Cognitive tools: Story

Why are stories important in teaching literacy?

Central to this approach is the idea that teaching literacy successfully requires us to engage the feelings of our students in what we want them to learn. In general, this may seem like a claim most teachers would agree with, perhaps with some hesitancy though. When it comes to thinking about comma use or irregular plurals, engaging students’ feelings in the topic might seem just a little–shall we say?–exotic.

But it gets worse. This approach asks teachers not only to engage the students’ feelings, but also asks teachers to begin by finding within themselves some emotional connection with the topic. If you have been teaching about commas and plurals for ten years, the idea of getting emotionally turned on by such topics will perhaps seem weird indeed. Our aim here is to show that this idea isn’t as weird as it may initially seem and, in fact, when considered for a few minutes, may well come to seem obvious common sense.

And this is where stories come in. If we look a little deeper we can see why stories are universally used in all human cultures, and why we use them all the time, even at times when we might not recognize we are using this most ancient and powerful of all cultural inventions.

So what kind of “tool” is the story? Well, it’s the kind of tool that enables you to understand how to feel about events. Stories shape experience and knowledge into forms that uniquely can establish their emotional meaning. That is, stories don’t simply convey information and describe events, they shape their contents so that we will feel good or bad, joyful or sorrowful, as we hear about them. No other form of language can do this.

If we were to tell you about a generous and skilled doctor, and add, “It was a hot day and the doctor dived into the water,” you may feel a small pleasure for her. But when we further tell you “the water was crowded with hungry sharks,” you may feel some regret or distress. The story could continue with the information that she was trying out a new shark repellant, or that she was risking her life to save a child who had fallen in the water. Your feelings about her diving into the water would change depending on the subsequent events. You would know you have reached the end of the story when you know how to feel about her diving in and about the other events — in this case our feelings will also be significantly shaped by whether the doctor later had or was lunch.

When people write about the use of stories in teaching literacy they most commonly refer to fictional stories, and discuss the many ways that stories can be used, and their great educational power. Here we will be ignoring the use of fictional stories and literature entirely—not because we don‘t think it matters, but rather because there are many fine books about this topic. Here we want to focus on a different use of the story, though inevitably we will also refer to some fictional stories. But in general we want to focus on a different use of the story; in particular its use to shape content of any kind, true or fictional, into emotionally satisfying forms.

When a father asks his daughter, “What’s the story on the new soccer coach?” or the mother asks her son, “What’s the story on the new teacher?” the parents are not asking their children to make up a fiction. They are asking them to select events from their experiences and shape them to bring out their emotional meaning, to help the parents know how to feel about the coach or the teacher. Or when the editor asks a journalist, “What’s the story on the fire downtown,” the editor isn’t asking the journalist to invent a fiction, but rather to shape the events and facts into a form that will most attract the interest of the paper’s readers. We constantly use the story form to shape events, to tell our friends about something that happened in the office or an adventure on holiday. This narratizing is a central human skill, and those who do it well have both a satisfying ability to clarify and sharpen meanings for themselves, and have an important power in being able to convey information and meanings to others. This power can be greatly valued in all walks of life. It is one of the great skills of orality, whose development can lead to an enriched literacy. It is also one of the great skills that can make teachers most effective in educating. (You can read more about stories and their roles in teaching literacy by clicking here).

So stories do two important things at the same time for teachers; they can communicate information very clearly and effectively, and they can engage the emotions of the students in the knowledge being learned.

Give me a few quick example of how I might use stories in teaching literacy.

1a. Let’s say you are introducing the suffixes that indicate past tense. How can you fit this task into a story form? Here are two simple ways:

a. The teacher may compose a short story using verbs that, when in the past tense, take an “ed.”  She may then introduce Mr. Beentheredonethat – known to his friends as “Ed.”  Ed is a clingy fellow.  He is not a leader but a definite follower who really changes the lives of those he hooks onto.  Ed is very influential.  When Ed hangs out with his active buddies WALK, LAUGH, or PLAY, for example, he makes them old news.  Students could then identify more of Ed’s “buddies” that he can, and does, make “old news” (ski, jump, look…).  The lesson (and story) would be expanded to say Ed doesn’t like to be outdone by any other “e” and so if there is already an “e” at the end of the word he attaches onto he bumps it off and takes over (e.g. hike – hiked).

b. Words that change from “i” to “a” in the past tense such as sing/ring/swim may be put into a story in which the “i” can be seen as someone in action, on her feet and energetically doing something.  Her friends call her “i” but her full name is IN PROGRESS.   When “a” comes along (full name is AFTER), however, we see that the event is over and “i” is now exhausted and is slumped over and sitting down, changed into “a” (as in sang, rang, swam).

1b. You want to draw students’ attention to detailed word forms, so you decide to design a class on recognizing words within words (e.g. “at” in “cat” or “ate” in “plate”). How can you fit this task into a story form? The teacher may draw students’ attention to detailed word forms containing the word “ear” by having a game of “hide and seek” first with the ear and then the eye.  He may read the students a short text orally and ask where “ear” is hiding.  Then the students may read the text and identify where “ear” is hiding.  Here is a possible text:  “Once upon a time there was a bear named Bob who was absolutely fearless.  No fear at all.  This dear bear participated in skate boarding competitions every year that were near his home and as well as clear across the country.  Did you hear what happened to him last year?  He took a fall that caused him to shed a tear. Thankfully he had on all his gear.  So now we know Bob has one fear:  Falling on his rear.”  Students could be encouraged to make up their own “hide and seek” stories with other detailed words (“ink” – stink/link/pink/rink/fink/wink…)

2. Another option is to make letters or phonemes become the characters in a simple story. Many first grade children experience difficulty with phonemic awareness, unable to remember that certain letters, when paired together, make a different sound. The teacher could create a story to explain such anomalies. One might tell a story like the following to explain the “th” sound:

The Letters T and H don’t get along very well. One day their teacher caught the letter T sticking its tongue out at the letter H. She tried to get them to talk out their problems, but whenever they were together, one or the other was sticking his tongue out. All she could hear T saying was /th/ (as in “this”). Even H, who was usually rather quiet, started sticking his tongue out at T and said /th/ (as in “thanks”). To this day, when ever T and H are together, they stick their tongues out at each other and behave very improperly––making sounds that sound nothing like the /t/ and /h/ sound they are supposed to make.

After the story the children could be asked to create an image in their mind (and possibly also on paper) of the two letters together sticking their tongues out between their teeth.

We are suggesting the children understand that “t” and “h” always misbehave when they are together. They are quite unable to solve their problems. They behave well only when they are alone. Mind you, we don’t want the children to think they need to stick their tongues right out of their mouth every time they see the letters “th”. They just put it between their teeth and lip – just enough to make sure that the other letter can see it.

How else can we employ stories in teaching?

Here we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ literacy capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “story” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use. Click here to link to a variety of lesson ideas.

Some concluding words about stories

When the teacher begins to plan any literacy task, it would do no harm to ask, like the newspaper editor, “What’s the story here?” That is, how can I present the topic in a manner that brings out its emotional meaning and engages the students’ imaginations? We can’t be mesmerizingly successful at this all day every day, of course, but it’s a question that can help us to be a bit more imaginative ourselves, and find what is emotionally important about the topic for ourselves as well as the students. We are reminded of Egan’s Teaching as story telling (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). The theme of that book, as of this section of this website, was to show that thinking about lessons and units of study as good stories to tell rather than simply as sets of objectives to attain, can help to bring some extra energy and interest into teaching and learning.