Improving Literacy Through Storytelling
I stepped into the classroom for the first time at the Lab School on the campus of the University of California in Los Angeles more than a decade ago and did what I do best: I told stories. I’ve been telling stories professionally for more than 30 years, and I was not surprised to see the children engaged, the teachers delighted, and the principal nodding in approval. I’ve seen up close how the magic of a good story well told can make preschoolers stop wiggling, keep elementary students on the edge of their seats, and help middle schoolers forget the need to sneer and scoff at anything an older person says.
What did surprise me was the meeting I had with the principal after the assembly. He wanted to hire me as the storyteller-in-residence at the school. Having just become a father and wanting to stop touring as much, I accepted the offer. I have remained in that position to this day.
One year, based on the school’s schedule, I skipped telling stories to the preschoolers and first-grade students, and something remarkable happened, according to one of the lead demonstration teachers there: The metrics they used to measure overall literacy dropped. The following year, the teachers and principal decided storytelling was too important to be skipped for their youngest learners.
Why? There is a growing body of scientific research that supports what our ancestors knew: The human brain is hardwired for story. It’s how we survived and how tradition, learning, and history were passed on, thousands of years before the advent of the written word.
The quickest way to engage your students? A story. The best way to motivate your reluctant readers? Story. The surest way to foster engagement with your English Language Learners? Story. Classroom management? Creating an inspiring environment that makes students want to come to school? The best way to bridge differences, create empathy, and spark creativity? Story, story, and more story.
The best part about it? You already do it, so you don’t need to learn how. Every time you tell the story of your day, or of how you celebrate the holidays, or of a loved aunt or a hated cousin, you are engaging in the ancient oral tradition of storytelling. Storytelling is a folk art, not a fine art. You learned to speak and listen long before you could read and write. What happens when you consciously bring this ancestral power into your classroom? Overall literacy improves, but more importantly, a community of speaking and being heard is created.
Specifically, literacy improves in a story-rich classroom in a few ways. Many traditional stories have repetition built into them, and repetition is a perfect way to build vocabulary in your students. They can see your expressions and hear your tone of voice as you bring life to the language, even if they don’t know some of the vocabulary words yet. If a young student hears the words first, repeated often in the story, when they encounter the same word in a text, their comprehension increases, and their confidence grows.
Telling the story out loud first in your own words to your students before they even read the story gives them rich context and helps them understand what they are going to read, giving them a feeling of success even before they tackle the words. You could also leave out the “good parts” and get them excited to leap into the text to find out what happens.
Lastly, researchers at Northwestern University in the past few years have done some fascinating research with functional MRIs. They look at the brain as the subject listens to stories, and document that there are parts of the brain only activated by stories. Even more fascinating, if the story is told by someone the subject knows, the brain activity is even more pronounced. The brain work of listening to a story builds the skills that translate directly into better reading and writing over time.
But you don’t need a MRI machine to prove this. It’s something you can try tomorrow in your classroom and see how well it can work for you. How can you do it when you are already so busy? Here are five ways:
- During any transition in the day, consider telling your students about the people you knew when you were their age. From the rug to the desks or at morning meeting, just say, “Did I ever tell you about my Uncle/Aunt _______?”
- When starting a new writing unit, say, “When I was your age, we had to learn writing by ________.”
- As you turn on any bit of technology, ask your students, “Do you know what we had instead of smart boards when I was your age?”
- On picture day, tell your students or colleagues of the worst hair day you ever had.
- At snack time, tell them the story of how you learned to cook, or the worst kitchen failure you’ve had.
Why? Because you will make them laugh. They will think you’ve gotten off track and will love the break in the day or the meeting. But we know what you will really be doing: Tapping into the deceptively easy and scientifically proven method of increasing their cognitive abilities with the power of story.
Next month, I’ll be the guest on the EDVIEW360 podcast, where I’ll dive into specific tips about how to make your stories and read alouds come even more to life, while inspiring your students to improved literacy. Watch for the release of the podcast here.