Using Storytelling to Improve Long-term Learning

teaching Dec 05, 2018

Storytelling will improve your students’ learning and retention.

That’s a big claim, I know. I still stand behind it because I’ve lived it both as a teacher and a student. Think for a minute about the best lecture you ever sat through. The one you remember, the one that made an impact on you to this day. Or, think about the best teacher you ever had in high school or college. What did that teacher do differently? There are two things I believe you’re will saying to your self right now: taught with passion for their subject and incorporated stories that made their subject come alive or feel relatable.

What’s so special about storytelling?

The short answer is engagement. Stories help our students relate and invite them to put themselves into the narrative. Stories help us, as teachers, engage more with what we are teaching as well. That’s powerful stuff to our brains. In fact, our brains are wired for relationships and oral storytelling.

Here’s the deal… a powerpoint is nice but it only activates the language centers in our brains. But, stories activate our language centers AND other centers of the brain (relating to the story) as well. This embeds learning deeper, makes the memory more vivid and makes it easier to access later.

Our stories don’t need to be complex.

It’s possible to have an impact with a short snippet, a paragraph or two or a whole picture book. Each of these are simple ways to introduce a topic, make a point and get students engaged, thinking and listening.

One of the reasons I like using picture books to teach all grades (and most subjects) is because they draw us in and help us empathize or connect to the topic or characters. Stories give students hooks to help remember the information being taught. Hearing a memorable story acts in the brain just like a personal memory. We have the opportunity as teachers to activate that in our students.

When we tell stories, we become animated.

We invest some of ourselves into them. Students relate to that. We all do. Who wants to listen to someone relating fact after fact? Not me. If you clearly don’t get exited about your subject, then why should I?

My son came home from school yesterday and spent an hour with me discussing why he likes and dislikes each of his classes right now. It all started with a rant about his Spanish teacher and how boring her class is. Well, she lectures, they do worksheets and practice in groups, take tests and repeat. There is no emotion other than anger or frustration with student behavior. There aren’t any stories. Why, I don’t know. A foreign language class is the perfect place for stories.

Do you know the theme that ran through his great teachers list? His favorite teachers were passionate about what they taught. Even if a class is not his favorite subject, he loves the class because the teacher tells stories and engages emotionally with the subject, and therefore, their students. Sometimes teaching really is that easy.

Sell it with a story.

As teachers we are selling the idea of learning being great fun, worthwhile and interesting. Well, the only way to sell that is to make it great fun, worthwhile and interesting. Pick one, make it a goal and give it a try with a story.

We have clear goals for our lessons. We’re focused and purposeful in our teaching. But if we lack passion and connection, then all is lost. Show your students know why you are passionate about them learning this. Why is it meaningful or worthwhile? You will rarely have every student on board the train, but you can certainly bring most of them with you on the journey if you draw them in with a story. If some students choose to stay on the platform, that’s their choice. They’ll still learn, they’ll just have to work harder to remember it all later.

I’m not saying everything we teach needs to have a story with it. But, I’m driving my stake in the ground here and saying that we need to incorporate stories into a lot of our teaching. I promise it will change tricky or “boring” topics into something worth remembering.

Teach joyfully,



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