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Oral storytelling could put kids on the path to literacy, finds Utah State University study

School kids sitting on cushions and reading books in a library
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Reading is a skill that students across the country are struggling with as scores have taken a hit from the pandemic.

Teaching students how to tell stories out loud could help with reading and writing skills. That’s the finding from a study from researchers at Utah State University and the University of Texas at Austin.

The first through fourth grade students that participated all had language and literacy difficulties. Some of the kids were then put in small groups and participated in 36 lessons over the course of three months with each lesson lasting about 30 minutes.

Those students first learned about elements of a story, like what a character is and that characters in a story take action because there’s a problem.

Utah State University speech-language pathology professor and study co-author Sandra Gillam said students also learned how story elements work together. The second phase of the program focused on the language skills needed to make stories more elaborate and tie pieces of a narrative together. In the third phase, students would create their own stories.

“They’re not writing anything. We feel like these kids need to really focus hard on the language only and get a handle on getting that organizational framework in their head,” Gillam said. “When we introduce writing, it derails them because they either have a mechanical problem with writing, their handwriting isn’t very good or they don’t know how to spell very well.”

Students were tested five months after they finished the program. The students who learned about and practiced oral storytelling improved more in their writing and reading abilities than the control group of students.

Gillam said the program is meant to supplement what is already happening in the classroom, where students learn about phonics and grammar.

“So now they’ve got this one thing that’s really strong that now they can use to bootstrap the other things,” Gillam said. “Improve their organizational abilities so that they can think about things in an organized way and that they can remember the important parts of a story.”

Reading is a skill that students across the country are struggling with as scores have taken a hit from the pandemic. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test released in October showed reading scores for fourth graders in Utah declined between 2019 and 2022. Eighth grade reading scores stayed stagnant.

Across all grade levels in Utah, 43.6% of students showed proficiency in language arts during the 2021-2022 school year compared to 47% proficiency in 2018-2019, according to data from the Utah State Board of Education.

“I can’t tell you the number of third graders I’ve seen just this fall who are reading at an early first grade level,” said director emeritus of the University of Utah Reading Clinic, Kathleen Brown. “Reading is the cornerstone of academic success in our society.”

Brown said once students fall behind in reading, they will likely struggle in other subjects, as well.

Not only is it hard for some students to learn how to read, but Brown added that teaching reading is particularly difficult. Brown said reading is not a natural skill that students will pick up just by being exposed to literature, and so it needs to be taught in a way that is backed by research. Brown pointed to literacy expert Louisa Moats who said “teaching reading is rocket science.”

“So many kids are behind and once you get behind, it’s really hard to catch up,” she said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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