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The Power of Stories to Engage Students

story telling

Have you ever noticed that the student who has difficulty focusing and paying attention to most tasks in the classroom will sit and listen intently to a story? Stories, it seems, are special.

Cognitive Psychologist Daniel Willingham explains that stories are “psychologically privileged” and that there is indeed something special about them. He says, “Stories are easy to comprehend and easy to remember, and that’s true not just because people pay close attention to stories; there is something inherent in the story format that makes them easy to understand and remember. Ron Nash, author of The Active Classroom, offers more insights into why stories are so powerful, “Storytelling engages our minds in a way that television simply cannot do.” He goes on to explain that stories help to stimulate images in the minds of the listener. During a story, the listener interprets and expands upon those images as the story unfolds.

Teachers can engage students by telling them stories that connect to the content but they can also have students tell their own stories. Here are some ideas for classroom use:

  • Create a story that connects to the content to be mastered. For example, a fictional story about relationship between a river and a lake could help students to understand geography concepts.
  • Use stories as hooks or leads into a lesson to heighten student interest.
  • Ask students to take the content being learned and turn it into a story. For example, you could ask the students to create a story of a boy who struggled to learn his times tables. Students could also take selected vocabulary terms and use them in a story.
  • Ask students to bring in toys, props, or other important items to use as props as they tell stories. Objects such as photos, baseball cards, or special toys can tell entire stories.

You don’t need to be a master storyteller to engage kids. There are numerous resources available to teachers on the internet and in curriculum guides that will provide examples and help you get started.

Nash, R. (2008). The Active Classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press
Willingham, D. (2010). Why Don’t Students Like School? New York: Jossey-Bass

Bryan Harris, Ed.D. is a trainer/consultant Bryan Harris, Ed.D. has been an educator for over 25 years. He has served as a classroom teacher, an elementary school principal, and a district level director. Now working full time as an author, speaker, and consultant he has trained over 18,000 educators in powerful and effective strategies that increase student engagement and achievement. He is known for his engaging trainings and presentations that demonstrate relevant and practical strategies. He is the author of 5 books including the popular 2010 book Battling Boredom. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Education and a Master of Educational Leadership degree from Northern Arizona University. In 2013, he earned a doctorate (EdD) from Bethel University in Minnesota after studying factors impacting new teacher retention. He also holds a certification in brain-based learning from Jensen Learning Corporation. As the author of three highly-regarded books published by Routledge, he has a passion for helping educators discover ways to inspire and engage students.


  1. Dr. Margo Turner

    Bryan be sure to check out the study at Emory University that looked at the brains of people reading novels. “Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person” Gregory Berns, neuro at Emory. The fmri imaging showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex on the mornings after the participants read a novel, as well as in the area for sensory motor…showing that reading “transported the readers into the body of the protagonist.” Reading stories does change the brain!

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      Hello Dr.Margo, im writing my thesis about stories, as a brain based strategy. The study you mentioned is very relevant. Do u have more details?


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