Early Childhood

One Key Question May Help Children Get Deeper Meaning From Stories

By Marva Hinton — August 25, 2017 3 min read
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A new paper published this month finds that asking that simple question can help young students get a lot more out of stories that are read to them.

Teachers have been using stories to convey moral lessons to children since ancient times. But previous research has shown that a story’s moral, while obvious to adults, if often missed by early learners who are more likely to focus on a story’s surface details.

The paper, which was published online in the journal Cognition, includes the results of two related studies which find that simply asking children “why” questions about a story can help them to pick up the story’s overarching theme, or moral.

“What we’ve learned from developmental psychology over the years is that a lot of what children fail to do seems not to be a failure of cognitive competence but just a difference in where they’re attending, and so by redirecting their attention to different types of information you can get them to do a surprising amount of things that we didn’t think that they could do,” said Caren Walker, the study’s first author and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.


In the first study, 48 children who were 5 or 6 years old were read an illustrated storybook with a moral lesson. Half of them were then asked to either explain the story or report events in the story. This happened at the midway point in the story and at the end. Following this they were assessed on their knowledge about the story in four different ways: by answering true/false questions about content; selecting a vignette that best matched the theme of the story; choosing the theme of the story between two options (one of which was the actual theme and the other a surface fact from the story); and describing what they felt was the most important thing they learned through the story.

The children were recruited from local preschools and museums and represented various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Children who had been prompted to explain the story performed significantly better on these tasks than the children who had been asked to report on events that happened in the story.

In the second study, 96 children who were ages 5 and 6 were read an illustrated storybook with a moral lesson. Thirty-two children were randomly assigned to three different groups: explain, report, or pedagogy. The students in the explain and report groups went through the same process as the students in the first study as the story was read. Students in the pedagogy group were provided with a statement of the problem in the story and the target lesson, instead of the midstory and end prompts students received in the other two groups.

Students in this study were asked four additional memory questions about the story. The experimenter also explained to them what a “lesson” was and they were asked if they thought the story they read had a lesson. They were also given a chance to apply the lesson of the story to a real-world problem.


In both studies, the students in the explain group performed significantly better on these tasks than the other students. In the second study, students in the pedagogy group performed second best, followed by the students in the report group.

The students who had received an explanation on what a lesson was also performed better than the children in the first study who had not received this information.

“The idea is that prompting children for a ‘why’ question is going to lead them to consider hypotheses about the world that they might not otherwise do spontaneously,” said Walker. “It leads them to understand what it is that you’re looking for and what kinds of features in the story that they should be attending to that they don’t do on their own.”

Walker says this is because young children already have a keen sense of what makes a good explanation. They tend to focus on things that are simple and broad, and that leads them to discover the moral of the story.

So what’s the takeaway for early-childhood teachers and parents who want children to pick up on the moral lessons in stories they read to them?

“Rather than treating children as passive consumers of the information you’re providing them, really getting them actively engaged in that process and asking why questions is a particularly good way of doing that,” said Walker.

Photo: In this stock photo, a kindergarten teacher reads a story to her students. (Getty)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.