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Myths, Legends, Fantasy...


How to... use folk tales in classroom

An article by Ma³gorzata Zdybiewska which argues that folktales, especially those known from childhood can play a valuable cultural as well as language role in the classroom. Popular folktales usually generate genuine interest and enthusiasm both among young and adult students alike. The article and the Teacher’s tips presented here will encourage you to develop your own classroom activities and provide intercultural ideas allowing you to make fuller use of them in the classroom.

Do you have your own favourite folktale? I believe that most of us do. My favourite one was my grandmother’s story about two shepherds, their sheep and bad wolves. It was an extremely cruel and terrifying folktale containing grim memories of harsh winters, poverty and hunger with a moral that praised common wisdom of country people and their sense of justice. My grandmother would tell me this story over and over again and I was never tired of it. However, my fascination was accompanied by strong fear. So strong that even today I can vividly remember the horrifying details. Yet, listening to my grandmother’s story was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my childhood.


Modern psychology explains this childhood phenomenon as a necessary stage in child’s development: children have to experience fear and learn how to deal with it through stories so that they are able to face and overcome it successfully later in their adult life in the real world. Fundamental fascination with the world of myths, legends and folktales is common to every culture. Some writers believe that all the world stories actually come down to several primary myths that exist in every culture (see an article “Harry Potter – A New Myth” at: We may thus assume that enjoyment found while listening to stories is shared by every human being. Storytellers have catered for this basic and genuine need for a ‘good story’ since the beginning of our civilization.


As Ruth Wajnryb says in her book, Stories. Narrative Activities in the language classroom, (Wajnryb:4):


The value of stories, however, goes beyond the entertainment they offer. Beyond the immediate pleasures of exposure to stories, the uplifting, exciting, moving or thought-provoking qualities of a good story contribute to an educated person’s intellectual, emotional and moral development. The effect of a story – one might say, its ‘magic’ – is to offer an infinite well of vicarious experience with the capacity to transport the reader/hearer beyond all boundaries of time, space, language, ethnicity, class or gender.


Folktales, fairy tales, legends, myths etc. are widely used in ELT as a rich source of authentic material that is highly motivating to students. They can engage students in a variety of ways: from drama to creative writing. They can be used as a resource for a large number of language activities practising all skills. What is more, they lend themselves especially well to intercultural comparisons.


Teacher’s tips


Ø      Give yourself some time to explore all kinds of stories and build your own individual collection. The amount of material available is amazing. But it is up to you to choose most suitable stories for your classroom because you know your students’ needs best.

Ø      Let folktales put their spell on your students.  Don’t interfere too much – a good story from a ’golden’ collection will never bore your students or you.

Ø      Use the same story over and over again in different teaching contexts. Reflect on your material and improve your activities. Soon you will discover that good stories need time to mature.

Ø      Never tell stories you do not like.


What are folktales?

Why are they especially suitable for the classroom?

What language skills do they allow to practise?

Why are they suitable for intercultural teaching?
How do you find good folktales?

What are folktales?

In short, a folktale is a popular story passed on in spoken form from one generation to the next.

We usually do not know its author and there are many versions of it. The same story may also appear in different cultures. The term can also refer to literary versions of oral stories. As Eric K. Taylor writes: “Thus, even though Little Red Riding Hood began as an oral tale, Perrault’s retelling begins like this:


There was once upon a time a little village girl, the prettiest ever seen or known, of whom her mother was dotingly fond. Her grandmother was even fonder of her still, and had a little red hood made for the child, which suited here so well that wherever she went she was known by the name of Little Red Riding Hood….


These literary folktales use the same basic stories as themes, and they keep the same oral characteristics, but they are often longer, and their language is often both more ornate and more difficult”. (Taylor: 4)


Folktales comprise fables, fairy tales and even ‘urban legends’. It is difficult to categorize them precisely because they often fit many categories. This variety means that they can be used in all kinds of contexts and at all levels of language competence, in groups of different ages.


Generally speaking, they share some common characteristics:


  • They are structured chronologically. The events in folktales are arranged in time order.
  • They are rhetorically sophisticated e.g. they make use of repetition and redundancy to emphasize some aspects of a story and enhance its meaning.
  • They are predictable. Their predictability makes it easier to guess what is coming next and thus facilitates understanding despite unknown vocabulary.
  • They often use clichés and stereotypes. There are typical sets of characters that appear in many tales: a shepherd, a king, a witch, a prince, an orphan, cruel sisters, a stepmother etc. An audience can immediately recognize the characters.
  • The grammar of traditional folktales is usually simple. Short sentences, basic linking words, common use of past tenses make them easy to pass orally.
  • Vocabulary in folktales is concrete so it is not difficult to present it through illustrations that may help understand the story.


Teacher’s tips


Ø       Practise telling stories to your groups. Stories grow on you with time – you will discover their hidden meanings and symbols while telling them over and over again.

Ø        Keep eye contact with your students while telling your story and watch the response of your students to see what attracts them. Work on your stories by using your voice and gestures to emphasize the message of a story.

Ø       Folktales have potent value beyond the classroom. Allow your students to enjoy them.


Why are they especially suitable for the classroom?

In a FL classroom, a folktale can be used for various purposes:


·         To foster language learning by providing rich and varied content

o        Folktales work on listeners’ imagination. Through repetitive rhetorical devices they facilitate learning of grammatical structures. In many folktales there are series of encounters when the same language structures are used over and over again. For example in Three Little Pigs, each pig goes through the same experience and the same dialogue is repeated three times.

·         To develop critical thinking

o        Folktales deal with fundamental themes. They are relevant to all kinds of listeners or readers. Although events in stories are imaginary, they carry significant messages to contemporary audiences. They deal with jealousy, power, generosity, sorrow, forgiveness or happiness.

·         To explore cultural contexts

o        Folktales are part of a nation’s cultural heritage. They include elements of history, geography or even climate. They give insight into customs, traditions and problems faced by communities. Learning folktales from our own culture and sharing them with students from other countries may teach tolerance and distance towards one’s own culture.

·         To provide intercultural contexts

o        Folktales are often ‘international’ coming from deep inside European culture as well as from deep in our psyche. Thus many are the same or recognisably similar, their nationality is not important. No one considers the country where the Three Little Pigs lived.


Teacher’s tips


Ø      Activate your class by providing them with pictures and real objects. If your students are young and their language level is low encourage them to interact. Build the story with them in English from the pictures.

Ø      Use drama techniques to build a story step-by-step. Allow your students to create their own pictures and dialogues. Do not restrict their response and correct their mistakes only if it is absolutely necessary.


What language skills do they allow to practise?

Folktales allow the practice of all language skills and are perfect material for an integrated skills style of teaching. Below you will find some examples of activities focused on particular language skills. However, these activities can be expanded in all sorts of ways. The nature of folktales is ‘holistic’ because they contain the essence of human experience. That is why they open doors to all kinds of creative activities in the classroom and beyond.


·         Listening

For example: Choose a simple version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Using simple drawings of pieces of furniture and concrete nouns tell the story to your class. After you have told the story, ask the students to draw a plan of the bears’ room. Then encourage the students to describe their drawings. Next introduce a piece of dialogue e.g. “Someone’s been eating my porridge,” said the papa bear in his great big voice”. The students may take turns in creating dialogues with other characters with the help of their drawings. Finally, they may act out the whole story.


These activities are suitable for beginner or low-level intermediate class of children.


·         Speaking

For example: Let your students choose a popular Polish folktale, e.g. “A Tale about the Wawel Dragon”. The students should work in groups on their English versions. They will need help with vocabulary and the structure of the folktale. After the groups have told their versions, the class may try answer some questions leading to a consideration of their intercultural context

o        Which elements of the story may contain some knowledge of history, anthropology etc.?

o        What was the problem the main character faced in the folktale?

o        What were the most important values that were reflected in the story?

o        Would the story be easily understandable to people from other countries?

o        Are there similar stories in other countries?


Another speaking activity: one student reads a short folktale which is then passed orally from student to student, with the final student telling it to the class (who are given written copies of the original to compare with). Then the students have to discuss how much of the original remained. That can be followed by discussion of how the key elements remain the same across centuries and languages while the less necessary detail begins to vary.


As students generally have problems with intonation, emphasis or pausing, stories may help to practise those.


·         Reading

“Because of the predictability, redundancy, and repetition in folktales, unknown words are usually easier to guess than in many other types of texts. This makes folktales good for developing skill at inferring meaning from context – a very useful general reading strategy”. (Taylor: 142)

For example: Give students a cloze passage that is a text of a folktale with key words left out. You can also delete every seventh word out. First ask them to predict what words had been deleted and then provide them with a full text. (link to "Dick Whittington and His Cat")


·         Writing

For example: Find some aboriginal tales (at e.g. “Boonah”. Divide your students into pairs. Person A is given a text of a tale whereas Person B is supposed to write it down. The tale has to be passed down orally. This activity can be developed into a role-play in which Person A is an old aboriginal woman whereas Person B is an anthropologist - collector of aboriginal tales. (See also other ideas in: Ida Baj & Ewa Burliga: Australia Across the Curriculum, Wydawnictwo Juka)


Teacher’s tips


Ø      Folktales are like woven tapestries. You need time to develop your activities and suit them best to your students.

Ø      Telling stories is a natural gift and some people are better at it than others. Don’t be discouraged if your lesson is not an immediate success.

Ø      Get your students into groups - each putting on a different folk tale as a separate ‘playlet’. It could be a mini-competition with prizes for the English, for effectiveness, for dramatic ability etc

Why are they suitable for intercultural teaching?

Folktales have always interested anthropologists. In all cultures, oral stories contain the people’s wisdom and experience. They were passed orally and worked on by generation after generation.


For example: in medieval Ireland (see our articles on Irish folklore Irish Myths and Legends and An Other World - Celtic Folk Beliefs) responsibility for preserving cultural data devolved upon a special learned elite. Their job was to collect accounts of mythological figures of ancient history, together with detailed genealogical traditions. These collections are a source of both mythic and historical stories. Many Irish people, many of whom are brilliant storytellers, know the adventures of the famous seer-warrior Fionn Mac Cumhail. These include how he gained his wisdom as a boy tasting the ‘salmon of knowledge’, how he triumphed over miscellaneous giants and magicians, and how his son Oisin spent three hundred years in the underworld and returned to Ireland to find his friends long dead.


The hero Fionn mac Cumhaill was journeying by night, and came to a little house in a valley. There he was welcomed by a very old man and a very beautiful young lady. Supper was prepared for him, but a ram raced in and knocked the table over. Fionn failed in his efforts to tie up the ram, but the old man did so with ease. Later that night, the lady rejected Fionn’s advances saying: “You had me once, and you will never have me again!” Before he left the house next morning, the old man explained all: “The ram is the world and cannot be tamed except by me, for I am time and time weakens all. The lady is youth – you are now in middle age and will never have that again.

(Source: Fact Sheet 1/96 issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Dublin)


This heroic story is  very interesting material for intercultural work. Although the text is short, it can be used for intercultural analysis and comparison. The story provides a natural context for discussing the universal theme of ageing. Students can write their own versions of this story and tell them to the class. Likewise get students to practise putting Polish folktales into English - as a teacher sit back and listen to the arguments between students over the best ways of doing it. This is excellent intercultural practice.


Teacher’s tips:


Ø       Encourage your students to look for tales, stories etc. in books and on the Internet.

Ø      They may also record their grandparents’ and parents’ folktales. Many traditional Polish folktales disappear unrecorded. Get to grassroots – older generations’ stories are part of our cultural heritage and they are worth preserving.


How do you find good folktales?

There are many collections of folktales available both in bookshops and on the Internet. The first step, however, is to recall your favourite childhood stories. They held a special place in your memory and that is why you will not have to memorize a new material because it has been internalised in the childhood.


Next step will be to look at children’s books. Grimm Brothers’ tales are very popular in Poland and they will be good for intercultural work. What is more, they can be freely used because they are now in public domain. You do not have to worry about the copyright. The British Council libraries (see British Studies Resource Points for contact details) will be a good starting point with editions prepared with pictures for English children which may be suitable to use directly in the class


There are a number of low price English editions of folk tales available in many ELT bookshops. For instance:

  • Selected fables from Fontaine is published in Oxford Classics
  • Aesop’s fables and Grimm’s fairy tales are both in Penguin Popular Classics


Many series of graded readers have simplified language versions which may be appropriate for you - see Graded Readers where we have links to the main publishers.                


Searching for good stories on the Internet is a never-ending task. If your keyword is very general you will get thousands of listings including advertisements for books. Remember to limit your search by adding some additional words e.g. aboriginal tales+Australia+ELT.


Teacher’s tips

Ø      Share your stories with fellow teachers. Many colleagues know lots of wonderful stories – just ask about them.

Ø      Summer schools or courses are a good environment in which you can enjoy listening to folktales sitting round a bonfire.


Some recommended links:

·         Australia – Folktales

·         BS Now Issue 12 Childhood (link to archive - will get you the full edition in *.pdf format)

·         Culture, Comenius and the Primary Classroom - an example of how a teacher used folktales to demonstrate how culture can be successfully introduced to 10 year-old language beginners (Polish 4th year). It formed part of a Comenius project exchanging folktales with Italy and England.

·         For further ideas see our Useful Links and Annotated Bibliography

The following extract has been taken from The United Kingdom: 100 questions answered, Jan 2003, published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London

"Where can I find out about British folk songs and folk tales?"
Numerous books have been written about British folk tales, and most libraries in Britain stock a selection of books on both local and national folklore. Alternatively, contact:

The English Folk Dance and Song Society
Cecil Sharp House, 2 Regent's Park Road, London NWI 7AY
Tel +44 (0) 20 7485 2206 Fax +44 (0) 20 7284 0534
Email Website
The English Folk Dance and Song Society have an extensive library, open to the public
(please telephone for details).

A further valuable source of information is the library of:
The Folklore Society
Warburg Institute, Woburn Square, London WCIH OAB
Tel +44 (0) 20 7862 8564
Email Website
Access to the library is by a day pass issued to visitors, or by membership of the Society.
Please write for details.”



1.       Baj, Ida & Ewa Burliga. Australia Across Curriculum. Wydawnictwo Juka

2.       Morgan, John & Mario Rinvolucri. 1983. Once Upon a Time. Using stories in the language classroom. Cambridge University Press

3.       Taylor, Eric K. 2000. Using Folktales. Cambridge University Press

4.       Wajnryb, Ruth.2003. Stories. Narrative activities in the language classroom. Cambridge University Press

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