Digital Storytelling for Beginners

Digital storytelling is an ed tech buzz word that’s thrown around a lot. When I first heard it, digital storytelling pretty much referred to podcasts and short films. And, to a certain extent, it still does. But podcasting and film-making no longer require massive amounts of hardware and software, like iMovie or Garageband. Today, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can easily create digital stories.

I’ve highlighted some of my favorite storytelling tools in the past — websites like Go!Animate and xtranormal. But recently, I’ve been working with PreK-2 teachers, many of whom are newcomers to the ed tech world. So I’ve been searching for digital storytelling tools that are easier to use, both for teachers and for pre-literate students. And I’ve found some great ones.

Depending on the age and tech experience of your students, some of them might be able to use these tools with little or no adult help. But with younger kids (PreK-1), you might need to offer support. You can make the following tools centers in your classroom, where a teacher, aide, or parent volunteer works one-on-one to help students create digital stories. Better yet, you can partner with a class of older students, pairing each of your students with an older child to help them. The older students can work with your kids all at once so, by the end of a 45-minute lesson, every child has a completed digital story.

Little Bird Tales

Tool: Little Bird Tales
Ease of Use: Beginner
Grade levels: PreK and up

Little Bird Tales has quickly become my new favorite web 2.0 tool, mostly because it’s easy to create a high-quality product. The web site allows users to create podcasts with images — basically, narrated slideshows — in just three steps:

  1. Users can upload photos to their Bird Tale or they can use an embedded drawing tool to draw images. Older students can add text to their images.
  2. Users then record narration to go with each image.
  3. Finally, users share their Bird Tales, by sending a URL via e-mail.

The finished product looks something like this:

Little Bird Tales’ simple interface makes it perfect for younger students or tech beginners. But older students can create Bird Tales, too (once they get over the website’s somewhat babyish name). Teachers can easily create a FREE account and begin creating tales. They can have all their students create tales under a single account, but the site also allows teachers to create separate FREE accounts for each student. These accounts are always connected to the teachers’ account, and the website is built to ensure student privacy since so many younger kids use it.

The website asks users to create and use a “school code” so teachers and students from the same school can be grouped together. Teachers can’t access Bird Tales from another class unless it’s been shared with them, but it allows teachers to see who else in their school is using the tool and how often. This is helpful in terms of finding on-site teachers who can offer support.

UPDATE: For step-by-step directions on getting started with Little Bird Tales, check out my guest post on the Teacher Challenge blog.


Tool: UJAM
Ease of Use: Beginner – Intermediate
Grade levels: 1st and up

Technically, UJAM is a music creation tool. And it’s actually a pretty good one. After starting an account, a user can record themselves singing or playing an instrument. Then, with the click of a button, the website creates a full soundtrack to accompany what the user recorded. The user can choose a music “style” (i.e., 80s rock, reggae, game music) to specify what type of soundtrack will accompany their recording.

When I show this tool to teachers, though, I demo it not as a music creation tool but as a podcast creation tool. At its most basic level, students can create podcasts in just 3 steps:

  1. Students record their voice reading a poem, personal narrative, or other piece they wrote.
  2. Then, they choose a “style” that fits the mood of that piece (students won’t know what a lot of the styles are, so they’ll often try out several of them before they find one that works).
  3. Finally, they download an mp3 of their completed recording.

In the end, this creates a musically accompanied podcast, similar to this poetry podcast by 4th-grader Sylvia. This helps students learn to identify and communicate the mood of their writing. UJAM allows users to save their work and come back to it and, when they’re done, to download an mp3 of the track they create. One caveat: with UJAM, sometimes students’ recorded voices are overpowered by the music tracks, so it’s important to have students speak loudly when they record (using an external computer microphone helps with this).

That’s the ‘beginner’ use of UJAM. The reason I rated the site as “Beginner – Intermediate” is that UJAM has a ton of options. More advanced users can use drop-down menus to customize the accompanying music, even changing specific chords. This is great for music teachers because it’s a simple, leveled interface for music composition. Advanced students can adjust more options, while beginning students can focus on just a few.

This tutorial shows all of UJAM’s capabilities. (Beginning users should stop after 0:43 — more advanced options are described after this.)

Teachers can have all students use their account, can create separate accounts for each student, or can have students create their own accounts. UJAM requires a unique e-mail address to start an account and doesn’t have accounts specifically for students, but all accounts are FREE.


Tool: Blabberize
Ease of Use: Beginner
Grade levels: PreK and up

I’ve highlighted Blabberize a few times in the past, but I also wanted to include it here because it definitely is a tool fit for beginners. It’s especially good for students researching a specific animal or historic figure. Here’s how it works:

  1. Students upload a picture of their topic (or copy and paste the URL of an image).
  2. They use their mouse to outline the mouth in the image.
  3. They record a first-person account of that animal or person.
  4. They get a URL of their blabber, which they can share with others.

Here’s a sample student blabber, created to explain the water cycle from the viewpoint of a raindrop:

Teachers can create a single FREE Blabberize account and have all their students use it, can create individual accounts for students, or can have their students create their own accounts. (Blabberize doesn’t specifically designate student accounts.)


Tool: Voicethread
Ease of Use: Beginner
Grade levels: Kinder and up

I know a ton of teachers who rave about Voicethread, specifically for its ease of use. I’ve never used Voicethread in the classroom but, with such incredible reviews, I couldn’t leave it out of this post. Voicethread is one of the most dynamic easy-to-use tools I’ve seen — it’s used in Kinder classes, in college courses, and in everything in between. Here’s how it works:

  1. A user uploads an image, file, or video.
  2. Other users can add comments to this file, by either recording from a webcam, recording from a mic, typing in some text, OR uploading a file. As users comment, they can annotate over the common file. Numerous users can add comments to the same file.

If your students have Internet access at home, Voicethread is a great tool to use for homework assignments. (This is especially true for younger students, who can work with their parents to create Voicethreads.) For example, if you’re learning about measurement in a PreK class, you can upload a photo of a table. Have every student measure their own table at home (using their hands and their parents’ hands). Then, each student can record a comment on the image of the table you uploaded. Their comment can be a recording of their voice explaining what they did at home and what they learned.

Anyone can get a single FREE voicethread account. So you can create one as a teacher and create similar FREE accounts for your students. Teachers can get more features for a one-time $10 fee or a classroom account (where you can monitor all your students) for $60 per year.

Lesson Integration Ideas

Elementary Classrooms

Grade: PreK-3
Subject: Science
Objective: The student will be able to design an experiment to test an original question AND will be able to communicate the results.

Starting in pre-school, students can begin to design and test their own simple science experiments. In your schoolyard, have your students sit around a tree, a garden, or a patch of grass. Give them hand lenses. Have them record what they see and what they wonder in their science notebooks (for pre-literate students, these notes will be illustrations).

After the students have made several observations, go back into class and discuss what they saw and what they wondered about. Write down their “I wonder” questions on sentence strips. In the next lesson, sort the questions into testable and untestable questions (with younger students, you may have to lead the sorting but older kids can begin to sort questions alone). After the sorting, have students choose a testable question to test. For example, “how long will it take a snail to walk across my desk?” or “do all flowers have the same number of petals?”

Allow students to test their questions. During the testing, have students use old, donated cell phones (without SIM cards or service plans) to take photos. When they’re done, have students report what they did and what they learned by creating a Little Bird Tale. They can upload the photos they took, take photos of their illustrations to upload, or create new illustrations using the website. Then, they can record their voice narrating each photo. Older students can add text to accompany their photos.

Middle School Classrooms

Grade: 4-8
Subject: English Language Arts
Objective: The student will be able to identify and communicate the mood of an original writing piece.

After a poetry or personal narrative unit, have students record their original poems or portions of their narratives on UJAM. Allow them to select a ‘style’ that appropriately conveys the mood of their piece. After they perfect their piece, have them download the mp3.

Assign one student as the MC. Have him/her record introductions for each piece. Then, burn all the completed mp3s, in order with the proper introductions, onto a CD. You can give the CD to students at the end of the school year or sell it for a fund-raiser.

High School Classrooms

Grade: 9-12
Subject: Music
Objective: The student will be able to compose an original piece of music.

Depending on students’ levels and your objectives, have students use UJAM to record themselves singing an original song or playing an original piece on an instrument. Have them use the site’s options to turn their single track into a full-blown arrangement. Depending on your expectations, give students specific tasks, i.e., they must create a customized ‘style’ for their piece OR they must edit the chords of at least one track.

When all students have completed a piece, collect their mp3s and create an original CD to sell as a fund-raiser.

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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6 Responses

  1. TimeOutDad says:

    This is Awesome! Thanks so much!

  2. Chris Kaplan says:

    Thanks for all the work in putting this list together!

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