Art of storytelling is helping educators reach young students

Posted on
Education program to show how active approach improves language skills in children

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 16, 2008 – By engaging young listeners in audience participation, a teacher can significantly improve the language and literacy skills of young students.

Research by University of Rhode Island professor Susan Trostle Brand shows that by using seven different methods –character imagery, felt board, chant, draw talk, puppetry, traditional and adaptive pantomime – storytelling enhances vocabulary awareness and comprehension, while strengthening word-use fluency, verbal skills and phonetic awareness in children. Working in line with Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, the array of storytelling methods can help educators reach children with wide ranging abilities to learn.

Some of the styles of storytelling will be on display Thursday, Sept. 25 at 11 a.m. in the Multicultural Center. At their presentation, “What Peace Means to Me,” URI education students and their young pen pals from the CVS Highlander School in Providence will demonstrate various methods of storytelling. Through a mini grant from Lifespan and the Multicultural Center, more than 70 URI students, Highlander children and families and teachers will be bused to campus for the Literacy and Peace celebration, followed by lunch on the Quadrangle, weather-permitting, or in the Memorial Union Ram’s Den. Trostle Brand and Jane Picciotti, assistant head of the Highlander School, are coordinating the Peaceful Pen Pals and Literacy presentation.

“We are training our students to be dynamic and expressive in their storytelling,” said Trostle Brand, an early childhood education professor at URI. “Teachers are natural storytellers, and when they effectively apply these skills and talents, they can engage and motivate their students while simultaneously developing their literary skills.”

Trostle Brand has worked closely with Laura Harper, an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies at URI. With their shared expertise in children’s literature, Harper and Trostle Brand selected multicultural books that would best portray their workshop theme and serve the needs of the audience for their upcoming Diversity Week presentation, “More Alike Than Different: Building Bonds with Books,” which will be held in the Memorial Union, Room 360, on Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 10 a.m.

Storytelling is particularly effective for children with attention deficits and learning disabilities because it provides a three-dimensional, attention-sustaining method of interaction. Several methods of storytelling incorporate various forms of child participation, keeping the listeners involved in the story.

It also works well for individuals learning English as a second language. Rather than just hearing words, the language is put into context through physical motion, visual representations, concrete objects, voice inflection and tone.

“Storytelling is also great for the child who experiences shyness,” Trostle Brand said. “When children are taking an active role in the story, they are able to shed their inhibitions.”

Trostle Brand has done significant research on the value of storytelling. She researched the subject during two difference sabbaticals, one at Charlotte Mason College (now Lancaster University) in Ambleside, England in 1996 and another at the Highlander School in 2004. At Charlotte Mason, she tested the impact of storytelling with fourth-grade students, while at Highlander she worked with kindergarten students.

In both situations, students showed significant improvements in vocabulary skills, comprehension and language usage. At Highlander, following storytelling and related practice sessions, students who were making short, two- and three-word sentences were creating complex, 10-, 15- and 20-word sentences by the end of Trostle Brand’s time with them.

Trostle Brand, Harper and Stephen Brand –an education professor who conducted data analysis for the research – traveled to Costa Rica over the summer to present Trostle Brand’s research and their shared expertise in literacy at the International Reading Association World Congress. The conference – which had a theme of “Reading in a Diverse World,” was held from July 28 through July 31. The URI professors gave a three-hour plus presentation on “Cross-Cultural Applications of Storytelling to Foster Comprehension and Vocabulary Skills of Early Elementary Students,” which drew more than 200 educators and students from 37 countries.

“Storytelling is a three-dimensional experience that can stimulate a lifelong appreciation for books and learning for any language or culture,” Trostle Brand said.

Storytelling is not meant to replace the more traditional story reading, but rather the two methods are best used in combination, Trostle Brand said. Story reading is key to child development because it teaches the fundamental skills of reading, such as word recognition, phonics, word attack, and left-to-right and top-to-bottom reading. Story reading also helps give children a sense of independence.

“With story reading, children gain a sense of empowerment,” Trostle Brand said. “They can go back and re-read a section or entire chapter if they want. They are the master of the book and the master of their own learning, so to speak.”

Pictured above

University of Rhode Island professors Laura Harper (left) and Susan Trostle Brand with Alan Farstrup, executive director of the International Reading Association, at the IRA World Congress in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Susan Trostle Brand.