But beyond all that, stories do three things and they do them very effectively: they build vocabulary; they help children become better at predicting sequences and patterns; and they help a child develop leadership. Thus, a child who hears stories, whether they're read out loud or told in a darkened bedroom, is a more successful kid.
Most kids pick up words at school, around the playground, around the dinner table. All well and good; in these venues the child is relaxed, at ease, with her family, her chums. In these venues, vocabulary grows naturally. Words come, their meanings get learned—slowly.
Ah, but read your daughter a story and her vocabulary will grow exponentially. One reason: you can enlist the help of the author. Many children's writers are mindful—Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess) comes to mind—about the vocabulary they use, making sure to use "hard" words in a way that makes their meaning clear. When you read this material to your child, you are often radically increasing both the number and complexity of the words to which she is exposed.
The same process occurs with the more relaxed and improvisatory form of the bedtime story. The teller might say, "The jungle air was steamy and humid and hundreds of monkeys screamed from the trees." Precious One might not know the words "steamy" and "humid and "screamed" but she will file them away in her (robust) memory. Soon, she will move these sophisticated words into her everyday vocabulary (and in the meantime she'll love you for treating her like a Big Kid).
Would she have learned these words on her own? Maybe. After all, she's whip smart. But hearing the words in a story gives them immediate focus and vivid meaning. And a kid with a developed vocabulary is a better communicator, a leader, more likable, more effective.
Ye olde Boob Toob is harmful in many ways, but it has one good aspect: television plots are far more complex than they used to be. (Watch an old episode of Dallas or even that shining epitome of sophistication, Hill Street Blues, and you'll see what I mean.)
When you read a story to your child, or tell a bedtime tale, you, like contemporary television producers, foster an ability to follow complex plot sequences. "No!" the kids'll cry out to brave but slightly dim Jack, "Don't climb that beanstalk! It's dangerous up there!" The more stories they are exposed to, the better they become at this kind of prediction. Soon they will be demanding more complex, more sophisticated, less predictable stories.
Similarly, children exposed to storytelling became adept at recognizing patterns. They will be able to discern, for example, from the way environments are described, if the upcoming story is a drama or a comedy. They will begin to predict where a story's going. Soon they will even make up their stories. A child with a strong grasp of patterns becomes, in other words, more creative.
This understanding of sequences and patterns pays off in many areas: mathematics for example. Math depends on an ability to recognize complex and well-hidden sequences. The ability to compose in computer code depends on an ability to use these patterns. Classical music is often compared to mathematics in its interplay of complicated sequences, the meshing of patterns. And of course there is the ultimate interlocking of patterns and sequences: the stock market.
So: do you want Junior to become a mathematician, a successful computer programmer, a wealthy stockbroker, a classical violinist? Read him stories! Is success guaranteed? No! But it's a good start and in the meantime your child will be entertained.
A hearer of stories is, often, a more effective leader.
The reason is simple: stories help children deal with feelings. Confusion and fear are eased. Story heroes model good behavior. All this builds confidence in the young hearer/listener.
When listening to a story a child will likely not say to herself, "Gosh, this story is teaching me life skills that will become vitally important to me. I will better for it." But she will know, in her bones, that she's getting something she needs.
In stories, heroes solve problems, enlist allies and triumph over the forces of negativity. The ogres and the orcs. A read-to child, a child who hears engrossing bedtime tales, will acquire these skills for herself. She will be far less likely to be a classroom wallflower. She will take charge. She will become a teacher himself.
In conclusion: expose your kid to stories!
This article was an excerpt from John Olive's Tell Me a Story in the Dark.