The Power of Stories

Nora Nagy

“Stories, great, flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling. Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer, stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service of only the story itself. Servant girls have to marry the prince. That’s what life is all about. You can’t fight a Happy Ending.” (Terry Pratchett)

When we think of our roles as teachers of English, we often find ourselves having to teach the language in a ‘bubble’, and we often look for more inspiring, more imaginative resources. When we teach English as a second language, what we really teach is thinking about language, culture and our own place in that language. What do we use language for from the moment we enter our first and second language? We want to communicate to complete practical tasks, and we want to tell stories. The storytelling function of language (both verbal and visual) is a greatly motivating resource for any classroom just as narratives are the greatest source of our emotional and intellectual development. We create stories on an everyday basis: ‘tell me about your holiday’, ‘tell me about your weekend’, ‘tell me about your day’, ‘tell me about your dreams’. We retell stories for entertainment and learning: ‘Have you heard…?’, ‘Did you know…?’, ‘What’s new?’, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ We are, as Kieran Egan says, 'a storying animal'. (Egan, Kieran. Teaching as Storytelling. University of Chicago Press. 1989)

Illustration from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Illustration by Francesca Protopapa. © Helbling Languages

What is the role of storytelling, fairy tales, narratives in different stages of our lives? First, let’s have a look at this overview of the functions of storytelling, then let’s look at the roles of storytelling from a teacher's point of view.

Young Learners

Imagine a classroom with 10-12 children between the ages 5-8. Imagine going into this classroom with a great story told in simple but beautiful language. When we want to engage young learners, the easiest way to grab their attention is through games and stories - or even better, games that lead into stories. There are more benefits of using stories, even as the main resource material for your language lessons:

  1. They serve as fuel to your students’ imagination.
  2. They contextualize the language you would like to teach.
  3. They are excellent starting points for games and activities.

The presence of both verbal and visual languages in children’s books is essential in both first and second language education. Illustrations support the plot, they help with unknown words, and the retelling part of the reading process becomes easier and more entertaining. Fairy tales and myths may look far from ‘real’ language situations, but as the psychologist and educator Tamás Vekerdy  pointed out, ‘fairy tales do not divert us from reality, … but they lead us to it.’ Fairy tales are essential to our emotional development as they bring subjects like love, loss, anger, and fear closer to us. Myths and legends also teach us moral lessons about life and history. It is important to mention that clinical research shows that moral patterns taken from fairy tales are effective also with teenagers, but only when we do not draw intellectual conclusions, but use them in indirect education. If we give context to topics like nature, love, loss, family life, school or our own difficulties, and we do it through narration, we can create an imaginary world where we can ‘practise’ for real life, or ‘play’ with our reality, and this place can exist in the English classroom.


When we enter the world of teenagers, we start dealing with more trouble, more doubts, more interest in discovery, and more introspective thinking - all at the same time! Stories gain a new significance here - teenagers are working to build their own identify, often identifying themselves as being alien to the system. They want to understand the obstacles and difficulties they are facing, but they don’t often want to talk about it.

The Wesbourne Kids: David, Holly, Zadie, Jack, Ricky, Grace. Illustration by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helbling Languages

If you look at our Graphic Stories, the Westbourne Kids, you will recognise an overview  of teenage attitudes: the rebel, the dreamer, the artist, the nerd - everyone has their own battles to fight, and everyone finds a way to succeed. Our own students enjoy reading about young people who are similar to them, and showing them ways to read for fun can have great educational outcomes. Look at ways to implement Extensive Reading in your classroom program, and use classics and original stories to provide fun materials for your students.

Young Adults

Children who were brought up on books are more likely to become reading adults. Talking about a good novel, a short story, a film are just as inspiring to adults as they can express their intellectual opinions, start debates and talk about their feelings.  Young Adults will appreciate and discuss the differences between different ‘tellings’ of the same story. The same story can be told in many ways, and reading a narrative, and then comparing it with its film versions can be a great topic of conversational lessons as well as an excellent way of soft skills such as negotiation and mediation.

But how can we involve young adults who are resistant to books and narratives? Starting with songs, films and short stories can be a solution. When your students find it hard to have something to say or talk about, turn to stories for help. Read a short story together. Tell them about the plot of a novel, or explore the larger themes that some narratives deal with. From nature conservation through love stories to crime investigation, you will find everything the human mind has ever thought of in novels. Lots of young adult literature which has been written for native English speakers is accessible for your B1 students. These books are exceedingly motivating and stimulating and many of them have been developed into films or TV series which your students may be familiar with.