Reading versus telling of stories in the development of English vocabulary and comprehension in young second language learners.
Elementary school students
Uchiyama, Takumi
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Name: Reading Improvement Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0034-0510
Date: Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 48 Source Issue: 4
Product Code: E197200 Students, Elementary

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Concern has been expressed about teaching English to the fifth- and the sixth graders in the public schools of Japan. There appears to be an insufficiency of materials as well as anxiety among teachers who must instruct these grades. Story telling may be an important step for developing English competence. The current study replicated the work of Trostle and Hicks (1998) which investigated vocabulary gains and comprehension using story telling modes including Character Imagery (CI) and Simple Reading (SR) in an LI setting. Significantly, however, this study was conducted in an L2 situation. The effects of CI and SR on comprehension and vocabulary development were compared using a sample of 120 Japanese primary school students ranging in age from 10 to 12 years. In a two-phase procedure, students listened to stories told using CI by the researcher, and a second group listened to stories told by SR. While both modes were effective. CI was found to be significantly greater in improving both comprehension and vocabulary development. Story telling appears to be beneficial for students developing English proficiency. This study provides evidence that teachers should employ suitable stories told using character imagery in L2 classrooms.


Background of this study

English will be a compulsory subject for the fifth-and sixth-graders in public primary schools from the 2011 academic year in Japan. However, the problem seems to lay in a lack of suitable English materials for the grades and a deficit of classroom teachers' confidence to implement activities in English. The communicative approach can be useful for developing students English listening and speaking ability. Past 10 years, a native English speaking person as an Assistant Language Teacher (hereafter referred to by the acronym, ALT) has been working with a classroom teacher to teach natural English. However, classroom teachers' anxiety has skyrocketed because of their limited communication skills in English, and moreover, their duty which they have to form syllabus and a teaching plan. In fact, classroom teachers rely on an ALT who mainly plan English activities. Most activities have been performed by singing, dancing and playing games which are boring for pre-teens who are eager to gain new knowledge and carry out logical operations (Pinter, 2006). As pre-teens can establish their thoughts systematically and holistically according to Piaget (Lightbown & Spada, 2006), it is natural that pre-teens "require very different materials, methods, and teaching style" (Pinter, 2006, p7) different from younger students. What is more effective way? How can classroom teachers approach them? One positive reaction for pre-teens to English activities was reported on the simple questionnaire performed in May 2008 by the researcher that was to listen to a story. A short story read by an ALT was utterly enchanted students. Especially, telling a story using dramatized action by a native speaker attracted pre-teens. Stories bring a lot of benefits including language development (Wright, 1997). Cameron (2001) has insisted that "Stories present holistic approaches to language teaching and learning that place a high premium on children's involvement with rich, authentic uses of the foreign language" (p. 159). It is possible that pre-teens engage in English learning through using stories as a language teaching material.

Research questions of this study

In the current study, The Character Imagery Storytelling Style presented by Trostle & Hicks (1998), was administered, which

involves the story teller's dressing as the protagonist in the story and vivid and dynamic speech and gestures of the protagonist and the other characters in the story to "tell" the story in the past tense. In Character Imagery, one actor, in fact, "becomes" each significant character momentarily, by using a combination of pantomime, body positioning, and different voice intonations for each new character. However he/she returns to the primary role of protagonist when not assuming another character's role. (Trostle & Hicks, 1998, p129)

This research demonstrated that The Character Imagery Storytelling Style (hereafter referred to by the acronym, CI) had great effects to gain vocabulary and progress comprehension of the story in the first language (L 1). If such is the case, the method might be useful for young second language learners as well. CI is assumed to be effective for language development for students (McWilliams, 1998). However, the above study was been implemented in L 1 setting. Therefore, it is very much valuable to examine this in second language (L2) setting. My research questions were as follows:

1. Will students increase their vocabulary by story telling?

2. Will students hearing a story using Character Imagery storytelling style (CI) gain higher vocabulary than students who have a simple reading of the same story (SR)?

3. Will students hearing a story using Character Imagery Storytelling style (CI) have higher comprehension than students who have a simple reading of the same story (SR)?

The current study was investigated vocabulary gains and comprehension comparing different modes, such as CI and a simple story reading (hereafter referred to by the acronym, SR).

Literature Review

There has been a great discussion about the development of native literacy skills by reading stories aloud. Studies on story reading aloud and incidental vocabulary learning are reported with positive findings (Elley, 1989; Trostle & Hicks, 1998).

Elley (1989) conducted two experiments to investigate whether or not incidental vocabulary learning occurred through listening to stories. The first study was performed with 168 seven-year-old students from seven classrooms in seven schools in New Zealand. The book chosen was Gumdrop at Sea which had an impressive story and many attractive pictures. The result showed that percentage of children who acquired knowledge of the target words in the post-vocabulary test was higher than percentage of that in the pre-vocabulary test. Incidental vocabulary learning using listening to stories was proven. In the second experiment in which the procedures were replicated in the current study, the purpose was to make sure whether or not incidental vocabulary learning occurred in two different story books with 127 six classes of eight year olds in New Zealand and 51 children of the similar age and background from two schools for a control group. The experimental children were divided into two groups (A and B). Two picture books, Rapscallion Jones and The White Crane, were read aloud to three groups, two experimental groups (with explanation and without explanation) and one control group. The treatments were exchanged with each story between the two experimental groups. The control group took all tests at the same times as Group A and B, but did not hear any stories. The result showed that the group with explanation had much vocabulary gain for the book.

Trostle and Hicks (1998) investigated through comparing the effects of storytelling and story reading on comprehension and vocabulary development with British primary school students. One approach was the CI in which a storyteller who read aloud books dressed and took on the role of protagonist. Another approach was SR in which a trained student read stories aloud. Thirty two students aged seven to 11 years, consisting of 16 boys and 16 girls, were divided into eight groups of four students per group who were sub-grouped by age, gender and literacy ability. Four groups had SR approach and the other four groups had CI approach. Over a period of six weeks, students listened to four stories includes Mop Top and Dandelion for young students and Strega Nona and The Widow's Broom for the older groups. Four groups listened to stories with CI by a researcher or a trained student teacher and other four groups with SR by an investigator or a trained student teacher. During reading/telling stories, pictures were shown to subjects. Results showed that CI had a great effect on story comprehension and vocabulary development. They concluded that CI approach could be more effective than SR for students aged seven to 11, and story telling should be given a place in reading programs and also literacy curriculums.

In the field of second language acquisition, the study of L2 language development using storybooks has been few empirical studies.

Brett, Rothlein & Hurley (1996) investigated whether students with ethnic backgrounds such as white non-Hispanic, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian, aged nine to 11 years can acquire unknown words through listening to two stories, Bunnicula and The Reluctant Dragon with different conditions. A total of 175 the fourth graders from six classrooms in two elementary schools in Miami divided into three groups such as (1) story-with-word-explanation group, (2) story-without-word-explanation group, and (3) no exposure to the stories or vocabulary (the control condition group). All three groups were given pre-test and post-test for each story. Six weeks later, a delayed post-test was administrated. Results showed that the story-with-word-explanation group made significantly more progress the pre-vocabulary test to the post-vocabulary tests than the other two groups. They concluded that the fourth graders were able to acquire new vocabulary from listening to stories with a brief explanation of the new words which appeared in the stories.

Cabrera and Martinez (2001) investigated teachers' strategies to make the input comprehensible in reading/telling stories in two conditions with 60 Spanish ten year-old English second language users in the Canary Islands. They found that the children were able to follow the thread of the story told by a teacher only when children listened to the story both linguistic and interactional adjustment. (1) Linguistic adjustment (the first version) consists of short utterances, simple syntactic structures (simple present, imperatives, comparatives, etc.) and (2) interactional adjustments (the second version) in which repetitions, questions, and comprehension checks were given in L2 and paralinguistic cues were also given. The same male teacher told two stories, The Long Nose and The Princess and the Pea, to the two groups of children in two different classroom situations. Interestingly, the reason children were able to follow the thread of the story told even if without any visual supports is that body language, such as emphatic gestures, physical appearance and actions, assisted children in their comprehension. Cabrera and Martinez (2001) concluded that teacher talk, such as repetition, questions, and comprehensions checks, are one of L2 resources in second language classrooms, and interactional adjustment should be created more in L2 learning.

Huang (1991) investigated whether or not comprehensive oral input using a multisensory approach scaffold understanding of real literature reading with 129 sixth-graders, aged 11 year-olds, from a public school using the stories, Ice Cream and Dragons and Giants. Students were divided into three groups. The control group (CG) read the text-only story without any illustrations or storytelling and illustration-supplement group (IG) read the text with illustrations. The study group (SG) used multi-sensory approach through the contexualized storytelling, which is very similar to CI. SG group listened to the story with the multi-sensory approach before reading the illustrated text. To measure their word understanding, a word recall test was conducted in which the half of the word list of the fifty words came from the story and the rest of the words were distracting words. Students checked the word which they thought came from the story. To measure their comprehension of the reading text, a story retelling test was conducted in English or Chinese. Evaluation elements of the retelling test consisted of setting, characters, initiating events, internal response, plans or attempts, direct consequence and ending. The results showed that there were no significant differences among three groups, that is, multi-sensory approach did not affect the word recall test. However, in the retelling story test, the mean score of the retelling test using multi-sensory approach was significant.

Character Imagery Storytelling Style (CI) might help comprehensible input, raising students' awareness to linguistic features and promoting understanding of storylines reducing the listener's affective filter (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). CI is presented by Trostle & Hicks (1998) for promoting L1 literacy skills and Cary proposed contextualized storytelling for developing L2 listening comprehension (Huang, 1991). Stories are told using the target language without a mother tongue and, moreover, not only verbally but also nonverbally. Students could infer the meaning of the words, where "deep processing" (Cameron, 2001, p85) occurs and "high mental effort" (Hulstijn, 1992, p.122) is needed. Image could be created visually and aurally, and stored in his or her brain firmly.


1. Post-vocabulary scores will be significantly higher than pre-vocabulary scores. This will be true for both grades, both modes of telling, and for both stories.

2. Average positive scores of English vocabulary change will be significantly higher for students told stories using Character Imagery Style than for students who simply read stories.

3. Average scores of English comprehension will be significantly higher for students told stories using the Character Imagery Style than for students who read stories.


Participants were selected from the same L1 cultural and educational background including L2 experiences. The major experiment was conducted with 120 students in the fifth-and six-grade, aged 10 to 12 years-old in public primary school (coeducation) in Tokyo in July, 2009. Students were divided into two groups in order to control the variables in the study. Both groups were exposed to English in previous year and they had been doing English activities several times by an ALT who provided games and singing. In 2009 academic year, three times English activities were given by an ALT before the current study. A pilot test was implemented in a different public primary school in Tokyo with 34 fifth grade students with the story, One Eyed Jake.


120 students were divided into two groups. In phase 1, the book, One Eyed Jake was read/told. Group 1 listened to the story using SR. Group 2 listened to the story using CI. In phase 2, the book, Silly Billy was read/told. Group 1 listened to the story using CI. Group 2 listened to the story using SR. The pre-and post-vocabulary tests and a comprehensive test were conducted.

First of all, pre-vocabulary test was conducted with each whole class for ten minutes. After ten minutes reading or telling the story by the researcher, immediately a post-vocabulary test was conducted the same way as was done in the pre-vocabulary test for ten minutes. After post-vocabulary test sheets were collected, comprehension test was immediately conducted for 15 minutes.

Vocabulary gain was measured by using a vocabulary test. The pre-vocabulary test and the post-vocabulary test were the same. Fifteen target words chosen were repeated at least twice and presented the key words of story line. One correct answer was given one point, therefore, 15 points given was perfect in vocabulary test. Students were asked to listen to a word provided by the researcher and to choose its meaning from four alternatives that were written in Japanese. Students were asked to choose the right answer from four alternatives pronounced by the researcher. The alternatives consisted of one right answer and three fillers on the answer sheet which was written in Japanese. The fillers had three types of distracters. One type was a Japanese word that resembled a target word pronunciation. The other filler was the word which showed up in the same scene. The last type was the word which students were able to imagine from the target words in their schema knowledge.

Twelve comprehension questions for each story were used. For the story, One Eyed Jake, a literal question was, "What was the protagonist?" An interpretive level question was, "Why did the protagonist throw three crews onto other ships?" An analytic question was, "Why did Jim, the cabin boy throw the cabin key to the protagonist?" A critical question was, "What would you want to recommend to the protagonist?" A creative level question was, "Can you tell me what comes next in the story?" The presented order of questions both vocabulary and comprehension followed the sequence of story. Students were asked his/her answers in Japanese on the answer sheet. Regarding the rive literal questions, two interpretive questions and two analytic questions, the way of multiple choices was conducted and students were asked to read questions and to choose the right answer from four alternatives which were written in Japanese. The alternatives consisted of one right answer and three fillers on the answer sheet. The three fillers consisted of the event which students were able to associate with other events from the same page, from whole pages and from students' general schema. Regarding the two critical questions and one creative question, students wrote own ideas or thoughts in Japanese. It was difficult to measure the score, therefore, nine comprehension questions were measured and the right answer was given one point. Therefore, a perfect score was nine points in comprehension test. In addition, both vocabulary tests and the comprehension test were marked by a researcher and checked by two graduated university students.

To assess vocabulary gain, a two-way repeated-measures ANOVA on each story was performed. The independent variables were mode and grade while the dependent variable was the pre and post scores of the vocabulary test. To assess differences in comprehension, a two-way ANOVA was performed. The independent variables were again grade and mode of reading/storytelling, and the dependent variable was the score of the comprehension test.


Vocabulary gain

In the Story, One Eyed Jake, the mean score of the CI (2.72) for the pre-vocabulary test increased to the score (6.26) of for the post-vocabulary test. The mean score of SR (2.67) for the pre-vocabulary test increased to the score (5.33) on the post-vocabulary test. In both modes, vocabulary gain dramatically increased. It can be seen that the total of story modes showed good evidence of vocabulary gains in initial learning. A two-way repeated-measures ANOVA was performed as outlined in the methodology section. Table 1 illustrates that there was significant difference between vocabulary in pre-test and in post-tests with F (1, 117) = 203.385, p (.000) < .01. For mode, F-ratio was significant with F (1,117) = 4.149, p (.044) < .05. No effect for grade or any interaction of grade and mode were anticipated, and no significant results were round for these two-tailed hypothesis.

In the story, Silly Billy, the mean score of the CI (5.30) for the pre-vocabulary test increased to the score (9.57) of for the post-vocabulary test. The mean score of SR (4.83) for the pre-vocabulary test increased to the score (8.65) on the post-vocabulary test. In a two-way repeated-measures ANOVA in the story, Silly Billy, Difference in mode was somewhat directional with F(1,119)=0.958, p (.330)> .05.

Comprehension test

A two-way ANOVA was performed as earlier outlined in the methodology section. For One Eyed Jake, difference in mode was significant with F (1, 117) = 9.059, p (.003) < .01 (Table 2). Difference in mode was also significant for Silly Billy with F (1, 119) = 4.216, p (.042) < .05 (Table 3). No significant effect for grade or interaction between mode and grade was found. In addition, the mean scores of both modes in the story, Silly Billy were higher than those in the story, One Eyed Jake.

Figure 1 shows results of the difference between modes. The CI mean scores, (5.25 for One Eyed Jake, 6.53 for Silly Billy) are higher than the SR mean scores, (4.31 for One Eyed Jake, 5.75 for Silly Billy).

Discussion of findings

The answer, whether storytelling affected student's vocabulary, appears to be positive. Using stories told with both CI and SR in vocabulary learning could be greatly effective for young second language learners. Studies on story reading/telling and incidental vocabulary learning are again proven with positive findings. Vocabulary learning using CI is effective. Students listening to stories using CI had higher comprehension than students who listened to stories using SR. Results were significant in a positive direction. The technique of storytelling with CI, using sounds and gestures promoted understanding, which may have also reduced student anxiety toward L2. Sounds give meaning to a word and students not only identify sound units within words but also perceive "emotion, involvement, and empathy" (Harmer, 2001, p.28) by listening to sounds. Students encounter pronunciation and individual phonemes in the word and also recognize word meanings from pitch, intonation, and stress of the word. The pitch range shows human tension. Low and slow tones represent fear and sadness and a high and fast pitch shows happiness and cheerfulness. Intonation conveys emotion and empathy. Intonation tone is exaggerated when we are surprised or frightened. Harmer (2001) insists that "stress is vitally important in conveying meaning in phrases and sentences" (p.33). Therefore, the sounds through storytelling with CI are an indispensable factor in order to understand meanings. So far, many factors corroborated, such as visual aids, auditory aids and context clues, to enhance guessing the new word's meaning.

Students giggled when they saw a storyteller who wore a protagonist's costume, including a hat with bird feathers and a black patch for one eye (for a pirate) and a big red ribbon (for Hazel). They were admittedly relaxed. To convey the emotions, flamboyant gestures and a range of facial expressions were used. Those props and a storyteller's attitude drew students into real life situations and students involved in the enthusiastic world. Students could extend their knowledge beyond what they have at present and information is stored emotionally and meaningfully. The storytelling using CI drew students into the fantastic world and they could connect with the protagonist and other characters there that enhanced his or her memory and could recall the story line easily.

There are some limitations that should be acknowledged within this study. The current study was conducted with approximately 120 subjects who were randomly chosen in a public school in Tokyo, but not other the fifth-and the sixth-graders in Japan. With respect to who read or told stories, a storyteller might favor storytelling with CI, therefore, story reading in SR might be disregarded. But when the same person read and told stories, equal opportunities were given to subjects differing from Brett, Rothlein and Hurley's study (1996), in which two stories were read by six classroom teachers. They demonstrated the limitation, that is, the way of instruction was different depending on the classroom teacher, so that they were not able to "measure how much the target vocabulary words were discussed in the story-with-word-explanation group classroom" (Brett, Rothlein & Hurley, 1996, p.420).


Storytelling not only provides language development to students but also works as scaffolding for teachers. Storytelling or the story reading technique could contribute to teacher education or teacher training (Wright, 1995). If classroom teachers have some hesitation to dress up as the protagonist, just reading stories aloud is also beneficial. To memorize all story lines in a L2 is very tough for non-native speaking teachers, but read stories aloud seems to be manageable.

There are some recommendations to extend the current research. According to relation between vocabulary acquisition and academic ability, Elley (1989) found that the lowest group gained target vocabulary more than the higher group. If the result will be proven that the lowest level students might increase their language ability, those students could receive much benefit in language learning. In addition, storytelling with CI in different genres without background knowledge could be valuable.

Storytelling or reading aloud stories in L2 language classes contain a lot of benefits so that teachers as long as possible take in these techniques into their L2 language classrooms. If story listening/telling is included in a curriculum steadily, students will firmly make dramatic progress in English learning.


Brett, A., Rothlein, L., & Hurley, M. (1996). Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories and explanations of target words. The elementary school Journal, 96(4), 415-421.

Cabrera, M. P., & Martinez, P. B. (2001). The effects of repetition, comprehension checks, and gestures, on primary school children in an EFL situation. ELT Journal, 55(3), 281-288.

Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching language to young learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elley, W. B. (1989). Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories. Reading Research Quarterly, 26(2), 174-187.

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Huang, H. (1991). The effects of storytelling on EFL young learners' reading comprehension and word recall. Retrieved December 5, 2009 from National Yunlin University of Science and Technology Web site: aper/paper.doc

Hulstijn, J. H. (1992).Retention of inferred and given word meanings: Experiments in incidental vocabulary learning. In Arnaud, P. J. L., & H. Bejoint (Eds.), Vocabulary and applied linguistics (pp.113-125). London: MacMillan Academic and Professional Ltd.

Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T. D. (1983). The natural approach, language acquisition in the classroom. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McWilliams, B. (1998). Effective storytelling: A manual for beginners. Largo: Indian Rocks Christian School. Retrieved August 16, 2009, from

Pinter, A. (2006). Teaching young language learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Trostle, S., & Hicks, S. J. (1998). The effects of storytelling versus story reading on comprehension and vocabulary knowledge of British primary school children. Reading Improvement, 35(3), 127-136.

Wright, A. (1995). Storytelling with children. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, A. (1997). Creating stories with children. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


I would like to express my gratitude to supervisor Dr. Steven Renshaw, Graduate School of Language Sciences Kanda University of International Studies in Japan for his helpful comments, insights and encouragement. His support, moral and academic, especially statistical analysis has been invaluable throughout my master's course.

The author

Takumi Uchiyama taught primary grade in public schools for 30 years in Japan. She studied for her Master of Education and Master of TESOL from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia and her Master of Arts from Graduate School of Language Sciences Kanda University of International Studies in Japan. Her special interests are to create English activities for young second language learners and to form syllabus includes a teaching plan. She is currently working as a teacher trainer at public primary schools in Tokyo.
Table 1.
A Two-Way Repeated-Measures ANOVA in the Story, One Eyed Jake.

                                    Type 111
                                     Sum of    df      Mean
                       Vocabulary   Squares          Square
Vocab                    Linear      564.704     1   564.704
Vocab * Grade            Linear        .610      1      .610
Vocab * Mode             Linear       11.521     1    11.521
Vocab * Grade * Mode     Linear        2.908     1     2.908
Error(vocab)             Linear      316.524   114   316.524

                          F       Sig.

Vocab                  203.385   .000 *
Vocab * Grade            0.220   .640
Vocab * Mode             4.149   .044
Vocab * Grade * Mode     1.047   .308

Table 2
A Two-Way ANOVA in Mode Effects in the Story, One Eyed Jake

               Type 111
                Sum of    df     Mean       F     Sig.
               Squares          Square
Grade              .306     1     .306    .107   .744
Mode             25.817     1   25.817   9.059   .003 *
Grade * Mode      8.541     1    8.541   2.997   .086
Error           324.896   114    2.850

Table 3
A Two-Way ANOVA in Mode Effects in the Story, Silly Billy.

                Type 111
                 Sum of    df      Mean      F      Sig.
                Squares          Square
Grade             14.669     1    14.669   3.514   .063
Mode              17.599     1    17.599   4.216   .042 *
Grade * Mode       3.321     1     3.321    .796   .374
Error            484.201   116   484.201

Figure 1. Comprehension Test Scores in the different modes in the
story, One Eyed Jake & the story, Silly Billy

Comprehension Test

          OneEyedJake       SillyBilly
CI           5.25              6.53
SR           4.31              5.75

Note: Table made from line graph.
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