Storytelling in Education

An essay on why storytelling should be an integral part of the education of all children.

     We all know that stories are fun.  We all know that children love listening to stories.  A well told story can make children laugh, squeal, gasp or cry.  In addition to being entertaining, however, quality storytelling is also beneficial to the cognitive development of children.  It is my belief that story telling, not just story reading, should be a daily part of the education of all children.     Here’s why:

     In a large study following children from pre-school through elementary school, Dr. Wells (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) and his colleagues found that the most powerful predictor of their school achievement was the amount of time spent listening to interesting stories.  Wells believes that such experiences teach children first about the way stories (and later, other things they read) are structured.  Even more important, however, is understanding words alone as the main source of meaning.  Since the words do not come with pictures attached, the child must come to grips with “the symbolic potential of language” – its power to represent experiences independent of the context of the here and now.  Any activity that helps children use their brains to separate from the “here and now”, to get away from pictures and use words to manipulate ideas in their own minds, also helps them with the development of abstract thinking.

Experiences with pictures attached, even when they involve looking at picture books and learning new words, are not as valuable, says Wells, because the child needs to learn “sooner rather than later” to go beyond just naming things that can be seen.  He concludes: “For this, the experience of stories is probably the ideal preparation.  Gradually stories will lead children to reflect on their experiences and, in so doing, to discover the power that language has, through its symbolic potential, to create and explore alternative possible worlds with their own inner coherence and logic.  Stories may thus lead to the imaginative, hypothetical stance that is required in a wide range of intellectual activities and for problem-solving of all kinds.” (Emphasis added)

       From “Endangered Minds”

      By Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.

The symbolic potential of language.

     The above quote emphasizes that it is the symbolic nature of language that is so important to developing thinking skills in children.  When you say the word “tree” all English speakers understand that this particular collection of sounds refers to a leafy, growing thing with a trunk.  We can conjure up a picture of a tree in our minds even though we are not actually looking at one.  When the word “tree” is put into context with other words (as when a whole sentence is spoken) the brain must use these symbols (the words) to create a logical whole.  Stories require an even greater ability to organize and make sense out of these abstract symbols (words).  It is this ability to work with the abstract that forms the basis of all critical thinking.

In storytelling, the stimulus of words brings about the production of inner images, an extraordinarily creative play involving the entire brain.  Each new story requires a whole new set of neural connections and reorganizations of visual activity within - a major challenge for the brain.  . . . So neural potential goes unrealized and development is impaired - unless storytelling and play are provided on a regular basis.

      From “The Magic Child.”

      By Dr. Joseph Chilton Pearce

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We learn to speak before we learn to write.

    It is important to recognize, too, that written language is yet another level of abstraction, in the sense that writing is actually a set of symbols designed to represent speech.  Yet, when we communicate orally meaning is conveyed by tone of voice, facial expression, body language and vocalizations such as “hmm” and “aha” and “hmpf” far more than by the words themselves.

     One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. It indicated that the impact of an oral presentation was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication.

                      Abstract from Eric Digest, 2009

     In writing, this “non-verbal” communication (93 percent of the meaning) is conveyed partially through punctuation marks, but also through context.  Just being able to read the words is not enough.

“If the printed words can be efficiently recognized, comprehension of connected text depends heavily on the reader’s oral language abilities.”

Houghton Mifflin, research based reading program (2007)


    Therefore, if children are to be expected to read and write well, they must have a strong foundation of oral language skills first.

The function of language is to organize, structure and make sense of the world.

    Storytelling is highly structured and easily assimilated oral language.  The repetition of rhyming sounds, words, phrases and similar events in a story teaches children how to organize, structure and make sense out of their experiences with the world around them.  Stories do this in a way that is totally natural and engages the emotions as well as the intellect of the listener.

The whole person must be involved in the learning process.  To be complete, the lessons must include information which relates to personal realities, and not just simple observable and describable facts.  . . . Listening to stories is the most fundamental way for people to learn.  Stories go beyond the simple acquisition of facts, memorizing, and then manipulating data.  Stories help the listeners learn about their lives and work in relationship to non-rational as well as rational experience.

      From “The Magic of Learning and Change”

      By David E. Morrison, M.D.

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Stories are essential in the math/science curriculum as well.

Listening to stories teaches students to use words as symbols to create something in the imagination beyond what is immediately observable.  This ability to use symbols to create something new is the same skill used for learning math and science.  In a good story, even one that is totally imaginary, everything must make sense in terms of the world being described.  A good story has its own inner logic.  The skills required to organize and structure language are the same abstract reasoning skills that are used in math and science.  Math and science also require children to organize abstract symbols into a logical whole.  Just as a strong foundation in oral language helps with writing, so too it provides children the necessary abstract reasoning and organizational skills needed to manipulate math and science problems.

     Most people are not aware that problems with language can cause difficulties in mathematical reasoning.  The verbal tools that clarify relationships in reading and writing do the same job in math.  Initiating math and science courses that start with words as a basis for understanding helps students improve their learning by using the power of language as an instrument with which one can reason beyond the observable.

      From “Twice as Less”

      By Eleanor Wilson Orr

Stories address the emotional inner life.

     Stories are emotional experiences.  Stories give children characters to empathize with.  Characters who are also trying to sort out and make sense of a sometimes confusing inner, emotional world.  Stories give children the words they need to express what they are feeling, and a context to help them understand those feelings.  So, in addition to building cognitive ability and improving critical thinking skills, listening to stories also helps children become more confident, creative and resilient when faced with day to day problems.

Living through experiences in the imaginary world prepares us for experiences in this world.

Many professional athletes in preparing for competition will run through a course, routine, or race over and over again in the imagination, each time performing it flawlessly.  Doing so enhances performance during the actual competition.  The same is true with storytelling.  A well told story engages the whole person.  The mind, senses and emotions of the listener all become involved, just as if he or she was actually living the experience.  The listener is then better prepared to face similar situations in his or her own life.  

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Stories teach creative problem solving.

Every story presents a problem or conflict that must be resolved.  The story then takes the listener through each step of the problem solving process.  In this way stories teach creativity, resourcefulness and persistence.

Stories demonstrate action and consequence.

Stories provide examples of failures as well as successes, of joy as well as sadness.  They describe the results of each character’s decisions, whether positive or negative.  This gives students a road map to assist them in making positive decisions in the future.

Stories facilitate understanding of people from diverse places and backgrounds.

Stories can transport the listener to any time or place, and they give the listener a person to identify with.  For the duration of the story, the listener experiences first hand what it is like to be that person.  This gives students greater appreciation of the differences of others.

Stories illuminate the universality of the human condition.

The story experience is shared by everyone, yet speaks to each individual.  By giving form and structure to emotionally charged events, stories give us insight into our own emotions and experiences.  At the same time we are reminded that, despite external differences, we all share the same basic concerns of being human.  

Listening to stories is the easiest, most natural way for young children to learn language, and it is language that allows us to organize, structure, manipulate, think about and make sense of our world.

     We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered.  Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout.  As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly.  . . . Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten - a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.  I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.  That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!  There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

     From “The Story of My Life”

     By Helen Keller

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