The Season for Storytelling

By Carolyn Lyon James

As the days grow shorter and the nights become colder, people all over the northern hemisphere hunker down and prepare for winter’s icy blast.

Many people turn to their televisions or smart phones for entertainment. Others might read a book, which is arguably more relaxing than staring at a flickering monitor or screen. (Plus, it exercises your brain and expands your vocabulary.) But let’s take this a step further! Winter nights can be a great opportunity to revive the ancient art of storytelling, by reading or telling a story out loud.

Most people recognize the importance of reading aloud to young children — how it builds fluency and cognition, increases attention span, and helps memory retention. But did you know that older children and adults also benefit from having things read aloud to them?

According to the Center for Teaching at the University of Iowa, even at the college level, “reading aloud to students both slows down and simultaneously intensifies the classroom experience. In a world of sound bites and half-formed ideas expressed quickly in electronic formats, students benefit from hearing complete ideas, expressed with originality and attention, such as one finds in literary language.”

Not only does reading aloud improve memory and understanding for the listener, it affords those same benefits to the person doing the reading. Remember the last time you set up your modem or router or some other electronic device? And how, after reading the instructions to yourself three times, you finally read them out loud in your angry voice? We do that because reading things out loud helps our understanding of the written word. And it helps us remember the instructions better.

Sophie Hardach of spoke with Colin MacLeod, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada whose research on the impact of reading aloud on memory shows that reading aloud benefits readers of all ages. Hardach writes that the “memory-boosting effect of reading aloud is particularly strong in children, but it works for older people, too.”

Another bonus to reading out loud is the connection it makes between the reader and the listener, creating a sense of community. Literacy expert Pam Allyn, founder of World Read Aloud Day, writes that “the experience of reading aloud is a profound exchange — the company of one another in the experience, to talk about the text, to marvel over a riveting excerpt, to laugh together over a funny part, or to cry over something sad. These are all emotions that, when shared with someone else, create a bond wrapped in empathy and a love for reading.”

Most of us who were read to as children can easily recall our favorite books, the ones we pulled out night after night to have our parents read time and again.

When our kids were young, my husband (who is a wonderful storyteller in his own right) loved to read aloud to them. One of his favorites is Leo Lionni’s storybook Frederick, which you probably know is about a family of field mice getting ready for the cold winter months ahead.

Four of the mice are working hard to gather nuts, straw, and the like — but they notice that Frederick doesn’t seem to be working as hard as they are. “Frederick, why don’t you work?” they ask him. He replies, “I do work. I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days…. I gather colors… for winter is gray…. I am gathering words. For the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say.”

When the mice run out of food, and the cold begins to seep into their bones, they ask Frederick to share some of his supplies. Frederick directs them to close their eyes. He speaks of the sun, and the mice begin to feel warmer. He reminds them of the colors of summer, and the mice see “the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their minds.” And when Frederick shares the words he has been collecting, the four delighted field mice declare him a poet.

May this season be filled with love, warmth, and stories that you can share with all the people in your life.