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Once upon a time...

March 03, 2015 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

'Once upon a time...' What kind of memories do these words bring back? What stories come to mind? Classical fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood or ones you have made up yourself?

Pages from Beauty and the Beast retold by Richard Northcott, illustrated by Catty Flores. © Helbling Languages

Fairy tales and fantasy stories are a cultural universal and the need to generate fantasy seems to be irrepressibly linked with the language instinct. Let’s think of how very young children begin to use language. A toddler will touch ice and pull back in surprise. ‘Cold,’ says mum. Then drawn to a bright dancing fire s/he stretches out a hand until dad reaches across saying ‘hot’. These opposites create a grid where the toddler can distinguish and talk  about ‘warm’, ‘cool’, ‘freezing’, etc. The child will soon also learn that some things are ‘alive’ such as him/herself, and mum and the cat and others are inanimate, such as a chair or a ball, or perhaps even dead, such as the bird the cat left at the door as a present, or a worm squashed underfoot. And that living creatures can be ‘human or ‘animal'. These opposites and many others do not always have a physical mediating category so in order to negotiate understanding we create fantasies around them, shaping worlds full of spirits, ghosts, and satyrs.

Why would you consider using fairy tales in your English class? Let's see some characteristics of fairy tales which make them the perfect reading and learning materials not only for young learners, but also for teens and adults.

Pages from Freddy the Frog Prince by Maria Cleary, illustrated by Agilulfo Russo. © Helbling Languages

1 Fairy tales are universal stories that will appeal to most learners. Your students have probably heard most of the stories, they have probably seen adaptations of them, too. You will need very little time for raising interest and activating your students' background knowledge. Many cultures have different versions of the same fairy tale with their own cultural additions.

2 Fairy tales have gone through social, historical and linguistic processing over the centuries, and it also means that they have been tested by millions of readers. Your students will like them, too!

3 Fairy tales offer themselves for adaptations. They are easily accessible for any level of language learners, and you can use these texts for  simple to complex storytelling activities as well as advanced level discussions.

4 Fairy tales are full of binary opposites such as good and evil, which young children in particular respond to, and which also offer great scope for vocabulary building and memorisation.

Fairy tales activate your students' imagination, they help them experiment with challenging life situations in a safe place. They are also great transformation stories which show us how people can change and respond to strange life situations.

6 Fairy tales can and should be used in an indirect way to teach values and universal ideas about the nature of human behaviour.

Here are three titles to try out in your English classes.

Freddy the Frog Prince by Maria Cleary Freddy the frog is very happy. He likes his life and the pond and he likes Francesca, the prettiest frog in the woods. One Friday evening Freddy is waiting for Francesca when he hears a strange sound. It’s Princess Priscilla and she is not very happy. But then Princess Priscilla has an idea and Freddy’s life changes forever… or does it?

(The Frog Prince is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm.)

The Fisherman and his Wife retold  by Richard Northcott One day the fisherman catches a magic fish. When he tells his wife she asks the fish for a nice house. Then she wants a castle. And then she wants to become queen. What happens when the fisherman’s wife keeps asking for more things? Does the fish listen to the fisherman’s wife?

(The Fisherman and His Wife is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm.)

Beauty and the Beast retold by Richard Northcott When Beauty’s father picks a rose for his daughter he makes the owner of the rosebush, a terrible beast, very angry. In payment for the rose Beauty must leave her family and go to live in the beast’s castle. In time Beauty and the beast become friends. Then one day Beauty’s father falls ill and she returns home to look after him. Does she return to the beast?

(Beauty and the Beast is a traditional fairy tale written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in the 18th century.)

Would you like to use Young Readers? Here are some steps you can follow in your classroom.

  1. Go to the Teacher's Resources on the Helbling Young Readers website, and download the Flashcards.
  2. Use the guide to the Helbling Flashcards. Prepare them and use them to activate your learners' vocabulary and background knowledge.
  3. Dedicate time to the illustrations. These Young Readers have a powerful visual side, and you can be sure that your learners will be drawn to the images and they will stimulate their imagination.
  4. Use the audio CD or read the story to your students.
  5. Follow the instructions and answer the questions on the double pages.
  6. Do the Play Station activities before and after the text.
  7. Remember to do the Project at the end of the book.

More on storytelling with young learners

Advanced level tip

Why not use these stories to start discussion with your adult learners? Most of them will feel inspired by the memories of these childhood stories, and they will be able to tell you about adaptations of the fairy tales on the screen, in graphic novels and contemporary novels. Show the illustrations to your adult learners, and ask them if they are familiar with the stories.

Here are some titles you can recommend to your advanced level adult learners, or maybe you can read these stories.

  • Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber
  • A. S. Byatt: "The Golden Key", "The Story of the Eldest Princess"
  • Jeanette Winterson: Tanglewrack
  • Ted Hughes: Tales from Ovid
  • David Malouf: An Imaginary Life
  • Lawrence Norfolk: Lemprière’s Dictionary
  • A. S. Byatt: Possession; The Djinn and the Nightingale’s Eye; Elementals; The Little Black Book of Stories; Ragnarök
  • Alice Thomas Ellis: Fairy Tale

Check out our Young Readers series for more titles.

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