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Research Validates the Importance of Storytelling and the Oral Tradition

Almost any educator who has experienced a good story shared by a master storyteller would agree that telling stories can have a profound impact on their students. There is a growing body of research that documents the benefits of using storytelling and the oral tradition in the classroom, especially for young children in the early primary grades who are developing their fundamental language skills.

In fact, scientists ranging from Howard Gardner, the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard University School of Education who originated the theory of Multiple Intelligences, to neuroscience researchers using MRI studies like Dr. John Hutton at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center are beginning to validate the important role that stories play in the classroom.

In Margaret Read MacDonald’s recent book Teaching With Story: Classroom Connections to Storytelling, co-authored with Jennifer MacDonald Whitman and Nathaniel Whitman, the authors point out a number of studies that affirm the value of sharing stories in a classroom environment. They organized their book into the 7C's of storytelling (Community, Character, Communication, Curriculum, Cultural Connections, Creativity and Confidence) and then include a chapter that highlights research that supports the value of storytelling to enhance learning.

One important contributor to this growing body of evidence that they reference is Kendall Haven, a graduate of West Point, respected researcher, master storyteller, and sought after story consultant. In his book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, Kendall documents recent

cognitive research that shows how our brains are hardwired for story structure and engagement with stories. He followed up the success of this book with another book published in 2014, Story Smart, where he offers additional research that highlights the power of story to inspire, influence, and teach. In fact, business and industry may be well ahead of education in adopting the science to increase the effectiveness of learning and decision making, since Kendall has built a very successful business consulting with major organizations like Boeing, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, U.S. Navy, ARAMCO, and World Bank, among other corporate leaders.

Another important work the authors cite in Teaching With Story: Classroom Connections to Storytelling is Erik Jensen’s book Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Erik documents how memories are stored in different locations in the brain and the critical role that storytelling narratives play in connecting content with out emotions. This emotional connection enhanced by story provides more context to build more personal connections for a child that increases his or her ability to remember facts or lists of items in context of the story.

Teaching with Story Cover

The impact of storytelling on memory is further documented in a PhD dissertation by Tommy Dale Oaks at the University of Tennessee who studied the significance of storytelling in influencing recall. Not surprisingly, Susan Trostle and Dr. Sandy Jean Hicks reported in another study, published in Reading Improvement, that storytelling had a powerful impact on comprehension and vocabulary – two of the essential skills that the National Reading Panel (NRP) recommends for strengthening emerging reading skills (along with phonics and fluency).

As this growing body of research inevitably expands exponentially over the next decade, why aren’t more educators adapting this powerful and inexpensive way to learn? Hopefully, as the growing body of evidence demonstrates with even greater reliability and the expense of mapping the brain continues to decrease and become more common, more classroom teachers will expand their use of

this timeless and cost-effective way to improve a child’s learning experience and impact reading proficiency.


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