Using storytelling as an explanation tool


In today’s 15 minute forum, English teacher Russ Shoebridge talked about the power of storytelling and how it can be used to support explanation.


Russ began by reflecting on how students seem to listen to stories differently, and how stories seem to elicit a certain type of silence. He then described a familiar scenario: it’s the end of the day and you are halfway through giving a list of instructions, when you notice that the class are losing concentration. A story can save you in this all-too-familiar situation. It can hook attention and help the class to enjoy the moment. As human beings, it seems that we have an intrinsic familiarity with stories.

So, if stories help our students to listen more attentively, are they more likely to remember the content as a result?

In terms of the six pedagogical principles we use at our school, storytelling forms a vital component of explanation:


Theoretical Underpinning

Russ then shared three theories that support the use of storytelling in the classroom:

  1. Rhetoric – the art of speaking effectively and persuasively
  2. Mnemonics – a learning technique that aids retention in the memory
  3. Teacher Immediacy – the perceived ‘closeness’ between listener and speaker

The last of these, teacher immediacy, was first coined by psychologist Albert Mehrabian in 1969. It can be defined as the perceived ‘closeness’ between listener and speaker and has been linked to effective teaching (Gorham, 1988). Researchers have identified the importance of the following verbal immediacy traits:

‘….the use of praise for student efforts, humor, self disclosure, willingness to engage students in conversation, and overall openness and willingness to meet and interact with students.’ (Edwards & Edwards, 2001; Gorham, 1988).

By using ourselves as an example, stories allow for self-disclosure. Russ stressed the importance of self-deprecation and shared how he will often start the new term with a story, either to bring the class together or to introduce a learning point. For example, Russ started this academic year by telling the tale of how he had been ripped off by an unscrupulous plumber.


Finally, Russ shared three ways that he uses storytelling in his day-to-day classroom teaching:

Stories to hook students or immerse students in the content.

pic3 owen

Before his class read Wilfred Owen’s war poetry, Russ will introduce the WW1 context through the tragic story of Owen’s life:

“I’d like to tell you about Wilfred Owen and this story epitomises the tragedy that was the pointless loss of innocent lives during World War One.

Now Wilfred Owen was a patriot who was passionate about defending his country. Maybe you would be the same. Maybe we’d all be the same in the face of war.

Now, Owen didn’t join the war until 1915…and the first year for him seemed to be…new and exciting!

Then, in January, 1917… Wilfred Owen had his first experience of the front line… and it would never be the same again.”

After just a year on the front line, he had suffered concussion, he’d been gassed, he’d been evacuated with shell shock.

At this time, from the front line, he began to produce a series of his more famous poems, one of which we’re going to read later on in the lesson today…

Some people believe that Wilfred Owen didn’t actually face any rifle fire until one week before the end of the war.

On 11th November, 1918, the day that the war ended, as the bells were ringing out for peace in Wilfred Owen’s home village in Shropshire, his parents received the telegram to inform them that their son, seven days ago, had been shot and killed on the bank  of a river in Northern France…”

Story telling is an art form in itself. These tips can help you to structure a story effectively:

  • Tell them you’re going to tell them a story.
  • Involve them in the story.
  • Have a narrative/plot
  • Include emotive and powerful information
  • Relate it to the lesson
  • Make sure you have a powerful ending.

Stories to illustrate an abstract concept. 


All English teachers know that students struggle with the difference between it’s and its. This is mainly because they do not realise that its is a possessive pronoun like hers, his, ours and yours, whereas it’s is a contracted form of it is. Russ uses the story of a barbeque he once attended to help students to remember. He remembers seeing a pristine stainless steel barbecue, his friend’s pride and joy, gleaming in the sun. It even had its own personalised engraving. On closer inspection, however, he noticed a glaring error in the inscription:


This memorable mistake is then used as a mnemonic to lead into the lesson and to help students to remember this tricky concept.

Stories to illustrate something about the teaching / learning (metacognition)

Stories are also a means of making metacognitive prompts more memorable. You can experiment with the following:

  1. Stories of previous classes/students who attempted the activity/piece of               work/drill in P.E/drama performance
  2. Success stories/cautionary tales.
  3. Anecdotes about ourselves in the learning situation.
  4. Anecdotes about the planning/marking/preparing the lesson.


To remind his students to use adjectives with subtlety, Russ tells his class about a friend who had sent him the first 40 pages of a sci-fi novel he had written. Russ was shocked to find that every noun was described by at least 3 adjectives. For example: “the dusty, dark, grey carpark was filled with fast, dark, expensive cars.” In short, the book was utterly unreadable!

In summary:


  • Students seem to ‘listen’ in a different way to stories. There is an intrinsic familiarity and enjoyment of them.
  • Storytelling is a device with clear links to other theoretical frameworks: rhetoric, mnemonics, and immediacy.
  • Stories can be used to ‘hook’ students or immerse them in a new topic.
  • Stories can be used to illustrate something abstract/unfamiliar with visual examples/analogies
  • Stories can open up metacognitive dialogue.


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1 Response to Using storytelling as an explanation tool

  1. Reblogged this on DT & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    Using storytelling as an explanation tool…

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