The Importance of Storytelling by Jessica McColly

“Miss McColly, will you tell us a fairytale again?” Carl asked. His question buoyed my heart. I had just recently dipped my toe in the ancient waters of storytelling, and, so far, the water was very inviting. I had always enjoyed listening to others tell stories, whether the storytellers were professionals or just old friends around the campfire. I was always a little jealous of those who could spin a good yarn because I always felt so miserably bad at it. My attempts to retell funny or amazing events always seemed to fall flat, with the audience losing interest halfway through. Now, however, Carl’s plea gratified me more than I would have imagined. Perhaps with a bit more coaching and lots of practice I can become the storyteller I have often longed to be. The first tale I told my kindergarteners came on the day of our maple sugaring field trip. That morning, I found myself struggling to keep the children’s attention. I remembered the only story I had ever learned to tell, the story of the Native American’s discovery of maple sugar, or Sinzibuckwud.

The attitude of the class changed almost immediately. Every eye was on me. I realized as long as I enjoyed the story I told, so did they. The power of storytelling hit home in a new way.

As I learn more about storytelling, I find that many teachers and other professionals have long known the importance of storytelling with young children. Children’s reactions to stories intuit their importance, and research endorses their value for any skeptics.

In a climate where children spend more and more time in front of televisions, computers, and video games, storytelling’s educational impact is augmented as never before. Rather than passively receiving images, children must actively engage in making images themselves. When they listen to stories, children’s imaginations are enriched and stimulated (de Wit, 5). Furthermore, the ability to make mental images is an important skill for reading because it links the reader to the text in more personal and memorable ways. As Debbie Miller puts it, “images come from the emotions and all five senses, enhancing understanding and immersing the reader in rich detail” (77).

Young children are developmentally wired to love language, and using storytelling in the classroom cashes in on that “expansive” love of words and the desire to “try out” such language (Wood, 35). According to the National Council of Teachers of English, “listeners encounter both familiar and new language patterns” through story (as cited in Geisler, 33). Hearing stories regularly allows pre-readers become familiar with narrative patterns (NCTE as cited in Geisler, 33), speech rhythms, and the flow of language (de Wit, 5). Telling stories to young children also increases their vocabulary. For example, Monadnock Waldorf teacher Betsi McGuigan fondly recalls when an upset five-year-old, recalling a line from a previously heard fairy tale, cried to her, “Get away from me, you odious frog!” (McGuigan, 3).

The language and literary elements of storytelling are not its only merits, however. Through stories, children learn about the cultural values of their society. Young ones begin to appreciate the goodness, “humor, bravery, and beauty” of the characters in the stories before they really know these qualities themselves (de Wit, 5). As Jean de La Fontaine said, “…We yawn at sermons, but we gladly turn/ To moral tales, and so amused we learn” (Geisler, 32).

Not only do children learn about their own culture through stories, but they gain an appreciation of other cultures as well. Storytelling emphasizes the ties that bind and helps children see the commonalities of people and communities around the world (California Reading Association as cited in Geisler, 32). As our world grows smaller, telling stories from around the globe fosters understanding of other people and places. The folk stories and fairy tales of other cultures teach children to embrace the uniqueness of different societies. At the same time, the commonalities among the different stories highlight the deep connections all cultures share.

Many of the types of stories we choose to tell can help young children deal with their own fears, challenges, and difficulties. Fairy tales especially reach children on a very deep level and help them bridge the confusing dimensions of the world. “Good and evil, fear and courage, wisdom and folly, fortune and misfortune, cruelty and kindness” (California State Dept. of Education as quoted in Geisler, 32) are personified. Through fairy tales, children can integrate these elements of our world into their own, and may be better able to deal with such trials and tribulations themselves. Bruno Bettelheim, the noted child psychologist, believed intensely that the telling of fairy tales held great importance to young children. He wrote,

“The more I tried to understand why these stories (fairy tales) are so successful in enriching the inner life of the child, the clearer it became to me that, in a much deeper sense than any other reading material, they start where the child really is in his psychological and emotional being. “ (Bettelheim as quoted in class notes, 3/31/07).

Additionally, stories can be told in times of crisis to help children deal with big issues such as death, violence, or abuse. As much as we want to protect young ones from such terrible situations, the unfortunate reality of our world does not always make this possible. Not only can we tell stories that deal with such events and make the endings hopeful and happy, but we can encourage children themselves to tell stories. I personally of seen this kind of storytelling be therapeutic. A five-year-old who was exposed to hours and hours of scary, gory, and frightening images and movies for two of his formative years found great relief in being able to share his stories. Having adults listen to his stories and help him make the endings happy continues to be great therapy for him.

Regardless of the content, giving young children the opportunity to do their own storytelling is a rich experience itself. Vivian Gussin Paley, a well-known educator of young children, has done much amazing work incorporating storytelling into every aspect of her classroom. By paying attention and analyzing children’s stories, Paley has glimpsed “the universal themes that bind together the universal urgencies” of her charges (Paley, 4). Viewing her students as storytellers has drawn her “into deeper concerns and more vivid visions of their world” (Paley, 19). Aside from the wealth of information a teacher can gain from her student’s stories are the numerous educational benefits to the children. Storytelling makes children comfortable with oral communication and speaking in front of an audience. Students who practice storytelling also gain experience watching their audience for cues and altering their story accordingly. This sets the groundwork for later skills needed in writing.

All this research is important and relevant, of course. Storytelling is beneficial to young children in so many ways. Knowing that so much research substantiates the storyteller should be encouragement enough to continue storytelling in my future classrooms. I am glad to know I will be doing something enriching for my students. However, it is not the research that sustains me. It is the students’ unwavering attention and their abiding love for stories that urges on my attempts to become a storyteller.

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12 Responses to The Importance of Storytelling by Jessica McColly

  1. weareforfun says:

    Some very interesting points here. I am glad to see that you will persist in learning to tell stories. It is an art (in my opinion) and as such can be learned by almost everyone. We simply need to find the method of story telling which best suits us. Keep working at it, the more stories you tell, the better you will be. Thanks for researching all this also.

  2. Sorry, aber das bezweifel ich ganz stark…Baer

  3. v.l bawalia says:

    i am a teacher and i belive taht story telling can work best if the teller(teacher) use lot many pictures….for creating an environment for young once…keeping all ur imp tips in mind.thankyou so much…..for helping teacher like us to grow…….god bless u

  4. v.l bawalia says:

    the most important and effective part in story telling is dramatisation.while they are enacting with other children their emotional and social skills are also developed

  5. v.l bawalia says:

    every parent and teacher should always keep this small line in mind that when teacher say a story she shold have many pictures around her class roombecoz a child say “i hear and i forget”
    i see and i understand”
    i do i remember”
    hence every child shoud take part in conversation or act in class

  6. v.l bawalia says:

    maam jessica mc colly
    plz do update us with new ideas of teaching young children
    in play way method.
    thankyou.

  7. Pam says:

    Thank you for the rich information,, as a teacher of 5th grade students I believe storytelling is a marvelous way to spur imagination, pre-write stories, and increase vocabulary.

  8. A.Mueez says:

    Our life itself is a complete story that starts with birth and ends when our soul leaves our body.
    one life that goes through various ups and downs in life
    Over the period of time, every life story becomes a historical novel.
    When our own life is a complete novel with unknown number of pages, then it’s obvious that stories will influence our personality and our lifestyle.
    stories were found to stimulate the imaginations and thinking power of a child
    bedtime stories that help them have a peaceful sleep all night

  9. This is the second blog, of urs I browsed. However I personally enjoy this particular 1, “The Importance of Storytelling by Jessica McColly Growing Teachers” the most.
    Thanks -Louanne

  10. Julie says:

    I am teaching a graduate class in using storytelling with young children and would be interested in obtaining permission to use this blog post as a reading for the class.
    Thank you.

  11. Nithya Ramachandran says:

    Can you please provide complete references for your sources ?

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