Seminar activity Ideas 5: Using fairy tales to teach key literary techniques and concepts

Seminar teaching


It can be helpful to introduce students to complex and subtle aspects of literary technique in an preliminary way, before they encounter these techniques within the multi-layered world of the texts and writers they are studying. Concepts such as voice in narrative, for example free indirect style, unreliability and the intrusive narrator, or structural techniques such as framing devices, can be introduced using a very short, relatively simple and well-known text, such as a fairytale, to consolidate understanding early on.

So, for example, in introducing narrative voice, students might read rewritten  versions of part of a fairy story, each using different voices (for example, stream of consciousness, free indirect style and second person address). (We have included an example as a downloadable pdf file, based on ‘The Three Little Pigs’  Finer nuances of writing that might make one label a narrative stream of consciousness as opposed to interior monologue, simple first or third person narrative voice can be discussed and debated. Students can also be encouraged to experiment with different narrative techniques themselves, for instance exploring structural devices such as frame narratives by writing them into a fairytale or nursery rhyme.

What to do

  1. Write your own paragraphs, as in the ‘The Three Little Pigs example, to demonstrate the techniques or concepts you want to discuss with your students.
  2. Give them a brief definition of each of the techniques or concepts and ask them to explore which ones are being used in the versions of the fairy tale.
  3. Consolidate further by asking the students to write a different bit of a fairytale using one of the techniques and see if other students can identify what they were trying to do.


  • Writing the versions yourself, though a lot of fun, is obviously time-consuming. Instead, you could introduce the concepts, then ask the students to test out their own understanding of them by writing their own versions using these techniques.  You could then keep a store of these, for future use!
  • You may want to adapt this basic idea for other genres: for instance, in teaching  broad styles of drama, such as naturalism, expressionism and the absurd, you might present the same fairytale, in three or four different styles.

Activity contributed by Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, of the English and Media Centre.