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Stories that support language and thinking development

May 19, 2020 by s.nagele

A need for stories

Stories help us meaningfully organize our experiences, no matter how old we are or what language we speak. When we think about the importance of stories in our everyday life as language teachers, it feels natural to assume that stories facilitate language learning. These pedagogical hunches have been well-supported by different academic fields such as narrative studies (Bamberg, 1997; Barthes, 1966; Labov & Waletsky, 1967), cognitive psychology and narratology (Herman, 2003, 2009; Richardson & Spolsky, 2004; Vygotsky, 1997), language education (Egan, 1989, 1997, 2006, Ellis & Brewster, 1991) and genre-based pedagogy (Martin & Rose, 2009), and they claim that stories are fundamental to language and thinking development just as much they are essential to our human existence. As Clare Painter (1996) has pointed out, language development enables thinking development, highlighting the "spiralling relationship" between linguistic and cognitive development in children. In a previous post we have reflected on the power of stories, and now we turn to their educational potential, focusing on thinking skills development in young learners.

Good story structures for young learners

Stories in the classroom are often used to entertain and educate children, and they are equally powerful learning resources for adults. However, in order to benefit from these resources in language teaching, we also need to define what makes a story effective. There are a number of definitions of narrative structures, and they all agree on three basic components: Orientation - Complication - Resolution. Stories with this structure are classic 'problem solving' narratives. Rose and Martin (2009) compare this type of story with recounts, anecdotes, observations or news stories, where the 'resolution' component is missing.

Children need this type of narrative structure to make an emotional and cognitive engagement with the story they are reading, a quality pointed out by educational psychologist and philosopher Kieran Egan (2015). He reminds us of the importance that young children should know how to feel about what is being learned, and this 'feeling' makes things more meaningful: what they learn should be "affectively meaningful."

Good narratives also give us examples of different social contexts, and by presenting different characters in different situations, they give access to areas of knowledge that might be difficult to imagine or access without the story. Apart from the basic classification and definition routines of language learning, this way young learners can experience different life situations and see examples of abstract ideas through everyday examples. For instance, for some students it might be difficult to imagine life in a different country, but a story like Roberto's Backpack - about a little boy in a small Mexican village - can open their imagination.

Roberto's Backpack Roberto's Backpack

Breaking down thinking skills

The creators of The Thinking Train series have studied various approach to teaching thinking (e.g. The Somerset Thinking Course, Blagg et al., 2003; The Thinking Maps, Hyerle, 2008), and they have chosen the most important areas of thinking. The stories and the activities support the development of different thinking skills. You can read more about these in the Teacher's Guide to the series written by Marion Williams.

Now we will turn to five basic areas of thinking and demonstrate how they are developed in the readers. You can see the main thinking skills addressed in the series on page 10 of the Teacher's Guide to the series.  Check out the Teacher's Guide here.

Stories that support language and thinking development - Teachers Guide
Sample page from the Teacher's Guide. © Helbling Languages

Making comparisons

In I can't sleep (Level A) and many other readers, the students are asked to compare two pictures and find the differences between them. It gets students to carefully observe and recognise different objects, identifying their physical features (colour, size, shape).

Stories that support language and thinking development - I can't sleep
Activity from I can't sleep written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Francesca Assirelli. © Helbling Languages

Categorising and sorting

In The Desert Race (Level D), the children are asked to sort the animals into three categories: Alive today, Extinct, Mythical. This important skill helps them see similarities and differences, and organising things makes it easier to remember them - an important skill for learning new vocabulary.

Stories that support language and thinking development - The desert race
Activity from The desert race written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helbling Languages

Spatial awareness

Our sense of position is important in our everyday life just like in our scientific studies. In The Three Seeds the readers need to place the vegetables in the right beds, understanding the positions left of, right of, opposite, next to. In Paul learns to plan the children use adjectives to describe the planets in our Solar System. In The sick dragon the readers follow the flight of a dragon to learn about the prepositions of movement and place.

Cause and effect

In Ruby Runs the Race (Level E), children are encouraged to match the missing parts of a mother's warnings. For example, 'Don't eat too many sweets!' should be followed by 'You'll get a tummy ache!'. This type of exercise encourages children to learn about cause and effect and anticipate what might be the consequence of their actions.

Stories that support language and thinking development - Ruby runs the race
Activity from Ruby runs the race written by Herbert Puchta and Günter Gerngross. Illustrated by Marzia Sanfilippo. © Helbling Languages

Creative thinking

Apart from analytical thinking, the students are encouraged to use their imagination and make new associations, re-design and re-discover things in a playful way. For example, in Deborah's Dreams the children are asked to re-think the use of everyday objects such as a sofa, a scarf, a slide and a table.

Stories that support language and thinking development - Deborah's dreams
Activity from Deborah's dreams written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrated by Viola Niccolai. © Helbling Languages

We encourage you to pay attention to the Before and After Reading activities, the Make and Do projects sheets and the activity boxes on the story pages in each reader. The questions in these boxes will direct the students' attention to details, they get them to practise different thinking skills, and they encourage students to make connections between different study areas, the own experiences and the story.

Read our interview with Marion Williams:


  • Bamberg, G.W. (1997). Oral Versions of Personal Experience: three decades of narrative analysis. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Barthes, Roland ([1966] 1977). “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives.” Image Music Text. New York: Hill & Wang, 79–124.
  • Egan, K. (1989). Teaching as Story Telling: An Alternative Approach to Teaching and Curriculum in the Elementary School. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • Egan, K. (1999). The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • Egan, K. (2014). The cognitive tools of children's imagination.
  • Egan, K . (2015). Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. Teachers College Press, New York. Herman, David ed. (2003). Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Stanford: CSLI.
  • Ellis, G., & Brewster, J. (1991). The storytelling handbook. London: Penguin Books.
  • Herman, David (2007a). “Cognition, Emotion, and Consciousness.” D. H. (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 245–59.
  • Labov, W. and Waletzky, J. (1967). Narrative analysis: oral versions of personal experience. In J. Helm (ed.) Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts. (Proceedings of the 1966 Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society) Seattle: University of Washington Press. 12–44.
  • Martin, J. R., & Rose, D. (2009). Genre relations: Mapping culture. London: Equinox.
  • Painter, C. (1996). The development of language as a resource for thinking: a linguistic view of learning. In R. Hasan and G. Williams (eds.), Literacy in society. London: Longman.
  • Richardson, Alan & Ellen Spolsky, ed. (2004). The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • Vygotsky, Lev S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard UP.