Legends – a rich source for learning and literacy
A legend is a story handed down by tradition, but is loosely based on history.
Legends have been used for thousands of years to teach, in an entertaining and accessible way, the values, beliefs and customs of different cultures around the world.
They tell of heroes and heroines, and heroic deeds and attempt to explain natural phenomenan. Many of a society’s customs can be linked to its legends.
Stories have been embellished, adapted for specific purposes and passed on by generations of storytellers. Many stories have inspired, challenged and excited people from different backgrounds years before they were ever recorded in writing.
Today, students are fortunate to be able to enjoy and learn from and about the beliefs and customs of their own and other societies, through legends which are easily accessible and recorded in books, films and the Internet.
As teachers, we can use stories to interest students, not only in their recounting but by engaging them in associated literacy tasks and learning.
Students will enjoy learning about legends from many different sources, including:
- Europe – Where stories are still told and celebrated about characters like Sankt Nikolaus, a priest who, it is told, knocked on people’s doors on 6 December. He checked on children’s behaviour, giving gifts to those who had been good. He was accompanied by a scary companion who held a sack and was ready to carry off any naughty children. Although still celebrated in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, other countries transferred this tradition to Christmas.
- Australia – Aboriginal Dreamtime stories are closely linked to religious beliefs and explain the creation of people, animals and places. They are also retold in traditional art forms.
- Puppet theatre—This appealing tradition is well established around the world and reflects the values, cultures, customs and costumes of many different societies. An informative website called ‘Puppet clues’, which briefly describes puppets from 15 different countries, is located at <www.civilization.ca/educat/oracle/modules/onebel/page01_e.html>
- Legends to explain features of particular animals—For example, ‘How the bear lost its tail’, ‘Why an emu can’t fly’.
Legends can present teachers with many opportunities to involve students in numerous cross-curicular learning opportunities, including:
- Mathematics – Simple time lines, developing understanding of number and spatial concepts.
- Society and environment – Learning about other people, places, environments and history; opportunities for students from different cultural backgrounds to share their knowledge and understanding of their own customs and legends.
- Drama – Puppets, learning about different types of puppets, making them, performing plays and creating scripts.
- Craft – Activities to make or decorate masks and other artefacts.
- Art – Drawing or painting characters, interpreting different forms, e.g. Aboriginal Australian artwork.
- Health and physical education – Values, identification, evaluation and comparison, traditional dances.
- Science – Explaining natural phenomenon
- Technology and enterprise – Designing and constructing models of buildings, artifacts etc.
Legends are exciting for children and provide many opportunities for stimulating their interest and improving their literacy skills.
By listening to the stories and speaking about what happened, how and when it happened, why it happened and the messages the writer wants them to understand, they gain an understanding of the genre and the customs and beliefs of the society. However, it is the often larger-than-life characters in legends who fascinate and generate the most interest. Miming their actions, retelling their heroic deeds, dressing in their costumes or hiding behind their masks, helps students to remember the story and to understand why it has been told to so many people for such a long time. They also enjoy changing and adapting legends for particular purposes, working in small groups and sharing their ideas with the class.
The magic of legends can encourage students to learn how to recognise the names of places and characters, and they enjoy games based on these words. Simple sequencing activities, either written or in pictures, give them an idea of story structure and opportunities to read familiar text. Story maps encourage them to identify the important events and to sequence them correctly.
Once students are familiar with the genre, they can attempt to write a legend themselves. Some students may need the assistance of a ‘scribe’ to record their ideas, which they can then read to the class. A legend involving an animal characteristic is an excellent starting point.
The qualities that have held people’s interest and ensured the survival of legends, make them an excellent stimulus for engaging students in worthwhile and meaningful literacy practices. They help ensure they have some understanding of the origins of a number of their own customs and social practices, as well as those of other societies.