When teaching literacy—whether it be reading and writing or grammar and mechanics—detached exercises and single-focused instruction are not ideal methods to retain literacy skills. That’s because (spoiler alert) words are not mathematical concepts. We can memorize grammar terms and study vocabulary words until we are blue in the face, but this approach omits the very soul of words: human connection.
Now, this is not really a secret, nor is it some tremendous epiphany. What may be, however, is the idea that everything you teach can (and should) be laced with narrative. This is known as narrative-based teaching, and can help shape a personal connection to every other concept, skill, or form of writing.
Narrative is the Epitome of Human Experience
We tell stories for one fundamental reason: to share with others. Storytelling has existed since the dawn of time, and narrative is embedded in everything we consume, enjoy, and experience. Therefore, rooting everything we teach with narrative, we are appealing to that which makes us human. We are planting authentic situations in our learning, allowing learners to recognize and use literary concepts in “the real world.”
In the simplest of explanations: it makes learning interesting. We are, by nature, a narcissistic species—without an emotional, personal connection, it is difficult for us to deeply involve ourselves with a concept or topic, especially if it is new or does not come easy to us. This, I would argue, is not a flaw—it is simply part of our genetic makeup. It is also what links our souls and generations together and should be preserved and used to our advantage when we teach.
Oral storytelling and centering human experiences in learning approaches is also an intersectional way of decolonizing the classroom. By placing equal value on oral traditions as we do on Eurocentric, anthologized literature, we allow diverse voices and experiences to guide learning through representation as well as allow a connection through empathy. Which should always be at the forefront of our pedagogy, regardless of instructional goals.
The Foundations of Narrative in Organic Learning
Think about it: when teaching children how to read, we start with simply reading books. We introduce the very fundamentals of understanding language through storytelling. We embed a curiosity for stories in their bodies, hoping to impassion them with a love for reading that will carry on throughout their lives. Psychological studies have shown that organic learning yields better results, specifically with diverse learners. When we put two and two together, it is clear that narrative-based teaching is fundamental in an organic learning environment.
So, why do we stop narrative-centric instruction once schooling begins?
There are, of course, nuanced and systemic problems with our education institutions that can both simply and complexly answer this very question. However, as a teacher or parent, we can control the ins and outs of how we approach subjects, even when being mandated with the general what we are teaching.
In her article, “Resilience in Language Learners and the Relationship to Storytelling” Kate Nguyen states that: “Storytelling is an important educational technique that may play an important role in the process of development for individuals. Not enough is known about the relationship between storytelling and the psychological resilience of the adult learner. Adults draw upon stories for strength in multiple contexts. One can recall the stories of childhood, and one can recall the past and present stories of adulthood, and one can tell stories and some learn to teach through stories … [When analyzing] the relationship between academic stress and resilience in social interaction through an examination of case studies. Storytelling may provide decreased academic stress, while at the same time the storytelling enhanced resilience”
The research included in this peer-reviewed article suggests that “the significant themes for participants were the efficacy of learning resiliency through the pedagogy of storytelling, the value of community, and the transformative resiliency development of applying the learning to their own lives” and aims to measure the quantifiable effect of narrative with learners, in all aspects.
In short: storytelling provides a safe and non-threatening learning environment accessible to diverse learners in various situations.
Narrative-Based Curriculum and Teaching Narrative First
Not only should you implement narrative-based teaching with all concepts, but when structuring your curriculum, consider beginning the study of narrative before anything else. Pedagogically, this approach not only connects the student to the material, but the student to you. Memoir is a narrative genre that works twofold in this way: positioning the learner to understand the role of narrative, and their own human experience. Further, when your student trusts you and you’ve built a strong relationship, they are apt to being open throughout their learning process. Your classroom ecosystem’s efficiency relies heavily on this rapport—and narrative can build it.
Another advantage of focusing on the narrative first—whether it be within a unit, assignment, concept, semester, or school year—is how this peels the curtain back for learners so they understand how deeply embedded narrative constructs are in every corner of their lives. This will help analytical skills form before you even introduce complex concepts.
For example, once we’ve laid the groundwork by reading and writing narratives for several weeks in the beginning of the semester in my English Composition classes, students then begin to naturally break down other genres of compositions with a narrative lens. The best example of familiar appearances of narrative is while exploring the advertisement genre—and I always show this clip from Mad Men:
In this scene, Don Draper—an “ad man”—pulls in his audience through narrative. It is an exceptional “behind the scenes look” on how advertisements in general appeal to our storytelling DNA. More importantly, however, it provides context for understanding how narrative can be used as a persuasive tool in rhetoric, by invoking pathos. This, in turn, creates conversation about how narrative techniques are literally everywhere, and are used for different reasons in different ways.
Overall, narrative is a powerful and familiar tool that will engage, inspire, and assist learners as they navigate throughout all levels of literacy education and English classes. However, intersectionality of narrative can, and should, be a targeted focus in teaching all subjects. From math, to science, to history, connecting concepts through narrative can reshape how students view the world and learning in general.
For Writing Classes Specifically:
How do we continue momentum, and continue to use the familiar approach to writing with narrative as well as that personal connection and communicative bond throughout the rest of the semester?
By teaching intentional choices of the creative writer—of the composer in general—an ongoing conversation emerges. We can present the following questions to learners to engage in an ongoing dialogue with rhetoric and narrative uses:
How are these compositions different? How are they the same?
What impact does the author’s life have on their work?
How does social context affect the audience’s reception of the work? How does intentional use of kairos by the composer impact its effectiveness?
By training the analytical eye to see the familiar narrative everywhere, learners connect to the world around them and are fulfilled with their personal needs to develop the desire to engage with concepts. By first introducing narrative genres, then engaging in narrative consistently through all aspects of learning, you may be pleasantly surprised with how little resistance you find in even the most bland or complex subjects.
Narrative-based Assignment Ideas in the Classroom:
- ad analysis
- photo essay
- blog post
- editorial articles
- Visual compositions
- Rhetorical analysis of literature
- Literacy narratives
Questions to Ask Yourself:
How do I already intersect the narrative genre into my teaching through specific exercises, assignments and assessments?
How can I be more transparent with my learners and intentionally use narrative throughout all genres and units?
Is this something I even care to do or need to include in my teaching? Why or why not?