Some stories have a kind of DNA.
The characters, themes and ideas pass from story to story, evolving and changing along the way. Each new storyteller adds their own ideas and interprets the characters and the dilemmas they face in new and unexpected ways. In popular culture, we retell these great stories again and again, and each time a new generation meets them afresh.
So why do we retell some stories time and again?
Perhaps they speak to us in a common language? Perhaps they share some universal truth about life? Perhaps they are just great stories that are worth retelling? Whatever the reason, reading and studying these great stories can bring huge benefits for children.
Literary heritage texts at school
Obviously we want children to read the books that they have chosen themselves; the books they are desperate to pick up and devour. Through reading widely, children will build experience as a reader, learning the types of books they favour, their tastes changing over time. But with the books we study at school, we can also help to introduce children to stories that they might not choose themselves, including stories that might come from our literary heritage but that are completely new to children. Great stories such as these are important for several reasons:
- New ideas: Stories help children to make sense of the world. The best stories introduce new ideas and concepts, challenge children to see the world through different eyes or to develop an understanding that they might not have otherwise. A book is the perfect place to examine an idea without breaking it.
- Rich language: As well as ideas, the books we read give us a template for the language we use. Encountering new language, both words themselves and ways of structuring and organising them, gives children a model for their own speaking and writing.
- Cultural resonance: Some stories and the characters in them have a life beyond the books themselves. It might be an iconic character- Scrooge or Chanticleer- or it might be the stories- Grimm’s Tales or Daedalus and Icarus. There are some stories that are referenced time and time again, and knowing about them unlocks the meaning of other books and stories.
It might be that they are used for guided or group reading or for whole class reading sessions but, as with all English teaching, the right choice of text is crucial.
When I was asked to write the teaching notes for the Greatest Stories series selected by Michael Morpurgo, I leapt at the chance. Here was an opportunity to devise some teaching ideas for a collection of classic stories retold by wonderful contemporary authors.
Sometimes it was the combination of the author and the story that sparked my enthusiasm: Philip Reeve’s exquisite retelling of Gawain and the Green Knight or Geraldine McCaughrean bringing her poetic prose to retell Moby Dick. Sometimes it was for more personal reasons: Jamila Gavin retelling tales from 1001 Nights in The Enchanted Horse, one of my favourite books from childhood or Maureen Haselhurst retelling The Red Badge of Courage, a book I didn’t know at all and have since read and loved. Whatever the reason, the books provide a rich stimulus for great English teaching, both for working with small groups and for a text to share and study with the whole class.
While drawing out the teaching opportunities these books presented, I kept one thing at the front of my mind: these books aren’t intended to replace the original books and stories. What they do is provide a bridge between a child and the originals. They give a version that children can read and enjoy right now, before hopefully moving on to the original one day when they are ready. In the meantime, children get access to the new ideas, rich language and great stories that should be the driver of primary English teaching.
More than anything, I hope that the stories that Michael Morpurgo has chosen for Greatest Stories, and the teaching handbooks that I’ve written to accompany them, will give a generation of children the opportunity to read and listen to a set of magical stories, with all of the educational benefits that will bring.
The stories must be good; after all, we’re still retelling them after all this time. And, as the saying goes: time really is the best critic.
James Clements is an education writer and researcher, specialising in the teaching of English using rich literature. He is the founder of Shakespeare and More. You can find James on twitter @MrJClements.
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