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Welcome to Traditional Tales!

What are Traditional Tales?

Traditional tales have delighted people since a time long, long ago. How have they survived? Well, few can resist tales of outwitting wickedness! And what reader doesn’t love when good triumphs over evil? These tales attract children with their candor and action packed plots. So get reading! Hear the cadence? It comes from the oral storytelling tradition. Catch the moral? You’re inheriting the wisdom of generations past.

Traditional tales are stories that have been told again and again. They have been passed down from generation to generation. Thus, their authorship is unknown. And what’s their purpose? To both entertain and teach. They are also known as folktales.

Why read traditional tales?

In her work, Children and Books, Zena Sutherland writes that traditional tales “reiterate the old verities that kindness and goodness will triumph over evil if they are backed by wisdom, wit and courage.” Such lessons provide young people with sources of moral strength.
Challenge and achievement are two other important traditional tale motifs. Children often identify with a folk character’s problem or challenge and, through the story’s action, gain insights into how to solve problems and achieve important goals. Identifying with a traditional tale character and his or her dilemma can help children explore strong emotions, such as jealousy, anger, or fear, within a safe, fictional context.
Traditional tales also demonstrate ways for students to deal with the challenges they face, whether they are pursuing goals and dreams or solving everyday problems. At the same time, traditional tales examine the typical give-and-take of human relationships. They serve as an outlet for expressing deep, universal feelings, such as joy, sorrow, envy, and pride
Traditional tales also help children increase their understanding of the world by teaching them about different cultural traditions and by showing them that people share many of the same struggles and joys.
Where did these tales come from? In the time before books, there were stories. Before people could write, they told. Others gathered around to listen. Anthropologists tell us that story telling is one unique human trait. The ability to create, tell, and retell stories sets us apart from animals. Story telling is a tradition practiced in every culture. We have traditional tales from across the globe. There are records of story telling throughout of history. So, why did people tell these stories?
Traditional tales were created for many purposes.
  • to entertain
  • to teach
  • to reinforce cultural and social mores
  • to explain mysteries such as creation
  • to explain significant events or disasters
Now these stories are written down. These books allow us to hear the tales of other cultures. They allow us to explore the stories of other times.

Traditional tales Unite

It’s a magical moment when students realize that they share a common library of traditional tales in their heads. Bring them to the magical moment by leading a discussion about stories they could easily tell without a book in their hands. Watch and listen as students react and share, “I know that one too!” or “How about _____, everyone knows that one!” Then build on their excitement by sharing with them how these traditional tales transcend time and place. “These traditional tales are not only shared in the minds of children within our classroom, but the same stories were also present in the minds of children hundreds of years ago and are present in the minds of children around the world.” Enchant them with traditional tales from other countries and see their eyes light up as they realize that although details may differ, the main elements parallel a traditional tale they know. (Tales to try: Lon Po Po from China, the story of Little Red Riding Hood from France, and the story of Little Red Cap from Germany)

What makes traditional tales so appealing?

Andre Favat’s research suggests that when children are very young, traditional tales appeal to them because many of the genre’s characteristics correspond with those that psychologist Jean Piaget ascribed to children of pre-reading and early-reading ages. According to Piaget, children at these ages believe that:
  • Objects, actions, things, and words can exercise magical influences
  • Objects and animals can have human characteristics.
  • Good should always be rewarded, and evil should always be punished.
Traditional tales reflect these beliefs. They also have many of the structural elements and characteristics that young people respond to in a good story. Many of these characteristics are shared by realistic fiction, the focus of cycle one. The chart below highlights the elements of traditional tales and their realistic fiction counterparts.
Action, action and more action
Action begins immediately and continues to build swiftly. Description, which can slow down a young reader or listener, is minimal.
Action and Description
Realistic fiction takes time to describe events, surroundings and characters building a rich, life-like story.
Rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and poetic language
These story elements invite participation and make it easy to follow and remember the storyline.
The realistic nature of these books leads to the reader listening in on many conversations. The reader gets to know the speech style, the cultural flavor and the feelings behind each character’s speech.
Young readers engage more easily with the story when it’s fun.
Patterned after life, these stories tell about times that may include humor but also deal with serious problems like prejudice, poverty and sickness.
One-dimensional characters who are very good or very evil
The good characters are kind and beautiful; the evil characters are mean and ugly. Main characters, although good, are usually underdogs whose virtues help them overcome the odds. Bad characters usually have the advantage during much of the story.
Well-developed Characters
Not always easy to categorize, the characters of realistic fiction can be likeable on one page and detestable on the next. These characters are forced to make choices that we won’t always agree with. Like each of us, these characters have many sides.
A problem and solution.
The main character faces a problem that sparks a chain of events (the plot), which ends with a solution or conclusion.
A problem and solution.
The main character faces a problem that sparks a chain of events (the plot), which ends with a solution or conclusion.
Motifs are patterns or details that occur over and over again in stories
Motifs can include characters (wicked stepmothers and evil witches), magical objects (slippers or rings), numbers (three wishes, three trials, etc.) and actions or plot devices enchantments, transformations, long periods of sleep).
Lifelike progression of plot
Rather than providing the reader with recurring motifs, the plot progresses in a manner mirroring life.
An unavoidable moral
Written to teach, these tales do just that. Communicating the virtues of good and the downfalls of evil, the message is always crystal clear.
Authors who write realistic fiction have a purpose. However, their message, or the story’s theme is usually subtly woven into the story.
A vague and distant setting
Settings might appear to be timeless or in some distant past, “long, long ago.” They might be imaginary or involve historical contexts such as castles, princesses, knights, etc.
Precise Setting
The setting of realistic fiction is not only well-described, but also is an essential part of the plot that influences the behavior of the characters.
A patterned beginning
Patterned phrases, such as “once upon a time” and “long ago and far away,” allow children to quickly enter into the action of the story.
A Hook
The first words of realistic fiction are meant to grab the reader into the story. Without pattern or rhyme, their purpose is to get you to keep reading!
A predictable conclusion
Good always triumphs over evil.
A conclusion
Modeled after real life, the endings of realistic fiction vary. Sometimes happy, sometimes not – authors try to remain true to the real world.

How Traditional tales Build Knowledge About the World

In addition, reading fiction helps children build skills and strategies including:
  • Understanding universal themes
  • Identifying the moral of the story
  • Making connections to life experiences
  • Understanding fiction story elements (with a focus on problem, solution and theme)
  • Investigating, comparing and contrasting story structures, elements and genres
  • Practicing fluency with multiple readings
  • Stimulating imaginative thinking
How Traditional Tales Build World/Cultural Knowledge Try this in the classroom…. Example…
Traditional tales will help students understand and appreciate different cultures.   Help students notice how traditional tales reveal the culture’s values, hopes, fears, and spiritual/religious beliefs. In the Lenape legend of Rainbow Crow, the reader is provided with a window into Native American culture. The presence of great-sky spirit reveals an aspect of religion while Crow’s unselfishness shares one valued cultural trait.
Students learn how traditional tales contribute to the development and transmission of a culture’s values and traditions.  Draw students’ attention to the values presented in traditional tales. Share that these values are what make us responsible members not only in our own local communities, but also as citizens in the global community. In the West African traditional tales included in Adventures of Spider, the message is clear: greed is not valued or rewarded. In Hunterman and the Crocodile, respect for nature is encouraged.
Students learn that traditional tales reflect their place of origin.  Use maps to locate places where traditional tales originated. Use informational texts about the countries of origin to enhance understanding. In Lon Po Po, the story we know as Little Red Riding Hood is set in China. After students find China on a map and read informational texts about China, they will recognize the traditional housing, the cultural appearance of the characters and other ways that place impacts this tale.
Traditional tales are frequently accompanied by artwork done in typical cultural format or artwork that enhances or extends understanding of the tale’s culture. Draw students’ attention to the illustrations in traditional tales. Ask them to consider how the illustrations extend understanding of both the tale and the culture. Chato’s Kitchen won the Pura Belpre Award for Illustration. This award is given to honor illustrators that best capture the Latino cultural experience in a work of children’s literature.
Students will also come to notice the commonality of human experience as they notice themes and elements that transcend culture. Help students make connections between traditional tales. Encourage them to find connections in theme and moral. While the tales themselves may differ dramatically the messages are the same– Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears and The Boy Who Cried Wolf both clearly express that lying is wrong.

Traditional tales

Definition Stories and poems of unknown authorship that are part of an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation
  • Simple
  • Focus on plot (characters and setting are less important and undeveloped)
  • Satisfying ending (“happily ever after”)
  • A particular human characteristic is displayed in each character (lazy, clever, foolish, wise…)
  • Clear problems and conflicts
  • Good is usually rewarded and evil is punished
  • Informal, conversational style
  • Contains a moral or a message
  • Magic may be included
Types Porquoi Tales (tales that explain why something is the way it is) – Why mosquitoes Buzz In People’s Ears
Trickster Tales – Tops and Bottoms
Fractured Fairy Tales – The True Story of the Three Little Pigs
Cumulative Tales – The Gingerbread Boy, Henny Penny
Talking Beast Stories – The Three Little Pigs, Anansi
Humorous Tales – Jack and the Three Sillies
Romances – Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella
Tales of Magic – Alladin and the Magic Lamp
Forms Myths, tall tales, legends, fairy tales, fables
  • trickery
  • youngest/smallest versus older/bigger
  • value of wisdom, cleverness, dedication, determination…
  • good versus evil
  • rich versus poor
  • wise versus foolish
  • beauty versus ugliness
  • fairness versus unfairness
  • role of a friend
About the Language The original storytellers used language purposefully. They needed words that would hold the listener’s attention and aid in their memory of the tale. As a result, the language used in the traditional tales that appear in books today contain:
  • rhyme,
  • rhythm,
  • repetition,
  • imagery,
  • and sometimes, figurative language such as personification, metaphors, and similes.

Resources used:

McCarthy, Tara. Teaching Genre. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.

Sutherland, Zena. 1997. Children and Books. New York: Longman.

Silvey, Anita. 1995. Children’s Books and Their Creators. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Zolt, Nina, Junko Yokota, and William Teale. 2004. In2Books Fiction Genre Guide.

Resources for teachers

Guide your students in writing their own traditional tales

Write your own traditional tale online (click on “activity”)

List of links for traditional tale sites

Characteristics of traditional tales