Stories are central to our lives. For example, we often start off the day at work with a story to colleagues about why the bus was late, the film we saw last night, who we met by chance in the supermarket, the strange thing that happened on the way home. When we watch the news on television, presenters also very often refer to the main news of the day as ‘our top stories’. As Bruner has said: “we represent our lives to ourselves (as well as others) in the form of narrative”, and listening to, telling and sharing stories forms a fundamental part of our identity and how we are perceived by others.
For this reason, Bruner also believes that it is vital to create a ‘narrative sensibility’ in children in their own language(s) through giving them access to and familiarity with conventional stories, myths, fables, histories, fairy tales and folk tales that are part of their own culture(s). It is these stories combined with the child’s evolving powers of comprehension, analysis, discussion and imagination that can play an instrumental role in developing children’s sense of who they are.
Fisher, another key writer in this area, discusses the way that children’s ability to grasp the concept of narrative appears at a very young age and that stories provide a key means to understanding the world around them as well as other people and themselves. In addition to this, Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book on moral philosophy, and following wisdom from ancient times, has said: “Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted ...”. In other words, if we fail to expose children to a rich diet of stories and storytelling from a young age, we risk leaving them with an impoverished identity and reduced capacity for understanding and finding their way in the world.
The value of stories in children’s first language development is not just based on a series of beliefs or assertions but is also backed up by research. One classic example is the longitudinal study of children in Bristol described by Gordon Wells in his book ‘The Meaning Makers’. This provides strong evidence to suggest that young children who are read to and told stories from a very young age have considerable advantages later on at school, not only in the development of literacy skills, which you might expect, but also in the development of social skills, such as empathising and being able to relate to others. Conversely, children who are not exposed to stories at an early age tend to do less well later, both in terms of literacy and in terms of integrating with others at school.
The importance of stories in the overall development of young children is well-documented. The vital issue for us is whether stories can play a similar role in the context of children learning a second, additional or foreign language as well. From my own experience over many years of teaching, I passionately believe that it can! In our young learner classes, the power of stories seems to lie in the way that these provide shared contexts for natural language development, and potentially engage children’s hearts and minds, as people and as thinkers, with issues that are relevant, real and important to them.
What do you think? It would be great to hear your views!
Bruner J. The culture of Education, Harvard University Press, 1996
Fisher R. Teaching Children to Learn (2nd Ed) Robert Fisher, Nelson Thornes, 2005
MacIntyre A. After Virtue Notre Dame Press, 1984