Oral tales

Charlotte Mason suggested that parents pull together a little repertoire of half a dozen oral stories to tell children- oral story telling builds their language skills, their listening skills, and their ability to imagine scenes based only on words.

“Every father and mother should have a repertoire of stories––a dozen will do, beautiful stories beautifully told; children cannot stand variations. “You left out the rustle of the lady’s gown, mother!” expresses reasonable irritation; the child cannot endure a suggestion that the story he lives in is no more than the “baseless fabric of a vision.” Away with books, and “reading to”––for the first five or six years of life. The endless succession of story-books, scenes, shifting like a panorama before the child’s vision, is a mental and moral dissipation; he gets nothing to grow upon, or is allowed no leisure to digest what he gets. It is contrary to nature, too. “Tell us about the little boy who saved Haarlem!” How often do the children who know it ask for that most hero-making of all tales! And here is another advantage of the story told over the story read. Lightly come, lightly go, is the rule for the latter. But if you have to make a study of your story, if you mean to appropriate it as bread of life for your children, why, you select with the caution of the merchantman seeking goodly pearls. Again, in the story read, the parent is no more than the middleman; but the story told is food as directly and deliberately given as milk from the mother’s breast. Wise parents, whose children sit with big eyes pondering the oft-told tale, could tell us about this. But it must be borne in mind that the story told is as milk to the child at the breast. By-and-by comes the time when children must read, must learn, and digest for themselves.”

Pick about half a dozen of the different types, or start with just two or three. Read a few versions of the story and come up with a retelling of your own. Make sure it’s one you won’t mind telling again and again and again, because you will be asked for it a hundred times or more. 🙂

Charlotte Mason recommends including these considerations in your tales:

“Here are some of the points which make a story worth studying to tell to the nestling listeners in many a sweet “Children’s Hour”;––graceful and artistic details; moral impulse of a high order, conveyed with a strong and delicate touch; sweet human affection; a tender, fanciful link between the children and the Nature-world; humour, pathos, righteous satire, and last, but not least, the fact that the story does not turn on children, and does not foster that self-consciousness, the dawn of which in the child is, perhaps, the individual “Fall of Man.” But children will not take in all this? No; but let it be a canon that no story, nor part of a story, is ever to be explained. You have sown the seed; leave it to germinate.”

Consider that stories with a bit of mystery, where every single word, event, and turn of phrase is not immediately clear are the stories children are more likely to think about, ponder, retell to themselves.  This is why we prefer stories that seem slightly over their heads.  It is in that quiet thinking they do on their own time and in their own way that they make the story their own and the ideas germinate and grow.  Do not too hastily reject a tale because ‘they will never understand that.’

The types of stories I think are good to consider:

Bible stories
Folk tales/fables
Stories of your childhood or your parents’ childhood– not ordinary stories, but stories of hardships endured, or stories where the grandparents or great-grandparents have done something brave and good, or learned hard lessons.
Hero tales from history– do not be too persnickety about whether these are ‘true’ or not. One reason is that many so-called debunked stories actually haven’t been debunked. For instance, there is not sound historical evidence to reject the George Washington and cherry tree tale as false.  Another reason is that tales that have grown up around historical figures and been passed down are true in another way- they give us a sense of

Here are some of my suggestions for those oral tales:

Bible Stories: David and Goliath, Noah’s ark, Joseph and the coat of many colours, Jesus’ birth, some of the parables, some of Jesus’ miracles (healing the 10 lepers, the boy with loaves and fishes, raising Jairus’ daughter).  Creation. The temptation of Eve and the Fall. Cain and Abel. Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego in the fiery furnace, Jonah and the whale,

Folk tales: Little Red Hen and Grain of Wheat, Teeny Tiny Woman, Red Riding Hood, 3 little pigs, any of Aesop’s fables, Gingerbread Man, The Turnip (a Russian folk tale), the fisherman and his wife
Hero tales: The boy with his finger in the dyke, http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/68/fairy-tales-and-other-traditional-stories/5093/the-little-hero-of-haarlem/
Kete Shelley and the train (http://www.americanfolklore.net/folklore/2010/07/kate_shelley_saves_the_train.html)
The Burghers of Calais- Many years ago, King Edward III of England took the town of Calais from the French king. He could not take it by force, for the walls were very strong, but he succeeded by another plan. He placed his soldiers all round the walls, and would let no one go into the town to take food to the people. Inside the walls, the people waited bravely, but at last all their food was eaten, and then they knew that if they tried to hold the town any longer they would starve.

So the governor sent word to King Edward that he would give up the city, and begged him to have mercy on the people.

But Edward was angry. “Tell your masters,” said he to the messenger, “that I will not spare the people unless six of the chief men come out to me, with their feet bare, and ropes around their necks.”

At this sad news, the poor starving people cried aloud. But soon six brave men were found who were ready to die for their countrymen, and, with their feet bare and ropes around their necks, they went out to the place where King Edward was waiting, with Queen Philippa and the English nobles.

“Great king!” said the men, “we bring you the keys of our town, and we pray you to have mercy on us.”

But the king would not listen. “Take them away and cut off their heads,” he cried angrily. And when his nobles begged him to spare such brave enemies he would not listen to them.Then Queen Philippa, whose heart was filled with pity for the poor men, fell upon her knees.

“My lord,” she cried, “if you love me, give me the lives of these men.”

King Edward could not bear to see his beautiful queen in tears upon the ground, so he raised her, saying: “Lady, I wish you had not been here, for I cannot say you nay. Take the men, they are yours.”

Then Queen Philippa joyfully led the brave men away, and gave them food and clothes, and sent them back to their friends. So they, and all the people of Calais, were saved.
Richard the Lionhearted and Blondel: http://www.mainlesson.com/display.php?author=baldwin&book=thirty&story=richard

George Washington and the cherry tree
Abraham Lincoln and the borrowed book
Dolly Madison saving the painting of George Washington

The story of Kapiolani, Hawiian convert to Christianity who defied taboos to show her people God had true power rather than the goddess Pele – http://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/hlov/hlov25.htm

Of course, if you are not an American and you don’t live in America, you should pick the hero tales and folk tales of your own culture.


Don’t spend too much time trying to decide which story to tell first.  Pick one- if you need to make yourself choose by writing out the titles and putting them in a hat, then do that.

Don’t memorize it.  Just read it and review it enough times that you can retell it clearly.  Learn that story well enough to retell it, and then tell your story some evening at bedtime, or while you are peeling potatoes and the children are nearby, or you are weeding the garden together, or in the morning when they want you to get up and out of bed and you are not yet ready.


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One Comment

  1. Lisa Beth W.
    Posted September 5, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I will be sending this post over to my girls who have little ones!

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