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Sticking to the story helps learners learn lexis better, study shows

Storytelling without targeted word focus or follow-up activities is the most efficient way to use stories to introduce new vocabulary to young learners, according to new research from Taiwan

Stories are a popular way to introduce vocabulary in a meaningful context, but previous research on how to get the best use out of storytelling has been inconstant. It’s common practice to target key vocabulary and employ a range of activities, such as organising scrambled sentences or using drama to consolidate the new vocabulary, yet it’s far from clear if these techniques actually work or just waste valuable classroom time.

Ya-Ling Gao and colleagues put 134 third graders (aged eight to nine years) into three randomly selected groups. Each group had nine weekly 30-minute storytelling sessions using picture books, such as I Wish I Were a Dog and How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You? Pupils were given a vocabulary pre-test and post-test with a further delayed post-test a month later.

One group listened to the story and then had some free reading time. The second group’s teacher pulled out key vocabulary onto a whiteboard for focused attention. The third group had targeted activities after the story to use the vocabulary. The details of the method and tests had all been tried out and established in a pilot study on 66 pupils.

The researchers took the test scores and, by comparing them to the amount of time employed by the three different methods of storytelling, were able to calculate how efficient each was in terms of words learned per minute of instruction.

All three groups acquired new vocabulary. However, pupils in the targeted activities group showed the poorest efficiency in learning new words: 0.013/ minute. Those whose teacher focused on key words did better at 0.026/minute. But the most efficient learning occurred when students were just told stories: they learned new words at the rate of 0.044/minute.

Looking at videos of the classes, pupils appeared easily distracted during the activities, which may help to explain the poor outcome. Given the amount of time such activities consume, it’s useful to know that they may not help in consolidating vocabulary, so the time may well be better spent elsewhere.

Old-fashioned, straightforward storytelling, where the listeners pay natural attention to the speaker, appears to be the best method – and one as old as human history. As the researchers quote: “experiences not framed into story suffer loss in memory”.


Gao, Y-L, Wang, F-Y and Lee, S-Y (2020): ‘The effects of three different storytelling approaches on vocabulary acquisition and response patterns of young EFL students’, Language Teaching Research. DOI: 10.1177/1362168820971789

Image courtesy of SHUTTERSTOCK
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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