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The Power of Storytelling to Improve Early Childhood Learning Outcomes

Keeping students engaged in the classroom can be a constant challenge for educators.

Teachers are competing with the many distractions available to children today while still ensuring they learn.

When it comes to Science or Math, subjects that often inspire much aversion and stress, keeping students engaged can feel like an impossible task.

But what if there was a way for educators to make learning fun?

An integrative learning approach

An integrative approach to learning is an educational approach that uses storytelling, theater and the creative arts to teach Common Core Curriculum. This keeps students actively engaged and excited about learning.

Educators who integrate creative activities as a central part of the learning process, help students learn by using their imagination to engage with new concepts and think critically.

Pedagogical devices used include storytelling, singing, theater, dance, and drawing.

Why use storytelling and theater to teach?

Using storytelling and other art forms to help students learn has many benefits. Here are a few reasons why you should consider bringing creativity into your classroom.

The power of stories

Storytelling is one of the most powerful learning devices. For millennia, we have learned about the world and our place in it through stories and myths. Oral narratives are the oldest form of storytelling. Long before the written word, cultures around the world told stories to remember historical events and record community knowledge.

Under the Narrative Network Project, Kendall Haven and his team conducted a series of experiments in 2012 which concluded that human beings respond intuitively to stories and are more actively engaged when information is presented in this format. According to psychologist Jerome Bruner, we are 22 times more likely to remember information when it is presented in a story. Stories allow listeners to enter another world and empathize with different characters, making them more open to learning. They can also contain complex ideas and multiple meanings, providing an effective way to get students to think deeply about a problem.

Theater and storytelling caters to a wide range of learning styles

We all learn differently. While some learn best by listening to lectures, others like watching videos or looking at photos. Another group might learn best by doing an experiment or making models. These different learning styles, auditory, visual, and kinesthetic are all used during dramatic readings.

Kinesthetic learners can focus on their teacher's actions, auditory learners will enjoy listening to the words and visual learners can create strong mental images of the story as it progresses. While most of us learn through a combination of these styles, what's important about storytelling is that it engages all types of learners. This helps students process and retain information quickly, and easily.

Builds literacy skills for early learners

Whether through books or narratives made up by parents, most children enter school familiar with stories. Young children are usually eager to listen to and take part in storytelling sessions. Children build vocabulary, use more complex sentences, and improve comprehension when frequently exposed to stories.

Even children who speak languages other than English are familiar with the format, and become excited to hear stories, even if they're in an unfamiliar language. This makes storytelling a particularly effective way to promote literacy and language skills.

Stories provide a natural, enjoyable context for exposure to new words and familiarize children with the sounds, rhythm, and intonation of sentences. Incorporating theater through visual aids, play-acting, repetition, voices, and characterization encourages children to synthesize words and connect their meaning to gestures or events within the story.

Reenactments of written materials are a particularly effective way to associate actions, words, and meanings and memorize key language naturally —improving both vocabulary and speech.

Helps learning math

Students can also learn to solve math problems through stories. Presenting a math problem in the form of a story can help students empathize with characters and become more invested in their task. Stories help students find motivation because it answers the question, 'Why do we need to learn this?'

For example, instead of asking students what makes two plus two, telling a story about a new student who made friends with two girls and two boys on her first day at school, and then asking how many friends she has — is a great way of getting children to invest. The important part here is to tell relatable stories with subject matter that children will care about. In this particular case — making friends at a new school.

Younger children can learn how to count, add or subtract through stories that present these activities as problems to solve. The need to see what happens to the main character provides motivation for students to use their mathematical skills to move characters along in their journey. This presents a math problem in a natural situation that reduces the anxiety many children feel when confronted with numbers.

Using children’s literature as a context for mathematics problems, helps engage students and provide a context within which to solve a problem for characters they care about and can help them learn math more effectively.

Improves retention

Stories are easy to remember. Psychologist Jerome Bruner, suggested that stories are 20 times more memorable than plain facts. Another psychologist, Peg Neuhauser, found that learning which stems from a well-told story is remembered more accurately, and for much longer, than learning from facts and figures.

We retain more knowledge and store it for longer, when we learn through stories.

Similarly, dramatic readings — stories that are spoken or acted aloud rather than being read from a page, can embed lessons more deeply. Mary Barr Goral and Cindy Meyers Gnadinger, found that students were able to understand complex math problems better when they were presented through a story. Connecting with the storyteller, making eye contact, and listening to the modulations of their voice helped students "see" the story, which in turn helped their memory and understanding.

Develops social-emotional skills

In 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts found that children whose parents sang to them at least 3 times a week displayed "strong and sophisticated social skills" when they reached school.

Exposure to music and movement leads to children showing more independence and social cooperation. A student acting or dancing in a performance is asked to embody a completely different personality or portray a specific emotion through movement. This helps students recognize and share different perspectives and develop empathy. Narrating a story or performing in front of an audience (even if just in front of the class), can boost a child’s confidence and improve their communication skills.

Using drama techniques while telling a story to your class can have similar effects. Movement and actions help students visualize the story better. Asking questions during a story provides an opportunity for students to use new vocabulary by repeating words in the question, or identifying and repeating a new word.

In “The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains”, entrepreneur and storyteller Leo Widrich noted that when we hear a story, “not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain we would use when experiencing the events of the story are, too.” Simply put, by listening to stories, we live them. By exploring the moral dilemmas and issues within the narrative arc of a story, we live through the character’s journey, which helps with both social-emotional learning, and cognitive skills.

Encourages more effective teaching methods

Using storytelling or drama to learn math or other core subjects combines the goals of two subjects at once and encourages cross-learning. With a single story educators can effectively engage students in multiple ways. Learning math while also improving literacy uses classroom time to the fullest and combining subjects can help educators reduce their workload while keeping their students more engaged.

Bring content to life through active learning

Stories are fun. Reenactments or stories that use costumes and props to engage children can be even more entertaining. This theatrical approach provides opportunities for multi-sensory, learning, and engages children at a number of different levels.

All evidence concludes that stories provide children with an opportunity to participate and engage more deeply in their learning, and keep them motivated in the classroom.

So, how do you get started?

Districts and schools across the country are increasingly recognizing the power of storytelling techniques. This growing support for integrating arts into learning could not have come at a better time. Today schools spend almost $30 Billion on reading and supplemental education programs. Yet 42 percent of students still cannot read by the 4th grade.

Using stories, art and theater helps engage students, dissolves learning anxieties, and makes learning fun again.

Educators don't have to be experts to insert more art and creativity into their teaching. Using online resources can help you learn simple techniques. If possible, get your school to collaborate with a local organization. You can begin with a small after-school program or work with learning experts to integrate stories into your lessons.

For example, Litnerd works with educators to deliver a reading program that blends storytelling with the core curriculum. Using art and drama, Litnerd brings the K-5 ELA curriculum to life through dramatized stories. Litnerd is a contracted vendor with New York City Department of Education, serving over 14,000 students. Get in touch if you’d like to integrate storytelling in your classroom and don’t know where to begin.


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