Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


To Help Kids Remember What They Need to Learn Tell a Story

Turn learning into stories and watch it stick.

Quasar/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Quasar/Wikimedia Commons

Neuroscience research into memory highlights the power of learning through stories to help kids build understanding and long-term memory, in even the most challenging (or boring) school subjects

Story-telling captivates interest and connects to memory

The experiences we have as young children listening to stories provides the brain's memory storage system a foundation for learning and remembering. This foundation is two-fold. One is the positive emotional connection built through the experience of being read to or told stories. In addition, the familiarity of the narrative pattern in childhood stories becomes a strong life-long memory holding framework.

Source: aboutmodalfin

Positive emotions

Personal photo
Source: Personal photo

Listening to stories during childhood associates us with a framework of memorable, pleasurable experiences that the brain remembers and continues to seek throughout life. Often it is simply the cozy feeling of being snuggled in bed. Even for unfortunate children raised in tumultuous circumstances, a bedtime story meant a moment of relative—if only temporary—calm.

Far beyond childhood, when one recalls being read to or told a story, there is a renewal of that sense of being cared for. Reactivating that positive emotional climate as narratives are heard throughout life boosts the impact of information imparted as a story.

The Good Night Moon Phenomenon

If you've had the pleasure of reading bedtime books to young children, you've observed one of the reasons why narratives are so compelling. During their childhood, my daughters wanted the same book, Good Night Moon, read over and over. Even after dozens of readings, they continued to excitedly "predict" what would be on the next page and take great pleasure in being "right."

Quasar/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Quasar/Wikimedia Commons

This Good Night Moon phenomenon, of wanting the same book read repeatedly, can be seen as the brain's seeking its own reward-pleasure response system. This manifests as the brain's response to making a choice or prediction that turns out to be correct. The reward is activated by an increased release of dopamine.

That childhood desire, of wanting to hear books read aloud and repeatedly requesting those few they know well enough to "predict," embodies those powerful brain drives that become memory enhancers. The "active listening" you've seen in children, as they anticipate and often predict what comes next, is a key to the brain storing the information in long-term memory.

This desire to predict comes from a brain chemical, dopamine, that, when released, promotes feelings of deep satisfaction, pleasure, motivation, perseverance, and memory. One of the strongest releasers of this dopamine-pleasure response stems from making a prediction and finding out it is right.

During childhood, the brain is less critical of what counts as a "prediction." As children grow, the pleasure response evolves to responding to real predictions (choices or answers that are not known for sure), but during the bedtime story years, this prediction-pleasure response is activated even when the child knows with great certainty what is on the next page. In response, the brain develops the expectation of possible pleasure when it begins to hear something presented as a story.

Frames for memory saving

The origin of human history and the first passing on of knowledge was through the telling of stories. Storytelling was for centuries a primary source of entertainment and core of communal gatherings and special occasions.

Source: Flickr

The success of stories to impart a people's history and learnings is attributable to the way the brain best stores information. Our brains seek and store memories based on patterns (repeated relationships). This system facilitates one's interpreting the world (and all the new information and choices we make throughout each day) by using our prior experiences and knowledge as a lens through which to understand the new or unknown.

The mental map of the pattern of childhood stories becomes a framework upon which the brain can link new information presented in that familiar form. This story-framework is formed early and easily recognizable by its three-step progression of:

1. Beginning (Once upon a time …)

2. Problem

3. Resolution (… and they all lived happily ever after)

When information, whether from algebra to history, is presented in the familiar story (narrative) form, that memory structure facilitates the brain's retention of that information. With time, that map expands to include narratives in which the ending is not limited to happily ever after. These can become opportunities for your children to learn, explore, or discover multiple outcomes or alternative solutions.

Check out some stories that worked for my students

Literature: Charlie was about your age when he wanted to earn money with an after-school job. As you know, jobs for 15-year-olds are not easy to get. He finally got one at a fancy stationery store, like the ones we have on State Street. His task was to use their special glue to paste their fancy labels onto ink bottles. He was only paid for the good ones and had to do his over and over because air bubbles would form under the labels. One day, another boy, Bobbie, gave Charlie a piece of string and showed him how he could roll it over the label and get out the bubbles.

You might be surprised by my reveal that Charlie was Charles Dickens and that he did indeed include his friendly coworker, Bobbie Fagin, as the character Bob Fagin, in Oliver Twist. This prereading story might not make your children thrilled to read another Dickens book, but they will surely be more connected to the story and its memory. Similarly, you can look into the biography of the historical people, scientists, or authors your kids are learning about. First, find out something of interest that the famous person did when they were the same age as your child. Then, incorporate these facts, with some modernization and personally relevant connections, into a story that will boost his interest and subsequent memory to the topic being studied or book being read at school.

Science: There was a guy, call him Archie, who wanted to know why the level of water in his bathtub got so high when he got into it that it sometimes overflowed. It is said that he tried lots of experiments that didn't work, but one day he figured it out and said, "Eureka!" which in his neighborhood meant, "Awesome!" His formal name was Archimedes and although he lived centuries ago in Greece, he figured out something that helps us make even the biggest boats float today.

Timing is powerful

Just like the dramatic pause in a play or when a comedian's relating of a story commands our attention, pauses in your narratives boost your child's attention and memory. A pause in the telling of a narrative, at an important moment in the story linked with important information for memory, punctuates curiosity and gives the brain a valuable moment to consider and predict what might come next. Outcome: that next information charged, attention-grabbing, and memorable.

Let kids predict the ending

When you know what your children are studying in history, look up a historical reference of a news article or recording that is written in the format that starts with a description of the scene and events leading up to the "big item" of the story—or make up your own. This will be the story that pulls them into the subject through curiosity and prediction as it hooks their learning into memory.

An example might read, "It started as a beautiful day here as we awaited their landing. After a spectacular first journey, the people on board were pleased by their success until they heard a disturbing sound that caused them to fear for their lives." Stop there and invite your child to make predictions about the who, what, when, or how it turned out? (e.g., Hindenburg, astronauts on Apollo 13, George and Wilbur Wright). Their brains will be invested in finding out if their predictions are right.

When kids are the storytellers the memory bonus is boosted

Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." It takes a true understanding of a topic to "translate" it into a story that others can understand.

Invite your children to share what they are learning in school with you in the form of a story or a storybook they write for younger children. They will have the positive emotional experience of your sincere interest in what they are sharing and the joy and strong memory that comes from transforming information they need, to learn a story they create.

One of my students, for example, created a memorable story about a lonely piece of new information that entered the brain and felt very lost and sad until it found its family of related prior knowledge to link with and joined their long-term memory circuit.

Try taking turns, adding parts to narrative stories, to help your child recall a sequence in history (the order in which the first colonies became states; the Bill of Rights; a scientific process such as the water cycle, photosynthesis, or digestion).

By weaving learning into a story, facts become more interesting, activate the brain's positive emotional state, and hook into frameworks or enduring memory. Whether created by you or your kids, the memory of a story connects new learning to their brains’ embedded strong memory framework constructed and used since you told them their first bedtime story.

More from Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed.
More from Psychology Today