“Storytelling and Story-listening, and Children's Intellectual, Emotional, and Social Development”

by Eric Miller, PhD,
Director, World Storytelling Institute,
March 2011

This brief essay explores ways in which storytelling and story-listening can contribute to children's intellectual, emotional, and social development.

First of all, it is good to keep in mind that telling stories to children can be just the first step in an interactive process.  After any story is told,

1) The storyteller can lead a discussion about the story.
2) The listeners can draw/paint the story.
3) The listeners can make costumes, masks, puppets, and props, relating to the story.
4) The listeners can act-out the story as a skit.
5) The listeners can be invited to add to, and in any other way, change the story.
6) The listeners can be invited to tell additional stories that might come to mind -- including real-life experiences, traditional stories, and made-up stories.

Regardless of whether a story's characters are humans, animals, divinities, aliens, etc -- all stories are about situations.  Story listeners can project themselves into these characters, and imagine themselves in these situations.  The listeners can consider if they might do things the same or differently from how the characters do things.  This gives the listeners practice for living.

Making Sense Out of Experience
Storying is the process of constructing and considering stories.  Through storying, children can develop a sense of story.  A story can be defined as a series of events.  One way we humans make sense out of experience is to organise pieces of experience into stories.  Adults may take it for granted that in stories -- as well as in everyday life -- one thing may lead to another, and occurrences may be connected.  But children have to learn this -- and one way they can learn it is through storytelling and story-listening.  Storying enables children to think in term of sequences, of progressions, of events.  This helps them to recognise patterns of behaviours and actions, in story and in life.  It gets them in the habit of organising data into sequences that progress from a beginning, to a middle, to an end -- and hold together cohesively as a unit.  This helps children to put things together -- to make sense out of experience.

Considering Behaviour, and Morality and Ethics
Usually a story's series of events, taken as a whole, can be thought of as having a point -- a message, moral, or meaning.  It may be of limited value to children to announce the point of a story to them.  It is usually more valuable to them to lead a discussion in which the children are asked such questions as, "What did you get out of the story?  What did you learn from the story?  What did you like about the story?"  Answering and discussing such questions can help children in a number of ways.  Doing so can help them to think about characters' motives.  This can help children to develop understandings of characters' personalities and actions -- and can enable children to think about values, ethics, and principles of morality.  The children are then in a position to be able to apply this kind of thinking to their decision-making about how they might behave in their own real lives.  In these ways, children can become more aware of their own -- and others’ -- thoughts and feelings, and they can become more articulate in talking about all of this.

Vocabulary and Grammar
Storytelling and story-listening -- along with discussing and re-telling stories -- can help children to develop their understanding of grammar, and to increase their vocabulary.

Creativity and Reasoning
Storytelling and story-listening gives children practice in creating mental imagery (visualising images), and brings out the vivid imagination and the creativity of children.  Also, children's reasoning abilities are activated when they describe and discuss these images (and any other aspect of a story).

Involvement and Engagement
By discussing, creating, and telling stories, children can explore and express their feelings.  This personal emotional involvement and engagement with story -- and with their story-play partners and guides -- tends to make children optimistic, excited, and enthusiastic about their use of language.

Social Skills
Storytelling and story-listening utilize the social element of language.  By telling stories, and by participating in group conversations about stories and storytelling, children can develop their public-speaking abilities, and they can also learn how to take turns speaking, and how to listen to others.

In summary:

Storytelling and story-listening -- along with discussion -- enhances children's comprehension skills, at the literal, inferential, and critical levels.  Inferential refers to becoming aware of patterns, recognising causal links, understanding that there are consequences to actions, and being able to predict what might come next.  Critical refers to considering characters' behaviors, and other aspects of a story, from all angles.

Reading and Writing
Oral competency in language is a prerequisite for literacy.  All of the above-mentioned skills that are developed in children through storytelling and story-listening -- including language vocabulary and grammar, content comprehension and retention, gaining a sense of story, pattern recognition, and critical listening and thinking skills -- also extend into helping them learn to read and write.

Any feedback regarding this essay would be most appreciated!  Please send such feedback to <eric at storytellinginstitute.org>. 

Please credit the author if quoting from this essay.

On the way: versions of this essay relating to children with various learning challenges.