Differences Between Storytelling and Reading Aloud

The Differences between Storytelling and Reading Aloud

You can tell a story or you can read it aloud from a book. Is that different for the listener? And for you? In this article I wrote down the differences that I experienced when telling stories and reading aloud.

The differences between storytelling and reading aloud arise from the presence of a book. In comparison with reading aloud, storytelling involves more connection with the listeners, more flexibility in choosing words and more flexibility to adapt the story to the listeners during the telling.

That does not mean that reading aloud is ‘worse’ than storytelling. It just isn’t the same. I discuss this in more detail below and also questioned a classroom of children about it.

Storytelling vs Reading Aloud

So, let’s start with two definitions, so we know what we are talking about.

  • Storytelling: telling a story by heart, live, verbal and non-verbal, interactive, to a group of listeners.
  • Reading aloud: reading a story from a book, live, verbal and non-verbal, interactive, to a group of listeners.

Do you see how much similarities storytelling and reading aloud have?

Interaction, for example, is present in both storytelling and reading aloud. Storytelling however offers more opportunity for interaction.

StorytellingReading Aloud
eye contact is with the listeners, leading to a stronger connection and deeper experience of the storyeye contact is first with the book, reading the words of the story, only partly with the listeners
flexibility in the choice of wordsthe words are mostly fixed in the book
lots of opportunity for non verbal communication (gestures, posture, moving around etc.)limited non verbal communication (you need to keep the book where you can read it)
lots of opportunity for spontaneous audience participation, even leading to changes in the storylimited audience participation because the story is already fixed in the book
takes more preparation, you need to know the story inside outlimited preparation, because the story is in the book
there is no book present and no immediate connection to readingthere is a book present and as such an immediate connection to reading

Three important things need to be added here.

First, it takes a lot more preparation to tell a story than to read it aloud. The preparation involves reading the story beforehand, getting to know the images and the structure and preparing it for telling. I wrote a longer explanation of how to prepare a story for telling here.

Second, reading aloud gives an immediate connection to the world of books. You can read the story again, in the same way, in that book. Before or after telling the story you could show the book it came from (if that book exists).

And third, storytelling is not better than reading aloud. And reading aloud is not better than storytelling. They are both important and have more similarities than differences. Somebody who knows the story she reads aloud can use many ‘storytelling elements’ to make it come more alive.

Children about Storytelling and Reading Aloud

The Book with No Pictures: where reading aloud is very interactive and so much fun!

A place where there is a lot of both reading aloud and storytelling is the class room.

Ten years ago I worked part time as a teacher. I told a lot of stories in my classroom filled with 9-year-olds, but also read a lot of books aloud. After a year I asked the children in my classroom what the differences were.

They told me:

When you are reading, you look a lot in the book. When you are telling the story you add a lot of fun things with your hands and so on…

And:

When you are telling we can participate and give our ideas about the story and sometimes you will change it or use it in your telling.

Kids often excitedly clamour, ‘Tell me a story! Rarely do they say ‘Read me a story.’

Roger Jenkins on Quora

4 Similarities between Storytelling and Reading Aloud

Besides differences, storytelling and reading aloud also have a lot of things in common.

  1. Both require and promote listening skills. The more your listeners are used to listening, the less energy it will cost them to understand you and follow along with the story.
  2. Both require your listeners to make their own images of the story in their imagination.
  3. Both require and promote an understanding of the structure of stories, which is especially important for younger children. By listening to a lot of stories, they ‘get’ how stories work.
  4. Both are helpful in language development / the learning of languages. The story read or told offers a context in which it is easier to understand unknown or vaguely known words.

When is it better to read aloud than to tell?

Useful tips for when you choose to read aloud

It is better to read aloud when it matters that you say it the exact way in which it was written.

Think about poetry for example. Poets spend so much time crafting their poems, that it’s better to either learn them by heart or to read them.

Or important speeches, which are published afterwards. It is not very convenient to have to change the written speech later.

If you want to read more about storytelling and reading aloud in the classroom, you might want to check out the book Telling Stories Your Way (Storytelling and Reading Aloud in the Classroom) – Bob Barton [link to Amazon]

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