Storytelling and learning go hand in hand


The aim of this article is to examine storytelling as an educational tool, to delve into its powers, the skills it requires and the activities it can lend itself to. The article consists of 4 parts and in this first part we will be looking very briefly at the history of storytelling, the reason why stories are powerful, how story telling relates to teachers and why teachers are hesitant to use this tool despite its educational value.  Parts 2, 3 and 4 will disclose some of the secrets of storytelling techniques, elaborate on what makes stories memorable, disclose the structure, the patterns and morphology of stories and illustrate some activities to be used by teachers of English.

By Zafi Mandali 


Societies worldwide always used story telling as the prime means of communication. Homer, Jesus Christ, Walt Disney, dressed their messages in stories. Marcel Jousse, French anthropologist, suggests that in prehistoric times communication through gesture and groaning was abandoned for language through sound as it could be heard at night. The early humans invented the language of sound after the language of gesture and painting because they knew that communication was as vital as food. Stories started from cave drawings and oral tales, evolved to clay tablets, found themselves in handwritten scripts, then moved onto printed books, movies, televisions, tablets. Stories have never been static. We now engage in digital storytelling which is another form of visual storytelling. “Visual story telling of one kind or another has been around since cavemen were drawing on the walls” Frank Darabont, writer and film director. Stories now fly on cyber land through the game story breed which enables youngsters from different continents to enter through their screens the fictional world of cooperative storytelling as active role players. This is another proof that we outgrow nurseries but not fancy lands.


In western societies, storytelling weakened in the last six centuries, but now more people consider the story telling tool to be a very powerful one. Neuroscience has proved why this is so and now business executives rush to be taught the story telling skills. They get trained on how to spin compelling narratives about their products and brands as they know that those who tell their business story in a persuasive way get more clients on their side.




Start by “once upon a time” and you seize attention because human mind craves to enter this “other” world. When we see a friend we ask. “How is it going” and we are ready to consume stories, theirs or ours. And what is  literature and films? They are basically stories. Why do we like them? Because they soak our brains with the chemicals associated with wild things. Stories are the oldest virtual reality technology which lulls us into an altered state of consciousness. Daydreaming is evidence of the human mind being a weaver by nature. We daydream when cooking, brushing our teeth, whenever the mind is not tied in a mentally demanding task. Our bodies may be imprisoned into the here and the now but our minds escape and spin stories in our mind’s theater.  Our desires, justified or not, vain or not are materialized. In the evening, we surrender ourselves in front of the TV, or  Facebook. In bed bodies go to sleep but minds stay up all night, telling themselves stories, simulating. In fact we spend two hours at least scripting and screening night stories in our dreams. We are, as a species, wired to stories.


And this story obsession starts early. Children’s lives are drenched in make believe. Story is so central to the lives of young children that it almost defines them. Children are creatures of stories. What do little kids do? They do story. Play is the work of children. In their pretend play, in their wonder worlds, children meet princesses, flying spoons, the child that mum kept at the naughty corner and they play “house” or “monster”. Pretend play is deadly serious fun and it is about trouble and helps youngsters rehearse for adult life.


Stories are powerful because they activate our neural pathways. Fictional stimuli fire at our neurons. Isn’t this why we react the way we do, when we see a film? All these emotions? Why do we treat fake things as real? Why are we obsessed with James Bond films and are even prepared to spend 6,000 euros on an Omega watch that resembles the one James Bond was wearing? Why are we engrossed with unrealistic movies like Game of Thrones which have far-fetched stories?  We are we so easily tricked because we are emotionally engaged, our brain is flooded with neurotransmitters and hormones, the angel’s cocktail - serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin. Thanks to them we have more focus and attention and feel creative. The fact that each story gives us a cliffhanger and leaves us expectant of what will happen wakens our emotions and empathy and make us bond.


“We think we know how to separate fantasy and reality but researchers say we keep both fiction and nonfiction information in the same mental bin. The more deeply we are cast under the story’s spell, the more potent is its influence. A strong story has got sculpting power and temporarily softens our sense of self and if we have many little doses of stories our personalities are affected.” Jonathan Gottschall in his book “The Storytelling animal”




Not always I would say. The same story can seem fictitious to some people but true to others. Alternatively, it could be entertaining to some and instructive to others.


According to Daniel Morden, Storyteller, “Story telling is like the cinema of the mind. The teller sets the mood, describes the events but the listeners see the story their own way. As they imagine what is taking place, a kind of alchemy is happening in their minds”.


Stories have been crafted to be easily memorized, but they shouldn’t pretend to tell the truth or else we will accuse them of lying. A story is a series of riddles, questions and temporary responses, a chain of causes and effects, answers skillfully refined until the final conclusion is reached.  A story ignites curiosity which leads to learning. Just like an onion, a story has many layers. As the story unfolds we detect metaphor, analogy, symbol and fiction and sometimes a new world, a kind of labyrinth opens for us to enter. It all depends on the understanding we have. Slowly we may see other aspects and other meanings of a story which had escaped our attention.


According to the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, “symbolic language is a language with its own distinct qualities. Fiction, metaphor, analogy and symbol enable one to represent ideas or non-transferable truth in another way. They’re also used to pass on and protect knowledge without the knowledge being forbidden”.




Nowadays we tell or listen to stories to bring people together; or to please ourselves or others, to deceive ourselves or others; to be accepted by others. Stories also help us tell what we’ve seen and what another doesn’t see or doesn’t want to see. In short, stories can be a testifying tool. Also stories are a form of entertainment, a way to erase fears and anxieties because stories take us elsewhere, make us escape and sometimes heal our traumas. Another purpose of storytelling is to carry and pass on stories which have educated so many human beings before us. Stories teach a great deal and lend us somebody else’s eyes, body and voice. Storytelling helps us represent those who have disappeared, are absent, have been forgotten or are despised by others. Stories teach us to be silent, to absorb what comes to us and listen to our inner voice.




Teaching and storytelling can meet and merge. Stories use language and it is language that we are teaching. In our too-literal society, children ought to listen to, read, act out and discuss stories for the benefit of their language skills and not only. Stories teach us about the world, give context which helps knowledge camp in the students’ mind. Stories powerfully hook and hold human attention because, at brain level, whatever is happening in a story is happening to us too and not to them only. In a a story children are not simply spectators. They are participants transported into a parallel universe, identifying themselves with the struggles of the protagonists, experiencing the adrenaline. Storytelling unlike typical paper-and-pencil schoolwork addresses most of Gardner’s intelligences and brings into play the kinesthetic and spatial element. Stories virtually always judge wrongdoing and influence our moral logic. They rarely give us morally neutral presentations of violence. When the villain kills, his violence is condemned. So stories shape our minds without our knowledge or consent.


We, as educators, need to teach students language and boost their expressive means. So I am talking of sowing the story telling seeds in our classrooms and having story telling by the students for the students. The idea is simple. Get students to listen to stories and this will naturally lead to storytelling. Get them to read stories and story devising and story writing is not too far away. The end goal would be to have students who tell and act out stories in groups, learn through saying and doing stories. On the way we will be encouraging students to change the story, to adapt it to their reality, to the circumstances of the present,  to produce different ‘versions’ of the same story.




 So if story listening, reading, watching, devising and telling is so powerful why not harness it in our teaching? We know that stories seize our attention because we have an insatiable desire for them. They provide an excellent context which works wonders with vocabulary, grammar and structure retention in the target language. It is all pleasant because stories allow us to escape from mundane reality into different worlds which we could not have approached otherwise. But they aren’t just fun escapism – they have amazing ability to mold our thinking and behavior as they convey messages. Stories connect teachers with students, fellow humans and to the collective human experience.  Stories can link fantasy and creativity with the child’s real world. Listening to stories is a shared social experience in a relaxed atmosphere. What is more interesting is that stories can infuse classroom with activities, movement and turn potentially dry academic lessons into engaging, multi-modal experiences which kids remember and talk about with their family and friends.


According to educator Dave Burgess. “Lessons are quickly forgotten; experiences are remembered forever”. Story telling activities which lead to story making and story telling by the learners for the learners, satisfy most of the educational objectives shown in Bloom’s taxonomy like synthesis and creative thinking. When telling stories students are not merely on the receiving but on the production end too. Students are given the floor. This activates their alertness, improvisation, creativity and speaking skills. The principle of learning by doing is at work and students access “primitive” pathways of learning. When presenting, they rely on their instinct, imagination, response making and their ability to take on the spot decisions. They are deeply engaged and this helps them internalize language in an unconscious and effortless manner. Students express themselves, work as a team, learn how to listen to others and their emotional and social development grow in a holistic way. It is all interactive. The story will be difficult to forget since it is experienced in a fun way. It involves the kinesthetic element in the art of telling stories. And of course exposure to stories helps language acquisition in a natural way.




Storytelling is a prime teaching tool, a curriculum enhancement strategy, a powerful addition to the teacher’s arsenal and it can be mastered by a teacher. So why do we not story tell? Because we think we are not skilled or gifted for this. And because we do not know enough stories and because we do not know what to do with stories from the educational point of view. What activities do stories lend themselves to?


We fear that we cannot effectively communicate stories because we lack the dramatic, highly polished style of story tellers. In fact the familiar oral style of a teacher will be more effective and sound more natural to students. The fear is based on a misconception. Yes, one needs to find stories he treasures to work with, and props and   realia. Rehearsing will be necessary to practice the tricks of the art and learn how to effectively get to the meat of the story.  But we are not aiming to turn into storytellers.  We just need to get experience in using the medium of stories that speak in our heart and how to involve our students in it all.


So we know that stories provide teachers with powerful tools to involve children pleasantly in the learning process. Thankfully some coursebooks devote a section on a story in episodes which unfolds along the units. The resolution appears at the last episode at the end of the book but students have read all the episodes even when we are just halfway through the book.  So stories move them.  But reading or listening to stories are only the first steps to take before getting  students to actually story tell  themselves in front of an audience.  


Storytellers’ qualities

Teachers’ qualities

·         Storytellers share wisdom through their stories and connect their listeners with each other and with the energy of the words they hear. Storytellers are “people of words”.



·         Storytellers are poets. Storytellers hear the music of their voices and their language. They comply with the rules of oral literature.




·         Storytellers perform and direct the show as well. They perform almost like actors and actresses, but also take on all the stories’ multiple human and animal roles. They are in constant metamorphosis.



·         Storytellers are lovers of words and narration and defend a field which was abandoned in the past and have helped it emerge as a reinvented art.

·         Teachers connect with their students daily and constantly encourage bonds and relationships among them. We could thing of teachers as blacksmiths who forge their words and their expressive ability.

·         Teachers are usually creative, resourceful, imaginative and dynamic. They know of poetic devices. All they need is observe storytellers and learn to hear the music in their voice too.


·         Teachers are directors among other things. They create a learning setting and give children roles and activities and encourage them to role play. The teacher is the choreographer of the learning scene.


·         Teachers are linguists, know of etymology, literature and philosophy. “Narrology” needs all the above and a bit of practice and rehearsing will do the trick.



So teachers are definitely not storytellers   in the literal sense of the world. They need to devote time researching stories and building up a variety of them to have at hand to use when they want to spice up their lessons.   They will have to start observing story tellers at work. The end result will be rewarding for them and their students.  And as Alan Maley has said “Once upon a time” are the magic words which open the door to new worlds where anything is possible because the normal rules of logic do not apply. Children of all ages can let their imaginations loose in a framework of safe familiarity”.


“And I believe The storytellers Creed gives some food for thought:   I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge, that myth is more potent than history, that dreams are more powerful than facts, that hope always triumphs over experience, that laughter is the only cure of grief, and I believe that love is stronger than death.”

Robert Fulghum




Zafi Mandali  has been  the director of the  Department of English, Ellinogermaniki Agogi for two decades, has given a number or presentations  and has authored “English Grammar Exerciser”(books 1 and 2), “Absolute Must in Composition writing” (books one and two) and “FCE training”, Ellinogermaniki Publications. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics, University of Essex. Her soft point is Storytelling which she and her team has been practicing for a decade.