True literacy: the wonder of a good story, well told

Literacy (reading and writing) is a relatively new skill for humans.  The expectation of universal literacy, the idea that all children can and should learn to read and to write, is very new.  But stories?  Stories are ancient.  In fact, stories have probably been around for as long as our species and perhaps even longer.  Good stories, well told, have power.  Stories help us to understand our past and to imagine our possible futures.  With stories, we, as a community, remember lessons learnt and pass wisdom down through the generations.  By hearing the stories of other people, we are able to share their perspective, to empathise and to understand.   Through story, our world gets a little bigger and our understanding of the world and our place in it grows.   

In this time of universal literacy, parents want to know how they can ensure that their children learn to read and write.  It is easy in the quest to ensure our children are literate to become obsessed with the mechanics of reading and writing – the literal recognition of shapes on a page.  In fact, the best contribution that a parent can make to their children’s literacy is to return to that much older skill: a good story, well told.  True literacy is not the mere recognition of shapes as sounds.  True literacy is the ability to read and comprehend.  It is the ability, not just to write letters on a page, but to play joyfully with language.  A child is truly literate when they are skilled not just in the mechanics of reading and writing (which our schools, by and large, teach very well) but also in the more ancient skills of social understanding, perspective taking and oral language.  True literacy requires the joy, the wonder and the understanding that is the domain of the story-teller.  These are the gifts that parents (rather than teachers) are ideally placed to give to their children. 


  • Read to your child. Read to your child long past the age when your child can read independently. 
  • Read good books.  Good stories often have: a beginning, middle and an end (a resolution), well-developed characters who change throughout the story, emotion, conflict and hidden meanings and morals that are apparent but not boldly stated.  A good story, well told, also plays with language in a beautiful and satisfying way, yet doesn’t let the joy of words overshadow the lucid communication of the story itself.  Even children’s literature, even picture books, can have all of these elements. 
  • Read yourself. If you do enjoy reading then make time for it in your life.  It is not a frivolous leisure activity, it is good for you.  If you’ve never been captured by reading, find the right book and let yourself be captured now. 
  • Tell stories about your own lives as a family. At the end of the day, talk with your child about what you did that day.  Retell the fun and eventful days that you had as a family (‘Hey, remember when…?’).  Turn family memories into stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. 
  • Make up your own stories with your child. If you aren’t sure how to start, start with once upon a time and a character with your own child’s name.  Set the story in a time or a place that’s of interest to your child, or bring in an animal or a person who your child loves.  If you get stuck, prompt your child to decide what happens next. 
  • Stories aren’t just in books. Some television shows are stories, too.  Most movies are stories.  Look for all the elements of good story-telling in television and movies.  Use these media, too, to fuel your child’s understanding of the world and other people and a love of good stories.   
  • Talk about the stories that you share. Prompt your child to take the perspective of characters in the story by asking questions like:  why did that character do that? Get your child to think through the story by asking questions like:  what happened in the beginning?  And, what happened next?  Explore the hidden meanings and morals with your child by asking questions like: why did the character change what they were doing?  Why did that work better?

Apply it to your life: Do you love stories?  How do you share story-telling with your child?  Share the joy of a good story, well told, in a new way with your child this week. 


Vezzali, Stathi, Giovannini, Copozza & Trifiletti (2014) The greatest magic of Harry Potter: reducing prejudice.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology.  Early Online Before Print. 

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