Say It Again: Ideas for Retelling

All educators in early years education spend a lot of time working on getting children to re-tell stories. There are so many language developments linked to this simple activity – “story-related comprehension and expressive vocabulary as well as nonstory-related receptive language and early literacy development” (Dunst et al., 2012).

However, it can feel a bit dull, asking “what happened next?” again and again. To this end, I’ve been working on developing a range of strategies to keep this fresh and ensure the children are always invested in developing these all important retelling skills.

Act It Out

Sheep in a Jeep – all we needed was a few hula hoops and we had ourselves a Jeep for the sheep to ride in! The children loved pretending to push the Jeep out of the mud, and were rolling around laughing by the time we crashed into the tree! Using the learners to create the objects in the story as well as the characters gives them more opportunities to be involved…and makes it so much more memorable!

Story Maps

The photo I’ve used here is actually the learners creating their own version of a story (I love Pie Corbett’s ‘imitation and invention’ approach), however this would work just as well to retell a story. Here, the learners were creating a new version of Handa’s Surprise. It’s a great method, particularly if the character goes on a journey in the story. It’s also easily differentiated (how much they need to include) and a fabulous form of assessment when looking at how much detail they have taken in.  The example below is whole class, which we did as an example.  The learners then created individual story maps.



I’ve already shown a whole-class approach to retelling and an individual one. This works well for small groups. This was our Handa’s Surprise retelling. I printed the characters from Twinkl, mainly so the learners could stay focused on recreating the setting and retelling the story. You could easily get them to draw the whole thing. When doing collage I tend to throw out a load of resources, and tell the learners they can use other stuff but need to check with me first. The group skills that are developed in these activities are an added bonus!!


Green Screen

Sorry, I don’t have any great photos of this one! I was sat at a table wondering if there were any apps which I could utilise to take story telling in a different direction, when I noticed that the table I was sat at was green… and that gave me a great idea! Our class iPads already had the ‘Green Screen’ app, so I had a play around, making small puppets where we coloured the lollipop sticks green. It worked!! After some trial and error, we found the table had to be stood on its side, and had to be high up enough for the learners to sit comfortable beneath it. We used this for the Enormous Turnip.

Explain Everything

We’re back to Handa’s Surprise again – sorry! I am sure we did this with the Hungry Caterpillar as well but the videos are hiding from me. There are several ways you can use the app Explain Everything. In the example below, the learners took photos of different sections of their collage, then retold the story. You can also get them to draw out the story directly into the app, or give them a series of photos from the story which they must arrange and then narrate. With my 5 year olds, I use simple mode.


The example below is not a retelling activity; I haven’t used this app for retelling yet but while I was flicking through the videos I thought it would work really well. Just choose a character from the story, take a photo of them, put in the app, then the learner tells the story from the viewpoint of that character.

I hope these have given you some fresh ideas for retelling!

Hansel and Gretel – what else is hiding in the woods?

I’m still playing around with maps at the moment, and am enjoying seeing how my learners are getting into this way of organising their thoughts.  For this writing project, we once again started with a whole group collaboration.  After reading the story of Hansel and Gretel, I saw a perfect opportunity to use the map in a different way.

We started with a collaboration to create the path through the forest.

This was followed by a bit of role play (got to get the drama in there!), and I had 4 learners to play the dad and step-mum, Hansel and Gretel, and walk the journey into the forest.  I gave the learner being Hansel some unifix cubes to act as the pebbles/breadcrumbs as they walked, and then we also had someone as the bird to swoop down and gobble them up.  In hindsight, I think using small puppets would have worked better in this respect and I could have got more dialogue out, helping the learners to develop empathy with the characters.

I then posed them a question – what if Hansel and Gretel had chosen a different path?  What would they find?  I gave them all another piece of paper from the same roll and they all drew the different “paths” through the forest.

There were some amazing ideas – spooky trees, hidden beaches, Rapunzel’s tower, to name a few!  I gave them post-it notes so they could record any important facts about their location and think about describing words they could use when writing.

Once the paths were finished, we did a gallery walk to see the ideas of others, and they were given a choice.  Did they want to write about their own path…or would they rather use a path created by someone else?  After using my own example for us to create a group model, learners eagerly went away to finish the story.

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I love the way every story was different, even if the “path” chosen was the same.  I can really see them developing their skills as writers, using more descriptive language.  We have also introduced editing (we talk about ‘polishing’ our work), and you can see some of the alterations made on their writing.  Sparking this writing passion in them will give them the motivation and a real investment in wanting to develop as writers.

The Three Little Pigs – an immersive learning experience

Through my connections to ISTA, I’ve been most fortunate to attend workshops led by Dr Debra Kidd.  I always look forward to these as I adore her ideas for using drama as pedagogy in the Primary classroom.  Recently, I heard her speak about spatial memory, and how we can use maps to immerse children in their learning.  I was eager to give it a go and very quickly an opportunity presented itself.

Our unit of inquiry was centred on the idea that ‘People build their homes in different places and different ways’, and to supplement this, we were exploring The Three Little Pigs in literacy.  I was keen to use some of Dr Kidd’s methodologies, with a ‘Mantle of the Expert’ slant, to connect the story and the inquiry together authentically and meaningfully.  Bear with me, because this was a long journey!  Before getting started, I explained to the learners that we were going to do something a little different, where we would all be in role, and that using our imaginations would help us really enjoy this experience – this way, everyone was on board before we began!  I told them they would shortly be joined by an inspector from the FBI who needed their help, then I left the room.

I knocked on the door, then re-entered in role as the inspector.  I began referring to the learners as ‘agents’, and told them I had assembled them (as the best in the business) to help me solve a crime.  They were presented with a picture of a destroyed straw house.  What do we think happened?

IMG_0129 (1)We sorted these into the possibilities of natural disaster vs intentional harm.  While the learners were discussing these, I ‘received another phone call’, and informed them that we had had word of another destroyed house – a stick one this time.  This time there was no doubt this was intentional.  To find the culprit, we needed a map.

The ‘agents’ jumped in, quickly helping construct the town where the crimes took place.  After placing the straw and stick houses on, we added a river, the police station, the hospital, a mountain, a park, a zoo, a train station…no ideas were rejected and the town quickly grew!

From this point onwards, I saw a marked difference in the engagement of the learners.  They really took ownership of the situation, and became fully immersed in the project.  We identified possible places (post-it notes on the map) that the culprit could be hiding and I was amazed at the critical thinking applied to produce reasoning for these hiding places.  They listened with eagerness and interest and calmly debated the rationale for the different hiding places.

There were many more different stages to this learning experience, but I want to stick to the importance of the map, which was always central to our meetings when in role.  Having the map, and giving the learners a solid location for our discussion and actions, led to them being really invested in this experience.  During other lessons, they would constantly ask me when the inspector was coming back, and bring in items from the playground that must be ‘clues’!

Eventually, after interviewing eyewitnesses, making posters, going to wolf-hunting boot camp, and solving a BreakoutEDU box, we found the wolf.  And a restorative conversation was had with the wolf and the pigs to help resolve the situation.

But we were far from finished.  Two of the three pigs were now homeless.  Back to the map we went.  Where could the pigs build their homes?  In the forest?  On the mountain?  By the river?  On the beach?  In the city?  We had the basis for our inquiry.  Rather than inquiry for the sake of inquiry, the learners had an invested interest in finding out about houses in these different locations to help our friend Peter Pig! We constantly referred back to the map to remind the learners of our purpose.

I can honestly say this has been one of the most magical learning experiences I’ve ever been a part of.  I never knew where we were going next and had to plan on my feet every second.  Something that always amazed me was how the learners saw such a distinction between myself and the ‘inspector’, though I used no costume or anything.  Throughout the day, they would ask me when the ‘inspector’ was coming back as they had vital information to share with him!

I can’t recommend this style of learning enough.  Moving learners from engagement to investment is something I am always thinking about now when setting up an inquiry.  I can’t wait to do it again!

Blast Off!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I love drama.  So when I was given the opportunity to host an ISTA (International Schools Theatre Association) Festival, I jumped at the chance!  In fact, I jumped in deeper than most and offered to host two – the Lower Primary and Primary Festivals.

After some thought, I settled on the theme of space, with a slightly different slant for each Festival.  The Lower Festival would focus on traveling in space, being astronauts.  The Primary one would look at finding new worlds to colonise and the possibility of meeting different life forms.

IMG_4676The team at my school did an amazing job of creating the vision I had.  The excitement on the learners faces as they entered the space for the first time was just wonderful to see – visitors from schools across Singapore marvelled as they were transported into outer space.

As always, the ISTA artists had the learners engaged and enthused all weekend, as they took them on their journey through black holes, to supernovas and beyond!

It was a real privilege to be a part of such a respected organisation.

Wild Thing…you make my heart sing…

You can’t beat a good children’s picture book. And there’s nothing I love more than developing a string of learning experiences to make the children love the book as much as I do. I teach children right on the cusp of reading, what a mammoth responsibility! They way in which we approach books and reading is going to have a massive impact on their attitude towards it. As I always tell parents, I see my first job as helping the children to love books and to WANT to read. If I get that right, the actual decoding and understanding will come a million times easier.

And last week was a personal favourite – Where the Wild Things Are. I’ve done this with many year groups in many different ways. But we always start with drama. Drama is my passion, my go-to methodology whenever possible. Starting by creating the forest where the Wild Things live, we progress to becoming Wild Things ourselves.

How do they move? What noises do they make? How do they approach each other? Whenever we do an activity like this, something magical happens. The quietest learners morph into amazing characters, the reluctant writers get an opportunity to show they too are full of imagination, the confident ones realise they have much to learn from their less-vocal classmates. And they start to understand empathy, which I believe to be one of the most important skills they can learn if they are to improve the world they grow up in.

Alongside these drama activities, we started to create our art work. After thinking about the shapes and sounds of the forest, the children worked collaboratively in pairs to develop their own forest. They had total freedom (within the boundaries of the classroom) of materials – collage, paint, pens, etc.

During our dramatic exploration of becoming a Wild Thing, I took photos of their “wild” face.


We cut out these amazing faces with their weird and wonderful expressions and they drew the body of their “Wild Thing” which was then stuck onto their forest. They were incredibly proud of their artwork, and to top it off they then wrote descriptions of their wild thing. I strongly believe that immersing them into the text this way led to much richer writing, giving the children ownership and agency over their writing. The following week we had learner-led conferences and all of them eagerly pulled their parents over to see their art and writing. They were invested and proud. And, hopefully, in love with a new book, thus growing their passion for stories and reading.

Loving ‘Length’

We were right in the middle of a maths unit on shape and symmetry, when the learners started using everything they could get their hands on to see how long our learning space was.

Once again, I was witnessing that independent, task-fuelled collaboration.  But in addition, I was seeing where their interests lay, and I knew that we should grab on to this enthusiasm and move into looking at length.

Being 5/6 years old, my learners have mostly used non-standard measurement.  It was now time to introduce standard measurement.  I didn’t want to just make a switch.  I wanted them to start questioning the use of non-standard measurement, and to think about about why standard measurement was so important.

I set the context.  Over the school holiday, I plan to do some classroom alterations and to do that, I need to know how long the classroom is, and I need to share this information with others.  I’ve decided to measure the classroom in ‘Sarah’s.  I get Sarah to lie on the floor and we estimate – how many Sarahs do we think it will take?  Estimations are made, and so we begin!


Once we have determined how many Sarahs it takes, I say I will email this information to our school principal, but he quickly emails back and says he doesn’t understand as he doesn’t know how big a Sarah is.  I ask the children to stand up, and they all show me how big they think she is.

fullsizeoutput_907Looking around, they can see that they all have different ideas.  Why would that be a problem?  After some discussion, we realise there are no numbers on Sarah!  So what DOES have numbers on, and would it be helpful?  I bring out some rulers and we do a bit of investigation.

The children realise they are all the same.  The distance between each number is the same.  If you measure the same thing with different rulers, you get the same answer every time.  So would it be better to measure the room with Sarahs or rulers?  Rulers they yell jubilantly!  Now we can ensure our principal knows the size of our room.  Hurrah for standard measurement!

Collaboration and Imagination

Sometimes, you don’t need to do anything.  You just have to observe.  You don’t even need to provide any specific equipment, just watch the play develop.  In our garden, we have a few bits and pieces for the learners to play with or rest on.  And sometimes, they use these things in a way you would never have imagined.

It started with a homemade ‘river’.  One learner joined all the pieces of pipe together to make her own river, taking advantage of the slope of the garden.  She was pouring water into the top and watching it form a little pool at the bottom.  Playing independently, she was learning so many things – the effects of gravity, the fluidity of liquid, how an angle of a slope could have an affect something – it was a great moment to witness.fullsizeoutput_8ed

I left it there over night.  She’d gone through such a fantastic thought process to make it that I was keen to share it with the other learners.  But before I got a chance, the learners discovered it themselves, and it morphed from a ‘river’…

…into a rocket!  Over the next few days, a whole group of learners came together and used that original idea to completely change it into something new.  The collaboration was a pleasure to witness!  No ideas were shunned, everyone had an input into what would go where, and how different bits they found around the garden could be used to enhance it.  There was a group of learners working together to ensure there was always water running down the pipe so that the ‘rocket’ would not run out of ‘fuel’.  They were applying knowledge they had of moving vehicles by keeping this going.  They ensured there were enough seats for all to be involved.

And what did I learn?  That collaboration doesn’t need an adult forcing it to happen.  With a common goal, collaboration will happen naturally.  Learners will create their own roles within the group and play their part.  The only key is that they must have a vested interest.  Maybe this is where collaboration can go wrong in the classroom?  Using their own interests and projects can be incredibly powerful.