Storytelling in Education

“Why stories matter for children’s learning. Scholars have found that stories have a strong influence on children’s understanding of cultural and gender roles. Stories do not just develop children’s literacy; they convey values, beliefs, attitudes and social norms which, in turn, shape children’s perceptions of reality.”

“If you want your children to be smart, tell them stories. If you want them to be brilliant, tell them more stories.” – attributed to Albert Einstein

College of Medicine, University of North Carolina

Imagery activity may be a key to the building blocks of intelligence and education. When the brain images the brain releases endorphins and recent research has demonstrated that imagery also expands the size of the brain through the growth of new dendrites which are the branching protoplasmic processes that conduct impulses toward the body of a nerve cell. Imagery therefore speeds communication within the cells and between the cells in the brain.

Imagery building skills from oral word paintings involves a process of conscious thought that transfers to reading imagery skills. If you visualize what you hear, you facilitate the ability to visualize what you read.

U.S. Department of Education 1986

1. RESEARCH FINDING: “Telling young children stories motivates them to read. Storytelling also introduces children to cultural values and literacy traditions before they can read, write and talk about stories by themselves.”

COMMENT: “Elementary school teachers have found that even students with low motivation and weak academic skills are more likely to listen, read, write and work hard in the context of storytelling.”

Stories from the oral tradition celebrate heroes who struggle to overcome great obstacles that threaten to defeat them. With the help of skillful questioning, they can also learn to reflect on the personal and cultural values introduced in the story.

2. RESEARCH FINDING: “Children get more out of a reading assignment when the lesson is preceded with background information and followed with discussion.”

COMMENT: “Poor readers of every age have difficulty connecting between what they read and what they already know. Telling a story provides a road map of information ideas and characters to the listener and when coupled with a discussion of the story, the student learns that the purpose of reading is to acquire information and insight.”

3. RESEARCH FINDING: “Students read more fluently with greater understanding if they have background knowledge of the past and present. Such knowledge and understanding is cultural literacy.”

COMMENT: “Telling stories that (a) describe people, events and places; and (b) incorporate shared heritage, institutions and values can provide the cultural literacy necessary to improve reading comprehension.”

SUMMARY: “Intense exposure to stories and storytelling in the classroom stirs and develops the imagination. Learning occurs in the presence of demonstration. Learning is an interaction of concurrent events rather than a consequence of a demonstration. To learn to read and to write, people require: (1) demonstrations of how reading and writing can be used for evident meaningful purposes, (2) opportunities for engagement in such meaningful uses of reading and writing and (3) a positive environment for the process to occur.”

“Storytelling provides imagery-building skills, creates an attentive listener, expands interest into new areas, centers the attention of the class, teaches language, story plots, folkways, ethics, traditions and customs. Storytelling can supplement and enhance the existing literacy program by supporting teacher’s language arts programs.”


The entertainment quality of the oral story provides not only a mechanism to transmit information to an attentive listener but also has the residual effect of improving reading motivation. Storytelling affects the listener by expanding interest into new areas.

The oral story centers the attention of the listener and this process of focusing a group’s attention spills over into other educational activities.

Storytelling conveys language and story plot structure which enhances reading comprehension.

Stories are effective alternative methods of teaching cross-cultural understanding, family and community values, writing, and speaking skills. With some creative thinking, any other area of emphasis toward attaining a school system’s academic goals can be and has been assisted through storytelling. Teachers, by using their own creativity and drawing on librarians and media specialists for curriculum resources, can develop story tools in English, history, social studies, science, math, etc.

The oral story as a traditional transmitter of folkways, ethics, traditions, and customs is an effective provider of information that impacts on behavior modification.

The entertainment value of a story is only the icing on the cake. If a teacher desires to achieve teacher-student centered attentiveness, there is a wide range of alternatives. The story can be read aloud or told. Characterization and dramatization can be added as a new dimension. The teacher may participate or listen. The students, individually or as a few in number or as a total group, may participate or listen. Varied combinations may be used to produce teacher student centered attentiveness. Tell a story that takes several sessions to complete. Be like Scheherazade, stop at an exciting point, review and continue at the next session.

The art of storytelling provides a flexible teaching tool. It is cost effective, builds imagination, provides an environment for learning, is a learning experience, and can be used with individuals or groups or with visual aids, sound effects and music; and your library already has the essential resources to start, and you and the students can become the resources for new creativity.

Storytelling may start with reading a story aloud to students, using your natural voice. Next, if you are inspired to be a proficient teller then set your goal, use positive thinking, go and listen to tellers, attend storytelling workshops, tell stories at every opportunity and begin to build your craftsmanship.


Storytelling improves listening comprehension, a vital pre-reading skill for children, introduces us to literature we may not be familiar with, whets our appetite for further literary experiences, introduces us to characters with whom we can relate, has been the best tool for passing on the values and morals of families and peoples for centuries, increases our understanding and awareness of our world’s diverse cultures, develops mental imaging ability, another skill necessary for reading comprehension.
Susanna Holstein, Librarian and Storyteller, USA

Effects of Storytelling in Education – research

 “Storytelling and Story Reading: A Comparison of Effects on Children’s Memory and Story Comprehension”: A thesis presented to the faculty of the department of Curriculum and Instruction East Tennessee State University by Matthew P. Gallets, May, 2005 (ETSU is the only university in the United States that offers a master’s degree in storytelling.)
“The population studied consisted of kindergarten, first, and second grade students. Half the students were read stories aloud, the other half were told the same stories by a storyteller. Students in both the reading and storytelling groups improved on most measures. However, on some measures, notably those regarding recall ability, students in the storytelling group improved more than students in the reading group.


“The Effects of Storytelling versus Story Reading on Comprehension and Vocabulary Knowledge of British Primary School Children”: Reading Improvement; v35 n3 p127-36 Fall 1998, by Susan Trostle and Sandy Jean Hicks
“This article compares effects of storytelling versus story reading on comprehension and vocabulary development of 32 British primary children. States one group listened to stories in storytelling style, the other group listened to stories read by a student teacher. Finds children who witnessed storytelling scored higher on comprehension/vocabulary measures than did children who listened to story reading.


“Reading, Writing, and Storytelling: A Bridge from the Middle School to the Preschool”, by Joseph Sanacore and Al Alio, 2007 (no publication source given)
Students aged 11-14 at Hauppauge Middle School (Long Island, New York) write original stories, learn storytelling techniques, and then tell their stories to preschool children.
“Findings show that most of the preschool children read more books, select a wide variety of materials, maintain a desire to read, and tell their own stories. The middle school students increase their sensitivity for communicating with a unique audience and they report an improved awareness of children’s ability to use and appreciate language.


“The Effects of Storytelling Experiences on Vocabulary Skills of Second Grade Students”: A research paper presented to the faculty of the Library Science Department, University of Northern Iowa, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts by Gail Froyen 1987.
“Second grade students at Lowell School, Waterloo, Iowa, were taught storytelling techniques and given opportunities to practice these techniques for 35-40 minutes per week for six months. This activity, held during lunch, was self-selected and conducted in small groups (8-9 students in each group, with 43 students total). …
After six months, these students significantly increased their performance on vocabulary and reading comprehension tests beyond what was expected for that six month period, as measured by pre- and post- Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.


 “Children’s hunger for stories is constant. Every time they enter your classroom, they enter with a need for stories.” … When children create and tell a story in their own or a second language, the language becomes theirs.
Wright, A. Storytelling with children. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Oral language is an important tool for the cognitive growth of young children.
Van Groenou, M. “Tell me a story”: Using children’s oral culture in a preschool setting. Montessori LIFE 1995, Summer.

Critical thinking skills, vocabulary, and language patterns are enhanced through use of stories.
Zabel, M. K. Storytelling, myths, and folk tales: Strategies for multicultural inclusion. Preventing School Failure, 32, 1991, Fall.

Oral and literate are not opposites; rather, the development of orality is the necessary foundation for the later development of literacy…. Indeed, a sensitive program of instruction will use the child’s oral cultural capacities to make reading and writing engaging and meaningful.
Egan, K., Literacy and the oral foundation of education, The NAMTA Journal, 18, 1993, Winter 11-46.

One area reading researchers agree on is that oral-language competencies are essential in literacy development. Storytelling requires listening and visualization-key oral-language and comprehension competencies and strategies. It also provides vocabulary development, in context. Talking with children and encouraging talk among children is another facet of oral-language; storytelling stimulates both. The personal nature of the transaction between the storyteller and story-listener encourages the active construction of meaning. …
The importance of fostering motivation for reading and learning cannot be underestimated. Skills and worksheet-driven classrooms cannot teach or motivate, as storytelling can, the love of language, stories, characters, and ideas. Nor can they, as storytelling can, foster curiosity. …
Additionally, sharing stories from various cultures makes geographical knowledge more meaningful. Without them, names and lists of countries may be memorized for test-taking purposes, then quickly forgotten. When connected to story, geographical locations and characteristics are more apt to be remembered.
Jane M. Gangi, an Associate Professor in the Department of Education at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT, author of Encountering Children’s Literature: An Arts Approach. Pearson (Allyn and Bacon). 2004.

Cliatt & Shaw (1988) “The relationship of storytelling and successful children’s literacy development is well established.” and “…this process (storytelling) enhanced children’s development of language and logic skills.”

Coles (1989) “Stories enhanced recall, retention, application of concepts into new situations, understanding, learner enthusiasm for the subject matter.” … “Stories enhanced and accelerated virtually every measurable aspect of learning.”

Schank (1990) “Storytelling has demonstrable, measurable, positive, and irreplaceable value in teaching.”

Snow and Burns (1998) “Recently the efficacy of early reading and storytelling exposure has been scientifically validated. It has been shown to work.”

Story Proof: the science behind the startling power of story
Kendall Haven, Libraries Unlimited, Westport CT, 2007

 The book focusses on the benefits of reading and telling stories to children in the classroom, concluding that reading to children is good, but telling is better. These quotes and paraphrases are typical of the results of the 350 studies consulted by the author for the book.

p. 4. “Canadian researchers found a strong positive correlation between early storytelling activity and later math abilities. … 350 studies from fifteen separate fields of science … agree that stories are an effective and efficient vehicle for teaching, for motivating, and for the general communication of factual information, concepts, and tacit information.”

p. 67. “Information is remembered better and longer, and recalled more readily and accurately when it is remembered within the context of a story.”

p. 86. An 8-year period of telling stories to kindergarten through fifth grade (class) in New Jersey, a one-hour session once a week or once a month, resulted in 1000 teacher feedback reports agreeing that the programme “had a major and lasting impact on student behavior and language arts achievement”.

p. 90. A 1999 study showed that “telling stories to primary-grade students improved their vocabulary faster than did reading to them but that both oral activities significantly improved student reading comprehension.”

p. 98. Based on classroom experiences of tens of thousands of teachers, the National Council of Teachers of English Committee on Storytelling concluded in a 1992 report:
“Story is the best vehicle for passing on factual information. Historical figures and events linger in children’s minds when communicated by way of a narrative. The ways of other cultures, both ancient and living, acquire honor in story. The facts about now plants and animals develop, how numbers work, or how government policy influences history – any topic for that matter – can be incorporated into story form and made more memorable.” [See full NCTE statement below.]

p. 101. “Once we recognize story structure as a prominent feature of human understanding, then we are led to reconceive the curriculum as the set of great stories we have to tell children and recognize elementary school teachers as the storytellers of our culture.” K. Egan, The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding, University of Chicago Press, 1997.

p. 104. “… children process the world in story terms, using story as a structure within which to create meaning and understanding.”

p. 121. “Storytelling creates excitement, enthusiasm, and more detailed and expansive images in the mind of the listener than does the same story delivered in other ways.”

Teaching Storytelling

A Position Statement from the Committee on Storytelling, 1992
National Council of Teachers of English

Once upon a time, oral storytelling ruled. It was the medium through which people learned their history, settled their arguments, and came to make sense of the phenomena of their world. Then along came the written word with its mysterious symbols. For a while, only the rich and privileged had access to its wonders. But in time, books, signs, pamphlets, memos, cereal boxes, constitutions–countless kinds of writing appeared everywhere people turned. The ability to read and write now ruled many lands. Oral storytelling, like the simpleminded youngest brother in the olden tales, was foolishly cast aside. Oh, in casual ways people continued to tell each other stories at bedtime, across dinner tables, and around campfires, but the respect for storytelling as a tool of learning was almost forgotten.

Luckily, a few wise librarians, camp counselors, folklorists, and traditional tellers from cultures which still highly valued the oral tale kept storytelling alive. Schoolchildren at the feet of a storyteller sat mesmerized and remembered the stories till the teller came again. Teachers discovered that children could easily recall whatever historical or scientific facts they learned through story. Children realized they made pictures in their minds as they heard stories told, and they kept making pictures even as they read silently to themselves. Just hearing stories made children want to tell and write their own tales. Parents who wanted their children to have a sense of history found eager ears for the kind of story that begins, “When I was little ….” Stories, told simply from mouth to ear, once again traveled the land.

What Is Storytelling?

Storytelling is relating a tale to one or more listeners through voice and gesture. It is not the same as reading a story aloud or reciting a piece from memory or acting out a drama–though it shares common characteristics with these arts. The storyteller looks into the eyes of the audience and together they compose the tale. The storyteller begins to see and re-create, through voice and gesture, a series of mental images; the audience, from the first moment of listening, squints, stares, smiles, leans forward or falls asleep, letting the teller know whether to slow down, speed up, elaborate, or just finish. Each listener, as well as each teller, actually composes a unique set of story images derived from meanings associated with words, gestures, and sounds. The experience can be profound, exercising the thinking and touching the emotions of both teller and listener.

Why Include Storytelling in School?

Everyone who can speak can tell stories. We tell them informally as we relate the mishaps and wonders of our day-to-day lives. We gesture, exaggerate our voices, pause for effect. Listeners lean in and compose the scene of our tale in their minds. Often they are likely to be reminded of a similar tale from their own lives. These naturally learned oral skills can be used and built on in our classrooms in many ways.

Students who search their memories for details about an event as they are telling it orally will later find those details easier to capture in writing. Writing theorists value the rehearsal, or prewriting, stage of composing. Sitting in a circle and swapping personal or fictional tales is one of the best ways to help writers rehearse.

Listeners encounter both familiar and new language patterns through story. They learn new words or new contexts for already familiar words. Those who regularly hear stories, subconsciously acquire familiarity with narrative patterns and begin to predict upcoming events. Both beginning and experienced readers call on their understanding of patterns as they tackle unfamiliar texts. Then they re-create those patterns in both oral and written compositions. Learners who regularly tell stories become aware of how an audience affects a telling, and they carry that awareness into their writing.

Both tellers and listeners find a reflection of themselves in stories. Through the language of symbol, children and adults can act out through a story the fears and understandings not so easily expressed in everyday talk. Story characters represent the best and worst in humans. By exploring story territory orally, we explore ourselves–whether it be through ancient myths and folktales, literary short stories, modern picture books, or poems. Teachers who value a personal understanding of their students can learn much by noting what story a child chooses to tell and how that story is uniquely composed in the telling. Through this same process, teachers can learn a great deal about themselves.

Story is the best vehicle for passing on factual information. Historical figures and events linger in children’s minds when communicated by way of a narrative. The ways of other cultures, both ancient and living, acquire honor in story. The facts about how plants and animals develop, how numbers work, or how government policy influences history–any topic, for that matter–can be incorporated into story form and made more memorable if the listener takes the story to heart.

Children at any level of schooling who do not feel as competent as their peers in reading or writing are often masterful at storytelling. The comfort zone of the oral tale can be the path by which they reach the written one. Tellers who become very familiar with even one tale by retelling it often, learn that literature carries new meaning with each new encounter. Students working in pairs or in small storytelling groups learn to negotiate the meaning of a tale.

How Do You Include Storytelling in School?

Teachers who tell personal stories about their past or present lives model for students the way to recall sensory detail. Listeners can relate the most vivid images from the stories they have heard or tell back a memory the story evokes in them. They can be instructed to observe the natural storytelling taking place around them each day, noting how people use gesture and facial expression, body language, and variety in tone of voice to get the story across.

Stories can also be rehearsed. Again, the teacher’s modeling of a prepared telling can introduce students to the techniques of eye contact, dramatic placement of a character within a scene, use of character voices, and more. If students spend time rehearsing a story, they become comfortable using a variety of techniques. However, it is important to remember that storytelling is communication, from the teller to the audience, not just acting or performing.

Storytellers can draft a story the same way writers draft. Audiotape or videotape recordings can offer the storyteller a chance to be reflective about the process of telling. Listeners can give feedback about where the telling engaged them most. Learning logs kept through- out a storytelling unit allow both teacher and students to write about the thinking that goes into choosing a story, mapping its scenes, coming to know its characters, deciding on detail to include or exclude.

Like writers, student storytellers learn from models. Teachers who tell personal stories or go through the process of learning to tell folk or literary tales make the most credible models. Visiting storytellers or professional tellers on audiotapes or videotapes offer students a variety of styles. Often a community historian or folklorist has a repertoire of local tales. Older students both learn and teach when they take their tales to younger audiences or community agencies. Once you get storytelling going, there is no telling where it will take you.

Oral storytelling is regaining its position of respect in communities where hundreds of people of every age gather together for festivals in celebration of its power. Schools and preservice college courses are gradually giving it curriculum space as well. It is unsurpassed as a tool for learning about ourselves, about the ever-increasing information available to us, and about the thoughts and feelings of others.

The simpleminded youngest brother in olden tales, while disregarded for a while, won the treasure in the end every time. The NCTE Committee on Storytelling invites you to reach for a treasure–the riches of storytelling.

This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.

Single copies of this statement are available free upon request, and may be copied without permission from NCTE. Multiple copies are available at a bulk rate of U.S. $7 per 100 prepaid only. Stock #52945. Send request to NCTE Order Department, 1111 W. Kenyon Road, Urbana, IL 61801-1096.

 Storytellers’ Anecdotal Evidence

After the show was over one of the mothers stopped to speak with me. Her son was one of my [intermediate school workshop] tellers three years ago. At the time, he struggled with his reading skills and was receiving extra help. He was a bit shy, not very confident, but he took a leap of faith and joined the storytelling club. He wasn’t the most talented teller but what he lacked in raw talent he made up in effort and enthusiasm. At the Storytelling Festival that year his mother came up to me with tears in her eyes, clutching the folktale book with the story he had just shared on stage. She couldn’t believe the transformation in her child, how storytelling had made such a difference in his confidence level and in his life.

Tonight, again with tears in her eyes, she recalled that evening and told me that he is now a straight A student and loves to read. She urged me to never stop what I was doing and said that I had changed his life. Of course I know it wasn’t me, it was the power of story, but it did my heart so much good to hear how well that kind and gentle boy is faring in his new school …
Karen Chace, storyteller from East Freetown, Masschusetts USA
Storytell email list 29/10/05


As an old classroom teacher, I often found that storytelling was one of the best anchors for helping my kids with processing disorders to focus, to gain understanding of content and to then be able to synthesize and dialogue about the stories, their implications, their connections to other learning. By far, the most powerful teaching strategy that I’ve known has been storytelling. My mom (1918-2010) had learning disabilities that were largely undiagnosed, given the times that she was a student (1920’s to 1930’s). But she stayed glued to stories and could tell them with rich skill.

I volunteer in a local Waldorf School 3rd grade class. There are 3 kids in the class who have various forms of dyslexia. As a retired elementary school teacher, I’ve offered to help the classroom teacher with some of the diagnostic stuff with these kids and to use strategies that I think will help strengthen their reading. I always tell a story or two when I visit the class. All three of these kids had incredible recall and the ability to connect one story to another, seeing similarities.
B.Z. Smith, storyteller, Sonora, California


One more voice for the power of storytelling to reach students identified with various learning challenges. Liz and I are back at the pueblo school where we’ve been doing residencies for almost 10 years now. This year the terms of the contract are a little different and we are mainly working with kids with various challenges that cause them to struggle with reading, writing, comprehension, etc. Not surprisingly, because we’ve seen this again and again… most of these kids “take” to stories and often astonish their teachers with their recall, ability to remember, or retell stories… we’ve got students who haven’t heard a story in a year or more… stories we’ve forgotten we even know, that they can tell. It’s probably pretty obvious and we certainly don’t have any research to back it up… but one factor undoubtedly is that hearing and working with stories is inherently fun… whereas “language arts” for those who struggle to read, write etc, is inherently stressful. Imagine that…some kids learn better when they are having fun.
Bob Kanegis, storyteller, United States


As a storyteller with dyslexia and dyscalculia, I can assure you that storytelling is key to a positive learning experience. While most of us with these issues seem to be reasonably intelligent, in the past we were often shunted into situations – well-meant, where our needs could not be adequately addressed. Because of this, I applaud the storytelling approach in the classroom as it is inclusive. Oral storytelling releases something essential, allowing us to embrace meaning, color, expression and imagination; it is liberating for those of us marching to a different beat.

When one is purely wired for learning through story, the classroom with all its confusing stimuli can be an intimidating experience. Storytelling’s one-on-one transmission can be miraculous, calming all the jangled nerves and allowing focus. Something literally settles as the mind automatically links into the information being provided. It is both a physical experience and an emotional one.

Growing up in the fifties when little was known about learning differences, I was labeled “retarded,” in spite of high “intelligence” scores. Not until my mid-forties did I discover what I was really dealing with – learning differences, and not until sometime later did oral tradition storytelling enter the picture. While I cannot memorize a script or anything else, I can create/learn a story and tell it in no time flat. Not only that, while television bores me to tears, listening to a storyteller is mesmerizing.
Saundra Kelley, storyteller and author, United States


Statistics provided to me privately by a storyteller conducting sessions for 10-12-year-olds at least twice a month in a town in the United States compare results of tests in reading assessments and oral fluency between groups exposed and not exposed to regular storytelling. These figures, covering the years 2011-2014, show that the story group improved by at least 50% and often more than 100% over the school year. Even more relevant is that the students this teller worked with were “the most troubled, low-achieving students in the grade level”. This small, unofficial study accurately reflects the anecdotal reports of storytellers in schools everywhere.


The 2007 compilation of information Storytelling in Schools links to many other sites, though some hyperlinks may be dead. Heather Forest’s Storytelling in the Classroom is especially practical for the teacher just embarking on the use of story. That site has a useful page called Stories in a Nutshell: Concise Folktale Plots for Student Retelling — 36 simple stories that are appropriate for young children to tell.

1 Response to Storytelling in Education

  1. Pingback: Storytelling Workshop for Primary Teachers | Richard Marsh, Bardic Storyteller

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