Oral Tradition: Facilitating Education through Verbal Tradition

Bring oral tradition into the classroom to engage learning and facilitate best practices.

By Ann Whittemore

Girl whispering

For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors have relied on oral tradition and storytelling to convey both every day and academic concepts. Nightly, the older generation would tell stories by singing, chanting, or reciting. These oral stories taught the ways of a culture to the next generation. From mouth to ear to memory, these traditions were the mode of education. In fact, prior to the advent of written language around 2900 BC, all cultures relied solely on oral tradition for cultural and educational transmission. Many of the traditions brought from Africa during the time of slavery were preserved due to the strong oral traditions passed from person to person, family to family, then to now. Today, a wide variety of indigenous people still speak to teach; Native American, South American, African, and Australian tribes to name a few. In some cultures (and religions) it is considered taboo to write down ancient words because they are considered to be alive, and therefore, sacred. It is felt that through writing, meaning is lost, or can be misinterpreted. In some respects, this is true. Words that are spoken directly can be questioned directly. They also hold not only intonation, but facial expression and gestures. The verbal experience is multi-sensory and fully engaging. Comprehension, inference, deductive reasoning, and critical analysis can all be taught or facilitated through oral tradition, and in some ways, taught more organically than through the written word. I like to think of oral tradition or story telling as oral literature. It is as strong, sound, and vital to cultural education as any well-loved classic novel. Many classics have actually stemmed from oral traditions. For example, Beowulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Ramayana all came from an oral foundation. Oral literature has key elements found throughout the world, as do chanting and singing. This makes me think that there are significant reasons for this, such as stimulating memory and enhancing the ways that the brain processes information.

How Does Oral Tradition Work?

Oral tradition, or oral transmission of knowledge, works both similarly and differently than other modes of education. Like classical education, learners are the observers and because they rely solely on what they hear, they tend to perceive at a keener level. The observations of the learner become acute, while the words of the teacher become more vital. For example, when I am in a meeting and I have a notebook, I scribble, day dream, and take notes. I know that I have captured the information I need because I wrote it down. When I don't have my notebook, suddenly my eyes are fixed on the speaker. I become an attentive observer because I may miss or forget what I am supposed to know.

Oral Tradition stimulates multiple parts of the brain. Singing, chanting, and storytelling often include movement, hand gestures, or call and response. This collaboration of the body and the brain helps build muscle memory and stimulate active learning. Vygotsky based many of his educational theories on what he observed in traditional Russian homes and brought attention to strong connections made through oral linguistic transmission of knowledge. Whether it be folktales or procedural explanations in context of an action, the mode of teaching was facilitated through the act of speech and listening. Oral traditions like songs and storytelling have been incorporated into pre-k and kindergarten best-teaching practices for specific reasons. Like the oral education of the past, vocabulary in context, memory, phonemic awareness, cultural norms, and critical thinking through questioning are stimulated. This is why those children who have had someone consistently read aloud to them do better in school. The foundations of literacy can be attributed to how the brain responds to oral education.

What Does Oral Tradition Look Like in the Classroom?

I am an avid storyteller; oftentimes my classroom is filled with loud, exuberant teacher performances. Reading with vigorous attention to inflection and delivery makes my learners actively listen. I like to read daily to my younger classes, and have often taken turns as storyteller with my older children. Reading like a storyteller provides learners with various modes of comprehensible input, like facial expression, gestures, and tone. As a result, comprehension is heightened. When my kids and I take turns reading aloud, I have found it beneficial (if time allows) to have them review their section prior to reading it aloud. When it's their turn to read, I encourage them to read with intention and emotion. This helps them think of the text as a living thing. The words are no longer stagnant, they contain meaning.

How Do Interviews Enhance Learning through Oral Tradition?

Interviews are wonderful for incorporating family involvement in oral traditions. Kicking off the year with a get-to-know-you lesson is very common. Make it meaningful by incorporating oral elements. Assign the class a project where they must develop several interview questions to ask one older member of the family. Have them record their interview (digital is best, but paper and pen work too) and then compose an oral report. In this oral report, they will verbally transmit to the class the information that was transmitted verbally to them. Family heritage, immigrating to America, how I met you mother, and what happened when I was born are all engaging topics that oftentimes result in wonderful family stories, destined to become oral traditions.

I worked with an entirely ESL second grade class part time for six months. Here, I developed a weekly tradition where they would ask me a question and I would have to answer it in story form. For example, “Why is the panda black and white?” This I would answer in the style of Kipling. I gave a fun and somewhat realistic explanation of how the panda got its coloring. The children would then have to go back to their seats and draw one scene from my story. As the process evolved, I would choose children at random to be the story teller. When they were asked, “Why do fish live in the sea?” they would have to provide an answer in story form. Learners would then use the question as their daily writing prompt and compose a one or two paragraph answer (story) of their own. This engaged several key targets: memory skills, oral comprehension, interest in reading, creative thinking, oral language skills, and writing skills. I’ve done a similar activity where fifth graders use what we’ve read in our science books to tell a verbal story to their table group which includes elements of scientific fact, but with a story-style transmission. They loved this activity (which could get a little silly), and I loved it because it used creative thinking and oral language skills to transmit book knowledge from one child to another.

Oral traditions are part of how we understand the world around us. From our parents, to our teachers, speaking and listening have always led the way. Enhance your class with thoughtful orality.