Why listening to stories is part of learning to read

Antoinette Sitole, sister of Hector Peterson telling a story to entranced audience
Antoinette Sithole, sister of Hector Peterson, telling a story to an entranced audience

By Carole Bloch

In his insightful book, The Rights of the Reader, Daniel Pennac comments: “When someone reads aloud, they raise you to the level of the book. They give you reading as a gift.” People who love reading know the precise value of that gift, and how to access it. But there are those who cannot read, both children and adults. In days gone by, storytelling and, later, reading aloud was common practice. Listening brought its own pleasures: the first lines of a compelling story anticipated thrills like the ‘Ntunjambili’ chant opening the sheltering rock to fleeing, terrified children, or the call of ‘Open Sesame’ revealing the cave in which the forty thieves’ glittering treasure lay.

Apart from the sheer exhilaration of a great story, and the sense of belonging, community and connection experienced, this was how substantial learning took place. History, values and knowledge were shared. In Mesopotamia, just 6 000 years ago, the few who could read were called scribes rather than readers, possibly, surmises Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading, to emphasise the “greatest gift” of “having access to the archives of human memory and rescuing from the past the voice of our experience”.

Today, many of us are entranced by the vast visual world of digital stories. But would the thousands of children who struggle through the education system benefit from listening to them? More specifically, for children learning to read, what is the significance of hearing well-told and well-read stories? A clear answer may elude many parents, teachers and librarians in modern day South Africa. There have been and there are few magnificent storybooks published in languages that most local young children and their families speak. The pervasive insistence that children learning English must learn in English as soon as possible does not help to change this situation. Nor does the way in which ‘skills-based’ teaching methods for initial literacy tend to be prioritised over nurturing an interest in and a love of stories and reading.

However, listening to stories is indeed significant for learning to read. Comprehension and vocabulary grow strong in children who have stories told and read aloud to them. For several decades research has confirmed this, as well as the fact that knowledge of story structure predicts children’s later general reading success. Of course, learning to read cannot happen without close encounters with the mechanics of print, but it’s is far easier if healthy story language roots have already embedded themselves in fertile minds.

When story time involves children and adults poring over words and illustrations together, crucial concepts relating to print become integral to the powerful process – even though, being informally structured, much of this learning may go unnoticed. But when children don’t have such experiences, and struggle to make sense of what they’re learning, as teachers and parents we often attribute this to their need to be taught particular skills rather than appreciating their need for linguistically and imaginatively rich input.

Stories chosen for interest rather than for the attainment of a particular reading level challenge and expand children’s intelligence as they explore exciting ways of being and of expressing themselves. Without bidding, they incorporate them into their play and other activities. And, being finely tuned to our expectations of them, when we show faith in their power to grapple with the big ideas and emotions in the stories they hear from us, they will often surprise and delight us with their capabilities.

These are a few reasons why anyone who cares about the future citizens of South Africa should be polishing up a story or two to tell or read to the children in their lives.

Carole Bloch is the Executive Director of the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign and Director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA). This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 4 September 2015.


Do you want to tell your own stories but sometimes find it a bit difficult to get going? Nal’ibali has some ideas to get you started – click here for story seeds

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