Kamishibai for emergent readers and writers

Kamishibai for emergent readers and writers © aki.sato - flickr.com

Kamishibai (Kah-mish-ee-bye) is a fun and engaging way of teaching storytelling and therefore composition to children. Pictorial prompts help with narrative and gives children the chance to play with their story's structure and vocabulary before they start to write.

Breaking down the barriers to storytelling could give the children in your class a new route into writing that shows their talent for constructing a story before they’ve even put pencil to paper.

Kamishibai roots

Kamishibai, which literally means ‘paper drama’, is a form of Japanese storytelling dating back to the ninth or tenth century. It was originally used by Buddhist monks to tell religious stories to lay audiences. In those times most of the audience would have been unable to read, and Kamishibai became a valuable source of entertainment.

Kamishibai became very popular again in Japan in the 1920s and '30s. Unlike in the West where silent films had music played during the performance, in Japan the films were narrated. After The Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and the worldwide depression, many Japanese cinemas closed down and the narrators took to the streets becoming kamishibai storytellers.

Using the 'All about kamishibai slideshow' (see resources section) tell the children about the Kamishibai storytellers in Japan. Explain that they would ride on their bikes from village to village with their handmade stages (which looked a little like puppet theatres) and a series of images that would act as story prompts.

They would announce their arrival by slowly hitting together two pieces of bamboo or hyoshigi (a simple Japanese percussion instrument). As they entered the centre of the village they would hit the hyoshigi more and more rapidly until all of the village children were gathered and quiet. They would then tell their story and show their images on the stage.

In Japan, Kamishibai has become an art form and as such there are certain rules that purists would insist upon. These are:

  • Performed using a portable wooden stage
  • Images are drawn and are big and bold
  • Clap sticks together (hyòshigi) to call people to the stage (start slowly then speed up)
  • The narrator typically stands in front and to the right of the stage
  • Kamishibai is meant for an audience (unlike picture books)

But like all art forms, there are rules but these rules are made to be broken and Kamishibai can be adapted for the classroom.

Create your own Kamishibai storytellers

Start by getting the children to create their Kamishibai stage. This helps to build the excitement about the storytelling and allows the children’s creativity to shine. This can work as a group activity or individually.

Making the stage

You can buy wooden Kamishibai theatres but cardboard versions are not difficult to make. Cut down versions of the boxes that photocopier paper comes in works well, as do Banker's boxes.

Ask the children to decorate their Kamishibai theatre in any way they wish. They can be as creative as they like but explain that they will want their audience looking at their story pictures and that their stage is just a place to show these off. Liken the story stage to a frame for a picture. Ask the children to think about the kinds of stories they might tell as they are working on their stages.

Planning the story

While the stages are drying the children can start to think about their stories in earnest. There are many approaches here. You can get your class to do retellings of a traditional tale, a more modern tale or a story of their own. This storytelling approach works well with the original children’s stories that we create at Springboard Stories but giving children free reign to do whatever they feel most comfortable with can also give good results. (Of course, some children will need a little more support and direction than others.)

You can introduce children to story planner templates to help them structure and learn their chosen story. These are widely available but can be downloaded from the Springboard Stories website too. Explain that this is not about writing their story out word for word. They should just concentrate on giving their stories a beginning, a middle and an end.

It is the perfect opportunity to introduce those Word Words.

  • Nouns – people, places, things
  • Adjectives – what are those people, places and things like?
    (beautiful, tiny, big, ugly)
  • Verbs – all about action
    (chasing, climbing, shrinking, transforming)
  • Adverbs – all about excitement
    (how are their characters doing the actions?)
    Think about adverbs creating mood – nervously, quickly, calmly, hurriedly…

Creating the pictures

The children can then create the pictures they will need to tell their story. These can be drawn, painted, created as an ICT activity, cut and pasted from magazines and so on. Best results come from letting the children use the medium of their choice.

Once their images are ready, your storytellers can practice both using the stage and telling their stories. For ease, they should put their images in order, with the start of the story on top. They can then put all of their images in the Kamishibai stage at the same time. Tell them to make sure they take out one image at a time.

Telling the stories

Be lead by the children as to whom they want their audience to be. Storytelling works well in small groups and as a whole-class activity but it’s important that the storytellers feel comfortable – so for the less confident, just tell your story to a friend. Filming the Kamishibai instead of asking the children to ‘perform live’ also works well with the less confident as they can concentrate on their story rather than their audience. As their confidence grows they can move on to small audiences.

Performance tips

  • Before each performance, make sure the cards are in the correct order.
  • Hold the cards so the text faces you and the scene faces the audience.
  • When you finish reading a card, take the card facing the audience and move it to the back of the deck.
  • Don’t go back to the first card at the end of the story.
  • Keep the last scene displayed.
  • Employ the power of Ma – the effective pause before new scene changes 
  • Encourage the use of character voices
  • Find some gestures which help enliven your story.

You should explain, though, that seeing an audience’s reaction will really help with their storytelling skills as they can see which parts of their story excite their audience, which parts make them laugh and which parts are the most exciting.

When they are ready to perform tell the children to start their storytelling the traditional way by rhythmically hitting two sticks together and gradually doing this faster and faster until the class has settled. The Kamishibai can then begin.

As the children perform, make a note of their vocabulary so you can discuss this with them later. You will find that not having to worry about how things are spelled will give some children a greater freedom in their language. Also, the discipline of needing to hold the structure of their story in their heads will really help when you come to extending the lesson into writing activities.

You could create picture book versions of the children’s stories or celebrate their Kamishibai by doing a class display, featuring the children’s written work and photos of the Kamishibai. Children could also perform their Kamishibai as part of a class assembly, or for the younger children in school.


More in this category: « Singing in school

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