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Storytelling for Learning and Teaching
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

When working in a non-European culture, besides learning the language, you need to master the preferred communication style of the people you will be working with.  Otherwise you will be working against great odds.

Most cultures of the world are primarily oral in communication and learning style, no matter how functionally literate.  Communication through stories is common in cultures throughout the world, including the European cultures

Stories as Universal History and Culture
From the earliest times, stories captured history, morality, faith, and other critical aspects of society from one generation to the other.  The earliest written records from Indo-European cultures are in story form, like the epics of Homer and the religious myths of the Hindu scriptures.

Modern westerners are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to storytelling.  Most have not told stories extensively as oral cultures do.  We may be used to consuming stories, but the storytelling skills have been abdicated to the professional book writers and movie makers.

Westerners have a more analytical approach to learning, and the educational system teaches people to learn information rather than to tell and understand stories.  How can a westerner - educated out of his storytelling birthright - learn to understand and then communicate in story format?

Observe a Storyteller
Many societies still have certain persons designated as official repositories of the treasures of the tribe, in story format. Sometimes foreigners can be granted access to these human treasures, perhaps sit in on learning sessions with young people going through initiation

There are often less formal storytelling situations.  Often the talk of the old men outside the kiosk or in front of the house are storytelling sessions.  Talk to your cultural guide about such opportunities.

Children's Stories on Television or Radio
These are excellent opportunities to learn storytelling techniques in a particular culture or set of cultures.  Most societies have ritual formats, like "Once upon a time" or "And the big, bad, wolf ..." or "And they lived happily ever after."  

Observe stories from a variety of public sources, and imitate the format.  Learn from your cultural guide which formats are required or allowed in which social settings

Oral Culture Communication Formats
Spend time just investigating, formally for your own purposes, but informally in the manner you use.  Observe, take notes, read any sources, to help you learn how people communicate in speech and story in the target society.  Listen to the illustrations and stories of traditional leaders, modern politicians, preachers and other orators in the local culture.  Many printed stories are in oral style.

Analyze for yourself these patterns you observe, then try them out.  As you learn the communication and education patterns of the people, as you become proficient in dialogues and oral communication, you can begin to experiment with use of story formats appropriate to the people

Learning Oral Communication
As you learn the language, learn the oral communication formats, the storytelling formats.  Children's stories are a good source.  Watch children's TV programs.  Get very simple children's story books and learn stories as part of your overall language learning experience.  As your language skills increase, move to longer stories

The stories themselves will make a great contribution to your language learning as well as your culture learning in the new society.  Learn to tell your story.  Introduce yourself with simple two-line "stories."  Expand as you can

Storytelling and Storying
Christian mission agencies are reporting great success using a storytelling method, rather than attempting to teach information, as in the traditional western linear concept of learning.  A teaching technique growing in popularity is called "Storying."  This is a refined technique based on storytelling, for communicating with illiterate audiences

In this approach, the stories of the Bible are in focus, not abstract "facts" or philosophical points imported form the foreign communicator's worldview.  Thus the foundational stories are communicated, and the local people interact with them in a way appropriate to them.  Storying, and storytelling works with audiences unfamiliar with any biblical history or Christian faith, whether literate or not.

Appropriate Communication Formats
You can formulate the content you would like to communicate into forms acceptable to and expected by the local people.  You can tell your faith story, and the stories of our faith history, in a manner familiar to the people, so they can really hear what you want to communicate.


See Related Articles
[TXT] Different Literacy — Different World
     (Are Older Bible Manuscripts More Reliable?)
[TXT] Eye Learning or Ear Learning?
[TXT] God and Literacy
[TXT] Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
[TXT] Literacy — A Modern Phenomenon
[review] Oral Greek Styles in Paul's Writings
[TXT] Orality and the Post-literate West
[TXT] Orality in Christian Mission
[TXT] Orality, Literacy and the Bible
[TXT] Stories and Storytelling: Reclaiming our Oral Heritage

Also View Presentations
[PPt]Orality and Post-Literate Culture
[PPt]Oral and Literate – Contrast of Oral and Literate Perspectives

Related on the Internet
Indigenous Orality and Storytelling for Education – Aboriginal Languages and Literacy Institute
The Importance of Storytelling in Learning
Orality And Storytelling - Matters Of The Heart
Traditional Storytelling Around the World


Originally published in the "Techniques" series in Focus on Communication Effectiveness December 1996.
Rewritten and posted on OJTR 6 June 2006
Last edited 7 October 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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