Storytelling and language learning


Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of human communication and education. The oldest records of storytelling that we have are visual stories, such as the prehistoric cave drawings. These are possibly based on personal experiences and oral traditions, which we were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Also, fables, stories with an explicitly didactic message, have been a means of education and can be found in many different ancient civilisations all over the globe.

Over the years, much has been said in literature about the effectiveness of storytelling as a pedagogical tool in the specific development of language skills in both first (L1) language as well as in a foreign or second language (L2), regardless of learners’ age or background (e.g. Cameron, 2001). Stories feature linguist, paralinguistic and cultural elements that effectively help learners to develop their foreign language skills.

It is possibly one of the most effective and engaging methods for foreign language learning that helps learners to improve their vocabulary, grammar, listening comprehension, and overall fluency. Here are some of the key advantages of using storytelling in language acquisition:

  • the learner improves vocabulary and listening skills.
    The learner is exposed to an extensive range of vocabulary. Since this vocabulary is presented in context and the learner will have repeated exposure, it is easier to develop a better understanding of the new words and idiomatic expressions.
  • it enhances speaking skills.
    The learner can retell or even act out the story they heard or read themselves. Storytelling also sparkles conversation, where the learner will make direct use of the newly acquired vocabulary and expressions.
  • it fosters cultural understanding.
    Stories often reflect the cultural aspects of a language, including customs, traditions, and values. Through the stories, learners gain insights into the cultural nuances of the target language, fostering intercultural competence and a deeper appreciation for the language (Byram, 1997).
  • it creates higher motivation.
    Storytelling is highly engaging. It will catch the learners’ attention from the very beginning and will make learning enjoyable. With higher levels of attention, the retention of the learned material is higher, for which the learners’ improvement is higher than usual, they will feel more accomplished and be motivated to keep learning.

If you wonder what type of story you should choose for your learners, here are some ideas that you can work with:

  • Personal experiences: Draw from your own life and experience. Think about significant events, funny incidents, or emotional moments that you don’t mind sharing with your learners.
  • Folktales and mythology: Explore traditional folktales, myths, and legends from your own culture, but also those of others. These stories often have timeless themes and carry moral lessons that will captivate your learners.
  • Literature and books: Dive into books and literature to find stories that resonate with your learners. Look for short stories, novels, or even poetry that you can adapt and tell in your own way. And don’t only look for the well known authors and work. Surprise your students with literature from different countries and cultural perspectives.
  • Family and friends: Talk to your family and friends. They might have some great stories or anecdotes that you can share with your learners or use as inspiration for a story.
  • Cultural traditions and customs: Explore your own cultural background or research other cultures to find stories rooted in their traditions, customs, or folklore. This is a very interesting approach when you have learners from different cultural backgrounds.

Storytelling is a very creative process, and you can find inspiration from a wide range of sources. Choose stories that your learners can relate to, but also those that you feel passionate about, as your enthusiasm will shine through while you deliver the story to them…