Story Proof: The Science behind the Startling Power of Stories

It seems as if we always need ammunition to defend TPRS to the next group of skeptical parents, colleagues and administrators.  The book Story Proof: The Science behind the Startling Power of Stories, by Kendall Haven is filled with information, ideas and ample ammunition for us storytellers.
We know by experience and by our own anecdotal results that stories are the natural way to use and learn language, but this book gives us some great research results that back it up.  The author cites one particularly interesting study:
“She found that telling stories to primary grade students improved their vocabulary faster than did reading to them but that both oral activities significantly improved student reading comprehension.  Just listening (original author’s emphasis) to stories improves reading comprehension!” (p. 90-91)
This is loaded for us.  Listening to, being told, stories improves reading comprehension.  I am going to chew on this for a while and try to think of some ramifications for us from this nugget.  Any ideas?



14 thoughts on “Story Proof: The Science behind the Startling Power of Stories”

  1. I listened to Malcom Gladwell (taped books) this weekend while I was mucking about. What he was saying really spoke to my TPRS teachers heart several times. For one thing, he talks about needing to put in 10000 hours to suceed at something…I don’t even want to begin to do the math for how long or how often I haven’t or don’t practice what I purport to believe…eek. I do know I have a LLLOOONNNNGGGG way to go until I feel like any sort of a whiff of a Blaine or a Susie!
    In The Tipping Point, he talks about teaching reading and Sesame Street and students’ attention span…how they look away when they don’t understand. I thought about this when you wrote about eye contact and how important this is. He also talks about time on task and that’s something that often niggles at me. I know I lose some of them because although some of us are having TOO much fun during the lesson, there are others who are lost after 10 minutes, in their minds they are on the slopes, or at the mall. sigh. I need to do something about that. today!
    The really big thing for me was in BLINK, how we know something in our gut, but we let it go. And that got me thinking about the little niggles that I certainly do let go, mostly because I just don’t know what to do about it. Like when they look away, or when I go out of bounds and start whirring. He mentions something about possible brain damage that allows us to keep slugging away when we know for sure something isn’t right (sigh, I NOT going there) In Blink there’s a super bit about slap stick…comedians…and it was WONDERFUL. One of those niggles is when the kids give me a suggestion and I don’t go with it, for whatever reason. NO THAT’S NOT CUTE ENOUGH…or some facsimile. Their little faces cloud over, and they look away. I keep slugging away and finally give my own rendition of cute and it all falls apart after that. The bit about how to put an impromptu comedy line together is so worth listening to. He talks about when it all shuts down……..I’ll think of it as the “je ne le sais pas” line I get from the kids every now and then. And I thought about how I need to dedicate some of those thousands of hours in front of me (if we are to be destined for success) into teaching them to play the game. heck, I need to learn how to play the game! good thing I have miles of hours ahead of me yet!
    good thing every day is fresh with no mistakes!

  2. Lynn this is what I think we’re supposed to be doing on this site. Playing our cards so they are visible to each other. Everybody else plays so tight, their cards clutching their chins almost (think of university people). But you have the fresh honesty that I have been looking for in how we might eventually talk to each other in a safe space about the waking up at night and the incredible gut checks that we experience every day because we hear that other drummer.
    All I could think while reading your comment was no English no English no English. How can they get 10000 hours of L2 if we shortchange them? As it is, in a high school program of four years how many hours can we get even? 500? Paul Kirschling and I are going to taunt the English thing’s ass in our classrooms this spring. The English thing may be bigger than we are, but we have decided this weekend to hold no mercy for it. We are going to kick it in the ankle, stab our pitchforks into it’s big toe, and general stick our thumbs in our ears and wiggle our hands and stick our tongues out and check in with each other on Friday and see how much that big dummy got into our classrooms. Big ugly English giant! Bad giant! It’s the French against the English yet again. I don’t know what you wrote that made me think of that but there you have it.
    Secondly, isn’t it strange that they feel lessened and hurt if they’re idea isn’t readily accepted? And I even tell them that I am not rejecting their suggestions because they are bad necessarily, but because I NEED THE REPS. They forget and take it personally. Paul and I are working on making them write their suggestions down on a whiteboard and holding it up instead of the two words of English. We will see on that.
    Last knee jerk reaction to what you said is this – if they wander, it is because I am not working the room well enough with Teaching to the Eyes, the underestimated TPRS skill of the month if not the year. And, for me, how to I teach to their eyes? Right! By not using English! And that is not a non sequitor, as strange as it seems. Rambling over. But just love the honest open tone of what you wrote. Honesty in what is going on in our classrooms is a requisite for this TPRS work. We can’t lie about how hard it is and what goes on. So THANK YOU.

  3. As for three more books that offer, if not proof then at least Story Support, I handed out a short bibliography of works that support TPRS to a group of German teachers at an immersion weekend last Saturday. The three works that support story-telling particularly:
    “[…] 3. Denis Dutton. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Bloomsbury: 2008
    Dutton is the founder and editor of the Web site Arts & Letters Daily, named by the Guardian as “the best Web site in the world.” In The Art Instinct, Dutton explains our need for art as an evolutionary adaptation. In chapter 6, “The Uses of Fiction”, Dutton focuses on literature and story-telling. Joseph Carroll’s work on the evolution of literature supports the core of his argument.
    For Dutton’s review of Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature see
    4. Kieran Egan. Teaching as Story Telling: An Alternative Approach to Teaching and Curriculum in the Elementary School. University Chicago Press. 1989
    My understanding of Kieran Egan’s work is, for all practical purposes, second hand. That said, it is knowledge gained in workshops and conversations from Carol Ann Dahlberg (co-author of Languages and Children, Making the Match) in her presentation on the power and near-necessity of using “story” as the guiding principal for teaching and the designing of lessons at all levels: activity, hour, unit, course. If we teachers (and parents) frame EVERYTHING we do with our learners around a story-structure, you appeal to an innate function of the human mind that allows us to acquire more efficiently through story.
    More from Egan directly can be found at
    5. Daniel H. Pink. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Riverhead Trade: 2006.
    Pink argues that in our current age of Abundance and Automation with much of our information-age work now being done in Asia, that we can and will distinguish ourselves by doing work that satisfies clients and consumers needs for products and services with high touch and high concept. There is an enormous amount of critical work that can neither be automatized nor outsourced. It is post-information age, post left-brain generated work that will depend on our (and our students’) ability to demonstrate facility in six areas: Design, Symphony, Story, Play, Empathy, and Meaning.
    While TPRS and similar Input-driven methods may not employ or require an obvious and direct amount of visual design, TPRS by design does help teachers and students practice Symphony (language not in isolation, but in totality), Story (binding language forms to narratives), Play (the necessity of tomfoolery and goofiness in a TPRS room), Empathy (the teacher MUST know the students for TPRS to work, and the students MUST listen to each other) and Meaning (we learn the language as a vehicle to reach other people, and we constantly ask why, why, why.)
    Pink’s work is extraordinary, and Pink is extraordinarily accessible.
    (The last entries on my list were a couple of things called “PQA in a Wink” and “TPRS in a Year” btw.)

  4. I’ve enjoyed great success in allowing students, themselves, to ask the stories.
    1) Three or more teams are formed in class.
    2) Any team can ask a question to propel the story forward (they get a point for asking the question and extra points for including target vocabulary words and using conjugated verbs).
    3) The teacher accepts, rejects or modifies the question (but I have not had to do much rejecting or modifying).
    4) Then, the first of the other teams to answer the question receives points.
    The story moves in interesting directions this way, with the students very much being bought into the process, and pressure to come up with the next question is completely off of my shoulders. It’s been a lot of fun!

  5. I do not teach to the eyes when I am doubting what I am doing or if I do not know for sure where I am going with it. Doubt in the utility of the discussion/story (which is maybe why we switch to English) makes me think they are seeing through the “lie” I am playing out, when really I should never doubt CI, even if it is leading to “nowhere.” *(though I think there is better and worse CI, the better being the CI that we allow for reps and reading of.)
    What an interesting idea of teams creating the story. It would be nice to see a video of this Brad. Ehhh??

  6. “I do not teach to the eyes when I am doubting what I am doing.”
    When I am going slowly enough, enforcing the no-English rule in particular (which really ups the eye contact!), then I just naturally teach to the eyes. Doubt, mediocre, kind of a fake, CI, those things bring loss of contact with their eyes. I thought I was alone on this. Cool and thanks, Jim.

  7. I’m reading Super Simple Storytelling, by Kendall Haven who wrote story proof. It’s specifically geared toward classroom stories in all disciplines. I’m not very far in, but this book seems like an incredible resource for us who make a living on stories. He talks about the common misconception that stories are plot; he says they’re not — they are all about characters.
    Another point he makes is that we all tell stories well, just not often. We have to figure out what we’re doing when stories go well. Then we have to figure out what we do when we get nervous or uncomfortable (which communicates boredom to the audience) and then purposely do the opposite. He talks about what makes a story effective and there’s a good exercise for helping a class create a good story. It validates a lot of what we discuss as techniques/approaches for storytelling and gives a context for understanding better what makes them work and not work. I can see this being adapted to TPRS-style stories in- motion for helping teachers to prompt and to recognize good story material coming from the kids. I can see this book being training for students in Student Generated Stories.
    He also gives some of the research for the effectiveness of storytelling, and he gives detailed instructions for teaching storytelling — exercises for the classroom. I think they’d be fun and useful to do with a bunch of TPRSers.
    I’m expecting that this book will help reveal some of the mystery of how to have more good story days. So much potential! Thanks, Bryce for recommending StoryProof.

  8. “He talks about the common misconception that stories are plot; he says they’re not — they are all about characters. ”
    This finally dawned on me this year…..and I am not sure why it took so long to figure it out!!!
    Take a very popular show…any’s not the plot line that matters. Say Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, for example, or House. It’s not the plot. We don’t tune in for the details of the serial killings…we tune in because we love to hear the interaction between Morgan and Garcia. We don’t TIVO all the details of the illness….we TIVO that crazy doctor and his relationships with his staff. We don’t love watching stories about rape and child abuse….we love Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson.
    Our students love Sr. Wooly not because he leads an amazing life as a Spanish teacher….they love to listen to “Soy guapo” because they love Sr. Wooly.
    They love his sense of humor, his ability to poke a little fun at himself, and his willingness to step outside the norm and have fun with it…..something that they are dying to do but aren’t always confident enough to do.
    Thanks so much for bringing us back to this discussion!!! (better get myself some summer reading!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
    with love,

  9. I agree but I would point out for the purpose of argument that my entire foray into the Realm – which I experimented with for at least four years before letting it go – was all about character development and it didn’t work (only Tawanna Billingsly in Chicago ever mastered the Realm). The watered down plots in the Realm got me confused and it felt like character trumped plot so that the whole thing didn’t work for me. There are people still talking about the Realm and if they can find the right blend of character and plot I would like to know about it.

  10. From what I have read so far, the author would probably say that the kids also focus overly much on plot, and a focus on plot kills the story. He says that stories are really about characters, conflicts, struggles and goals, and that plot is servant to character. so for a class to create a story, he suggests that you start with characters, then add goals, then conflicts, how the story ends (goal met or not met?), then the character’s struggles to overcome the conflict to reach the goal. and he says that during this process, you have to keep them from going into plot. The plot will naturally come from the obstacles. Maybe this process of building a story could help contribute to more successful stories in the realm… also, as evidence of the importance of character, he points to soap operas. Nothing ever really changes, but people watch them for years on end. He says the reason they work is that we know the characters and their desires, motives, etc and we are interested in them.
    More on characters. He says that there are 5 aspects of characters to consider/ include: core (=motives and desires), personality, history, activity, and sensory information.
    He gives a list of what listeners want from a story vs. what storytellers focus on in preparation:
    listeners want arresting details; relevant, interesting characters, intriguing story problem/tension and suspense; humor; information and conciseness; and believability
    And they need the following from the storyteller: confidence, emotional expression, enthusiasm, energy, and humor.
    A lot of this is in that link I posted in an earlier comment. So, the focus on plot kills the story because it gets away from what listeners really need. And focus on getting the story right gets the teller nervous and out of the flow, and thus produces the opposite of what listeners need.
    Reading KH’s explanation, I see Ben’s one word images giving a starting character with intriguing sensory information. I see Blaine doing stories in motion: you start with a character and you give him a goal. then you you do the back story to find out why s/he has that goal. Now you understand the character’s motives better. (And Laurie’s what do you think, say, feel, do fit in well here too.) When you get stuck, add a detail or a character. Even though the whole thing is chronological in sequence, it’s not chronological in creation. It’s somehow more dynamic and interconnected… and I can hear Susie and blaine saying to believe the story and Blaine saying “it’s my story,” with a big smile, enjoying his story.
    One of the goals of the book is to help storytellers tell book stories with the same naturalness that they tell their own stories; to help us to plan in such a way that we really meet our listeners’ needs. I can’t help but think that this would help many of us to have more good story days at school. I think some of the exercises would make good Grab 5 material.

  11. Grab 5. I thought everyone blew that blog off but I have to say that if we don’t sit down and started working together in our buildings – even if just for a few minutes at a time – none of this will work. A summer conference is great, but not enough. I didn’t work with building colleagues on teaching methods once this year, and we have the largest WL department in CO, with 10 teachers.
    Wonderful details, Carla. I get the character thing and you may be right on the Realm failure. It might could happen if I read and apply what KH is really saying. Ultimately, Realm or not, I have always felt intuitively that I would like to take those Circling with Balls cards and just turn them into vibrant characters who are the major and minor actors in all CI for the entire year. May not happen in my career but could happen with someone. I would love to see that. This is a major book for us, as you said. Thank you so much.

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