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Why is Storytelling so Important?

Teacher reading a book to children

Our brains are weird for stories. Although common sense tells us this must be true, this basic statement is backed up by numerous research studies at universities including Harvard, Ohio, Drexel, Princeton, Emory, West Virginia, Washington, East Tennessee State, Loma Linda, Simon Fraser, and Oregon, as well as universities in Jakarta and Australia.


Researchers have found that when children hear stories, the hormone oxytocin is released in their brains. The same chemical that can be stimulated by eating a delicious dessert, attending an emotionally charged ceremony like a wedding, or celebrating a victory in a sports event.

The Science of Storytelling

Let’s see what respected researchers say about the impact of storytelling on cognitive and emotional learning.  

  • Paul Zak, director of the Center of Neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University has studied how the brain releases oxytocin during stories. He calls oxytocin, the empathy or trust molecule. 


  • Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson, writes that “a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”

  • Kendall Haven, master storyteller and author of Story Smart and Story Proof has summarized over 300 research studies and literally hundreds of thousands of research pages. He reports that our brains, “...are programmed to make sense of specific information and experiences in specific story terms. If we can’t make it make sense in story terms, we either change the information around so that it does make sense, or we ignore it.” In his books, Haven references research that highlights the power of storytelling to inspire, influence, and teach.


  • Vanessa Boris writes in Harvard Business Publishing, “...storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas. Stories convey the culture, history, and values that unite people.”


  • Education researcher, Catherine Marion writes, “...findings suggest that listening to the telling of stories helps the listener to activate skills which are used during reading and other subject areas.”


  • Erik Jensen’s book Teaching with the Brain in Mind documents how memories are stored in different locations in the brain and the critical role that story narratives play in connecting seemingly unrelated content.


  • Dr. Lynn Harter, Co-Director of the Institute for Storytelling and Social Impact in the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University has published extensively on the value of storytelling, reports that storytelling fosters resilience among individuals and writes that, “One of the best ways I communicate with students and learn with them is in and through my own experiences...”.


  • Leo Widrich, author of The Science of Storytelling, found that, “...the more a speaker conveys information in story form, the closer the listener’s experience and understanding will be to what the speaker actually intended.”


  • Denise Agosto, professor at Drexel University found that, “In addition to showing that storytelling enabled the participants in this study to practice important literacy skills, the data also revealed the joy that many of them experienced during the storytelling session.”


  • 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.


  • 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).

The Oral Tradition

Now that we know the scientific research supports the use of storytelling for learning, let’s look at how storytelling has been handed down through the oral tradition from generation to generation.


For thousands of years, diverse cultures have used the oral tradition to highlight details about major historic events, reinforce social customs, and share important core values with the next generation. Since these stories often predate written history, they needed to be easy to remember, actively engage an individual’s imagination, and appeal to an audience’s sensibilities while communicating a critical message about a culture’s traditions or values. No easy task.


As Margaret Read MacDonald and her co-authors, Jennifer MacDonald Whitman and Nathaniel Whitman, write in their award-winning book, Teaching With Story, “Storytelling is an essential part of our human existence. The earliest recorded evidence we have of the storytelling tradition are folktales that were written on cuneiform clay tablets around four thousand years ago.” The book also includes a chapter that highlights the research that supports the value of storytelling to enhance learning.

If sharing these timeless stories orally didn’t work so effectively, then the oral tradition of storytelling would have died out centuries ago. It’s also important to note that the oral tradition not only survived but flourished in cultures as diverse as indigenous groups in China, remote tribes in the Amazon Rain Forest, or Native Americans living on the high plains. Fortunately, as scientific research demonstrates, our brains are wired for stories so we can now enjoy a range of diverse stories that have been passed down for centuries through the oral tradition of every culture.  


Storytelling in the Classroom

Outside of the stories themselves, storytelling can make a positive impact on young minds, especially through social and emotional learning. Remember the empathy hormone, oxytocin? Telling stories can help young minds internalize fundamental interpersonal communication skills, such as:


  • Developing active listening skills

  • Strengthening reading skills, especially comprehension

  • Sharing personal experiences

  • Shaping interpersonal communications

  • Understanding other perspectives

  • Enhancing awareness of diverse cultural traditions

As Margaret Read McDonald states, “Communities have always been defined by stories, be it a religious community, a successful corporation, or a classroom. Community stories are cables of shared emotional experience, bound and woven, defining and gathering a community together.”


Due to the wide range of variables in any classroom, it may be impossible to accurately quantify the specific benefits of storytelling, especially for social and emotion learning. But that doesn’t diminish the role that storytelling can play when it is thoughtfully integrated into a classroom curriculum.

It’s important to keep in mind that when children care about a character, they are more likely to apply parts of the story to their own lives. When kids make an emotional connection to a character, they internalize the story, making it more meaningful. They are more likely to remember key details, and then incorporate the story to make it relevant to their experiences outside the classroom. Telling stories in the classroom is another tool to help kids make those emotional connections that enrich the content while also making it more memorable.

Anansi and Decision Making

One aspect of storytelling that is frequently overlooked is how sharing these timeless, classic tales can be used to teach effective decision making in a low-risk environment where actions and consequences can be discussed after telling a story.


By following Anansi, the beloved spider from West Africa, the plotlines follow the consequences of his decision making. These folktales employ a classic story architecture as Anansi overcomes challenges and resolves problems his decisions have created.


When Anansi makes a poor or impulsive decision, he suffers negative consequences whether he is trying to attend multiple lunches with friends in Anansi Goes to Lunch or hiding a hot bowl of beans under his cap in Anansi and the Pot of Beans. The plotlines to these stories illustrate how his decisions have led to unwanted outcomes. Conversely, when Anansi takes thoughtful actions to solve a problem, such as in Anansi and the Tug O’ War, his clever decision making is rewarded with a positive outcome.


When a teacher immerses the class in one of these tales and brings the dilemma of Anansi to life, the classroom becomes less like a lecture hall and more like an open lab where kids can begin to see how their decisions lead to actions and those actions contribute to negative or positive consequences.

Combining these stories with a lively discussion about how to make decisions, not only reinforces the plotline, students also begin to personalize the experience of Anansi as they realize how their decisions also have consequences in their lives.


Building Trust and Rapport

One critical aspect of storytelling that is often minimized is its effectiveness in creating a more relaxed, trusting classroom. Remember the power of oxytocin to build trust and empathy through storytelling? Scott (1985), an experienced Australian teacher/storyteller, explains how this practical and general objective can relate to the other benefits from using storytelling to:

  1. Introduce children to a range of story experiences.

  2. Provide young students with models of story patterns, themes, characters, and incidents to help them in their own writing, oral language, and thinking.

  3. Nurture and encourage a sense of humor in children.

  4. Help put children's own words in perspective.

  5. Increase knowledge and understanding of other places, races, and beliefs.

  6. Introduce new ideas and be used to question established concepts without threat to the individual.

  7. Lead to discussions that are far ranging and often more satisfying than those arising from formal lessons.

  8. Serve as the most painless way of teaching children to listen, to concentrate, and to follow the thread and logic of an argument.

Along with the trust and rapport building that storytelling naturally brings to a classroom setting, researchers at Universitas Muhammadiyah in Jakarta found that storytelling can be a very effective teaching tool for younger learners with active imaginations, who are very creative, and haven’t developed more abstract cognitive skills. They concluded that storytelling has the greatest impact when teachers adapt the stories to a child’s specific interests, needs, proficiencies, and age.

They also recommend that teachers beginning to experiment with storytelling start with relatively simple stories. As students make progress and as a teacher gains more confidence in telling stories, then they can then move to more complex plotlines followed by more challenging classroom assignments.

A Final Note

Remember at the beginning of this post, we referenced some of the research and Denise Agosto, professor at Drexel University found, “...the data also revealed the joy that many of them experienced during the storytelling session.” Combining the research data, with the rich oral tradition of storytelling, and the experiences of many classroom teachers, we conclude with one final point from Margaret Read MacDonald and her co-authors who write in Teaching with Story: “There are a thousand reasons to tell stories in the classroom, but really, the most important reason for bringing storytelling into your classroom is joy.”

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