Develop Language Through Stories

Storyteller and founder of NutSpace, Rohini Vij interviews research scholar, Dr. Gita Jangid, a PHD holder in the area of language development through stories, on the benefits of storytelling and raising readers. Her paper Whole Language, Story Reading and Children’s Writing’ was published in The EFL Journal 2011, The English & Foreign Languages University. Her paper ‘Whole Language Approach to Second Language Acquisition and Literacy‘ was published in Knowledge, Language and Learning.

Q1. What is the best time to start reading/telling stories to children?

I think storytelling/or reading can be started when a baby can be made to sit comfortably on the parent’s lap. The parent may hold up the book to the child and talk about the the colourful illustrations in the book. A little bit of animation and excitement on the part of the parent is likely to capture the child’s attention. Later, as the child gets familiar with the process, the text/story from the book can be read aloud along with pointing out the illustrations. Books with bright illustrations and large fonts work well with babies. Storybooks with animals, other familiar situations, and people work well too.

Q2. What are the benefits of storytelling/reading to very young children?

Story reading brings about early literacy. When we read aloud to children, we familiarise them with written words, making them aware that written words stand for something.
Storytelling, on the other hand, focusses on enhancing early language development and communication skills.

Q3. It is often said that storytelling and story-listening can contribute to children’s intellectual, emotional, and social development. Could you please throw some light on that?

Reading aloud to a child involves and engages the child’s whole self. Storytelling involves children emotionally making it an effective tool for language development. Children see the written words and learn to associate with them. The words begin to make sense to them and they connect them with certain tangible and abstract ideas, emotions, things, places etc. Thus they learn to comprehend their surroundings better; this is the beginning of intellectual and cognitive development – the ability to apply their minds and comprehend their world better.

With storytelling children’s attention is captured as they experience and feel the very emotions of the characters. They begin to empathize with the characters, feel happy and sad with/for them. They learn to cope with sad situations and outcomes. All this adds to emotional and social development. Storytelling is also doing something wonderful for their imagination. It is helping them build pictures in their heads.

Q4. How does storytelling help in early language develoment considering the fact that children are born with no language. Given the Indian scenario where most chidren are comfortable speaking regional languages/ language spoken at home, how can parents work towards children picking up a foreign language?

Reading to a child in a foreign language is a conscious attempt, on the parent’s part, to expose their child to a foreign language in a natural manner. For most children, it works as an extension of their mother tongue. If the exposure to a foreign language is comprehensive, continuous and meaningful the child will grasp the language smoothly.
The processes involved in learning a foreign language as well as the mother tongue are the same. The human brain is wired to learn 2-3 languages at a time without any complications. Interestingly a child’s brain is more receptive to learning since it synapsis 3-4 times faster than an adult’s brain. For effective learning, it is essential that it is continuous, comprehensive, meaningful and direct (one-on-one).

Q5. Hypothetically let’s imagine a 15-month-old child who only understands Hindi, how would a storytelling session is in English benefit the child?

If a story is read or told in a manner that engages or captures the child’s attention, it doesn’t matter what language the story is told in. In this case, at 15 months, one should make a conscious effort to expose a child to lots of poems, songs, stories etc in English with music, rhythm and action. Add lots of expression and drama to it and the meaning of the poem will be automatically conveyed to the child.

You see, the mantra here should be to make the child understand /comprehend the language in which you are speaking to the child. One needs to keep the child engaged and interested in order to listen to you in the language you are speaking to him/her in. In my opinion, irrespective of the child’s mother tongue (Hindi in this case), if one continues to expose a child to conversations, stories, rhymes, poems and songs in English, the child will pick up that language and start responding in it too. This is valid for teaching any foreign language to the child, not just English.

Q6. Very young children are usually distracted and is hard to pin them down for a story, let alone reading a book. How can storytelling benefit children who are spirited and otherwise distracted?

Continuing from the former part of my previous answer, do not expect toddlers or spirited children to sit down and listen to a story. If you can engage them by way of dramatising a story and having fun, fair enough, if not as long as they can hear you they are definitely absorbing unconsciously.

I would also suggest some extra time and attention to be given to children by parents. Leave all your chores for at least 20-25 minutes in a day and spent one-on-one time with your child. Sing, dance, read, paint – in a nutshell don’t let the child get bored or distracted. All children need extra attention, the spirited ones especially, once you have their attention they will definitely listen to you.

This should be done on a regular basis so that the child begins to look forward to alone time with you. The activities should be fun and at no point trun drab and dreary.

Q7. It is said that storytelling helps in building general intelligence of a child. Is that true? Could you please elaborate?

Yes storytelling improves the intellectual faculty of children. Their ability to perceive, comprehend, and respond improves tremendously if the story is being told in a proper way ensuring children are interested and are understanding all that is being told to them through stories.

Activities like retelling the stories that have already been told to them, drawing for the depiction of story characters and events, and discussing what they liked and didn’t in the story, leads to a sort of recap or reliving the story all over again. This works well for reinforcement and better comprehension and understanding. This in turn, aids to improving the mental faculties of a child which one calls intelligence.

Research has proven that children who were read aloud stories when they were young have better mental abilities than those who were not.

I would like to quote Einstein here, “If you want your children to be intelligent tell them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent more fairytales!”

Q8. How can parents inculcate a love for books in children:

a). Who are very young?

Buy good books. That is the key to inculcate the love for books. Expose your child to good, well illustrated and well written books. Look at it as an investment for your child’s future. Parents need to have a variety of books at home and encourage children to have a look at them. Also parents need to play good role models by reading themselves – afterall children learn by example.
Also please ensure that the books are easily accessible to the children and not locked away in cupboards. Talk to them about the books and read with/to them.

b)Who have already developed other interests and books are not in that list?

Children who already have other interests then one needs to provide them with books from their areas of interest. There is no dearth of books. If the child is into cooking, gardening, photography or even television and video games – there is a book out there that will catch their attention.

My advice to every parent is to be patient and encouraging. It takes patience, time and positive efforts to inculcate a life long love for books in children. And a parent’s contribution in the process is imperative.

Happy Storytelling!

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Rohini Vij

Rohini is a professional storyteller, educator, listed & certified Jolly Phonics UK trainer, curriculum developer, parenting coach, founder of NutSpace. She is on a mission to raise readers and is actively engaged with curriculum development for schools and her own ed-tech platform - Nutspace Edtech.

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