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Why oral storytelling and reading to children are important

by | Mar 13, 2024 | Road to Literacy

By Nelia Landman, Publisher: English & Afrikaans at Oxford University Press

Some skills come naturally to us as we are biologically designed that way

The skill of reading, however, develops differently in our brains and needs to be explicitly taught for it to be mastered. This means that for children to read well, they need to be taught to read well.

One skill that does come naturally is spoken language. This is evident in the fact that in the early years many children’s listening comprehension is better than their reading comprehension. Also, storytelling abilities at the age of five is a strong predictor of reading comprehension in later grades (Fisher & Frey, 2014; Spencer, 2023; Stewart, 2021).

Just because spoken language comes naturally to children, doesn’t mean that listening and speaking skills should not be practised and promoted. Oral storytelling and reading to and with children at home and at school have many benefits that support children in learning how to read.

Developing phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is highlighted as one of the main components of teaching children to read, along with phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. Phonological awareness is the awareness of sounds in words. Some examples of phonological awareness activities include clapping words in syllables, saying rhymes and identifying words that rhyme, identifying sounds in words (for example, recognising the alliteration in sentences), and more (Learning Point Associates, 2004; Department for Education and Skills, 2007; Pretorius & Murray, 2019).

Although phonological awareness activities can be practised in isolation, many of these activities are natural proponents of oral storytelling and reading to children and are effective in creating interest and the enhancing meaning of stories as children actively listen to them.

Promoting oral and written literacy

Reading or telling stories to children improve their word and concept development, which, in turn, develops their speaking and listening skills – skills that are vital for children to develop further literacy skills (Yazıcı & Bolay, 2017). Oral storytelling is also more complex than one may believe as it requires children to listen to and respond using academic language. This helps them to understand more difficult words and sentence patterns in narration, which will later support them when moving on to reading and writing (Spencer, 2023).

Encouraging active engagement, diversity and inclusion

One of the biggest problems our country faces is the fact that many children don’t have access to reading materials in their home language or caregivers do not read the language that their children may be learning at school.

Oral storytelling is one way in which to overcome this challenge as one doesn’t need books for this interaction and the language need only be spoken and not read. Oral storytelling also reinforces children hearing stories from their families and cultures that they may otherwise not be exposed to (Spencer, 2023; White, 2022).

Storytelling and reading stories to children also empower them to become storytellers themselves. Children are able to actively participate in stories through acting out part of a story, retelling what they thought about a story, doing rhymes and songs as part of the listening and speaking process, and more (White, 2022). They are also able to hear what is sounds like when a story is read well, which will help them to tell and read stories with expression and confidence too.

Supporting socioemotional development

All people think in story format, which means that specific narratives help children to understand their world and their surroundings (Spencer, 2023). Children can relate to the events in the story and how characters overcame certain problems faced, which helps them to make sense of their own realities and to verbally express themselves more clearly and confidently.

In addition to the benefits listed above, reading and telling stories to children create interest and excitement about books, reading and learning, which will be invaluable to children as they grow into adults.To spark the joy of reading in your classroom, look for the Aweh! and Aitsa! Big Books – ideal for shared reading in any Foundation Phase classroom.


Department for Education and Skills. 2007. Letters and Sounds: Principles and practice of high-quality phonics. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/190599/Letters_and_Sounds_-_DFES-00281-2007.pdf

Fisher, D & Frey, N. 2014. Speaking and listening in content area learning. The Reading Teacher, 68(1), 64-69 Available from: https://www.readingrockets.org/topics/comprehension/articles/speaking-and-listening-content-area-learning [Accessed: 19 February 2024].

Learning Point Associates. 2004. A closer look at the five essential components of effective reading instruction: A review of scientifically based reading research for teachers. Available from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED512569.pdf [Accessed: 19 February 2024].

Pretorius, E. & Murray, S. 2019. Teaching reading comprehension. Cape Town: Oxford University Press Southern Africa.

Spencer, T.D. 2023. Oral storytelling is important for reading, writing and social wellbeing. Open Access Government, January 2023. Available from: https://openaccessgovernment.org/article/oral-storytelling-is-important-for-reading-writing-and-social-wellbeing-academic-language/148950/ [Accessed: 19 February 2024].

Stewart, L. 2021. The science of reading: Evidence for a new era of reading instruction. Available from: https://www.zaner-bloser.com/research/the-science-of-reading-evidence-for-a-new-era-of-reading-instruction.php [Accessed: 19 February 2024].

White, A. 2022. The role of stories in literacy development. The Education Hub. Available from: https://theeducationhub.org.nz/the-role-of-stories-in-literacy-development/#_edn1 [Accessed: 19 February 2024].

Yazıcı, E. & Bolay, H. 2017. Story based activities enhance literacy skills in preschool children. Universal Journal of Educational Research, 5(5): 815-823.Available from: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1143956 [Accessed: 19 February 2024].

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