Three months ago, my daughter would merely parrot words and phrases, meaninglessly. Telling her stories changed that, magically.
My daughter turns three this November. She knows what numbers mean and uses her fingers accurately to count five. She can also count to 20 while climbing stairs or pointing at cups on the table, both forward and backward, and is now taking her baby steps toward counting to 100. She can add and subtract single-digit numbers to tell you what increased in or decreased from a given number. She can identify 14 colours, including purple and peach, and tell you if she is looking at their dark or light version. She can recognize more than 25 animals and birds in videos, pictures, and real-life and imitate their sounds. She can identify more than 30 fruits and vegetables when she sees them. She can tell you which of what you are showing her is a circle, a triangle or a square. She can tell you she likes her passion fruit juice more than your coffee. She can tell you she loves her yellow skirt better than her blue jumpsuit. She can tell you when she is happy, excited, angry, or is upset with you. She can tell me not to interrupt her when she is talking. She can translate many of these words and phrases from English to Malayalam and from Malayalam to English, in case you do not understand what she is trying to tell you. The icing on the cake, she can tell you both real and imaginary stories. If you are a new parent, you will agree with me when I say that this is no mean feat for a soon-to-be three-year-old who used to merely parrot words and phrases three months ago.
Three months ago, I noticed that despite providing her with a resource-and-talk-rich environment to play, explore, listen and talk, my daughter continued to mimic the questions we asked her instead of responding to them. Right from the very beginning, we were careful not to give her ready-made, expensive toys. The toys that our friends and relatives gifted her, including the building bricks we bought for her, are lying around unused. We allow her to pick her toys from her surroundings. We also bought sketch pens, crayons, and notebooks so that she could spend time with colours. We bought colourful storybooks and read them to her. We allowed her to listen to rhymes and sang those rhymes along with her. We used show-and-tell whenever we got an opportunity. Though she could recognize these numbers, alphabets, animals, birds and objects, she could not meaningfully connect those words, respond to questions, or convey what she wanted like how I described in the first paragraph. For example, three months ago, if you asked her name, she would repeat the question back to you smiling instead of telling you her name. Or she could not tell you how many cups were on the table when you asked her to count and tell you. Soon, she would be three, and we had to do something about it.
Around the time I noticed the gaps in how my daughter communicated with us, at Innerkern, we were exploring indigenous approaches to teaching and learning across the world. (You can find some insights from our research on indigenous approaches to education here and here.) As we were gathering ideas from academic research on indigenous and aboriginal education, I realised that storytelling lies at the heart of the indigenous approach to teaching. Drawing from this, I decided to tell stories to my daughter. The result was magical. From a two-and-a-half-year-old who would meaninglessly parrot words and phrases, she transformed into a storyteller herself.
At home, these days, I am the official storyteller and her mother is the official story listener. My daughter listens to the stories I tell her and later retells those stories to her mother. When she returned from her grandparents' yesterday and told me how her sipper slipped from her hand and fell as she stepped out of the car with her mother, I was excited. Storytelling is working. I decided to share with the new parents connected to Innerkern's community of learners the seven lessons I managed to learn as I told her one story after the other over the last three months and her mother listened to her, retelling the stories. What are the seven lessons I learned about storytelling for toddlers as I told stories to my soon-to-be three-year-old daughter?
Plot does not matter, pattern does.
When you tell stories to a two-year-old, the plot does not matter. You do not need to have a logical sequence of events. What matters is that the story has a distinctly recognizable pattern of events that repeat. For example, one day I was narrating the original story of the three little pigs to my daughter. First, I told her how each of the pigs had built three different types of houses. Then, I told her how the wolf huffed and puffed to destroy these houses. I ended the story by telling her how the intelligent and hard-working third pig chased the wolf away. She stared at me throughout the story, blank and expressionless.
I remembered that the human brain likes patterns and simultaneously seeks to make meaning out of everything it encounters. I decided to redesign the story of the three little pigs. I increased the number of pigs from three to five. I decided to narrate a few events for each pig and repeat it for the subsequent pigs, instead of following the original order of narration. I also decided to bring in a tiger villain instead of a wolf villain. She could not differentiate between a dog, fox and wolf at that point. She knew what a tiger looked like and behaved like. So in our story, we decided to cast a tiger as the villain. Eventually, the story sounded like this: "Once, there were five little pigs. The five little pigs wanted to build a house. They sat in a circle and started thinking, thinking and thinking, what to build a house with. One little pig suddenly said, "Idea! Let us build a house with papers." The five little pigs said, "Wow! That is a great idea. Let us ask Agni (name of my daughter) for some papers." So the five little pigs went to Agni and said, "Agni, Agni, could you give us some papers?" Agni gave them so many papers, "One paper, two paper, three paper, four paper..." (I would touch the tip of her finger every time I mentioned a number.) The five little pigs built a big house with the papers Agni gave them. It was a lot of hard work. They finished building the house. And they were so tired and hungry. And in the house there was a kitchen. The five little pigs went to the kitchen and they made chicken fry, and they made doughnuts, and they made pancakes, and they made passion fruit juice and they made lollipops." (I would touch her finger every time I mentioned an item.) Then they ate and they ate and they ate. Then their bellies were full. They were tired. They felt sleepy. They started sleeping. They started snoring. When they were sleeping, a big bad tiger walked by the house. The tiger saw the paper house. She was jealous. She said, 'Oh! The five little pigs have a paper house? I am jealous. I don’t want them to have a house. I’ll huff and I'll puff and I’ll blow." The big bad tiger huffed and he puffed and she blew. And the paper house flew away. The five little pigs were so sad.``
As the story evolved, the other pigs too would experience the same set of events. Only the numbers and key objects would change. For example, the four little pigs would sit in a square, the three little pigs would sit in a triangle, the two little pigs would sit in a line, and the one little pig would sit on a dot. Or, the four little pigs would use feathers to build the house, the three little pigs would use sticks, the two little pigs would use balloons, and the one little pig would use fire. Toward the end of the story, the tiger huffed, puffed, and blew twice, and the house did not fly away. The tiger would then hit the house in anger and burn her fists. As the story ended, the tiger would run to her mom, and show her burnt fist. Tiger's mom applies cream and puts a bandaid on her fist, and they live happily ever after. Right from the first pig, I could see my daughter's face light up. She smiled in awe. The story of the five little pigs was a hit and was her favourite bedtime story for a few days.
Use gestures and props.
I noticed that language did not matter as long as I used gestures or props while narrating the story. For example, the story of the five little pigs was heavy on gestures. I used my hand, body, and face to act out the story, as I narrated it. I converted most of the pattern rhymes she already knew into stories. Soon we had laboriously and carefully gesticulated tales of five little monkeys, five little ducks, five little freckled frogs, and the ten in the bed. Every time we had to count during the story, we would use our fingers and count. Every time someone had to walk or run, we would act it out. I noticed that my daughter responded to these gestures and joined the narration, using her hand, body, and face. And then, we used props. Her tricycle, the pillows, the spoons, the bottle caps and her dolls would become characters to add life to the story. I never remained faithful to the original storyline. I would add at least three or four events to each segment. I carefully picked events that allowed as many gestures as possible. When you are storytelling for toddlers, events do not matter, gestures do. For example, in my version of five little pigs, there are six events. First, the pigs sit and think about the material they can use to build a house. Second, the pigs ask my daughter to give them the material. Third, they construct the house. Fourth, they cook food and eat. Fifth, they sleep. Six, the tiger blows off the house. All these events allowed me to use props and improvise with gestures.
I narrated stories in both Malayalam and English. Sometimes, I would mix both the languages. Language did not matter to her as long as I conveyed the meaning through my gestures. I remembered how critical gestures are in indigenous storytelling. My daughter easily recollected the stories where I used gestures better. I would later listen to her narrate these stories to her mother, using gestures to convey the meaning as she forgot some of the sentences I had used while telling her the story. When she could not tell a story satisfactorily in English, she would translate it in her head and narrate it in Malayalam. The gestures were her reference points, as she did this.
Name and demonstrate emotions.
When you teach a child, it is not wise to view cognitive development as separate from emotional development. I realised storytelling is a great way to help my daughter take baby steps in social-emotional learning. Stories are about emotional highs and lows. They give you opportunities to name them and feel them. Naming emotions and forming a sense of how they feel is the key to social-emotional development.
I ensured that the stories I told my daughter allowed me to name emotions. As we progressed through the story of the five little ducks, for example, I could see my daughter responding to the pain of the mother duck when she lost her precious babies and her excitement when all the five little ducks came swimming back. I also saw she was worried about the five little monkeys who jumped on the bed, fell, and bumped their head, elbows, knees, or toes. She did not like that the doctor gave them a time-out. She was genuinely happy when the doctor allowed them to get back on the bed and jump again. Can children demonstrate empathy at the age of two? From how my daughter responded eventually to the sorrows and joys of the characters from the tales I told her, I assumed they could. And then, I looked at what research says about children developing empathy. I found two things about toddlers developing empathy. First, empathy is an acquired skill. Children are born selfish. Though mirror neurons give them the capacity to learn empathy, initially they have to be selfish to survive as they lack language skills. Second, children can develop empathy as early as two years. Research suggests that you can help five-year-olds learn empathy by discussing imaginary problems with them. This three-month stretch of storytelling allowed me to learn that you can help a toddler learn to empathise earlier than that, at the age of two.
Include her and you as characters.
You do this to make the story engaging. I realised that when I included my daughter as a character in a story, she picked up the elements of engaging in a conversation. For example, she is one of the characters in the story of five little ducks. The momma duck and the five little ducks meet many characters on the way. They meet a frog, a cat, a rabbit, a monkey, a sheep, and then Agni. When the momma duck meets Agni, the momma duck says, "Hello!" Agni replies, "Hello, momma duck!" And momma duck asks, "What is your name?" Agni replies, "My name is Agni." And momma duck asks, "How are you Agni?" And Agni replies, "I am doing well, momma duck! How are you?" After the story of the five little ducks became a hit at home, Agni learned to tell her name to people who asked her for her name in both English and Malayalam. Earlier, she would repeat the question when you asked her.
Children develop their attitudes and values through an interplay of family, school, and community. I am increasingly noticing that storytelling has a bigger role than we think to play in this development. The impact of a personalised story goes beyond helping my daughter learn the nuts and bolts of engaging in a conversation. I find including her as a character in the stories is helping her develop both cognitive and affective skills and pick up certain attitudes and values. I also noticed that sometimes when my daughter retells the story to her mother she includes her mother as a character wherever I mentioned my daughter as a character.
Ask questions at regular intervals.
As days progressed and I noticed that my daughter started retelling the stories I told her to her mother, I decided to push the bar a little higher. I started following up on each chunk of sentences from the story with comprehension questions. For example, after I told her, "Once, there were five little pigs. The five little pigs wanted to build a house," I would ask her, "What did the pigs want to build?" "A house!" she would respond, as she started realising that I was asking her a question about the chunk of sentences I shared with her. Or, like in the story of the five little monkeys, once the doctor had sent the injured monkey for a time-out, I would ask her, "How many monkeys are on the bed now?" She would subtract one from the total number of monkeys and tell me how many monkeys would jump on the bed in the next segment.
Asking questions throughout a story made it participatory. I play around with the complexity of questions, opening up the possibility for her to use more than one piece of information while responding. Slowly, the benefit of allowing my daughter to combine two or three facts to answer a question started yielding results. Sometimes, I also increased the complexity of the question so that though she needed to mention only a single piece of information in her response, she had to consider at least three facts from the story to arrive at the answer. As a result, I am noticing a positive difference in how she processes information these days.
Repeat the stories several times.
Cognitive scientists reiterate the need to repeatedly visit an idea or concept to make sense of it better. Luckily, my daughter likes listening to the same story over and over. As much as possible, I use the same sentences to narrate the story every time I repeat it. At least some of the key sentences in the story remain the same. For example, the momma duck asks Agni, when she does not see her five little ducks around, "Agni, Agni, where are my babies?" And Agni always says, "I don't know. Call out to them, call out to them!" And then momma duck calls out, "Quack, quack, all my babies come back. Quack, quack, all my babies come back." These key sentences that hold the story together remain the same as I repeat the stories several times.
Initially, I had to tell a story ten to fifteen times, at regular intervals, before my daughter could retell it to her mother. As the storytelling days progressed, the number of times I had to repeat a story for her to remember it came down. These days, she remembers the story after I narrate it two or three times. After she listens to the story a few times, she retells the story to her mother, mostly in her own words, not forgetting to mention the key sentences I use in the story accurately. Since she picks up the storyline after listening to it two or three times, I vary the key sentences I use in the story every third time to introduce new sentence structures and words.
Co-tell the story, eventually.
Once she listened to a story several times, I found my daughter participating in the story, completing my sentences. Once I noticed this, I decided to shift gears. Right from the beginning, as I was telling her stories, I ensured that I followed a conversational mode. More than me narrating the story, the characters would talk to each other and take the story forward. I found this helpful later, allowing me to pretend to be one character in the story and initiate a conversation. My daughter would fill up the pauses with the dialogues of other characters. For example, when momma duck asks, "What is your name?" she would respond, "My name is Agni." Co-telling the story gave our storytelling routine a new life. We role-play old stories my daughter already knows to retell these days. I noticed that repeated role-playing allows her to control her emotional expression, to use words to convey what she wants instead of brawling. I also found her developing a sense of humour, purposefully mixing up words and phrases to make fun of me or her mother.
Research suggests that engaging in narrative conversations with toddlers helps increase the number of words they can remember and use. I noticed that it expands the scope of pretend-play. Earlier, when my daughter sat down with her toys to play and interact with them as though they were alive, she used to speak very incoherently, making up her own language. Storytelling seemed to give her the ability to connect words in both English and Malayalam to verbalise pretend-play. Toddlers need to pretend-play as it improves their cognitive and metacognitive skills.
(Disclaimer: This piece is based on reflections on personal experiences and not formal research. The insights mentioned here require elaborate and focused scientific applied research to establish. If you are interested in collaborating with Innerkern to expand the scope of this personal experience into an applied research project, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org)
About the author
Sojo Varughese is an educator with more than a decade and a half of rich and varied on-field experience behind him in Teacher Training, Instructional Coaching, Academic Audit, Education Technology Integration, and School Improvement. Over these years, working with international, national & state board schools (government and private), he would have by now trained and coached 75000+ school leaders and teachers across India and the Middle East in contemporary classroom teaching, student assessment, and school management practices. Sojo Varughese is the co-founder of Innerkern and you can read more about his work here.