December 19, 2023

Is storytelling in foreign language learning effective? How to use storytelling.

by Mateusz Wiącek

“Can I stay with you for a week?” she asked. 

“Of course,” I replied. At this point I was still speaking English to her, even though I knew some Italian. It seemed easier to me.

The Italian girl I was talking to had just arrived by bus at the train station in Wroclaw. We had only talked through Couchsurfing.

Fortunately, on the way to my apartment I found the courage to speak to her in Italian. My fears turned out to be ridiculous. Thanks to the fact that I switched to Italian, we made contact on a whole new level. My minor mistakes here and there only made us laugh.

At one point, I offered her a glass of Polish vodka. She accepted my offer and added: “I warn you that after drinking alcohol I can be very emotional …” Snip! 

Is this a good time to end the story? Probably not. There is a good chance that you are interested in what happened next. Do you perhaps remember any details? Where was the girl from? What mode of transportation did she come by? You may have even already imagined the scene, or maybe even felt some emotion. 

This is the power of storytelling.

Storytelling in language teaching is a proven method, backed by scientific research and used for decades. In this article, I’ll show you why it’s so effective, and how you can use it to memorize vocabulary words, phrases, and entire grammar structures.

Why is the storytelling method effective?

Humans have been telling themselves stories for a long time. Maybe even before they were human — there is evidence that Homo Erectus spoke a primitive language. Hunter-gatherers spent most of the day hunting, during which there was a lot of storytelling going on. Then the main event of the day was the evening campfire, where people gathered and spun various stories, often giving a colorful account of what had happened during the day. 35,000 years ago, the first known paintings on cave walls were created, which is proof that humans communicated through stories. 

Evolutionarily, then, humans are programmed to remember stories much better than information communicated in a “dry” way. 

And that’s how we’ve remained to this day. 

We see our programming for stories in children. Who among us didn’t enjoy listening to fairy tales or stories as a child? As difficult as it usually is to control children’s attention, they can suddenly become “all ears” when we tell them fairy tales or stories.

However, research shows that such a method is also effective when working with adult learners. From the results of empirical research on the effectiveness of a didactic approach using storytelling, it can be concluded that students are 20 times more likely to remember a fact if it is woven into a story.  

Storytelling is used in science, sales and marketing, and other creative industries. It is also a key aspect of our communication; walls in caves, for example, have evolved into “walls” on Facebook. According to Scientific American, as much as 65% of our communication is based on personal stories and gossip. 

If stories play such an important role in our daily communication, why not then learn a foreign language by telling and listening to stories?

Starozytni ludzie siedzacy przy ognisku opowiadaja historie

Why does storytelling help in learning a foreign language?

Have you thought about learning a foreign language using storytelling? Probably, as was my case in my first English courses, you “studied” the language using a textbook, and maybe even by learning vocabulary and grammar.

But in all my years of teaching and learning languages (and I learned 5 of them), I’ve discovered that learning a language using stories is not only more fun and enjoyable, but above all, extremely effective.


Naturalness and context

Stories often reflect real-life situations and everyday conversations, which helps students understand the language in a broader context. And context helps create associations between words, phrases and specific situations or images, making it easier to recall and use them later in everyday situations.

Encouraging memorization

Plot elements, characters and events are easier to remember than dry facts or collections of words. For example, in order for a listener to understand a story, he or she must remember the names of the characters. Surely you remember that the heroine of our initial story was an Italian woman. This in effect stimulates the mind to remember vocabulary words, phrases and grammatical structures.

Emotional engagement

Storytelling engages emotions, which can increase the level of learner engagement. What’s more, many studies show that narratives and materials that elicit emotional engagement are easier to absorb. Emotional experiences can facilitate the acquisition of new words and language structures.

Storytelling is a powerful tool that enhances language learning, including by stimulating memorization processes. Of course, it is not the only way to “hack” memory and you can read about it in our article about how to use your memory effectively.

Known methods of applying storytelling to language learning

Of course, we are not the first to realize that storytelling is a powerful tool for language learning. Early research on the relationship between storytelling and language learning focused on how stories supported children’s language learning. 

Over the past 40 years, methods that focus exclusively on language learning through stories have emerged. In our opinion, the following methods deserve special attention.

Storytelling in English language learning, or TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling)

The TPRS method, from “Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling,” is a methodology formulated by Blaine Ray in the early 1980s. It is a method for the teacher to use in the classroom, both in groups and individually.

What is special about such a lesson?

Well, the teacher and students co-create the story in the target language. This engages the students in a special way and helps keep their attention. At the beginning, the teacher tells a short story using simple vocabulary, images and gestures. Later he asks questions which cause students to be actively involved in the interaction, allowing them to experience the language in a communicative context. The teacher develops the topic, introduces new vocabulary, phrases and structures, and new words and sentences are recorded as notes. Focusing on speaking and asking questions related to the story promotes recall of acquired knowledge and active speaking practice.

It is not clear why the TPRS method is not very popular. Perhaps because of a lack of faith in the power of stories? Or perhaps because teachers are afraid to experiment?

We know from reports and conversations with teachers who work with Taalhammer that the TPRS method is not difficult to master. It is especially praised by online teachers who use our Editor to prepare stories and annotate vocabulary, phrases and structures. Materials prepared in Taalhammer are even ideal for use both during the lesson (for the teacher) and outside the lesson (for the student, as a repetition of the material). If you work with an online teacher, or are one, consider the TPRS method.

Stories you already know, or TPRS for independent learners

Imagine you’re just getting started with a new language – let’s say you’ve been learning German for a month. I’m going to tell you two stories in German, one about my friend from Berlin and the other about Cinderella. From which story will you understand more?

This is a rhetorical question. Well, unless you don’t know who Cinderella is, or it just so happens that my friend from Berlin is also your friend. 

A whole bunch of studies show that you will understand more than 20% more content in a foreign language if you have previously heard that content in your own language. If you don’t believe me, do the experiment yourself. Listen to world news in English, and then go online and listen to the news in your target language.

By learning a language using familiar stories and tales, you can kill two birds with one stone – not only will you understand more at the very beginning, but you will also remember much more new information, such as words, phrases or structures. Imagine the effects of learning by immersing yourself in reading about Cinderella, Peter Pan, or the Little Prince. You can even go a step further and write a summary of the story after reading it. This will be a great exercise for reading comprehension, but also for writing!

If you prefer short stories, use the “Story Learning” method of renowned polyglot Olly Richards. He has published a whole series of books of short stories in different languages, for beginners and intermediate learners. The stories contain carefully selected vocabulary, a full summary of the plot and questions to help understand the text.

The stories are also available as audiobooks on Audible

In addition, this method goes well with listening comprehension exercises. Be sure to also read about how to practice listening to a foreign language.

Dziewczyna w sluchawkach

Reading and writing diaries – a unique English lesson

Another excellent example of using stories in language learning is writing and reading memoirs. Memoirs very often contain simple, autobiographical stories. They usually tell about what happened during the day, but also depict the author’s feelings and thoughts. 

As humans, we love to learn about the secrets, private lives and even thoughts of others. This is why nowadays reality shows with hidden cameras, starting with “Big Brother” and ending with “Love Island,” are so popular. Even in previous centuries, diaries and notes, especially of famous people, were highly desirable reading material.

It has long seemed to me that such a form of communication could be interesting in language learning. So we decided to test different types of stories in Taalhammer. We looked at what forms of narration lead to the best results when it comes to remembering structures and words. We also did surveys for users and testers, from which it was clear that they found it much more enjoyable to listen to such stories. We applied the results of our research to language teaching by creating short stories in the form of diaries in our app. The short diaries had the best results. 

But that’s not all.

Our stories only use vocabulary that has been introduced before. This ensures that students understand 100% of what they are listening to. They also get a boost of motivation – they have proof that their efforts and learning are actually having the desired effect. What’s more, such motivation strengthens memory, so that words and phrases are transported into long-term memory even faster and can be recalled in everyday situations. 

I also highly encourage you to write your own diary in the language you are learning. 

Writing diaries can not only help you remember facts from your life, but also improve your language skills and even develop your imagination. By writing your diary, or journal, you develop your writing skills. Writing stories is an excellent way to memorize vocabulary. Your stories should be short and it’s a good idea to write them just before bedtime. You can write them on a piece of paper or on your computer with spell check enabled, so you can see what mistakes you are making and learn to avoid them. 

At Taalhammer, we believe that language classes must be tailored to the needs of the individual student. That’s why we give you the opportunity to create your own collections of vocabulary and sentences, as well as entire stories. This way you learn what you actually need. What’s more, emotional engagement with the topics will help you master the vocabulary faster.

Learn languages with Taalhammer 

The storytelling method can teach you to use language comfortably and freely in everyday situations. It is one of the elements that can influence how fluently you speak. Remember, however, that it is not the only method of learning. At Taalhammer, we have used our own experience and years of scientific research to combine the most effective ways to master languages. Check out how quickly you can master a language today!


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