Open Windows! Promote Children’s Use of Language Through Storytelling!

Jeannine Marie Lenehan (CDS)

Storytelling is a very powerful tool with a long, rich evolution.  From the Egyptians and hieroglyphics dating back about 5,000 years ago to the detailed drawings in France’s Chauvet cave, dating back 30,000 years.  Storytelling continues to captivate us. It’s an art form that can require our mental, physical, and visual acuity. In fact, we are hard-wired for stories, but not just any stories. We are consistently drawn to stories with triumphant themes and heroic characters. We also respond to stories that echo our personal experiences and desires. Just listening to or reading stories of how others have overcome hardships or navigated complex social situations can provide us with insight and the confidence to navigate our own real-world situations; all while promoting our understanding of ourselves and others. Studies have found that character-driven stories with emotional content can foster children’s healthy imaginations, teach them to create their own narrative, and help to better understand key points.

I remember when our kids were young how they enjoyed listening to us tell our tales. My husband Dan, especially, always had a knack for telling them.  He had a variety of characters he’d pull out of his hat. His voices, sound effects, facial expressions, and physical gestures made our kids laugh so hard and kept them on the edge of their seats.  Every narrative was an adventure; and his love, time, and good nature fostered their mutual bonds. 

The essence of storytelling, conjured by our realities and imaginations can also nurture a child’s social and emotional health. Character driven stories can promote a child’s healthy sense of autonomy by demonstrating how to navigate situations on their own, how to be a meaningful part of a relationship, or how to nurture their skills and abilities to achieve something. Additionally, stories have the power to allow children to feel that it’s okay for me to be me and  for you to be you!

Storytelling also requires strong language skills, which have been found to be the single best predictor of children’s later academic success (Hoff,2013). A 2017 study,  A Matter of Principle: Applying Language Science to the Classroom and Beyond” offers considerable insight. Strong language skills are a critical component for fostering children’s literacy, social skills, and executive functioning skills. Because language proficiency is critical for helping children navigate their world inside and outside the classroom, children who lack sufficient language skills and world knowledge often struggle to keep up.

The fact is children use their existing knowledge of words to help them learn new words.  Therefore, the quality of communication they experience is key. When parents and educators provide language-rich environments through parent-child and teacher-child interactions they help to remediate language gaps children can experience. The 2017 Study found that 80% of preschool and school-age children’s waking time is actually spent outside of school, making language-rich environments outside the classroom essential. 

For children across the board, in formal or informal learning settings, there is a fundamental need to identify actionable strategies to provide language-rich environments for children. The Read-Play-Learn [RPL] project included a series of studies funded by the Institute for Education Sciences to boost vocabulary development in low-income monolingual and bilingual preschoolers, ages 3-5, in the Southern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The 2017 Study used the RPL project as a testing ground to apply six principles they considered critical for a child’s language development, and used these six principles in real-world conditions.  

The findings were clear. Reading with children, using new words frequently (over a period of weeks), providing them with books, picture vocabulary cards that related to a story, and playing with figurines helped promote children’s vocabulary and understanding of different topics. It allow them to think more deeply about the words they used. the context they used them in,  and connect their new vocabulary to their own real-world experiences. 

Encouraging your child to tell stories requires joint attention, which is critical for children’s language development (Adamson, Bakeman, Deckner, & Nelson, 2014). As they tell their stories they are rehearsing their new vocabulary, nurturing their confidence, and opening windows to new worlds. Children’s communication skills are the foundation for acquiring new information and forming ideas at home, at school, alone, or with friends. Lastly, their stories can provide important insight into the way they see and think about their world. This window allows parents to better understand their children, which can help you to effectively meet your children’s social and emotional needs.

The following are the Six Principles of Language Development discussed in this article.

  1. Children will make verbal mistakes along the way; but your gentle guidance and not injecting too much of yourself is key.
  2. Frequency: Children learn what they hear the most making the quantity and quality of words important.
  3. Interest: Children learn words for things and events that interest them.
  4. When children listen to stories or general topics that they find significant they make word-to-world mappings to learn new words.
  5. When parents and teachers provide children with joint attention they help nurture these word-to-world mappings. Case in point, when parents uses gestures to help an infant connect an object with a word they are helping the infant create word-to-world connections.
  6. Contingency: Interactive and responsive environments build language learning.
  7. Children’s language development flourishes when they are engaged in healthy exchanges with adults that are responsive to their verbal and nonverbal attempts. In fact, responsive parenting is a strong predictor of children’s later language, cognitive, and social development (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).
  8. For example: When a child points to a tree and says “Tree!” and the parent replies “Yes, that’s a tree!” the parent is fostering the child’s language and learning.
  9. Meaningful  Contexts: Children learn best in meaningful contexts. Yet, so much of what happens in early childhood settings are focused more on making things than making meaning (Christakis, 2016).
  10. For example: A common Thanksgiving activity for children is making a turkey figure out of tracing their hands. However, if educators included an examination of real turkey feathers, taking a field trip to a farm or having a farmer come to a class children will begin to form connections, concepts, and provide children with words to add to their vocabulary.
  11. Diversity: Children need to hear diverse examples of words and language structures.
  12. Think of children learning new words like making a deposit.  Each time children hear and begin to use a new word it’s like making a deposit in their vocabulary account. Using a rich pool of words in a variety of contexts can help increase children’s vocabulary.
  13. Reciprocity: Vocabulary, grammatical, and narrative development are complimentary processes.
  14. Research shows that children as young as 2 years old can use syntax to identify the part of speech of a new word and formulate a strong idea of what the word means (Fisher, Klinger, & Song, 2006).
  15. Parents and educators can encourage children to leverage their knowledge of areas that interest them. This exploration can foster new learning and provide children with new vocabulary.

Jeannine Marie Lenehan
Child Development Specialist & Researcher
Founder and Principal


  • 1. Children and adults are hard-wired for stories with triumphant themes and heroic characters.
  • 2. Story characters who overcome hardships or navigate complex social situations can give children the confidence and help to navigate their own real-world experiences.
  • 3. Studies have found character-driven stories with emotional content can foster children’s healthy imagination, teach them to create their own narrative, and help to better understand key points.
  • 4.The stories children tell can also give parents important insight into the way their children see and think about the world.
  • a.This window allows parents to better understand their children, which can help them to effectively meet their children’s social and emotional needs.


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