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Cumulative tales...a Chain of Fun!!!

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

"Perhaps she'll die!!!....Ha! Ha! Ha!!!"

Rather inappropriate chant to hear in todays's politically correct world, right? I'm sure this is not what you will expect to hear emanating from a school library, being merrily sung out by cheerful voices. If you here this or rollicking chanting followed by laughter emanating from the library, you can be sure that the children are listening to one of my favourite kinds of tales to narrate to younger children...‘Cumulative Tales’ or ‘Chain Tales’. This one is an old favourite...a nonsensical American song, 'I know an old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.'

Cumulative tales are rhythmic stories, each part building upon the part before it. When a new part is added to the storyline, all the previous parts of the story are repeated, stringing together the story in such a manner that early readers or those not yet reading on their own can recognise the patterns and words. Chain stories hold their own special space in traditional literature, especially in folklore.

What happens when you narrate or read a story like this is that as the story builds, children are able to pick up on the rhythm of the story, predicting or ‘reading’, what is coming next. This makes for some great participation, as children try to recall the sequence and shout it out with delight, especially as the story builds.

The climax of a cumulative tale calls for the repetition of all the events in the story and often ends humorously or with an anti-climax...drawing surprise and hoots of laughter.

While children are participating in the reading or narration of a cumulative tale, what is happening is that they are:

  • Improving their memory

  • Understanding the sequence of the story

  • Developing a confidence because they are able to do so.

  • Building their vocabulary

  • Participating and interacting as a group (in a school setting) or with a parent in a fun, uninhibited manner.

  • Enjoying themselves

The key to a cumulative tale is repetition and humour. Both elements that are bound to engage young readers.

What repetition does is to help children anticipate what's coming next, often believing that they can read. You will often find a young child ‘reading’ a cumulative tale...what he’s really doing is repeating from memory...but it gives them the confidence and empower them to want to pick up a book and read.

As the storyline gets more and more convoluted, as the list of characters and the actions increase with every page, the story tends to become wackier and unbelievably funny.

Books that make reading a fun, participatory, enjoyable experience which engages the children and make them want to read, are must have on any bookshelves at home or in school...cumulative tales meet all these criteria.

My top 10 cumulative stories/books are:

  1. There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a fly by Simms Taback (Song)

  2. There was a Tree by Rachel Isadora, illustrated by (song)

  3. This is the house that Jack built by Simms Taback

  4. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in Peoples Ears by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Leo and Dianne Dillon

  5. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal

  6. A Fly Went By by Mike McClintok, illustrated by Fritz Siebel

  7. It's only a Story by Cathy Spagnoli. illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy (Tulika)

  8. The Never Ending Story by Ashwini Bhat, illustrated by Chinmayie (Tulika)

  9. The Sun all Golden and Round by Jane Sahi, illustrated by Harriet Mayo (Orient Black Swan)

  10. The Doll that Bommakka made by Prabha Ram and Sheela Prueitt, illustrated by Debasmita Dasgupta (Pratham/Storyweaver)

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