Storybooks are awesome and they are incredibly useful while teaching English. If you don’t believe it, then this article is for you. If you do believe it, and are not sure how to explain it to non-believers, then this article is for you.
Language is an Instinct
Did you know that, according to the famous linguist Noam Chomsky, language is innate to human beings? It is an instinct so strong that if we didn’t teach children any language, they would invent one, with vocabulary, grammar and syntax. This does not happen to any other species on earth. [read more: Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct].
In the 1970s, the teachers at the Melania Morales special school in Nicaragua were willing to teach only lip reading to the deaf kids because they believed it’ll be good for them. The kids found lip reading too hard. So, they invented an entire language to communicate with each other on the playground! The language that they created is called Nicaraguan Sign Language. [read more: The Nicaraguan Sign Language].
Why do we need language?
Why do we take so much effort to learn languages? Is it to consume media – books, TV shows, music? Is it to express ourselves – write, sing, give a speech? Is it to talk to other people?
The range of human communications is wide. Many conversations are simple – telling the time, talking about the weather, complaining about hunger, etc. Some conversations are complicated. Expressing love. Making a new friend! Negotiating for a pay hike. It is through language that we understand the people around us and communicate to them.
The range of human thoughts is also wide. I might be thinking of the rain, and the sweet smell of the soil, and the joy it brings. You might be thinking of rain water harvesting and conservation.
It’s through language that we navigate the breadth of human life.
Some people might argue that getting better grades, and access to higher paying jobs is also a good reason to learn a language. Perhaps, in context, that’s also true.
Modelling Conversations (Exposure)
The ideal way to improve language skills is to experience as many conversations, narratives, and thoughts as possible. I recently opened an English learning app and it asked me what I wanted to learn – Greetings, Speaking to Friends, Making Plans, Talking about Work, etc – for each of these it gave examples of how these conversations may happen. We call this “modelling conversations.”
Here’s another example: A toddler knows the feeling of “hunger” innately. But she learns how to express it when someone tells her how to do so (repeatedly).
We’ve to be “exposed” to as much language as possible.
Stories help us navigate through a wide range of human interactions, narratives, and emotions through an immersive experience. Here are two examples:
- We know from the Fox and the Crow that the clever fox praised the gullible crow so much that she let her guard down, and also let go of the piece of cheese in her mouth. At an early age, this story has given us a model (a template) for this narrative.
- A story about a child in a wheelchair having fun can model for us that children in wheelchairs also like to have fun and aren’t crying about their misfortune all day. Such a story would also expose us to the language used in this situation.
Stories can provide “exposure” like nothing else.
Kids whose parents read them stories from storybooks before they entered kindergarten have a much better vocabulary and reading skills. On average, they processed 1.4 million words more. That’s a lot of exposure. [Read More: The million word gap].
If language learning is all about exposure (some pedagogues call this immersion) through stories, then one could ideally use newspapers (real stories), TV shows, theatre, oral stories, or just through conversations. So why storybooks? Consider these points:
- Written materials (i.e. books) have lesser details than pictures, videos and live action. This “information gap” forces the reader to think, and imagine, which causes the brain to work harder and this develops the language processing parts of the brain. [In short: TV is for lazy potatoes.]
- Reading can be done at any pace. Some readers read fast, some read slow, some pause to think. This lets the brain assimilate new stuff at a comfortable pace. Ever heard of anyone pausing a TV show to check the dictionary?
- Reading is an independent solitary activity. One doesn’t need to be dependent on another person.
Putting these point on a table:
|How important is this for language learning?||Exciting Storybooks||Amazing TV shows||Terrific theatre plays||Fabulous oral storytelling||Stimulating conversations|
|Forces my brain to work harder||Very very Important||10||0||8||8||7|
|Allows me to assimilate information at my chosen speed||Very important||10||0||0||0||5|
|Doesn’t force me to depend on someone else||Important||10||10||0||0||0|
The points are all made up, but as you can see, reading an exciting storybook wins.
Storybooks vs Textbooks
Textbooks also provide exposure. But, textbooks tend to organize language in strange ways. For example, a textbook may expose a learner to different words for clothing one week and for vegetables the next week. But wait, is that natural? Do we wear clothes for one week and then eat vegetables the next week?
Or imagine learning simple tense for the first semester. And then past tense in the second semester. Did the “past” not exist in the first semester? Would you tell a learner that “I can’t teach you how to talk about yesterday till next semester.”
Stories organise words and grammar along narratives and themes. This provides context, and that makes all the difference.
Good storybooks are engaging. They provide immersive experiences to children. They expose the learner to new words and grammar structures. They model conversations, ideas and thoughts. Storybooks also allow readers to assimilate information at any desired pace. They push readers to think, which develops their brain. Also reading storybooks is mostly an independent activity.
So there you have it. Should you use storybooks while teaching English? Yes, of course!
Let us know what you thought about this article: leave a comment below. To those non-believers, the ones who don’t understand why storybooks are crucial in language class (especially English), share this article with them.
So how do I select really good storybooks that can help my children acquire language faster?
We wrote an entire post on it! Click here to read it!
The Book Lovers’ Program for Schools helps schools in selecting storybooks and using them in classroom to improve English language skills. We have affected transformations in over 200 schools with our proven methodology. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.