Storytelling for Faster Language Learning

We are storytelling animals. Our social brains are optimized for stories. Students, regardless of their attention span, can sit through a good story. Yet, stories serve more than just amusement. They have profound cognitive implications. Therefore, psychologists call stories “psychologically privileged,” recognizing how our minds distinguish them from other materials. Stories captivate us, simplify comprehension, and enhance recall. To appreciate these advantages, let’s look at the building blocks of story structure.

The elements of narrative

Stories are built upon what we can call “The Four Cs.” These include Causality, Conflict, Complications, and Character. Causality establishes a link between events, Conflict introduces a goal and hurdles for the central character, Complications arise as efforts to eliminate the obstacles create new challenges, and Character development allows the audience to perceive actions that define characters.

Stories are more engaging

Stories captivate our attention better than other kinds of text. First, stories encompass themes of intrinsic interest, such as romance, sex, violence, success, and failure. These are topics that people are naturally drawn to. Ears perk up when these topics are introduced. Researchers have found that language learners much prefer discussions on topics related to personal growth stories and dramatic events even more than discussion about current affairs and moral controversies.

For courses organized around a storytelling format, see Labo's Trail course format.

Stories are more comprehensible

Stories are also easier to understand. For teachers who recognize the importance of comprehensible input, enhancing comprehensibility is a must. Researchers have found that people are able to read stories more quickly than expository text because of the causal connections between ideas. When you read a story, you think to yourself, “Why did that happen?’ You automatically think about cause and effect. Sometimes one event will be related by causality to a prior event in the story. Other times, the event occurs because of the character’s central goal. In stories, one thing causes the next. The audience is able to use this inherent structure of stories to infer meaning in ways that they can’t with other kinds of texts.

Stories are more memorable

The same researchers found that stories are much easier to remember. When the same information was presented as part of a narrative or in expository form, subjects remembered about 50 percent more from the stories than from the expository passages. The reason seems to be due to the paced introduction of new information. Stories encourage readers to make inferences that are neither overly simple nor overwhelmingly complex. Instead, narratives, due to their structure, reveal new information in a moderately difficult way. New information is only added when enough prior information is available to understand how it is connected to the rest of the story.  Also, moderately difficult new information is perceived as more interesting, drawing our attention and getting us thinking about it. Deeper thought about the material enhances memory. So, each element of intriguing new information gets stored and connected in long term memory to the other information in the story, making it much easier to remember.

The memory benefit is not only present during the story, but also when attempting to remember it later. The causal connections form an interconnected web, aiding recall. By remembering the protagonist’s goal, we can recall successive events.

Our minds are hard-wired to represent information in a story structure, with its causality and goals. This cognitive predisposition even helps shape our recollection of stories lacking these elements, as we tend to introduce or eliminate elements to make the narrative conform to our idea of a story in our heads.

Stories for language education

This narrative advantage can be harnessed effectively in language education. Since stories are engaging, easy to understand, and memorable, they can serve as excellent tools to introduce new vocabulary and grammar to students. Stories provide an enjoyable and non-threatening way of learning, helping students acquire new vocabulary in a meaningful context and prepare for a deeper exploration of the subject matter.

It is through stories that children acquire all the complexities and nuances of a language’s verb system, and they do it without drilling, analysis, or boredom. Stories charm as they teach.

Use storytelling when you want to learn a language.

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