In the remote villages of Rajasthan, children studying in a Hindi-medium school speak a dialect or a regional language at home. For them, standard Hindi is still their second language. Also, since many of these children are first-generation learners, their exposure to their own language at home is limited to the exchange of instructions to do or not do something and hence developing a rich vocabulary and basic understanding of syntax structure becomes a challenge. In overcoming such situations, stories can play an important role.
As I entered the classroom in one such village in Rajasthan, I saw Ramesh, a grade 5 student, glued to the screen, engrossed in what he was watching. There was an animation playing on the screen. Ramesh had the headphones on and he was listening to every word being spoken attentively. Every day, he and many of his classmates eagerly come to the session, login and start listening to these stories, which are followed by certain word-meaning explanations and related questions. After they spend around half of the time of the session on these stories and related questions, they are given questions on various grammatical concepts.
This blended learning approach, where children learn through both stories and narratives and through questions designed to impart an understanding of grammatical concepts, enables language acquisition in children. The concept of learning through stories is based on the theory of the whole language approach as well as on Krashen’s Input Hypothesis for language learning. Mindspark as a language learning programme is based on a hybrid version of Krashen’s Input Hypothesis where children learn through storytelling and related word meaning understanding and questions.
According to Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, language acquisition is all about appropriate inputs. These inputs are required to be comprehensible as well as compelling. A Comprehensible Input is an input that the child can make meaning of, even when s/he doesn’t understand it fully. Krashen, in his research, emphasises the comprehensible input to be of the i+1 level (i being the content level that the child can understand) which means providing the child with an input where around 5-10% of the vocabulary is unfamiliar. This pushes the child to think further, explore and construct his/her meaning based on the context. This allows children to absorb language in its whole form and allows for contextual meaning-making.
However, for the child to stay engaged with the content to learn and acquire new words, the content needs to be compelling and not just interesting. A compelling input means that the input is so interesting that the child forgets that it is in another language. Compelling input appears to eliminate the need for motivation and makes learning possible irrespective of the conscious intent to learn. Supporting visuals, illustrations or audio can make the content more compelling than just the text. Krashen (2004) in his research studies shares multiple anecdotes on the improved learning levels when storytelling was used as an input. For the content to be compelling, audio-visual aids are important and not necessarily mandatory, especially once the child learns to read.
Having stories in the learning content thus primes children to learn language through the whole language approach where children learn through exposure to language holistically and not by breaking them into various components based on grammar. This enables the development of richer vocabulary and creates an innate sense of grammar without focusing on grammatical components separately.
When we think of storytelling, we think of grandparents or parents narrating stories to young kids. For most of us, it is believed to be a technique to engage children. However, storytelling was one of the first methods of oral communication. Stories help in understanding and interpreting human actions, intentions and emotions. They also help in organising everyday experiences and empathising with scenarios that one might not have experienced. They help us build an understanding of our surroundings and the social world. In language learning, stories help us understand the organisation’s power of content or facts to internalise the information meaningfully. Numerous studies have pointed out and proved that storytelling facilitates learning and that it is a practical and powerful teaching technique, especially for language learning. Other than building vocabulary, it encourages critical literacy through various content comparisons and meaning-making and makes children imaginative and creative. Storytelling motivates children to listen to a language they are not always familiar with, reducing their anxiety about learning a new language. As the focus shifts from the correctness of grammar to the correctness of meaning, it is quite likely that students experience a boost in self-confidence about competencies, which in the long run might even have an impact on learning inside the classroom. Thus, by letting the child deviate from the ordinary classroom patterns of learning where the approach is often focused on reading the text and understanding syntactical structure, storytelling provides a very motivating and compelling way to learn. Individuals listening to stories react to them almost automatically and in a participatory way. Students remain cognitively awake, following along, wanting to find out what happens next and how the story ends.
Mindspark nudges children to learn further through these stories. Each 2-5-minute-long minutes, stories cued with visuals, voice-overs and subtitles end with a couple of new words, their meanings and their sentence application. Once children understand those, depending on the story, 6-8 questions based on the story follow. These include recall-based and inference-based multiple-choice questions. With progress in learning, there occurs a shift in children’s focus. They start focusing on text irrespective of the audio-visual cues. This learning programme design ultimately leads the children to read the story and answer the questions.
Language learning through the grammatical approach has its own benefits. However, to create stronger vocabulary and focus on meaning-making, storytelling becomes an important technique for language acquisition. For younger children formally learning a language, storytelling can create familiarity and can help in making mental pictures to create connections, and provide the necessary vocabulary for the children to then understand grammatical concepts well. In a digital environment, providing audio-visual cues become relatively easier. Coupling a story-driven learning approach with the technical approach of learning grammar can help children learn the language in a coherent way.
- Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Second edition.
- Miller, S. & Pennvcuff, L. (2008). The Power of Story: Using Storytelling to Improve Literacy Learning. Journal of Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives in Education 1(1): 36 – 43.
- Polichak, J.W., & Gerrig, R.J. (2002). Get up and win: Participatory responses to narrative.
- Tsou, W., Wang, W. & Tzeng, Y. (2006). Applying a multimedia storytelling website in foreign language learning, Computers & Education (47):1- 17-28.
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