structure is organized along the dimension of time; it is, according to Scholes (1981), ‘a temporal icon.’ While the literary theorist Roland Barthes (1977) claims that narrative is ‘international, transhistorical, transcultural,’ sociologists and ethnographers have demonstrated that narratives are deeply culturally embedded, suggesting that universal structures for stories are subject to local variation in different social groups (Labov, 1972a; Scollon and Scollon, 1981; Heath, 1983). Historians of literacy remind us that both phylogenetically and ontogenetically the first texts are usually oral stories written down or written stories presented in the styles of oral narrations (Ong, 1982). Harold Rosen (1984) once remarked that:

Stories break the surface of our discourse not as great edifices but as spontaneously constructed coherences—cheap as dirt, common currency, a popular possession. You will not need reminding that in our society common property is suspect. What everyone possesses is scarcely worth possessing.

The theme that I want to develop in this piece is that, given the enormous knowledge we now have of storytelling in all its variety and universality, we are still not making the essential links to literacy learning that are implicit in the research.

In spite of our recognition of the centrality of narrative in our lives and our knowledge that oral stories begin to emerge in young children at the onset of connected language, we are still unsure about how to make direct use of young children’s storytelling skills in language and literacy learning. The research on oral storytelling comes from several major fields, each of which illuminates our understanding of what children (and adults) are capable of as narrators, but somehow we have trouble in incorporating these discoveries into our curricula and pedagogies; schooling seems inimical to this ‘common coin.’ In this piece I shall briefly outline some of the major contributions to children’s storytelling research in the last 40 years or so, and then go on to discuss some implications of that research, linking narrative, verbal play and play to show the huge potential that is often neglected in literacy learning.

Research on Children’s Oral Storytelling

We might start by looking at collections of transcribed stories told by children. The data themselves fall into two categories: collections from large numbers of children who told one or two stories each, and collections from small numbers of children or individuals who told several stories each. In 1963 Pitcher and Prelinger collected two narratives each from 137 children aged three to five, and for many years their collection remained a basic resource for other researchers (Ames, 1966; Sachs, 1972; Applebee, 1978). The narratives were invented fantasy stories and the orientation both of Pitcher and Prelinger and of Ames was psychoanalytic, leading to an emphasis on content rather than form or structure. In looking at children’s ego development as it was reflected in the stories, an interesting finding was that the use of fantasy (rather than realistic) material increases as the children move towards the age of five and become more confident that the real world is as it is and that they are safe to play with fantasies of different kinds. This finding is borne out by most subsequent studies of young children’s stories. Using the same material, Ames’ focus was on children’s developing sense of causality in their stories, a theme developed by Sachs in his famous analysis of a two-clause story in the data told by a child of 24 months, ‘The baby cried, the mommy picked it up.’ Sachs argues that this is a narrative because the second clause is understood by the listener to be temporally and causally connected to the first. Sachs’ work suggests that storytelling begins as soon as children are able to construct simple sentences and provides a useful basic definition of a narrative.

Applebee (1978) used the Pitcher and Prelinger data for different purposes, those more closely linked to literacy. His aim was to trace the development of language ‘in the spectator role’ (Harding, 1974; Britton, 1970), that is the language of fiction and of story as an aesthetic art. Applebee’s study of narrative structure is unique in its use of Vygotsky’s stages of concept development as the analytic tool. He found that two major linking devices were at work in young children’s stories: events linked to other events by a chain mechanism, chaining; and events related to an overall central theme, centring. His focus is primarily on cognitive development as it is revealed through story structure, and although he claims that chaining and centring are the structuring forces at work in major novels and dramas, the link to literature is weakened by the fact that the language/discourse of the children’s stories is neglected in favour of a focus on the organization of events.

Brian Sutton-Smith made a major story collection in the 1970s taking one or more narratives from 350 children age two to 10, published as The Folk Stories of Children (1981). He also collected large numbers of stories from individual children, in nurseries and school settings, in relaxed and informal conditions. The methodological issue about how story data are garnered is an important subtheme of the literature; in societies with strong oral traditions, stories belong to leisure time when the day’s work is done. The most interesting and expressive story data usually emerge in naturalistic contexts where the tellers can feel valued and confident, a point that needs to be taken seriously if we are considering storytelling in school settings. Sutton-Smith uses a Piagetian framework for his analysis of story structure, with a focus on conservation and reversibility, a focus that again bypasses the discourse of the stories and instead relates to story events. An interesting suggestion by Sutton-Smith was that children’s stories develop analogously to folksong forms in oral traditions. He found that early narratives were stitched together through the use of oral formulae and prosodic features—‘a poetic orientation’ (1981: 19), which tended to be replaced by causal and logical relationships as the child became more literate. While the work of Pitcher and Prelinger and of Ames suggested that children’s oral stories express deep affective themes, Applebee and Sutton-Smith, in different ways, lead us in the direction of literature and the verbal arts.

Labov’s (1972a) sociolinguistic work on the narratives of inner-city black adolescents in the US excludes young children, but it is nevertheless seminal in several major respects. It establishes the methodological point that stories ought to be elicited in relaxed, unthreatening settings, especially if they are to be collected from non-powerful subcultures. It establishes a very satisfying account of narrative structure, one which extends beyond beginnings, middles and ends and instead places ‘evaluation,’ of the narrator’s stance to the narrative being told, at the heart of narrative structure. At once the category of evaluation includes the events being narrated, the narrator’s affective stance to those events and the discourse which tells the story—all of which had tended to be excluded from earlier oral story analyses. An important sociological point made by Labov’s work is that his most successful and skilled narrators tended to be leaders and also the least oriented to literacy and school success in their groups. Labov’s work also links verbal play (as ritual insults) to narrative in that the linguistic skills in both forms are highly developed and complex in the groups he studied but not harnessed to literacy learning in the education system. Other researchers were able to use Labov’s narrative structure to analyse the stories of younger children (Kernan, 1977; Menig-Peterson and McCabe, 1978; Umiker-Sebeok, 1979; Bennett, 1980; Fox, 1993). In the UK Rosen (1988) published an account of her work on the oral stories of working-class adolescent boys in an inner London comprehensive school. As with Labov’s work, the oral stories revealed talents and verbal skills not hitherto recognized in school, and suggested that the reasons for the failure of such groups in the education system, both in the UK and in the US, did not lie in the verbal deficits of the pupils.

The diversity of storytelling traditions has been exemplified by other research. Scollon and Scollon (1981) contrasted the narratives of their two-year-old daughter with those of Athabaskan Alaskan children. Their findings argue that their own child’s stories reflected relationships that were intertextual rather than interpersonal and were already turned in a literate direction, where meanings tend to reside in the text. Athabaskan stories by contrast reflected different cultural norms, contrasting story structures and values other than those of the dominant society. Heath’s (1983) major study of the contrasting literacy practices of three distinct communities in the Southern US shows an orientation to school literacy in one group, Maintown, but very different practices in the other two, Roadville and Trackton—practices which led to literacy and school failure because they were not understood by educational institutions. As well as demonstrating that young black children in the Trackton community ‘come up as talkers’ through exposure to the storytelling traditions of the family, Heath also shows that oral and written modes operate along fluid continua:

written information almost never stood alone in Trackton: it was reshaped and reworded into an oral mode. In so doing adults and children incorporated chunks of the written text into their talk. (1982: 100)

Heath argues that schools need to understand the literacy practices and narrative traditions of the communities they serve and adapt to the students.

Heath’s work initiated new ethnographic perspectives on literacy. The diversity of cultural practices exposed by several in-depth studies of narrative and literacy practices in different parts of the world and in different communities has led to the conception of plural notions of literacy, to literacies, and the proposition that the white middle-class norms of teachers and schools in the West tend to exclude and be ignorant of the cultural forms brought to school by different groups (Street, 1993; Barton, 1994; Gregory and Williams, 2000). Literacies are now conceived of as sets of ideological practices whose values and norms can be deconstructed and examined. The polarization of literacy/illiteracy is destabilized along with a real weakening of the older notion of an oral-literate discontinuity.

It needs to be said that in the 1970s and 1980s many narratologists attempted to describe story grammars and schemata using experimental work based on children’s ability to recall and retell simple stories (Maranda and Maranda, 1971; Mandler and Johnson, 1977; Rumelhart, 1975; 1977; Stein and Glenn, 1978). In these studies the stories used were often devised by the researchers as idealized forms, stripped of the elaborative elements that make stories interesting and, indeed, worth listening to. Stories in these kinds of experiment become ‘problem-solving’ formats (Rumelhart, 1977: 269), or information for ‘retrieval’ (Mandler and Johnson, 1977: 112). While such studies have led to interesting findings about the links between narrative structure and memory, their methodological limitations make them poor models for discovering what the full extent of children’s storytelling competencies looks like.

During the 1980s I collected 200 oral invented stories from five preschool children who had had an extensive exposure to children’s literature read aloud in the early years (Fox, 1993). Using analytic systems based on Labov (1972a), Genette (1972, trans. 1980), and Barthes (1970, trans. 1974), my intention was to show the enormous influence of written language on the children’s narrations at every level—vocabulary, syntax, story structure, and complex literary techniques found in fiction for both children and adults. In 1988 Meek published a slim but seminal work How Texts Teach What Readers Learn, which set out the complexity of the literary competencies even very young children could learn from the texts of skilled children’s authors. Very recently Barrs and Cork (2001) have shown with older schoolchildren that an intense exposure to specific works of children’s fiction can lead to considerable advances in writing and composing competencies. I theorized the work by regarding the stories as acts of verbal play in which cognitive and affective factors were equally implicated. I proposed that in this kind of linguistic production—often performance in the case of five-year-old Sundari, an astonishingly precocious narrator—the metaphoric principles which lie at the heart of language as play, come into operation (Fox, 1997; 1998). One of the major implications for education of my storytelling study is that unless we find out what children are capable of in their narrating we are in danger of grossly underestimating their capabilities—cognitive, linguistic and narrative. Betty Rosen (1988) found that the stories told by adolescent boys in a London comprehensive school, boys who were not credited with much literary talent in the school system, were extraordinarily complex, sensitive and skilful. Heath, in an article about the storytelling of US teenagers very like the London boys of Betty Rosen’s book, claims that the stories of adolescents have received too little attention in the literature on oral storytelling, and she offers a good summary of some of the implicit skills:

The stories embody description, persuasion, exposition, with argument implicit; but they must also include humour—achieved through character development, word play and satire they must also achieve humour through exaggeration and hyperbole in abundance. Tellers include much internal dialogue thought, though not expressed, at the time of the actual event. In addition, during the story’s telling, they create on-the-spot dialogues between teller and other participants to increase the liveliness and participatory nature of the story. (1994: 210)

Over the years there have also been studies of individual children’s storying: Bissex (1980), Paley (1981), and Dyson (1994) are examples. In these studies we watch the interaction of the oral and the literate as writing develops from talk and talk develops from writing, along the kinds of fluid continua described by Heath. In these studies literacy does not emerge in a simplistic progress from written language read loud, to written language internalized and employed in oral stories, to written stories, but is a more complex mix of both cultural source material and the spoken and written channels:

children’s language repertoires include stories, songs, jokes, and other language genres that reflect the folk traditions of their community, the popular media that pervade their lives, and also the written literature they have experienced at school and at home. (Dyson, 1994: 156)

Although my own study foregrounds the literary qualities of my children’s stories and their sources in books, nevertheless the equation is never as simple as that. In a long and highly entertaining story about God, St Peter, Dracula and Frankenstein, a story told by five-year-old Josh about which I have written extensively (see Fox, 1993: Chapter 11), the complexity of the story language and structure is woven from material taken from popular culture (Frankenstein and Dracula), ordinary everyday conversations (most of the story is conducted in dialogue) and written texts (several children’s books).

What I want to develop in the second part of this chapter is the notion that there are major sources of literacy and the language of literacy other than book experience surrounding children in the early years; that the deep, underlying processes of metaphor making in storying, role-play and verbal play of all kinds may be pretty universal among children; and that there are some strong and widely established linguistic practices in groups often identified with low literacy that are surprisingly consistent across many cultures and seem in many ways to offer satisfactory parallels to what my children were doing when they made up stories. My themes are organized under three headings—‘Play,’ ‘The patterns of language,’ and ‘The interaction of the oral and literate.’


To regard children’s oral storytelling as play can be problematic. On the face of it the storytellings in my study seem perfect examples of symbolic play activities which conform in almost all respects to what the major psychologists have told us about play. There is no doubt that most of the defining characteristics of play were present. The storytellings were voluntary, pleasurable, inconsequential to the tellers, and highly conventional, employing complex sets of rules and regularities self-imposed by the storytellers—Vygotsky’s ‘rule that has become a desire’ in symbolic play (1978: 99). The stories do indeed provide opportunities to deal with dangerous, threatening or subversive material in a safe way, free from consequences in the real world. Additionally the stories themselves could be regarded as Freudian forms of wish fulfilment (1978: 93), as adaptive behaviour which is primarily assimilative (Piaget, 1951: 159) and as strongly linked to future development (Vygotsky, 1978: 101-3; Piaget, 1951; Bruner, 1976: 49). In these respects the storytellings accord with descriptions of play by the major psychologies of development. The children were not only making words into play material (the content of their stories) but they were playing at being the author, the storyteller, all the characters and even the audience. If you listen to my children’s tapes it is not difficult to recognize the play context: there is giggling and laughter, pleasure and delight, silliness and fun. But there are also stories which seem to be much more serious, not only in their content but also in the struggle and effort that goes into the telling. They show fierce concentration over quite long periods of time, a carefulness to get things right and an urgent commitment to the story as a finished piece, even in five-year-old Sundari’s case as a sound-voice performance. These stories sound much more like hard work. In the past I have called this ‘serious play’ though I wish there were a better term for it (Fox, 1998). What I think it represents is a transition that is rooted in play but is on its way to becoming something far more striven for, less inconsequential and more like what older pupils or adults do when they voluntarily read a very demanding book for pleasure, learn their part in amateur theatricals or even practise their tennis shots. Freud (1920) and Vygotsky (1978) propose that the pleasure of play lies in mastery, and there is no doubt that several kinds of mastery are implicated in the children’s storying; their power over what they are doing is very obvious in some of the stories, most notably from the two five-year-olds, and is the basis of their pleasure and satisfaction. They are striving very hard to get better at something for the pure pleasure and ambition of doing it.

This kind of transition from the basis of play to something still pleasurable but more demanding and serious must be an almost ideal way of learning, something that teachers would want their pupils to experience, to read and write for pleasure, to want to work at it independently of the teacher for the satisfaction it brings. Piaget observed that it was towards the middle years of childhood that play turns in the direction of adaptation to reality (rather than to the ego formation of the egocentric stage) and notes that it now has the beginnings of serious intellectual and artistic work (1951: 140-2). The developmental trajectory seems to be from play at the beginning to serious work later, and would suggest that learning in school needs to be embedded in a play-like basis for longer than the kindergarten years. Stories, storytelling, reading and writing, and role-play of all kinds particularly lend themselves to the maintenance of playful qualities. They are all forms of symbolic transformation, all involve imaginative activity, all are capable of giving pleasure and satisfaction, and many children undertake these literacy practices independently and voluntarily, and not only those from bookish backgrounds.

How many of us have been stopped from reading under the desk in school, or in bed at home? How many of us have played at writing out our gang rules, sending imaginary letters, keeping secret diaries? Isn’t text messaging very often creative, inventing spelling in the way that young children do when they are allowed to, and isn’t it voluntary and pleasurable (and probably subject to banning or adult disapproval in school)? And don’t almost all children role-play from infancy as Vygotsky suggests? By maintaining a play basis for the early years of schooling we do not need to abandon practice in useful skills; we simply need to avoid separating them from what children enjoy and find meaningful. Are there not the most delightful and hilarious phonics in Dr Seuss’ works, not to mention Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Spike Milligan? Hall and his associates have shown us very clearly over the years that emergent writing can be embedded in all kinds of role-play activities created in school settings (Hall, 1989; 1999; Robinson et al., 1990; Hall and Robinson, 1995). So the first principle I would extrapolate from the story study is that we ought not to put the desire to learn voluntarily for its own sake and for satisfaction and pleasure at risk by abandoning the principles of learning through play in the early years of schooling.

Most countries start formal schooling at age six or seven. In Britain many children are under five when they begin. If some children have not had the pleasure of hearing stories read aloud in the early years, or of joining in with rhymes, poems and songs, or of role-playing of all kinds with their friends, or of doing play writing (to name but a few literacy practices, never mind all the other creative activities that young children enjoy), then those years in school between the ages of four and seven need to be filled with them. When the two five-year-olds in my study started school at the age of five their story competencies were not in any way given the scope to be part of what they were supposed to be learning. Sundari was never invited to tell a story, while Josh was tested on suspicion of ‘language retardedness’ during the period when he was recording 29,000 words of narrative at home. The children still learned to read and write quickly, but like many of the young fluent readers in Margaret Clark’s (1976) famous study it was at the price of concealing what they already knew about literacy and at the even greater cost of their enjoyment of school learning.

The Patterns of Language

Young children who hear books read aloud are usually hearing stories that are structured and written according to folktale traditions. There are very often rhymes, rhythms, repetitions, refrains and other prosodic features, and openings and endings taken from folk-story formulae. Even many picture-books written for older readers employ such devices from oral literature, for example Rose Blanche (Gallaz, 1985) and The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman (Briggs, 1984), two serious works for older readers about real and tragic historic events. I would therefore expect that children who frequently heard oral stories that are not from books before going to school would also be well set up for future literacy, if that literacy is taught primarily through storybooks, since much of the language of young children’s literature is the oral tradition written down. These children would be familiar with all the formulaic patterns of their own traditions of oral stories. The oral traditions of the Trackton community described by Heath in Ways with Words (1983) also look like good literacy preparation, although these children were not successful in the school system because their cultures were not understood.

The young black children from Trackton are observed to develop as talkers from the start through the storying which is constantly present in the community around them. Heath tells us that in Trackton culture stories are valued not for their truthfulness or for their conformity to the structures of book stories, but for their prosodic features, alliteration, rhythm and rhyme, together with highly exaggerated language and embellishments of style. She shows that Trackton children’s story traditions of repetition, variation and straying from a main storyline are misunderstood by their white teachers and therefore are not utilized in becoming literate: they are rejected as somehow not fitting story ‘norms’ (beginnings, middle and ends, logical outcomes, sticking to the main point, and so on). Yet the imaginative, creative and deeply social ways that Trackton children develop language and linguistic style through storying would fit all the play criteria outlined earlier and seem ideally suited for an introduction to lively and enjoyable stories in books and to lots of patterns and stylized conventions for writing.

Heath goes on to talk about how Trackton children’s talk later develops into ritual insults and stories which are highly sexually suggestive and full of double entendre and taboo themes, while remaining stylistically skilful both in prosody and in metaphor (1983: 183). When I began to look at studies of language play around the world in the late 1980s I was surprised at how similar the practices were. I managed to locate studies, all made at a time in the 1970s when anthropologists were recognizing the linguistic qualities of the talk of young people from subcultures in the USA and in former colonized societies, from widely diverse locations, including the Caribbean (Abrahams, 1972a; 1972b), Central Africa (Albert, 1972), Turkey (Dundes et al., 1972), urban ghettos in the USA (Brown, 1972; Kochman, 1972; Labov, 1972b; Mitchell-Kernan, 1972); Mexico (Bricker, 1976; Gossen, 1976) and Hawaii and the Philippines (Conklin, 1964; Frake, 1964; Watson-Gegeo and Boggs, 1977). The type of ritual insult described in these studies is usually played by adolescent boys, and is called ‘talking sweet,’ ‘talking broad,’ ‘signifying,’ ‘verbal duelling,’ ‘rapping,’ ‘stylin out,’ ‘playing the dozens,’ ‘frivolous talk’ and ‘truly frivolous talk,’ and ‘talking through the straw.’

Such linguistic usage, still happening in groups of adolescent boys and increasingly girls, has now become part of commercialized popular culture as rap and it will be familiar to many readers, though there is less awareness of its long history and its ubiquity. Poets who write for children, especially those with Caribbean roots like John Agard and Benjamin Zephaniah, are good at making books for kids using the same poetic devices. Although on the face of it the five children in my study might have little in common with the traders of ritual insults over the world, at a deep level there are some fundamental characteristics that the story language of these pre-literate white young children shares with these older adolescent subgroups (usually described as having limited school literacy). They have in common a huge awareness of language as play material, with prosodic features that are infinitely flexible and mnemonic; an enormous emphasis on style as the prime value; a facility for constructing metaphors, allusions, puns, double meanings and similes; and, most importantly, an awareness that language play frees one from the restrictions of society’s taboos, dangers and politenesses. The tendency of stories from young boys to lean towards the disorderly has been noted by Nicolopoulou et al. (1994) in a fascinating study of the gender dimensions in stories invented by four-year-olds, while violent, thrilling and dramatic content has been noted by the collectors of oral stories from Pitcher and Prelinger in the 1960s, Labov, Heath, myself and many others. Within either the storytelling or the rituals of competitive rapping the player is free to subvert the real social world without consequences, although Labov points out that if the opening gambit in a verbal duel is not recognized as symbolic but taken for ‘real,’ then there is a danger of violence, even death in extreme cases (1972b: 343).

The kinds of language described above are recognizable as poetic forms; they are present in nursery rhymes and jokes, in comic books and ballads, and in canonical literature world-wide; their rudeness and subversion are an extension of the kinds of danger and violence found in the more innocent oral productions of much younger speakers like my five children. There are of course big differences, too, and not only cultural ones. Most of the subcultures described above use oral vernaculars or dialects as far removed from the standard languages of writing as it is possible to get. Labov asserts that the failure of literacy by the best players of verbal duels in the USA ghettos is attributable to teachers’ ignorance of these language varieties and their undervaluing of students’ highly developed verbal skills, which are surely ideal foundations for literacy—a judgement similar to Heath’s on the schooling of Trackton children. He describes the dominant values of what is now called rap as ‘toughness, smartness, trouble, excitement, autonomy and fate’ (1972b: 344), values far removed from school notions of literacy which at their worst can be more concerned with conformity, standardization, politeness, protectiveness (from violence), lack of autonomy and formal assessment. More recently some research has suggested that imaginative writing is the particular strength of African-American students who use BEV (black English vernacular) and urges teachers to use the ‘rich reservoir’ of these cultural discourses in the teaching of writing (Smitherman, 1994). There is nothing new in the observation that the street talk of black adolescents in cities in the UK is much admired in the white peer group for its style and coolness. In-depth studies of the influence and cross-fertilization between the vernaculars spoken by minority groups in the UK and the dialects of the mainstream groups can be found in Hewitt (1986) and Rampton (1995). But perhaps we are arriving at a new evaluation of verbal play in popular culture. Very recently I saw in a television programme about new languages and literacies a London infant teacher of literacy using in her literacy hour her pupils’ ability to rap (‘BBC Knowledge,’ February 2002). My second principle for literacy learning then is that we should find out about and make full use of children’s delight and skill in playing with language patterns of all kinds, especially the prosodic and metaphorical, to advance their literacy, and we should choose stories and poems that reflect these values.

The Interaction of the Oral and Literate

I do not think that the evidence for linguistic continuity and the constant overlapping and interdependence between speech and writing needs to be repeated at any great length here. The work of anthropologists of literacy has established that literacy is not an autonomous, homogeneous mental entity but is more accurately described as a plural set of cultural and social practices many of which have yet to be understood in education (Heath, 1983; Street, 1993; Barton, 1994). My story study shows that the interflow back and forth between oral language and the language of storybooks can be strongly established by the time children go to school. But it would be a great mistake to assume that hearing stories read aloud is the only way that young children get to hear written language read aloud. They also hear a great deal of it in scripted broadcasts in a variety of media, radio, TV, films, videos, computer games, pop songs and the like. In my data, pretend newsreadings and weather forecasts were offered as stories from time to time by five-year-old Josh. His grasp of the discourse patterns appropriate to these broadcasts was strong and clear and they are immediately recognizable to the listener. Indeed, the imitations of radio newsreaders produced some of the most complex syntax in the study. He uses a high number of passive constructions in his newsreadings, together with collections of political names and terminology, albeit in a playful, mocking manner. His weather forecasts are characterized by long adverbial phrases and the future tense. These grammatical features are not common in his storytellings but come from another frequently heard aural source—the radio.

We really know too little about the knowledge of specific discourses, some of them written or at least scripted, that children have in the early years of schooling. This is partly because, to children themselves, knowing how to do the voices and tunes of particular discourses is natural and inconsequential and usually comes out in their play. At present there is a perception that what children take from broadcast media is detrimental to their language and literacy rather than potentially useful in a bridge-building sense. Myra Barrs (1990) has made the point that television narrative conventions are known by many children who incorporate them into their writing and who are critical of storytellers who depart too far from the narrative rules. Pop songs and advertising jingles, however banal, use the linguistic devices of poems and nursery rhymes. They have the advantage of being repetitive and are often enjoyable. As children get older they often have considerable knowledge of quite specific discourses in popular culture, ranging from football commentaries (and the songs sung on the terraces) to the current language of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings (whose literary origins are impeccable) and ‘Harry Potter.’ There is no great gulf between these discourses and those of the stories and poems that may be first encountered in books. In the case of films and videos the passage from book to film and back again to book has now become a significant cultural process, not just for children’s works but for adults too. Many children pick up the rhythms and lexical features quickly and use them in their improvised play. My point is that although these forms seem somewhat removed from storybook reading, they are like the oral stories and verbal duels of Trackton in having the potential to be used for literacy if they are not rejected by schools and teachers. They are often highly patterned and structured according to specific recognizable conventions, usually popular, shared and widely known, often (but not always) part of children’s culture and belonging to children, and sometimes subversive and dangerous in the ways that children enjoy. So here I come to my third principle for literacy learning: we need to develop a better understanding of the knowledge of distinct discourse styles and structures that children bring with them to school from the outside world, to see how spoken and written channels overlap and interflow in those discourses, and to recognize how linguistic knowledge of this kind can be used to make literate transformations from speech to reading and writing and back again. One way to discover this kind of discourse knowledge would be to place oral storytelling and role-play close to the centre of the early years curriculum.

The World of the Story

To read a story is to write it, to construct it yourself, to be a story maker, in a sense to become the author of the text (Barthes, 1970). The reader’s activity makes the story mean, and what the story means will be slightly or even greatly different for each reader and for each reading by the same reader. The reader brings a whole set of identifications, ‘selves,’ social roles and experiences, expectations, preconceptions and histories to the text, as well as understandings from all the other texts read or heard or seen. Reading cannot really be possible without such interactions with texts. The story is a symbolic representation of experience whose materials are words and often pictures too upon which we are required to act to bring its meanings into being. It is a form of metaphor making in which we are obliged not only to recognize and understand the metaphors but to reinvent them for ourselves and, some would claim, reinvent ourselves in the process as teller and as told.

Such notions of the role and importance of stories in becoming literate are not new and I, especially in the light of the story study I began so many years ago, am completely committed to an induction to literacy for every child that will lead not only to reading and writing as practices to be developed over a lifetime but also to literature and the imaginative uses of language as a source of lifelong pleasure and enlightenment. The three principles that I have focused on here are a plea for us to be more inclusive in the means we employ to recruit children to the literacy club. The potential for becoming literate is not confined to bookish children but is present in all children who act out different kinds of symbolic transformation in their play, and all children who hear and enjoy richly patterned stylistically distinct language, whether it is because they are situated within specific oral traditions or because they are surrounded by familiar media texts and discourses on a daily basis.