The Power of Storytelling in the Language Classroom

April 2021

Perhaps you have heard the expression that humans are the “storytelling animal.” Just what is it about stories that tickles our brains so? Find out in this month’s issue, where we look into the science behind stories and explore ways we can harness that power for language learning. 


cover photo by Linus Sandvide on, others from

Watch before you read...

Ah, stories. How we love them! To find out why, let’s look at how our brain processes them. The two introductory videos, by Paul Zak and Karen Eber, show us the neuroscience of narrative, but in case you do not have time to watch them, read Mohammad Khari’s review in his introductory article. Curtis Kelly teamed up with Stephen M. Ryan to tell us why stories are so brain-compatible and so powerful in the classroom. Reed Berkowitz takes us deeper and shows how one of the most powerful networks in our brain, the Default Mode Network, not only consumes stories, but creates them, in order to make us who we are.

So, there is the neuroscience and psychology, but then, how do we use stories in class? Storyteller Deepa Kiran guides us through storytelling as an act of listening, and Rishma Hansil gives us ideas on the design and use of stories from a UX designer’s point of view. Then too, Amanda Gillis Furutaka shows us some enjoyable ways to get students to reread stories in order to consolidate language. In the Plus, David Scott Bowyer reviews a book full of language teacher stories.

Of course, a Think Tank on storytelling needs some good stories in it, too, and we have packed in more than ten. Enjoy!

Our Thoughts on Storytelling

The Power of Storytelling Mohammad Khari

As teachers, we constantly find ourselves in situations where we are reading, listening to, writing, or telling a story of some sort. It is in our collective knowledge that stories have the power to mesmerize an audience and change them. It has been the case since our ancestors gathered around the fire until now that we can listen to stories everywhere, be it at our fingertips on our phones or in classes in academia.

Think Tank Articles

Do You Want to Hear a Story? Here’s Why. Curtis Kelly & Stephen M. Ryan

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.

Storytelling Tips from a UX Designer Rishma Hansil

What do designers and teachers have in common? We both tell stories. Why are our minds captivated by stories? And how can we take advantage of this when teaching?

With the increase in multi-media devices in the classroom, educators are realizing the possibilities for storytelling are endless (Alismail, 2005). As a UX Designer (a designer who specializes in designing systems and products focused on user needs), I rely on storytelling to frame product functions in digestible ways for users; in the same way, teachers can use storytelling methods to help students engage with language. As one who has long used stories in design, I would like to share a few techniques I’ve brought in to create storytelling magic in the classroom.

Some Stories You Can Try in Class The Think Tank Team and Amanda Gillis-Furutaka

Amanda: We’ll show you some stories first, written to fit student levels, and then you can go to the last page of this section to see my suggestions for using them!

(Editor’s comment: Don’t miss Amanda’s suggestions. She has come up with some brilliant ways to get students to deal with the same text multiple times. Genius at work!)

Storytelling, for Empathetic and Cooperative Listening Deepa Kiran

Would you like to listen to a story?” It is quite unlikely that any teacher would have to hear “no” for an answer.

In 2000, I began to experiment with oral storytelling in the English language classroom. Also by 2008, I had begun storytelling professionally and from 2011 training teachers in employing storytelling as a pedagogical tool for English Language Teaching. My journey with tours, performances, talks, and conducting workshops, across India and around the world, with over 75,000 teachers and 300,000 children has brought many insights with respect to the employment of this tool.

I Imagine, Therefore I Am: The Default Mode Network and Fiction Reed Berkowitz

Many of us think of ourselves as essentially rational and logical. Clear thinking individuals, only sometimes descending into daydreams or fantasy, as time permits. Rational minds grounded in the hard cold realities around us.

There is a growing body of science to suggest that this is just the opposite of the way things are.

Think Tank Plus

Book Review: Inspirational Stories from English Language Classrooms D. S. Bowyer

In late 2020, The Association for the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language in Indonesia, or TEFLIN for short, published a series of eight free ebooks on its website. Dedicated to teacher training and development, these books cover a number of useful themes, such as task-based language teaching, cooperative learning, and materials development. All of them are worth your time and come highly recommended, but today we’ll be focusing on one that is particularly relevant to those of us who enjoy neuroscience-related material, which I assume is everyone reading this article. If not, why are you here?! Go enjoy your life!

Call for Contributions: Ideas & Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Going Deeper

The Story of Stories

Blurb on site: “Why is my friend late? How does nuclear fission work? What occurs when I sneeze? We all need to understand why certain things happen. Some researchers think the drive to explain the world is a basic human impulse, similar to thirst or hunger. This week on Hidden Brain, we begin a three-part series on why we tell stories. Psychologist Tania Lombrozo discusses how explanations can lead to discovery, delight, and disaster.”

The Author Speaks

Story Bridges and Time Warps

Watch Deepa Kiran, the author of the article “Storytelling, for Empathetic and Cooperative Listening” in this month’s issue, do a TED Talk on storytelling.

A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon

Playing with Reality

Why We Recruited Reed Berkowitz

This amazing article created a stir among us brain nerds. Politics aside, it shows the author, the Reed above, thinks like we do. We shared this everywhere. We wrote him. He wrote back. Then we begged him to write for us and he did….Life is Good.

The World’s Shortest Story

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” 

This six-word story is attributed to Ernest Hemingway but, like everything before the digital age, we cannot be sure. The story goes that Hemingway wrote it to win a bet with his fellow writers and they paid up without a word.

The World’s Wierdest Story

Is your brain tired from all the great stuff in this issue? Don’t expect Zilch the Torysteller to be any help.

April Fool’s Failure

We just couldn’t come up with a good April Fool’s joke. We thought we’d announce subscription fees will double, or that the Central Conspiracy Network was discovered, but nah. Instead, Marc Helgesen sent us some good science puns.  My favorite is the first!

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

        Curtis H. Kelly                 Skye Playsted                Heather McCulloch

Jason Walters                    Rishma Hansil   




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