4 Ways to Use Storytelling to Help Students Engage with Social Studies

“My least favorite thing about school is world history.”

Huang didn’t hesitate when he was asked about things he liked and disliked about school. He was a rising seventh grader who attended summer school for students who needed additional support. My job was to encourage him and his summer school peers to read. My personal goal was for them to actually enjoy reading.

I started with a short story about a female Marine during the Korean War. She earned a reputation for her eating and drinking habits. She loved Coca-Cola and beer. She was especially fond of scrambled eggs, but in reality, she’d eat anything. Her story made world history interesting to my students. This is what made me look further into how social studies stories contribute to the K-12 curriculum.

Click here to learn about a core K-8 social studies program from SocialStudies.com that uses the power of social studies stories to cover content, standards, and literacy skills.

1. Use stories to create a community with a common language

One of the reasons that storytelling works in the social studies classroom is because shared stories create a shared community with a common language (Bishop & Kimball, 2006). In teaching WW I, I often tell the story of  Stubby, a stray dog who was adopted by American soldiers and smuggled to the front lines in France. It isn’t unusual for students that I work with to reference “that dog” in reference to the story of Stubby,  or “that skull” in reference to Phineas Gage and have everyone else in the room nod with no more than a word or two. These unique, memorable details can act as a shorthand to help students remember more complex sections of history.

Stubby the dog is one of the stories that can make WW1 more memorable for students

2. Use stories to make content more memorable

Stories work for social studies because they are more memorable than information presented without a story. Combs & Beach (1994) wrote that the knowledge we store in our minds “is largely in the form of stories.” And stories aren’t just for young children—“Even older students find that illustrative anecdotes make general principles easier to grasp and . . . will frequently look for such anecdotal examples in their own experience.” (Wells, 1984, p. 206). Two years after reading about Stubby, one of the middle schoolers could still explain what happened.

3. Use stories to motivate students

Stories are motivational in ways that disconnected information is not. According to Gudmundsdottir’s 1990 study of social studies teachers, stories make complex ideas accessible to students. Stories offer students different ways of engaging, whether by connecting to the information, connecting to the emotion, or using the story as a model for sharing their own stories. Put in terms that my middle schoolers used, “Stories are more fun than a dumb list of facts I don’t care about.” What they view as fun motivates them to pay attention and seek more information.

4. Use stories to get their attention

Outside the classroom, students see stories all around them in social media, in advertising, and on tv. So before we relegate stories to a dated form of instruction, we would do well to pay attention to what new companies and new technologies say about stories.

Using stories can help social studies teachers get and retain students' attention

Buffer is a start-up company with the goal of “helping you be awesome on social media.” The co-founder, Leo Widrich (2012), blogged about why he pays attention to story and why his customers should too, including the very reasons previously stated.  Without getting into the brain science that Widrich touches upon in his article, he says that “According to Princeton researcher Hasson, storytelling is the only way to plant ideas into other people’s minds.” Stories, even 140-character stories, are remembered.

As a teacher, I understand that I am often competing for students’ attention. Stories abound via Youtube, online gaming, or Snapchat. Offering them a good story in school seems like my best option to remain relevant.

Huang, Sergeant Reckless, and some Slugs

My reluctant seventh grader, Huang, took only a few minutes to become involved in the story of the female Marine with an appetite. He read quite awhile to discover that the female Marine was actually a horse named Sergeant Reckless, but by then he was hooked.

He went on to choose an inquiry project that explored world history—the very subject he said he hated. In his project, he found other stories about the ways animals have been used in war and he was excited to share these with me and his peers. Turns out, slugs were used in World War I. Sounds like another great story.


Contextualize literacy and social studies using stories that students actively create



Dr. Dixie Massey is the program coordinator of the reading endorsement at the University of Washington where she also teaches courses in the Department of Language, Literacy, and Culture. She has published in such journals as Social Studies and the Young Learner, The Reading Teacher, and The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. She is co-author of the curriculum series, Comprehension Strategies for World History and U.S. History in the Social Studies; Targeted Vocabulary Instruction, and the Seeds of Inquiry series published by Social Studies School Services.


Bishop, K., & Kimball, M. A. (2006). “Engaging Students in Storytelling.” Teacher Librarian, 33(4), 28.

Combs, M., & Beach, J. D. (1994). “Stories and Storytelling: Personalizing the Social Studies.” The Reading Teacher, 47(6), 464-471.

Gudmundsdottir, S. (1990). “Curriculum Stories: Four Case Studies of Social Studies Teaching. Insights into Teachers’ Thinking and Practice.” 107-118.

Wells, G. (1986). “The Meaning Makers: Children Learning Language and Using Language to Learn.” Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Widrich, L. (2010). https://lifehacker.com/5965703/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains


You can find the story of Stubby the dog, Sergeant Reckless, Phineas Gage’s skull, and other engaging history stories in the two books that the author, Dixie Massey, wrote with Tina Heafner, Beginning Inquiry:  Short U.S. History Texts for Inexperienced Readers and Seeds of Inquiry: Using Short Texts to Enhance Student Understanding of World History.

2 thoughts on “4 Ways to Use Storytelling to Help Students Engage with Social Studies

  1. I’m a UK History teacher in Manchester, England and I’m very interested in the US curriculum as well as teaching/learning the subject in the US. I would love to read the sample of your book but cannot for some reason open the PDF. Could you perhaps email it to me in another format, please? Many thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.