The power of folktales in the language classroom

What qualities do you associate with folktales? The first three things that come to my mind are oral tradition, universal wisdom and lots of fun. How do the characteristics of folktales make them excellent resources in cultural and language education? At first glance it seems that we can easily use folktales to engage our students in reading, speaking and even listening activities. They are short stories which are usually shared in small communities, and they are based on very similar plots – all qualities which can make language learners feel comfortable. Just like with fairy tales, when you use folktales, you hardly need any background knowledge activation and prediction tasks to create a safe learning environment. Trying to understand the success of folktales, we turned to two theoreticians to learn more about the nature of folktales and their qualities which make them such powerful tools in education. In the following 10 points we will refer to passages from Cycles of Influences – Fiction, Folktale, Theory by Stephen Brenson, and we will revisit some of the theories of Vladimir Propp, the expert on folktales.

Illustration from The Leopard and the Monkey, retold by Richard Northcott and illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni. ©Helbling Languages

Illustration from The Leopard and the Monkey, retold by Richard Northcott and illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni. ©Helbling Languages

1 Folktales have no authors.

‘Folktales have no acknowledged author – beyond the myth of the original source – but rather a series of narrators whose relationship to tales is both intimate and detached; the folktale is “extra-individual”, that is, it exists both within and beyond each individual and personalized telling.’ (Brenson)

Not having an author also means that every reader can feel close to them, and when we tell them, we almost feel that we have written them.

2 Folktales are part of an oral tradition.

The fact that folktales have no authors and were kept alive orally make them a communal story. They are usually created in the telling process, and this way they can be adapted and changed very easily. You can work around basic structures but change the language according to the level of your group. The message will still come across and the reading/listening/storytelling experience will be enjoyable on every level.

3 Folktales are based on an underlying (deep) structure.

Have you noticed that Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood are very similar stories? They are variations on basic themes and plot elements. The underlying structure is called the deep structure in structuralist narratology, and the variations in their representations form the surface structure. Vladimir Propp discovered these qualities when he studied Russian folktales.

4 Folktales are made up of the same character types.

Folktales contain typical character types, which are also called roles. For example, you usually have a hero, a heroine, an enemy, a helper, a figure representing power, a princess or a prize in folktales. Propp identified seven roles, and these recurring roles help your students remember the characters in the stories and they can study the personal characteristics that are usually attached to them.

5 Folktales contain the same plot elements.

Plot elements are also called functions in folktales. Propp identified 32 functions, and you can easily translate every action in a folktale to one of these functions. Using these 32 functions and seven character types, you can easily create new combinations and write your own folktales.

WRITING TIP: Try writing your own folktale using Propp’s functions and roles.

6 Folktales help us understand other types of narratives.

Using plot elements and character types can be helpful when you aim to discuss stories, films, novels and other narrative genres in class. This analysis works best with fairy tales, Westerns, detective and spy stories. It might not be a good idea to use only this type of structuralist analysis when you discuss literary works, but they can be extremely useful when you are teaching writing narratives.

7 Folktales are closer to language than literature.

Brenson quotes Propp in explaining how language and folktales are connected: ‘in its origin folklore should be connected not to literature but to language, which is invented by no one and which has neither an author nor authors. It arises everywhere and changes in a regular way, independently of people’s will.’

We do not often think of folktales the same way we think of classics. Classics are more fixed and stable narratives, which cannot be changed, only adapted. Folktales seem to be alive just like the languages we speak, and especially the English language, which is in a constant state of transformation, always adapting to the circumstances of society and culture.

8 Folktales are unstable.

Their unstable nature makes them such flexible stories, which exist in ‘infinite variety and infinite repetition’ as Italo Calvino noted about them.

9 ‘Folktales are compact and condensed, repetitive, episodic, and formulaic.’

The above observation was made by Brenson, and these qualities perfectly sum up the most important qualities of good stories for language learners. We need short stories with lots of repetition to recycle new phrases, and we need short episodes with formulae we can rely on. These qualities are represented both in the rhythmic language of folktales and children’s stories and the illustrations that accompany the texts.

10 Folktales are universal.

 If you browse anthologies of folktales from all over the world, you will probably realise that most tales are very similar to each other. They also tell us stories with social and moral lessons, all set in different countries and cultures. Some of them will tell you the same story set in a different landscape, represented by different people or animals, coloured differently, but they fundamentally tell a variation of the same deep structure.

The judge’s comment on the Helbling Young Reader The Leopard and the Monkey (retold by Richard Northcott, illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni) gives us an example of this characteristic in a retelling for young learners:

TheLeopardAndTheMonkey cover.indd‘The book presents an African folktale with a simple yet compelling narrative without over-selling humor or morals. It has a simple cast of characters which will be easy for VYL (Very Young Learner) children to follow. Usefully, the tale has analogues in other folk literatures (see, for example, the Korean tale about the ungrateful tiger).’

What was your favourite folktale as a child? Can you think of folktales which are present in different cultures?

For more on the power of storytelling and fairy tales, visit our posts:

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3 Comments

  1. Just wanting to thank Nora Nagy for such an insightful piece and also for her previous ones. Folk and fairy tales are ideal for language learners, especially when teachers and students retell them. It’s wonderful to read other people’s perspectives on what for me as a storyteller/teacher of English is a passion and way of life.

  2. Dear Helbling staff:

    I´m glad to get in contact with you so as to receive info about literature genres for adolescents and adults.

    best wishes, julio gustavo abbadiè.

  3. Thank you very much, Nora, for this background information about folktales. I think that it is really very useful for both teachers and students (readers) to know that folktales are similar all over the world with in their structures, plots and characters. It creates a comfortable reading/learning environment.