Return to MAIN (index) page Return to ASPECTS of LEARNING page Let me tell you a story.


The traditional nursery tale, “The three little pigs” is a particularly good example of story-telling technique. 


It has a simple three-phase structure; widely recognised as the most effective framework for story-telling.


The story utilises repetition (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff …”), allowing the listener to identify with each phase of the story because of their increasing familiarity with this repeated formula.


Additionally, the story builds towards a climax as both the straw and stick houses are destroyed, leaving the first two pigs vulnerable to the attentions of the wolf.


Finally, the “surprise” ending, in which the wolf receives his just rewards, is a fitting conclusion because it turns the tables on the “bad guy”, ensuring that “they all lived happily ever after.”


Whereas it is not essential to comply with this particular format, you will notice the elements occurring in a wide variety of stories from “Jack and the beanstalk” to episodes of “The X-files”.



Everybody loves listening to a story.  Young children who hardly have a grasp of language love the repetitive formulae that characterise good stories.  They love the opportunity of guessing what will happen next – and parents who want to develop their children’s intelligence can do so by encouraging their children to do just that.  Alternatively, the more confident story-teller can incorporate their child’s suggestions into the plot.  This active involvement, as well as helping to establish an interactive bond between story-teller and listener, also challenges the imagination and aids the development of problem-solving skills (in the story-telling parent as well as in the listening child!).


It is not only young children who like stories: older children, and adults too, find the narrative format difficult to ignore.  This may help to explain the popularity of the television “soaps”.  Not only do we become involved in the lives of seemingly real characters but scriptwriters contrive to close each episode with a “cliff-hanger”, leaving us with an unfinished story requiring completion.


Although there are those who disparage the soaps, they do generate discussion about what will (or ought to) happen next.  Whereas I am not advocating that “Eastenders can save the world”, if it encourages its devotees to discuss moral and social issues (albeit briefly and perhaps shallowly) then it may contribute to their understanding of how relationships are maintained and developed.  The point to note is that the story has provided a vehicle for introducing deeper issues in a way that is engaging and which fosters involvement.


In every walk of life we encounter stories.  The briefest of television adverts (sometimes only fifteen seconds long) can be carefully constructed by advertisers to set the scene, introduce characters, create mood, present a product and prompt a response.  Far from being an interruption, the adverts have become an integral part of television.  Most of us have our personal favourites, many of which are identified by their narrative content.  Some advertisers have even created “mini-series” in an attempt to sustain interest in their product.



Because we are surrounded by story-telling in many diverse forms, there is the temptation to take it for granted.  Nevertheless, it is apparent that it is a powerful medium for the communication of ideas.  Storytelling is also a useful teaching technique that has been employed since time immemorial.


Many of the central tenets of Judaism are conveyed through the life stories of its central characters.  Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David and Gideon have all been instrumental in discovering the character of God through their life experiences.  What better way of preserving their revelations than to recount the circumstances in which they first came to light?


One of the characteristics of Jesus of Nazareth that set him apart from many of the religious leaders of his day was his ability to enliven theological issues by means of narrative illustration.  The story of the Prodigal Son remains a powerful vehicle for communicating the breadth of God’s mercy towards the repentant.


Whether we consider the account of the Buddha’s search for enlightenment, the epic tales of Hinduism’s Smriti, or the parables in Taoism’s Chuang-tzu, we can see that the art of story-telling has been used by religious communities worldwide as one of the most effective means of conveying spiritual truth.


One of the major attractions of stories, whether presented via film, television, radio or the printed page is that they allow us to take part in adventures or situations that we are unlikely to encounter in reality.  Whether we choose to immerse ourselves in the world of Fleming’s James Bond or find ourselves in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, our vicarious involvement can help to develop a diversity of skills.


Keeping track of the plot can develop our memory and logical skills.


Analysing characters’ behaviour can further our understanding of human nature and interaction.


Problem-solving skills can be enhanced as we seek to figure out our own solutions to the lead character’s dilemmas.


Anticipating developments in the plot can help develop our imagination.



In quite a different vein, we can see story-telling used just as effectively in comedy.  Although it may appear strange to compare the homely delivery of Ronnie Corbett’s armchair anecdotes with the raunchy ramblings of Billy Connolly, there are remarkable similarities in their technique that provide interesting insights into the story-teller’s art.  Both of these quite diverse entertainers (and many more besides) employ a basic story line as the vehicle that carries a number of sub-plots.  These are often disguised as tangential digressions, although each one usually has its own funny angle or punch-line.  Nevertheless, whilst exploring these avenues with the storyteller-comedian, the “hook” that keeps us involved is the thread of the main story-line.  It is this device that engages us and retains our interest.


“Stories” (or any sequential process) can be brought to life by having children play the part of certain characters or key features.  There is no need for them to act, unless they feel inspired to enter into the spirit of the performance.  Their visual presence is often sufficient stimulus to aid remembrance.  Furthermore, by using some of the class’s livelier characters in this way, you may find that you increase their involvement and minimise the likelihood of disruption.  Of course, anything that attempts to involve students lays itself open to the unexpected and the unrehearsed.  Nevertheless, whether we choose to use willing helpers or not, there is little doubt that stories do provide a useful means of communicating what might otherwise be rather complex information.  If story-telling engages students’ interest and enables them to learn more effectively, then it is a challenge that we cannot afford to ignore.



For those who are involved in teaching and training, there are a number of obvious applications of the storytelling technique.  Famous lives – whether they are scientists, reformers, rulers or despots – provide a vehicle for introducing discussion of political, ethical or social issues.  By confronting the dilemmas encountered by the central characters of the “story”, we are encouraged to consider the social, moral and religious issues.


Reflecting recently with my wife on our schooldays, she remarked how she had never really found the study of history very inspiring, largely because the teachers themselves seemed unenthusiastic.  “Apart from one,” said my wife, “She kind of told us in a story and it stuck in our minds.”  There is little doubt that stories are more easily remembered than factual material presented in other ways.  The challenge we face as teachers and trainers is how to apply such an effective technique to those subject areas that appear to be less susceptible to story-telling.


Of course, the experienced teacher will not be daunted by this challenge, bringing into play the full range of resources at their disposal.  The simplest of visual aids or a basic diagram projected onto screen or whiteboard can be coupled with an exciting narrative to illustrate complex relationships and interactions.   This process can be used to aid children’s understanding of subjects as diverse as the plot of “Romeo and Juliet”, the process of photosynthesis, or the workings of the internal combustion engine.  Indeed, there are few things that cannot be translated into a story - and stories have a habit of "sticking in your mind."



Other articles to help you release your child's potential.


Developing confidence in mathematics

Developing self-esteem in your child

It's good to talk

Problem-solving skills for kids