Storytelling and Learning

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I’ve been reading and hearing podcasts lately about how storytelling is being used to help students—and especially multilingual students—learn to read and write and speak English. Of course I’ve known about TPRS—teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling—for a long time, with its three-step method. But lately I’ve been reading about other methods, some of which just simply call for students to tell stories—like a couple of pieces on Edutopia by Matthew J. Friday. Here’s what he says in “Why Storytelling in the Classroom Matters”:

Whether in caves or in cities, storytelling remains the most innate and important form of communication. All of us tell stories. The story of your day, the story of your life, workplace gossip, the horrors on the news. Our brains are hard-wired to think and express in terms of a beginning, middle and end. It's how we understand the world.

Friday is absolutely right, and reading him reminded me of Celia Genishi and Anne Dyson’s 1994 The Need for Story, a book that elaborates on and illuminates Friday’s claim. I taught that book for years: it helped to reconfirm my commitment to story as being at the heart of our discipline as well as the heart of our culture—and many, many other cultures. So I was excited when I read about Friday’s insight that “storytelling is the oldest form of teaching,” and about his work with third graders at an international school in China where 97% of the students are English learners. Friday begins by telling stories himself, and he does so with style: he moves around the room, acting out the story, pausing to ask questions and using physical humor to keep his students captivated. He’d been using storytelling for quite some time, but in this particular circumstance, he says, he got a surprise:

Firstly, a German student who was in the listening phase of language acquisition began spontaneously writing her own fairy tales and requested to tell them--the first student storyteller. . . . Within a month, I had a list of students wanting to tell stories, and this continued for the rest of the year, right up to the very last day of term. Those first EAL storytellers went on to make rapid progress in the wider curriculum, with writing and telling fiction remaining their favourite activity.

Friday goes on to reflect on the enormous power of storytelling, deciding that stories are innately “a form of human experience” and that while not all cultures have writing systems, all do have stories. So he establishes an open and friendly atmosphere in his classes as he tells story after story, sometimes dressing up in funny hats or costumes—and then the students take over. He and the class give positive responses, which also helps build self-confidence, and he doesn’t worry about spelling, punctuation, etc.: rather, he encourages “the freedom to take risks and make mistakes,” knowing that the surface issues will work themselves out with practice.

Friday and the other storytelling teachers I’ve read about are working with young students, but I think we can take a lesson from them in terms of our college students, especially those learning English as a second, third, or sixth language. I know from my own experience with The Stanford Storytelling Project that undergraduates are as excited by and devoted to storytelling as Friday’s third graders and then some. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to include a storytelling component in all of our classes: my bet is that it would soon become students’ favorite part of the course!

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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.