Rice Storytelling Project helps youngsters learn English

Most youngsters would agree that storytelling is a favorite activity, and thanks to Rice University’s School Literacy and Culture Project (SLC), a Houston school is using this beloved pastime as an important tool in improving English literacy among young students whose first language is English as well as English language learners (ELL).

For 25 years, the Classroom Storytelling Project has been a fixture of SLC, which is now a part of Rice’s Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. The program combines early literacy research with practice through classroom mentoring and seminar discussions in a yearlong training program. Teachers learn how to implement strategies that help young children extend their vocabularies, develop print awareness, cultivate oral expression and develop an understanding of narrative form through the dictation and dramatization of their own stories.

For the first time in its history, the Classroom Storytelling Project is now available as an ancillary course to all students at the Gabriela Mistral Center for Early Childhood, a prekindergarten center with a majority of students who are non-native English speakers. In fact, only three of the 18 classrooms at Gabriela Mistral include students who are native English speakers.

The Rice Oral and Written Language Laboratory, or OWL Lab, is a program to help children who are non-native English speakers become more comfortable with the language. Debbie Paz, a mentor teacher with the SLC, said it is “a unique opportunity to bring storytelling into a new setting.”

“The principal of Gabriela Mistral contacted us to collaborate on an ancillary class for ELL for pre-K students,” Paz said. “She saw a real need for kids to get a really strong foundation at an early age, and she wanted the school to be a place where students could get a little extra help with their English.”

Paz said the lab is designed to be a space where children can feel free to take risks with learning English.

“In the OWL Lab, we expose them to great literature and dramatic play scenarios complete with props for them to express themselves and further develop their vocabulary,” Paz said.

“It really helps build classroom community,” said Lori Espinoza, the OWL Lab teacher. “The children take turns creating stories and choosing their classmates to dramatize what they’ve written. From a language perspective, writing and acting out stories helps deepen comprehension of the story and improves their writing and speaking skills down the road.”

In addition to helping the students write and act out their stories, Espinoza also reads stories to the children. She uses gestures, changes in intonation and dramatic faces to help them deepen their comprehension of words.

Paz said that early childhood education research estimates that children need to hear 1,000 stories read aloud before they feel comfortable reading themselves. She and Espinoza also encourage parents to attend the class on selected days throughout the year to encourage their involvement in developing their children’s literacy through reading some of those 1,000 stories at home. More than 700 parents have participated.

“Many of the children in our classes lack the foundation of being read to, so we try to show parents it is a great thing to do. It’s not always instinctive on their part,” Espinoza said. “In addition, with so many of the students from different cultures, it’s also an important part of their cultural literacy to expose them to classic children’s literature, like ‘Goldilocks,’ ‘The Three Little Pigs’ and other popular stories.”

Both teachers said it is extremely rewarding to see children who are initially very shy about using their English develop their skills and become more confident.

“It’s very exciting to see this happen,” Paz said. “The real magic of this program is that it can exist in many different settings, but ultimately goes far in improving the language skills of the children.”

For more information, visit www.literacy.rice.edu.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.