December 26, 2001 Feature

Enhancing Literacy Through the Techniques of Storytelling

Speech-language pathologists who provide services in the public schools all know that there are not enough hours in the day to provide quality services to the ever-increasing numbers of students that are identified with language-based learning disabilities. SLPs’ efforts are constantly in competition with the politically charged obstacles of large caseloads, school calendars, staff meetings, class schedules, and traditional school customs and cultures.

Children with language-based learning disabilities have varying needs that are not manifested in single and isolated forms, but, rather, are intertwined with other academic and social needs. These complex requirements demand the use of integrated techniques that will address all the needs simultaneously.

Across all academic levels, language intervention methods for today’s children must lend themselves to a level of flexibility that can realistically meet students’ needs, wherever those students are and whatever their needs may be. Today, when students of all ages are questioning the validity of "school" altogether, the SLP’s intervention procedures more than ever before must acknowledge the students’ presence in school, validate the students’ purpose in school, and encourage their power to succeed in the school setting.

As we, together with our academic colleagues, make strides in the movement for literacy, language intervention must focus on enabling students to excel at a level of communicative competence that is characterized by fluent reading, proficient writing, and articulate speaking skills demonstrated across varied academic and social contextual settings. Although the "one size fits all" label for treatment techniques is no longer acceptable in the remediation of language delays or disorders identified in the public school setting, the use of stories and storytelling techniques can be considered an integrative and interactive—and effective—"one size fits most" approach.

The Power of Storytelling

Storytelling is an ancient oral art that demonstrates the power of words. It artistically uses language to develop all of the critical components involved in the communication process. Storytelling develops listening skills, enhances verbal expression, increases comprehension, creates mental images, and highlights verbal reasoning.

Storytelling is a natural and commonly used vehicle for making connections and associations with people of all ages. It is a realistic vehicle for spreading news, teaching lessons of life, and learning the cultural history of others and ourselves. It is a very flexible technique that requires few to no materials and creates opportunities for developing and strengthening skills in the language areas of semantics, syntax, morphology, articulation, phonology, pragmatics, reading, and writing.

Students identified with semantic language weaknesses often display very restrictive and redundant vocabulary skills characterized by short functional words commonly used within their family and community settings. Their vocabulary skills largely comprise non-specific terms, substitutions, slang, and circumlocution. When engaged in classroom discussions that focus on identifying, describing, and explaining information to others, students with semantic weaknesses often give verbal responses for describing objects using words and phrases such as, " It’s kinda like…a maybe a…it’s that thing that is…It taste and looks pretty cool…and I like it."

After a storytelling experience has been shared aloud, students with semantic weaknesses can engage semantic-mapping activities to improve the abilities to define, categorize, and associate words. After hearing a story on the topic of "friendship," students can be asked to identify all the words heard in the story that related to friendship. The words cited aloud on this topic can then be categorized according to type.

The opportunity of improving dictionary skills can be taken advantage of by having the students look up and define the cited words. By asking the students to think of other words that mean the same as or opposite of the ones they cited, metalinguistic skills are nurtured and vocabularies are expanded to include synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, and multiple meaning words.

Many children in the public school setting exhibit syntactic and morphological difficulties that affect their abilities to use correct word order, word endings, regular and irregular verbs, and verb tenses. They are often unable to understand sentences that contain relative clauses, passive voice, negation, plural possessives, comparatives, or superlatives. These difficulties may or may not be attributed to the process of second-language acquisition or the use of non-standard dialect, and have a significant impact on the language functioning of these children. Continuous participation in storytelling activities, however, provides students with ongoing opportunities to imbed existing and expanding language features into the rhythm of language.

Often, in the telling of tales from another culture, the use of the culture’s dialect is critical to establishing authenticity and making the story meaningful to others. For example, a story was told to a group of fourth- and fifth-grade students using a Creole dialect. The children in the group that was of Haitian descent were very proud and helpful in explaining to others what the slang used in the story actually meant. At the end of the story, the children were divided into small groups and given the "storyteller’s challenge" to recast the story in the standard vernacular used in the American school setting. In the recast of the story, many spelling changes were noted in words, including the addition of "ing," "ed", "er," and "est."

When participating in storytelling, young and older children have a creative, rewarding, and experienced-based venue for understanding how words are chosen to express ideas, ordered to make sentences, and manipulated with word endings to show the relationship between people, actions, and things in the context of time and place. What can be more fun than sharpening phonological processing skills and heightening phonemic awareness by listening to stories and playing with words through rhyme, segmentation, and blending in an interactive context?

Broader Implications

While storytelling is extremely useful in strengthening the detailed aspects of language structure, the magnitude of its value is particularly apparent when such techniques are implemented to foster pragmatic language abilities. Sharp and savvy pragmatic skills are key factors in a student’s ability to achieve academic and social success in the school setting. Children with pragmatic inadequacies have difficulty expressing themselves in a clear and concise manner when engaged in a formal communicative interaction. Their difficulties often are manifested in the lack of ability to attend within the listening setting, recall information, and participate in a turn-taking period of questions and answers. Their conversational responses are often inconsistent and unrelated to the present discussion.

Pragmatically speaking, storytelling can be very therapeutic. It provides students with a very purposeful and intentional framework in which they can take the role of either the listener or the teller, thus expanding their ability to employ sound and appropriate judgments. By assuming either role, students who actively engage in the storytelling process increase the fluency of their verbal expression by recalling and or describing events, retelling stories for information, and paraphrasing stories to expand and organize informational content. Furthermore, storytelling opens the door for an introduction to story grammar, where students can walk through stories and learn about settings, characters, problems, plans, consequence, and reaction. These types of story walks can easily be converted to activities of reading and writing.

In a storytelling activity that centered on the African folktale, "The Meat of the Tongue," fourth-grade students were asked to dissect and examine the story within the boundaries of "wh-questions." As the students answered the wh-questions, we were able to create a structural parallel to teach them about story grammar. Their responses to who-questions were instrumental in identifying the characters of the story. The answers to what-questions were key in helping students recognize the problem/episode taking place in the story. The presentation of when- questions created a framework in which students were able to strengthen their sequential understanding of beginning, middle, and end when retelling or writing a story. Where-questions were useful tools for the students to identify the story setting. Their responses to why-questions helped them reason out a plan of consequence as it related to the story problem. The how-questions were used as a vehicle for the students to examine their internal reactions to the story.

A Successful Model

As an SLP providing services to a special education remedial learning class primarily comprising students with language-based learning disabilities, I have found the use of storytelling techniques to be very successful and beneficial in enhancing both academic language and socio-emotional skills within the classroom setting.

Recently, using a collaborative team-teaching model involving the SLP and classroom teacher, we decided to use storytelling as the project to be designed and implemented to strengthen the academic language and social behaviors of students in a self-contained special education class with the primary exceptionality of language impairment. In the context of social behaviors, our storytelling topic focused on student fighting.

We began our project with a discussion about student fighting. The special education classroom teacher took down verbatim all of the words that the students used to express their thoughts and feelings on fighting. After the students saw their thoughts in print, the topic-related vocabulary words were highlighted for further discussion. At the conclusion of the discussion, the students were divided into small groups and participated in semantic-mapping activities.

Students were required to categorize the highlighted words into two major groupings: feeling words or action words. The categorizing activities were followed by exercises to develop and enhance dictionary and describing skills. Weekly activities were incorporated into a classroom curriculum that assisted them in skilled activities designed to help them use their spoken words to construct sentences in Standard American English format. Their sentences were then reorganized and transformed into a collective story entitled "Fighting Animals." At the end of the project, students were eager to share their story with others using both the printed and oral traditions of communication. They have added their story to their class library by making a book and performing a storytelling puppet show.

Ironically, after all I have said in favor of implementing storytelling techniques, my primary goal was not to create storytellers (that comes naturally to children), but to assist students in gaining proficient use of their language abilities. Using storytelling techniques exemplifies everything to which an SLP is committed. It is the most natural and realistic way to develop those critical speech and language skills to assist children in the evolving process of becoming effective communicators and active listeners who can convey their thoughts, ideas, and feelings intelligently, succinctly, and convincingly to others across different contextual settings.

Teresa Cherry-Cruz, is an SLP in the Stamford (CT) Public Schools, where she works closely with students, teachers, and support specialists to enhance language, phonemic awareness, and literacy skills.

cite as: Cherry-Cruz, T. (2001, December 26). Enhancing Literacy Through the Techniques of Storytelling. The ASHA Leader.

For More Information

Davis, D. (1993). Telling Your Own Stories. Little Rock, AR: August House Publishers, Inc.

Livio, Norma, J., & Rietz, Sandra, A. (1987). Storytelling Activities. Littleton ,CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Paul, R. (2001). Language Disorders From Infancy Through Adolescence (pp.382–403). St. Louis, MO: Mosby.


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