Picture Books versus Storytelling for Young Children

 To Tell a Story or To Read a Story

In response to a post I wrote encouraging storytelling in schools and preschools, several readers were concerned that children who are visual learners would not be interested in hearing a story told orally – that these children needed the visual support provided by picture books:

“We need to consider how children learn. Some children are very visual and need to see something in order to comprehend it.”  ~ blogpost reader

Reading a picture book to kids

“I love the idea of having children create their own images without looking at the book, however I still feel children who are visual learners would benefit from seeing the pictures. As an auditory learner, I know I wouldReading a picture book to kids benefit from colorful words and sounds that accompanied the book, but I don’t know how anyone else may benefit from this method.”  ~ blogpost reader

“I feel that for the learner that needs images this approach wouldn’t work as well.”                    ~ blogpost reader

Still more readers of the post wanted to know how to tell stories to toddlers:

“I loved this post. It was novel to me and really interesting. I would love more examples of how to practically use storytelling, especially for younger children since I work with 2 year olds.” ~ educator

My response to my readers: Although some children may need visual support to understand a story, it doesn’t have to come by way of picture books.

Limitations of the Picture Book

In picture books an entire scene is depicted in detail, suppressing the full creative imagination of the child.  Another limitation of picture books is that the reader is not actively creating the story. In contrast, the storyteller must recall and recreate the story in her head, and this sparks a more dynamic story experience. (More on this in From Picture Book to Oral Tale.)

Visuals for Stories

sun prop for Huichol Creation Myth
A sun created for the Huichol Creation Myth

To support visual learners and young children, oral stories can be embellished with puppets, figurines, props, and through dramatization. The idea is to gradually strengthen the child’s capacity to construct images in her own head without visual supports. But initially, young children need some scaffolding in this rather complex brain activity and these types of visuals may be necessary.


Another suggestion is that the storyteller repeat a story many, many times.  Children thrive on repetition and eventually they will begin to incorporate ideas from the story in their pretend play.


storytime props
A baby and feather created for the story, The Eagle and the Rainbow

Sometimes it is easier to tell a story around a lunch table rather than during circle time.  You might introduce a story during lunch time and repeat it during circle time with props – or the other way around.  Adding layers to a story with each telling is another possibility – such as having the children dramatize it, add costumes, or turn it into an adventure story.

Just yesterday I told a rather complex story to children ages 2-4 using little figurines, a dollhouse, and a block tower to represent the characters and two main locations in the story. These visuals provided support to help keep the children’s attention and increase their understanding.

Importance of Picture Books

storytime props
Fire created for the story, The Dreamcatcher

All of this is not to say that picture book reading should be abandoned. It is just that teachers are generally comfortable with reading picture books, but very few teachers have added storytelling to their repertoire.  Picture books are important in that they introduce the concept of literacy to young children.  But storytelling is an important tool to develop and strengthen cognitive faculties and neural networks across multiple lobes of the brain (as explained in From Picture Book to Oral Tale).

Young Toddler Stories

storytime props
Character created for the story, Tlacuache’s Tail

For young toddlers, story sketches such as the song, Sleeping Bunnies, and very simple stories such as Bear’s Adventures are excellent choices.

I will post more stories appropriate for toddlers in future posts.

A Historical View

In addition to exercising the brain, storytelling was a way to teach culture and values in traditional societies.  This along with two other key ways of transmitting knowledge were part of the traditional modes of learning since ancient times.

For a brief overview of traditional education: 

Your Turn

What are your thoughts? Do you have experiences with storytelling?  Please share in the Comments box!

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