By Clare Fielder
Aimed at children in years 1 and 2, the My First Story course serves as an introduction into story writing by using familiar fairytales and stories as a way of looking at how stories are structured. Let’s see first how we guide children in planning and structuring their stories by using simple but very effective tools.
Storymapping and the 5 Stages of Storytelling
Each week of the term we look at a different fairytale. As a class, or in small groups, we break down the content of each fairytale into five stages:
2. Rising Action;
4. Falling Action (Solution);
The students then have the chance to retell the story in their own words. It is always fascinating to see each child interpreting the fairytales in their own way, choosing whether to narrate it as a comedy, a tragedy, or somewhere in between, like the story that opened with ‘the ugly duckling left home because he didn’t feel appreciated’!
Using fairytales as a starting point, the young writers experiment with what happens if we change certain details. What if the ugly duckling had never realised he was a swan? What if the three little pigs were actually the villains of the story? This gives the children more freedom to use their imaginations, and to have fun whilst implementing what they have learnt about structure.
The biggest challenge for the children is remembering to include each stage of the story. For this reason we often refer back to a story mountain, which is a simplified ‘story arc’. This is a great visual reminder!
When telling stories orally children can trace the mountain with a finger as they are speaking, and this ensures that their stories are told in a logical order. Children plan their stories by filling out blank story mountains. This gives them something to look back at if they get to a point where they don’t know what to write next, and helps them to order their ideas in a logical way. Learning the fundamentals of storywriting early on give children a solid logical framework which can be applied even in seemingly unrelated fields such as software engineering.
Looking back on the classes that I’ve taught, I am impressed by how far the young writers have come. They are all producing stories, both written and orally, that have a beginning, middle and end. From looking closely at the structures of stories they know well they are becoming more comfortable thinking analytically and it has also been great to see them giving each other thoughtful feedback when sharing stories.
I have learned a lot from seeing the students get to grips with new writing skills and overcome challenges, at the same time as entertaining me, and each other, with their increasingly imaginative storytelling. It is always interesting to see how their writing continues to progress through the weeks – I definitely want to find out what happened after Hansel and Gretel discovered a secret science lab in the forest!
Extra: Top Tips for Supporting Young Writers
If you are wondering how you could assist your child in further developing their skills, below are some ‘top tips’ for supporting children as they continue to develop their writing beyond the My First Story course.
1. Retelling. Asking children to tell you a story they have heard recently reinforces the five stages of a story and a plot they already know provides enough scaffolding for children to experiment with their own unique style.
2. Make A Plan. It is really helpful for children to have a chance to order their thoughts before they start writing. This could mean making a story mountain or drawing a storyboard so that they always have something to refer to if they get stuck.
3. Ask Questions. When asked questions about their main character, children can quickly tell me what they look like, where they live and whether they are kind or mischievous or clever, but they hadn’t realised this was missing from their story. Asking specific questions about a story encourages children to expand their writing by including details and descriptions.
4. Give Feedback. When a child shares their story at the end of the session I ask everyone to think of something they like about the story, and something they want to see in the author’s next story. This period of constructive feedback lets children know what they are doing well and set goals for their next piece of writing.
5. Have fun! At the start of the sessions we often play quick games that help children warm-up their imaginations. One of the most popular is making up a story by taking turns saying a sentence. This helps children to start linking ideas together. Adding the challenge of keeping the story going for as long as possible encourages children to think creatively and usually results in some entertaining stories!
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Clare Fielder is a course leader at Chelsea Young Writers, practicing writer and has an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University. She has taught creative writing and English as a Foreign Language to young people in London, Japan and South-East Asia.