Making Stories Come Alive

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Physically acting out a written text—as an actor would walk himself through the gestures and emotions of a soliloquy during rehearsal—is an effective way to commit that text to memory, as I wrote in a previous post on the Brilliant Blog. For adults, this process of enactment imbues abstract words with concrete meaning, fixing them more firmly in our minds.

For children, acting out words on the page can also yield benefits. Especially for beginning readers, physically moving objects or one’s own body can provide a crucial bridge between real-life people, things, and actions, and the printed words meant to represent them. Fluent readers take this correspondence for granted, but many children find it difficult to grasp.

In everyday life, after all, the words “dog” or “cup” are usually encountered when there’s an actual dog or cup around. But inside the pages of a book, words must be understood in the absence of such real-world “referents.” The research of Arthur Glenberg, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, has demonstrated that when children are given the opportunity to act out a written text, their reading comprehension can actually double.

In one of his studies, Glenberg asked first- and second-graders to read stories about life on a farm. The children were also given farm-related toys, such as a miniature barn, tractor and cow. Half of the kids were directed to simply read the stories a second time. The other half were instructed to use the toys to act out what they were reading.

After reading the sentence “The farmer drove the tractor to the barn,” for example, the child would move the toy tractor over to the toy barn. Youngsters who acted out the sentences were better able to make inferences about the text, and they later remembered much more about the stories than those who merely reread them.

In other studies, Glenberg has found that the acting-out technique can help children solve word problems in math, too: elementary-school mathematics students who act out the text in word problems are more accurate in their calculations and more likely to reach the right answer. (In one such investigation, for example, students were asked to act out a zookeeper’s distribution of food to his animals while figuring out how many fish the hippos and alligators need.)

In these experiments, it seems that enacting the “story” told within the math problem helps students identify the information important for its solution: enacting made them 35 percent less likely to be distracted by irrelevant numbers or other details included in the problem.

Eventually, fluent readers become capable of “enacting” these scenarios in their heads (as I wrote in this post, our brains appear always to be drawing on our experiences of bodily sensations and movements as we read, creating mental simulations of the stories on the page). But while they’re still learning, less adept readers can benefit from seeing and feeling those printed words come to life under their hands.

Brilliant readers, what do you think? Have you seen children benefit from acting out the stories that they read? Please share your thoughts below.

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9 Responses to “Making Stories Come Alive”

  1. Cathy G says:

    I am a public school teacher with 15 years experience as a reading specialist. I often have students work together to act out their social studies chapters. I assign a section (a paragraph or two) to a small group of students to act out in front of the class. I do this for two reasons: better comprehension, and more buy-in with fewer behavior problems, than if I had assigned everyone to read 25 pages of social studies.

  2. Rebecca Tulloch says:

    I am a drama teacher, but I’m based in English department in which we try to make plays and novels come alive through drama. It’s one thing to think your way through a character’s story. It’s another to stand in their shoes through role play or acting it out.

  3. Hi Annie,

    I also recommend acting out for an effective way of committing a ‘spelling word bank’ to memory.

    Let’s say, for example, that you want the pupils to recall words spelled the same way such as the ‘ch’ words as code for /k/ – chameleon, arachnid, chaos, orchestra, chorus, choir, mechanic, technical, school – and so on.

    Talk the pupils through a series of words which could be linked to a theme – and then let them act out being a choir, sing a chorus, add an air orchestra, chant ‘Incy Wincy Spider’ to recall the word ‘arachnid’, pretend your car broke down and you had to become technical and take the role of mechanic – and so on.

    Quantify the number of words to recall – than ask the pupils to work in pairs to recall those words.

    Pay special attention to any words that are particularly challenging – which would be ‘choir’ in the list above – and then take the pupils through a spelling routine as well (identifying the sounds, and selecting letters and letter groups all through the word).

    Next day, ask the children how many words they were trying to remember – and ask if any can recall that particular bank of words.

    This is surprisingly effective – and raises awareness for lifelong spelling that we all have to build up spelling word banks in our memories – where consciously or sub-consciously.

    Thank you as always for your great posts.


  4. Rob says:

    Looks like we’re all kinesthetic learners, at least to some extent. :-)

  5. As usual you’ve got my attention as I try to project these findings on to our niche…music education. I’ll need some time to ponder this one. “Enacting” written music is called sight-singing (or sight reading) which is the skill of seeing music and being able to ‘hear’ what it would sound like before you actually play it. I could see an entire area of this kind of technique being produced whereby a concept by concept sequence using familiar and current musical themes could really help in developing this important skill. Filed on the stack of stuff to do :)

  6. John Bennett says:

    I carefully read this latest post of yours, Annie, and also you previous post that had a link within this latest post. I am particularly interested in the impact on adult effective, deeper learning of role playing. If I read the older post accurately, role playing is not impactful since adults envision the story so well in their brain.

    BUT I’m aware personally that when reading a book, there are times when the envisioning within the brain “is really working” and retention is quite good. HOWEVER, there are other times when it’s like I was staring at a foreign language – no storyline and no retention whatsoever. So the research would seem contradicted.

    So it would make sense to this emeritus professor that actual role playing would indeed have impact on the effective, deeper learning for retention and application. Rationale: actual role playing keeps the concentration at a higher level.

  7. Matt Karlsen says:

    Inspired by Dorothy Heathcoate, Jeffrey Wilhelm, and a pervasive sense of imagination and adventure, Opal School has embraced drama as a language of learning and discovery for years. Thanks for sharing experimental research that confirms what we’re seeing in practice!

  8. I am a story consultant to filmmakers and novelists. It is through a phenomenon we call “character identification” that audiences or readers vicariously live the life of the characters and participate, making decisions, living through the consequences, that the moral lessons of the story are learned. When filmmakers and authors ignore the techniques that allows “identification” the stories always flop.

  9. Liz Keever says:

    I’m a leadership communication coach and use a lot of storytelling in my work. I also was a professional singer and actress for many years. I know that acting out a story helps increase the memory of it and the impact of it. I also would’ve done better at math, it appears from your blog, if I’d acted out the math problems!

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