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The Importance of Stories

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For most of us, stories have been sources of memorable content and language throughout our lives. And yet, according to classroom-based research, in many EFL classrooms stories tend to appear on the “educational margin or frills” (Egan, 1989, p. 29), only dealt with when we have finished with the “more serious” things. So how do students benefit from the regular use of narratives in the English class?

1. Stories Support Cognitive Development

The idea that humans organize, process, and store new information in narrative patterns is not new. Studies in anthropology suggest that the story form is a cultural universal, and it is one of the earliest and most basic and powerful forms in which we organize knowledge and make sense of the world.

An influential psychological theory which supports the idea that stories help us organize new perceptions and thus create knowledge is Schema Theory Cognitive psychologists Schank and Abelson (1995) claim that stories function as mental frameworks, so-called schemas based on which we organize and remember experience. They say that “all human knowledge is based on stories constructed around past experiences” and that “new experiences are interpreted in terms of old stories” (1).

This idea is a powerful underlying reason for using stories in our classrooms. Regular engagement with narrative patterns enables us to gradually develop abstract thinking. It appears that the more stories we hear, read, and make up, the smarter we become.

Therefore, when it comes to the role of stories in cognitive development, we must remember that experiences with stories will not only increase learners’ knowledge in different areas, but they will also stimulate their imagination and cognitive development.

2. Stories create engaging contexts for language learning

Research as well as our experiences as teachers and learners tell us that we learn best through engaging and imaginative contexts, through tasks where we can involve our cognition, emotions, and creativity. Good stories will meet these requirements: they engage learners’ minds and emotions through relatable situations and characters, and they challenge learners to think about what they read.

Beside boosting learners’ motivation, stories also support language development: new words and language structures are more easily understood, remembered when they are embedded in a narrative context. Regular exposure to stories and extensive reading in and outside the classroom can be significant sources of incidental vocabulary learning, while they also promote the acquisition of language structures, and the language style used in stories (Krashen, 1993). Research also highlights that the acquisition of new words is most successful when students find the readings culturally relevant: in Elley’s study (1989) word recall was more significant when the students found the story emotionally engaging.

3. Stories provide opportunities for interaction

If stories deal with themes and topics that students find relatable, they can become good starting points for a discussion. Classroom-based studies reveal that in literature-based foreign language classes teachers ask significantly more genuine questions, and student output is more extensive and includes more negotiation than in classes where discussions revolve around coursebook texts (Ghosn, 2013; Lugossy, 2012). This is the reason why, when using young adult fiction in the foreign language class, the story-based discussion and follow-up tasks can be just as important in terms of language benefits as the reading itself. Using stories creates room for a dialogue in which learners construct their knowledge of language, literacy and other subjects in interaction with one another and with the teacher.

Main Ideas why stories are important

The main ideas what stories are important in the language classroom are that stories:

  • organize and transmit human knowledge
  • are crucial in developing personal and social identities and in building communities
  • boost motivation in the classroom
  • provide the basis for social interaction and language learning in the language class
  • form the basis for speaking, reading, listening and writing tasks.

Egan, K. (1998). Teaching as storytelling: An alternative approach to teaching and the curriculum. London, UK: Routledge
Elley, W. (1989). Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories. In Reading Research Quarterly, 24(2), 174-189. doi:10.2307/747863
Ghosn, I-K. (2013). Storybridge to second language literacy: The theory, research and practice of teaching English with children’s literature. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing Inc.
Krashen, S. (1993). The power of reading. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Lugossy, R. (2012). Constructing meaning in interaction through picture books. CEPS Journal, 2(3), 97-117.
Schank, R. C., & Abelson, R. P. (1995). Knowledge and memory: The real story. In R. S. Wyer Jr.(Ed.), Advances in social cognition. Volume VIII (pp. 1-85). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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