How to Use Storytelling to Remember Family Stories

By Cathy Spagnoli, author of Nine-in-One, Grr! Grr! and Terrific Trickster Tales from Asia

Remembering Family Stories

The true stories of our lives make fine material for storytelling. Everyone can remember a few personal-experience stories, and most people enjoy telling them. To help our students remember more true stories, suggest that they

  • think specifically of milestones and special challenges, joys, or sorrows;
  • sketch a map of the houses and/or neighborhoods in which they've lived;
  • draw pictures of family and friends;
  • write down strong memory fragments;
  • look at photos or objects from their family or community;
  • interview or be interviewed by someone to draw out details of the past.

Here are a few common story themes to help your students recall their family treasures

religious events


animals strange occurrences
tales of lying heroes
humorous events trips
festivals chance and fate
lost fortunes fights
nature problems
accidents death
first times sports
injustices victories
toys and games embarrassing times
friendship school
being lost tales of hurt
family lore special times
getting into trouble survival

Learning and Polishing the Tale

Family stories are fun to work with because they're inside of us; all they need is reawakening and a little work. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have a story ready to tell from our past - often it's a tale that has been repeated at family gatherings or bedtimes. Frequently, however, one may only remember bits of a family story or several strong memories that aren't quite a story. Your task, and that of your students, is to fill in the blanks from memory, imagination, or both.

First, invite students to picture all the related details of setting and character in their story or story fragment. Let them use various ways to recall the story, depending on their strengths and learning styles. For instance, they can draw it, map it, sculpt the setting, or mime a character. Talking into a tape recorder can also help associations flow. In general, it is best to recall the story without writing it down so that one is not dependent on notes, but students may want to jot down a few details or a rough outline to help. Remember that poetic license is allowed and that related memories or incidents can be woven into a story.

Family tales are often quiet; they may have a problem or conflict or they may just share an ordinary incident. After students have remembered and added to their plots, they will each have a skeleton with which to work. Next, suggest some of the following ideas to enrich their tales:

  • Language: Add language that paints pictures and really captures a character or setting by using words that appeal to the different senses. Remember that although you know these settings and characters very well, your listeners may not. Include any figures of speech or sayings that your characters are known to use.

    If you are bilingual, use parts of your native language in the beginning of the story, for greetings or counting, for familiar phrases, or for sound words.
  • Sound Effects: Determine whether special sound effects can be added to spark interest. Also try using silence or a pause for dramatic effect.
  • Repetition: Consider adding repetition of a sound, word, phrase, or good description to add emphasis, build drama, stretch out a scene, or add humor.
  • Dialogue: Try more dialougue at times. This can add interest, move the tale along, or lengthen a short memory. Use character voices if you're comfortable.
  • Gestures: Consider the use of gestures. Include favorite/typical gestures used by any family characters. Make up a gesture or two to help describe the setting.
  • Strong Beginning: Make sure the story's beginning is strong. It can start with a question, a character's speech, a gesture, a song, a date, a description, and so on.
  • Satisfactory Ending: Make sure that the ending works well, too, helping the listener to feel satisfied and perhaps giving them a few words or a final image to think about.
Telling the Family Tale

When the stories are developed, have students share them with partners and in small groups. Then encourage your students to tell their stories in a variety of settings in and out of school. If students are telling to a large group, go over some relaxation techniques. Getting up to tell a tale in front of a group is a challenge; many people feel nervous. Remind students that the audience wants to hear a story and won't notice or care about mistakes. To calm nerves, suggest that students breathe deeply, laugh, stretch, and realize that they are sharing a gift. Enjoy the stories, then go on to develop more tales to tell and more ways to tell them!

© 2005 Cathy Spagnoli

Permission is given for individual school classes to use this lesson and to make as many copies of the lesson as are needed for the students' use. All other reproduction is prohibited under penalty of law. For use outside individual classes, please contact