| Jun 12, 2014

by Susan Ramsay, Early Literacy Specialist

“In the beginning, all things were made but nothing was finished.” Algonquin storyteller, Dionne Nolan, spoke quietly, holding a talking stick, as she began to tell the story of Owl and Rabbit. Her audience? A hushed and attentive circle of participants attending the first Kuskino-Moo event at St. Lawrence College in Kingston a few weeks ago. Kuskino-moois a Cree word meaning teaching knowledge, and the event was a day-long learning opportunity for college staff and community members to expand their knowledge of Indigenous and Métis history and culture.

Adults hearing the story of Owl and Rabbit could assume it was intended only for children but, as Dionne explained, oral stories are the passing on of First Nations histories (his-stories). Rather than focusing on history as a sequence of time-bound events, history of Indigenous culture and people are defined through the stories, intended for all ages. Each story is infused with gently expressed Teachings that are at the core of each First Nation culture. These teachings are the values mainstream populations often admire such as respect, wisdom, love for self and others. Through the telling and retelling of stories, the listener hears and re-visits these Teachings in increasingly complex ways. In the Owl and Rabbit, Owl’s impatience and demand for attention, for example, would be interpreted uniquely when heard by a three-year-old, teen, spouse, employer, and senior.

It is easy to think oral stories have little connection to literacy development. They exist, after all, without the need for print. Yet, interestingly, the two components of literacy learning that are integral to children’s early literacy development and yet never completely learned in our lifetimes are found in oral stories – vocabulary and narrative skills.

Vocabulary - knowing what things are called and what they mean – begins at birth with important words like ‘mama’ and ‘dada’. But throughout our entire lifetimes we are confronted with the need to learn new vocabulary we find in books, pharmaceutical information, legal documents and more. Research tells us that the number of words children know at the beginning of grade one predicts their reading comprehension skills at the end of grades one and three. (Senechal & LeFevre, 1998; Senechal, LeFevre, Thomas & Daley, 1998.) Many studies also link children’s knowledge of words at this very young age with academic success in high school. Oral stories help children learn the rich and varied vocabulary they need for early literacy development that leads to lifelong learning.

Narrative skills are also foundational to reading and writing. Children must discover how stories are structured with a beginning, middle and end to be able to write stories and essays. An oral story models how content is related, sequenced and has focus and purpose. Like vocabulary, narrative skills can improve into adulthood. Consider the varied narrative skills of politicians or speakers through which the listener can be moved to action or become lost in a loop of platitudes.

In our culturally diverse societies, we gain much from sharing our oral stories. Dionne urged the gathering at Kuskino-Moo to discover and tell their own cultural stories – whether Irish, Japanese, French, Mohawk or Algonquin. Through sharing stories we can learn much and grow together.

Interested in sharing Indigenous stories with children? Consider subscribing to a free monthly e-newsletter called Come Walk in My Moccasins. This monthly resource highlights a different Aboriginal story each month with story-related resources. (Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for web link to this free resource.)

Look for children’s picture books by Aboriginal storytellers such as Joseph Bruchac and David Bouchard. Visit www.goodminds.com and www.stongnations.com for a great selection of books you and your child can enjoy together.

Susan Ramsay is the Early Literacy Specialist for Hastings, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington. You can contact her at 613-354-6318 (ext 32)  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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