I think it is because stories serve such a wide range of purposes. I could easily come up with a list of 50, but will focus on three for now-
1. Language acquisition and vocabulary.
Between the ages of two and three, a child’s vocabulary grows at an enormously rapid rate IF they are spoken to, read to and engaged with in a meaningful, hopefully loving way. Many early years teachers I speak to share a growing concern for the number of children starting nursery or school with an extremely limited vocabulary of sometimes only 100 or so words.
Although every child is different of course, these children could be sitting alongside others with a working vocabulary of 900-1000 words or even more.
Reading and telling stories to children, exposes them to a rich variety of words, leading naturally to a growing vocabulary.
A teacher friend of mine who runs a parenting skills workshop at her school says she is concerned that so many young parents don’t actually talk to their kids about anything – let alone tell them stories! However, when she models storytelling to young parents and shows them how to do it, they gain the confidence to try it at home with their kids.
They are inevitably astounded and delighted with the amazing outcome.
2. Exploring concepts and lessons.
I questioned the value of Goldilocks for a long time.
Why has this story of a curious trespasser lasted so long? But could it be because we humans are creatures with an insatiable curiosity and are hard wired to explore concepts? If so, then a story like Goldilocks presents us with a fascinating opportunity to investigate and come to grips with concepts such as hot and cold; hard and soft – but in a way that is both exciting and fun. And this, in my opinion, is why stories are such powerful teaching tools. After all, who wouldn’t want to explore a bear’s house – from the safety of your bed or sofa – feeling the frission of danger as the bears get closer and closer… Of course the repetitive nature of the story (“Who’s been eating my porridge?”) invites us to all join in. Again and again.
Most religions have stories exploring important human conditions like love and hate; keeping your word or reaching your potential. They help us grapple with ideas that may be bigger than our capacity to understand them, but offer a safe place to explore and discuss them.
3. Understanding narrative.
In 1987, a study by Gordon Wells concluded that an early knowledge of story was the most important indicator of later academic achievement.
That is a huge statement and one that underpins everything we do in our training in schools with teachers. Being able to understand the concept of ‘beginning, middle and end’ (and everything in between) and to then learn to organize your own thoughts either orally or in writing, are very important life skills.
But where does this lead us?
Essentially, sharing stories with our children helps them become effective communicators who can confidently express themselves in either the spoken or written word. And equally as importantly, where they understand what they hear or read.
These four skills make up ‘literacy’ and all four are inordinately enhanced by storytelling. The opportunity to discuss, dissect and question what they hear or read is a critical part of this process.
I think one of the happiest and most significant outcomes of regular storytelling is the development of emotional intelligence. This is partly due to empathizing with characters in various situations and settings.
But we mustn’t forget that the pure pleasure and enjoyment of a shared story cannot be underestimated, whether in a group at school or with a loving friend or family member at bedtime.
I remember when my daughter was about four, she started to ask me to tell her stories of when I was a child. I grew up in the 60’s near the beach in Melbourne as the sixth of seven children. She is an only child growing up in central London. For many years these stories were a big part of our life. Often short, they took place on walks; before bed; in the bath; while cooking – you name it, they were a natural part of our family story. Stories such as The Day My Big Brother Taught Me To Spit; When My Little Brother Fell Off The Slide & Had To Be Rushed To Hospital (on the last day of our summer camping holiday); When My Grandmother Nearly Choked On A Chicken Bone & My Sister Performed The Heimlich Maneuver and the stories go on and on and on!
The contrast in our lives is intriguing to us both and an integral part of her learning her place in our immediate family and feeling secure and valued in the bigger family picture. It also allowed her a window into exploring the culture and society I was born into and so through the contrasts develop and deepen her understanding of the very different world we live in now. Each story we share, often again and again weaves an important strand into her life story. She is now 15 and although she lives many miles from most of her extended family, she is secure of her place in our family history.
Surely with sharing stories, whether about real life experiences or traditional tales we give out children powerful anchoring roots and a strong sense of identity. With these we endow our children with a firm base from which to create the most important story of all – their own.
And who knows?
They may meet a hungry wolf!
What can I possibly add?
Maria makes the case so compelling that I can only reiterate and confirm!
As a teacher, I have seen at first hand just how enriched some children are when they come to school from a story-rich background. Teachers work hard to try to narrow the gap but children without these family experiences are at a huge disadvantage as they progress through school and many never catch up. This is something that all parents can give their children, whatever their financial status. Children with this ‘head-start’ have additional knowledge of language that is not only limited to the greater number of words they’ve encountered in a way that makes learning new words easy to grasp but they also understand how language actually ‘works’. They know that there are many different words they can choose from to distil their meaning and convey it more clearly. They are imbued with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the grammar without ever having learned about an adverb, a split infinitive or a present participle – they just know whether it sounds ‘right’. They also are more confident about trying out and experimenting as they know instinctively that the ways in which we say things can maneuver and manipulate how others will react. They also know how to rephrase what they want to say if they see the listener doesn’t understand. These children know about nuance, they’ll often relish plays on words, they know about intonation and the power of expression, of body language…
With this kind of language experience comes great thinking…
With great thinking there is little that children can’t achieve…
And achieve more easily!
Children’s books are so powerful, they open new worlds to us, new perspectives; but story-telling is a dimension we lose to our children’s peril. The immediacy of eye-contact, the dance of connection between story-teller and listener, well, it has a magic all of its own.