Fairy tales still reap rewards in the contemporary classroom
Beyond the Classroom

Fairy tales still reap rewards in the contemporary classroom

From Little Red Riding Hood to the Ugly Duckling, fairy tales have long been read to children across the ages. Yet despite criticisms of being outdated and sexist, fairy tales still hold an important place in primary education says experienced teacher and UniSA Education Doctoral candidate, Glenn Saxby.

Whether it’s Snow White’s love of animals, or the compassion for the baby bear in ‘Goldilocks’, fairy tales have a unique way of engaging younger children. But these familiar stories that we all grew up with are also a valuable teaching and learning tool – especially if you know what you’re looking for.

Like many genres, teachers often read fairy tales to connect and engage children with the power of language. Literacy learning takes place as students enjoy reading fairy tales. As the vocabulary they encounter is syntactically and lexically simple, fairy tales are a useful means to help students improve their reading and writing. Students feel empowered and motivated to read fairy tales because they can relate to many of the stories’ themes and lessons, such as Tom Thumb and his feeling of being so tiny in a big world.

Aside from teaching story structures and literacy, fairy tales also present other learning opportunities. Through the characters and storylines, fairy tales can help children learn about empathy, kindness, ethics, and cooperation. And while there’s no denying that some fairy tales present unrealistic expectations or typecasts, when taught in a critical and inclusive manner, these stories can provide an effective resource to confront and discuss gender stereotypes or sociocultural issues.

Active discussion about the historical and sociocultural contexts of fairy tales can also provide teaching opportunities, but there is still scope for teachers to extend beyond these traditional boundaries. Multicultural fairy tales have enormous potential to increase cultural equity and understanding among primary children, so finding fairy tales from different cultural backgrounds would be an excellent resource for teachers.

Fairy tales and satires – for example, the classic ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and its parody, Braun’s ‘Trust me, Jack’s beanstalk stinks!: The Story of Jack and the Beanstalk as told by the Giant’ – both enable opportunities to use a critical literacy approach to view the stories from multiple perspectives, to challenge stereotypes, and to confront the dominant social ideology and norms.

Modern twists on fairy tales, such as ‘STEM Solves Fairytales: Rapunzel: fix fairytale problems with science and technology’ present students with opportunities to use well known tales to solve science and technology problems. Questions such as, ‘Could have Rapunzel built a zip line using her hair to escape her tower prison?’, frame these books and challenge students to think differently.

Fairy tales have a long history of use in Australian classrooms. While they can be a powerful and effective resource in student learning, a greater understanding of how fairy tales can relate to current issues, as well as the broader primary school curriculum, will be valuable for best pedagogical practice.

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