Newsletter 4


1001 Stories for Adult Learning


Storytelling and competence development 
August 2013


Sheherazade is a Grundtvig Multilateral Project that wants to introduce storytelling and the use of storytelling techniques as an educational strategy and a pedagogical tool in formal and non-formal adult learning.

In this newsletter we briefly present the different competences related to language learning and social cohesion and the requirements for “competence oriented teaching and learning”. Then we argue that education and training approaches involving storytelling not only tackle exactly these competences but also fit the competence driven approaches for adult learning. 

What is a competence?[1]

A competence is the ability to apply a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes in a certain situation with a certain quality. So competences consist of three interrelated ingredients:

  1. a knowledge component (the understanding part),
  2. a value component (including values, beliefs and attitudes),
  3. a behavioural component (the overt behavioural repertoire),

It is defined as a holistic synthesis of these components. This implies that what matters is not only what we know about things, but more important is what we are able to do with this knowledge, how we feel about it and whether we are able to go on developing our abilities.

Since Sheherazade pays most attention to competences for social cohesion and foreign language learning we take a closer look at the specifications for these competences as defined in The European Reference Framework for Key Competences[2]:

Communication in foreign languages …

is based on the ability to understand, express and interpret concepts, thoughts, feelings, facts and opinions in both oral and written form (listening, speaking, reading and writing) in an appropriate range of societal and cultural contexts (in education and training, work, home and leisure). It also calls for skills such as mediation and intercultural understanding.

Social competences …
include personal, interpersonal and intercultural competence and cover all forms of behavior that equip individuals to participate in an effective and constructive way in social and working life, and particularly in increasingly diverse societies, and to resolve conflict where necessary.

Intercultural competences (Council of Europe definition)[3] enable one to:

  • understand and respect people who are perceived to have different cultural affiliations from oneself
  • respond appropriately, effectively and respectfully when interacting and communicating with such people
  • establish positive and constructive relationships with such people
  • understand oneself and one’s own multiple cultural affiliations through encounters with cultural ‘difference’

So, by combining social & intercultural competences and foreign language learning, Sheherazade covers the core competences for social cohesion.  

Competence oriented education and learning
Competence based learning and competence based education do not consist of traditional teaching situations. The idea is that learners need to be actively involved in the learning situation. They learn best in meaningful contexts, and in co-operation and interaction with others and with their environment.

The most distinctive features of this approach may be summarized as follows:

  • Meaningful contexts - in which learners will experience the relevance and the meaning of the competences to be acquired in a natural way.
  • Multidisciplinary approach - integrative and holistic.
  • Constructive learning - a process of constructing one’s own knowledge in interaction with one’s environment, rather than as a process of absorbing the knowledge others try to transfer to you.
  • Cooperative, interactive learning - with peers, coaches etc.
  • Discovery learning – learning is not a process of receiving information, but should be embedded in a discovery based approach.
  • Reflective learning - the process of ‘learning to learn’.
  • Personal learning – the need of the learner to be able to identify with the contexts, the people, the situations and interests that are included in the learning domains involved. 
    (Adapted from “Aqueduct”1)

All good practices and pilot projects presented by Sheherazade give proof that learning situations involving storytelling are extremely well fit for a competence oriented approach. Stories are not only used as carriers of cultural and historical knowledge and values but also directly lead to practical exercises.

  • Each time the sessions are interactive, participants act as an active audience or as co-tellers.
  • Sessions involving personal storytelling are obviously meaningful and personal but also sessions involving traditional stories offer values and meaning that are relevant to personal development and life.
  • The storytelling sessions usually are an introduction to and offer topics for further activities in a constructive and multidisciplinary approach: telling in peer groups, creating a new story, creative exercises etc.
  • Learners working in peers can discuss about the meaning of story elements.

Offering competences for inclusion
A large number of competences can be developed by engaging in storytelling. These competences are related to oracy, literacy, communication but also to cultural awareness, identity building and social skills. A lot of research has been done on the role of storytelling in competence development but practically all of it refers to children or young people. Examples of reports of such research, by Will Coleman[4] or Robin Mello[5], can be consulted on the web. The Sheherazade team focuses on adults. Each pilot project, organised by each partner, involved action research as to improve the efficiency of the learning and to better monitor the outcomes. It also provides an overview of effects and benefits of using storytelling in adult learning.

Oracy and literacy: gaining verbal skills
Language lies at the root of our culture. It is important that we give adults and less advantaged groups rich experiences with words, sounds, intonation, rhythm and with constructing meaning through use of language. The ability to speak well is important to gain access to society. Adults should be encouraged to practice these skills. Sharing stories can give adults an awareness that can help them speak, listen, read and write.

Many educators and researchers claim that storytelling contributes to oracy and literacy development. According to Lucy Parker Watkins[6]these skills include memory development, observation skills, vocabulary development, sequencing, problem solving, engagement in language play, and making predictions.

Listening to stories is a social experience developing oral narrative. Traditional stories usually offer a more extended vocabulary and a more complex grammar than plain conversation. The NCTE[7], in the Position Statement from their Committee on Storytelling, states: "Listeners encounter both familiar and new language patterns through story. They learn new words or new contexts for already familiar words”.

Ruth Kirkpatrick[8], in “Stories Always” (2012), claims that storytelling encourages listening skills. “Listeners are motivated to hear what will happen next … Attentiveness is won partly by the alchemy of telling, the rapport between teller and listener, and partly by the story itself.” Storytelling also encourages talking. “This is partly because the synergy of telling and listening have already set up a ‘conversation’, however one-sided it may seem on the surface while the tale is being told.”7

From oracy to literacy.
The NCTE6 also claims that: “Students who search their memories for details about an event as they are telling it orally will later find those details easier to capture in writing. Writing theorists value the rehearsal, or prewriting, stage of composing. Those who regularly hear stories subconsciously acquire familiarity with narrative patterns and begin to predict upcoming events. Both beginning and experienced readers call on their understanding of patterns as they tackle unfamiliar texts. Then they re-create those patterns in both oral and written compositions. Learners who regularly tell stories become aware of how an audience affects a telling, and they carry that awareness into their writing.”

Communication skills
According to Sean Buvala’s[9] website, storytelling is the "mother" of all communications. Every art form relies on story to convey meaning. 
He presents three foundational reasons that storytelling helps to improve presentation skills:
1. Storytelling teaches you to think on your feet. When you learn to be a good storyteller you must learn to adjust your energy and pace to match the audience reaction. 
2. Storytelling teaches you to be spontaneous. As a storyteller, you learn to rely on your ability to "see" a story as it happens. 
3. Storytelling helps you to think about the deeper meanings of your content. As you adapt personal and world stories to your presentations, you will start thinking deeper about the meaning of your communications.  

Imagination, creativity and learning to learn
Storytelling involves imagination and the use of language and gestures to create scenes in the mind of the listener. Both telling a story and listening to a well-told tale encourage adults to use their imaginations10. Luke E. Yackley[10] (2007), puts it nicely: “As we hear a story, the brain actively fabricates the scene and character and acts them out on the stage in our brains. Obviously, each person constructs a different stage and our characters will probably look different, but we construct the scene that will be meaningful and relevant to each of us in a highly personal way.” Developing imagination contributes to self-confidence and personal motivation, it empowers adults to consider new and inventive ideas. “Through engagement with an imagined world, the listener also develops crucial skills in problem solving, and in considering options and consequences”7. 

Cultural awareness & identity
The term identity denotes a person’s sense of who he/she is and the self-descriptions to which a person attributes significance and value. Most people use a range of different identities to describe themselves, including both personal and social identities.(3) 
 “Storytelling can be an interesting pathway to discover how we came to be who we are as people, as families, and as sub-cultures within the larger society”[11]. Stories offer a window into the culture from which they come, as well as a mirror of humanity. Storytelling provides adults with a sense of history, a sense of community, a sense of generations, a sense of heritage.

Storytelling is a way of expressing individual and cultural identity, inviting the listener to identify with “the other”. Anyone who gets to tell his/her story and is heard finds a sense of being part of the group. Being heard and hearing others creates bonds of understanding and respect. “Both tellers and listeners find a reflection of themselves in stories. Through the language of symbol, children and adults can act out through a story the fears and understandings not so easily expressed in everyday talk. Story characters represent the best and worst in humans. By exploring story territory orally, we explore ourselves—whether it be through ancient myths and folktales, literary short stories, modern picture books, or poems.”6 Through stories we also develop understanding and tolerance for differences.

Social skills

We can again quote Ruth Kirkpatrick7: “Close engagement with a story helps with the development of empathy and emotional literacy. … By hearing another’s difficulty as described in a story, the listener can empathise, and see the results of the protagonist’s actions. The process enhances self-reflection and self-expression, besides providing potential role models.”

“Storytelling based on traditional folktales is a gentle way to guide young people toward constructive personal values by presenting imaginative situations in which the outcome of both wise and unwise actions and decisions can be seen. Becoming verbally proficient can contribute to a student's ability to resolve interpersonal conflict nonviolently. Negotiation, discussion, and tact are peacemaking skills.”10 


Storytelling is extremely well fit to lower the threshold to education and to create innovative and attractive pathways to the acquisition of key competences: literacy, foreign languages, cultural awareness, social and civic competences. Introducing storytelling in adult learning will also improve the attractiveness of and access to adult learning, especially for low-skilled adults, disadvantaged citizens and migrants. Storytelling is a complementary language, other than the more abstract language which is usually used in educational programs, in which many adults of our target groups have not been successful. Therefore storytelling has a great potential to attract and motivate the adults belonging to our specific target groups to learn.

In order to promote and support the use of storytelling in adult learning, Sheherazade creates useful material for teachers, trainers, coaches and storytellers working with adults to help them apply learning strategies involving storytelling. A manual will be available from November on. The Sheherazade team will also organise an international conference on 14 November in Belgium. More info will follow on


Guy Tilkin
Alden Biesen

[1] Jaap Van Lakerveld & Ingrid Gussen e.a. (2011), AQUEDUCT, Acquiring Key Competences through Heritage Education, Alden Biesen.

[3]Martyn Barrett e.a. (2013), Developing Intercultural competences through education, Council of Europe DG 2

[4] Will Coleman (2001) “Literacy through storytelling”, Cornwall Learning Forum

[5] Robin Mello (2001), The Power of Storytelling

[6] Lucy Parker Watkins (2010), The Educational Benefits of the Art of Storytelling

[7] National Council of Teachers of English on:

[8] Ruth Kirkpatrick (2012), Stories Always

[9] Sean Buvala on

[10] Luke E. Yackley (2007), Storytelling, a Key to Adult Learning

[11] Heather Forest on


Project partners:

Landcommanderij Alden Biesen, BE, coordinator.
Fabula, storyteller association, SE
Oslo & Akershus University college, NO
CVO Landen-Leuven, BE
Brunnenpassage, AT
Meath Partnership, IE
Superact, UK
ELAN Interculturel, FR
Sofia University, BG


Sheherazade is a Grundtvig Multilateral Project. 


"This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This communication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein."