Imagine yourself teaching a class. It is near the end. You ask, “We still have some time left, so which would you rather do? Try another exercise? Or hear a story?” How do you think your students would answer?
This one is pretty easy. For the vast majority of us, it would be: “Hear a story.” But let us ask you another question. While imagining that situation did any of these thoughts lurk in the background: Doing an exercise would be serious language study; telling a story might have some learning value, but would basically just be something nice to do for the students. These thoughts probably did lurk. At least, that is the way we used to feel about classtime stories, unless they were lodged in between vocabulary lists and comprehension questions. And isn’t that way of thinking generally true for other types of classes, like math, or physics? We loved the stories our high school science teachers told during class, but those detours didn’t help our grades.
And yet, and yet. When we read academic books, full of brain concepts and high-level thought, it is the stories that stay with us: the accidental discoveries, the personal anecdotes, the experiments that went wrong. So, it may well be that we are mischaracterizing one of our most valuable teaching tools.
For, you see, friends, our brains are built for stories. Remember that. It is important. Our brains are built for stories. In fact, the extreme ease with which we absorb language through stories, as compared to the difficulty of absorbing language through explanations and exercises, is exactly what makes it seem that the exercises are serious study, and stories are not. There are advantages to both approaches, of course, but far too often we underestimate the value of stories.
Consider this, for example: What makes Extensive Reading so effective? The pundits claim it is because of “comprehensible input” and extensive exposure to language but, pardon us, isn’t that true of almost all forms of language study, including copious grammar exercises? From our perspective, as teachers who have spent years studying the neuroscience of learning, graded readers are particularly effective because: a) they tell stories and b) they elicit emotion. Stories are like superhighways by which language gets into our brains, and the emotion is the adhesive that keeps it there. Before we explain how this works in terms of the brain, let’s look at some evidence that shows that Extensive Reading truly is effective.
Stories and Learning
There are numerous studies that show ER improves proficiency in reading speed, comprehension, grammar development, and vocabulary acquisition (see Donaghy, 2016), but my favorite is Nishizawa’s discovery. He looked at the TOEIC scores of high school students who did four years of extensive reading. The students were classified into groups according to how much they read. He found that group B, who read an average of 766,000 words (equivalent to five Harry Potter books), got a TOEIC average equivalent to that of 4th year university students. That in itself is pretty amazing. But group C, those who read an average of 1.8 million words, showed a gain that was even more incredible. They did as well on the TOEIC test as their peers who had spent a year abroad (Nishizawa et al., 2010)! The sample in that study was small, and there were some other problems like those we pointed out in last month’s ThinkTank. Still, the results are intriguing.
Now we’d like you to make a small conceptual adjustment. Swap out the term “extensive reading” and replace it with “reading stories.” Four years of reading stories had the same effect as living abroad for a year!
Other research on stories and learning is equally remarkable. Studies conducted in the heyday of “narrative,” 1960-1990, showed that information delivered through stories is learned faster and retained longer than information delivered by other means, such as lectures or expository prose (George & Schaer, 1986; Oaks, 1995). In one study, where students were told to learn lists of nouns, those that made stories to do so remembered a whopping 6-7 times as many nouns as others (Bower & Clark, 1969). Graesser et al. (1980) found that narrative texts were read about twice as fast as expository texts and remembered twice as well.
That stories have a key role to play in education has been known for a long time. After all, storytelling was the basis of all education in Europe until around 1100 AD. As E. O. Wilson puts it, stories “are our survival manuals” (2002). They help decode the world, exploit our environment, and hone our social skills. They are important because they are encapsulated experience. To tell a story is to pass on the collective wisdom it contains.
 Somewhere in the world, Stephen Krashen is smiling.
 Wilson’s soundbite can be taken literally: A task force entrusted with finding ways of passing on knowledge in a form that would last for thousands of years—in this case the knowledge that certain areas were dangerous because nuclear waste had been buried there—came up with the answer that the knowledge should be encoded in stories and a “nuclear priesthood” of storytellers established to pass the stories on.
More than that, the sharing of a story constructs a social bond, a connection that, in turn, will allow further learning to occur (see our ThinkTank on the Social Brain). As professional storyteller Deepa Kiran says: “When we listen to another’s story, we are no longer strangers.” Many a TED speaker or champion salesperson will attest to the fact that if you can get your audience to emote with you, you are more than halfway to convincing them that your message is true.
Stories Evoke Emotion
Above all, what we share through stories is emotion and this is part of their efficacy as learning tools.
Brain and emotion researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang goes further and tells us that, without emotion, there can be no learning:
It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion. And after all, this makes sense. The brain is highly metabolically expensive tissue, and evolution would not support wasting energy and oxygen thinking about things that don’t matter to us. Put succinctly, we only think about things we care about. (2015, p. 2)
In other words, emotion is what labels an experience or piece of information as “important” (or “unimportant”). Without this labelling, the brain has no basis for deciding to retain the information or not. We remember the day we won first prize, the day we fell down some stairs; we do not remember the five thousandth time we walked through our front door.
Stories evoke emotion, but within a safe, controlled environment, without the risk of direct experience. The handsome prince doesn’t really die, the lovers are not really separated forever. This is why stories are ideally suited to the classroom, another controlled environment where we try things out to see how they feel. An overall danger of classroom teaching is that it can become analytical and unemotional because of its separation from the hurly-burly of experience, but stories help to prevent this dryness by transporting us out of this sterile environment and evoking the emotion that makes the lesson stick.
Stories Give Us Patterns
Moreover, the experiences that are shared through stories are structured. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Actions have consequences that are clearly discernible within the structure of the story. In this way, stories bring structure and organization to a world which often lacks both. This speaks to our deep-seated need to make sense of experience by finding patterns in it, patterns that we can use to guide us through the seemingly random events of our lives.
The structure of a story makes it predictable. The classic appeal of a whodunnit is that, in the end, the perpetrator will be revealed and the reader knows this from the outset. In a love story, protagonists will encounter difficulties, from without or within, which they will either succumb to or overcome. A horror story will draw the reader into a world where things are not quite as they should be. Beyond the confines of genre, on a metacognitive level, we can predict other things, too: that there will be certain elements in the story (characters, setting, challenges) and that there will be a certain pattern to the narrative (set up, challenge, conclusion).
As readers of our ThinkTank on Predictive Processing will recognize, it is predictability that allows us to engage with the world: our brain relies on detecting patterns in previous experience in order to make predictions about future events, which, in turn, allow us to act and react to the world. If we were unable to detect patterns, we would, quite simply, be unable to live. (Reed Berkowitz goes deeper into this later in this issue. Don’t miss it.)
Stories make learning those patterns even easier. They predigest experience, removing all the irrelevant details, and impose a structure on it, the cause-and-effect narrative arc. In this way, they also offer simplified templates of how the world works (what happens to bad people, what might go wrong in a romance and how to overcome such problems, etc.), which give us a start in dealing with real-world experience. There is evidence, too, that stories may be a reflection of what our brains do when they are doing nothing in particular: they search for patterns, construct narratives, call it daydreaming or mind-wandering, whichever you prefer. In fact, “that is exactly how we think. We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation” (Wildrich, 2012, p. 1).
But, we hear you say, life does not always turn out like it does in the storybooks. It certainly does not, but the stories we hear and read at least give us a start in making sense of experience. Sometimes, very often, they lead us to predict patterns that are not there, to impose a pattern on reality that does not fit. That’s OK, the process of detecting “prediction error,” and the re-arrangement of our expectations that ensues, allow us to modify our predictions in the future, refining them so our predictions about the world around us become ever more accurate. Others’ stories prepare us for real life with generalized and somewhat simplistic templates. We boil down our own experiences, which tend to be messier, more complex, and harder to accept, into our own stories, and store them as such.
Still, once we move out of the fairy tales we were weaned on, the disappointments of the real world can be painful. So, we seek solace for our bruised expectations in stories once again, allowing us to retreat, temporarily, into a world that is predictable, where things do make sense, and everything is structured.
No wonder, we (and our learners) are so susceptible to stories!
So, you see, stories are a powerful tool for learning. They do what the brain wants: evoke emotion and give it patterns. We definitely need to revise that view on what serious study really is. And why is that? Because our brains are built for stories.
Once again, imagine yourself teaching a class. You say, “We still have some time left, so sit back and relax. I’m going to tell you a story.”
Stephen M. Ryan’s story has most recently taken him to Okayama, Japan, where he teaches English and various other things through English to students at Sanyo Gakuen University. He wants to learn to do it better.
Curtis Kelly (EdD.) is a professor at Kansai University, a founder of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, and producer of the MindBrainEd ThinkTanks. He has written over 30 books and given over 500 presentations. His life mission is “to relieve the suffering of the classroom.”