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The importance of Fairy Tales in the EFL Classroom

“Once upon a time there was…” the magic words that start many a fairy tale and transport us back in time to our more or less distant childhoods, and the fantastical world of our imagination, where beautiful, yet fragile, princesses are able to defeat all the obstacles that cross their paths, including big scary and dangerous dragons. Do you remember how happy and excited you felt when someone you loved took the time to read you a fairy tale? Chances are that you probably haven’t read that fairy tale in a while, yet, you would easily be able to retell it in a wink of an eye. This is undeniable proof that fairy tales are memorable and that they continue to live in our minds long after we hear or read the classic phrase: “And they all lived happily ever after.” It thus seems pertinent to ask whether or not there is a place for fairy tales in the EFL classroom?

Albert Einstein defended that: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Judging by his track record, this is the type of advice which cannot be taken lightly. Then, there is the fact that fairy tales provide children with a safe and familiar context to learn a foreign language like English: Most children will have come into contact with fairy tales in their native language. Thus, when they hear a fairy tale in English, understanding the text is no longer a problem as they already know the content of the fairy tale in L1. Hence, all they have to do is sit back and enjoy the fairy tale and (sub)consciously select the receptive and productive language that they want to pick up to participate in the story or share it with friends and family members that they love. Another of the many benefits of fairy tales is that develop children’s emotional well-being by teaching them about morals in a context that they can understand and easily identify with, the importance of being kind and having friends to ask for help in order to overcome life’s many hardships as well as the fundamental need to be resilient and fight for the important things in life. Before we move on to discuss how to develop these concepts in a fairy tale, let us make a brief pause to think about how we should approach reading/telling children a fairy tale.

How to approach reading/telling children a fairy tale.

When telling a fairy tale, never forget to use your natural assets to bring the story to life. Remember to use your voice and body to recreate the mystical atmosphere of the fairy tale. Try playing with volume and pace by pausing and whispering something that is important to gain the children’s attention. Then, suddenly increase the volume of your voice to alert children to approaching danger or to represent a powerful, dangerous or intimidating character that the children should take notice of. Use different voices for different characters: try finding a princess voice and a witch/dragon voice to represent the protagonist and antagonist in the story and then reverting back to your normal voice for the narrator or less important characters. Remember to be realistic and bear in mind that it is difficult to produce more than three different voices at a time and still be able to concentrate on the story in order to tell it naturally and fluently. Also avoid the temptation to overdo your scary voice as this can easily frighten and intimidate very young and young learners.

Another effective storytelling strategy is to use your body language to involve the children in the story by making gestures to scaffold new language. As the story progresses, encourage the children to repeat those gestures each time they hear the target language in the story. You can also play with space and move around the room to reinforce the atmosphere and meaning of the story. For example, take the well-known fairy tale Puss in Boots, you can stand on the left of the room each time Puss is speaking to a “safe” character like his master, in the centre when he is speaking to an important character like the king, and on the right when he is speaking to the ogre or the villain of the story.

Body: stand on the left of the room

Body: stand in the centre of the room

Body: stand on the right of the room

Remember to leave “free space” (a few seconds or lines) between gestures where the children can simply listen to the story in order to avoid confusion and classroom management problems.

Activity ideas

We will now move on to present suggestions of possible questions/discussion topics and post reading activities that can be used to develop children’s emotional intelligence, creativity and critical thinking skills for some of the most popular fairy tales that we all know and love. According to Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the ability to identify, assess and control one’s emotions as well as to understand and manage the emotions of others. (1998). Goleman defends that EI or emotional competencies are not an innate talent but rather a learned capacity that must consciously be worked on and developed. This being the case it is important that we develop the following sub skills with our children: self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, Empathy and motivation.

Cinderella

Discussion topics/questions

  • How does Cinderella’s step-family treat her? Does she treat them in the same way? Why?
  • How does Cinderella overcome her problems?
  • Why do the animals help Cinderella?
  • What can the fairy godmother do that Cinderella can’t do?

Post-reading Group Competition:

Build the tallest castle possible with recyclable objects.

Elaborate a list of criteria to determine which is the tallest castle objectively.

 

Jack and the Beanstalk

Arts and Crafts:

Make an ogre origami (http://en.origami-land.com/animals/ogre/)

Experiment:

Grow a bean and write a science report about the process.

 

 

 

 

Puss in Boots

Discussion topics/questions

  • What does Puss do to make the king listen to him?
  • How does Puss convince the workers to say that they work for the Lord of Carrabas?
  • What can Puss do that the 3rd son can’t do?
  • What could the Ogre do that the people couldn’t do?
  • How does Puss convince the Ogre to change into a mouse?
  • What can Puss do that the Ogre can’t do?

Arts and Crafts: Make a wanted poster for a villain in the story. The poster should include:

  • Title: WANTED & an image/drawing of the villain
  • Reward
  • Last seen
  • Clues at the scene of the crime
  • Footprint
  • The Crime (Brief description)

Peter and the Wolf

Discussion questions/topics

  • Why do the bird and duck get angry with each other? How else could they react?
  • Why is Peter’s grandfather angry with him?
  • What does Peter teach his grandfather?
  • Why does the bird do what Peter tells him to do?
  • What can Peter do that the wolf can’t do?
  • What is the moral of this story?

Writing: Write your own fairy tale using the Pixar Structure:

Once upon a time there was…
Every day, …
One day, …
Because of that, …
Because of that, …
Until finally, …

It should be noted that the children do not possess enough language to discuss these questions in English. Thus, it is important to adopt a time out strategy where you speak L1 during the discussion. Slowly introduce one or two new English words that reflect the main points of your discussion and get the children to repeat these words. After the discussion ends, go back to these words and discuss them with the children by asking questions like: How do you say concept in discussion in English? What is the English word for concept in discussion? You can help children structure this new vocabulary by creating a classroom wall dictionary where the children write and illustrate the new words that they are learning so that they have easy access and are constantly reminded of the words they are picking up naturally during storytelling.

So, when all is said and done, does today’s story have a happy fairy tale pedagogical ending? According to Einstein: “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent of abstract, positive thinking.” C.S. Lewis challenges us by saying that: “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Today is a fantastic day for you to pick up a fairy tale that you love so that your students can listen and learn happily ever after…

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