Telling stories accesses the cultural background and prior knowledge of English language learners (ELLs) and helps them learn to tell a narrative with which they self-identify.

Lucy Santos Green, in "Language learning through a lens: The case for digital storytelling in the second language classroom" says that "second language learners who share personal experiences through storytelling demonstrate both linguistic and metacognitive growth."

"Leer Entre Lineas: Using Technology to Help ELLs Succeed in the Classroom," from the Kansas Journal of Reading, says that technology allows ELLs "to use visually appealing products including clip art, word art, colors, fonts and interactive presentations with sound, graphics and animation can provide the extra motivation needed to capture a student's interest."

This includes telling stories or narratives through digital means, or digital storytelling. It transcends language, culture, age and socio-economics by engaging them in an appealing textual, visual and auditory display of information. It does this through connecting literacy, language and technology into stories.

Incorporating digital storytelling in the ESL classroom allows learners to tell narratives about their experiences and apply critical thinking and cognitive processes to new information. These processes include: comparing, selecting, inferring, arranging and revising.

The narrative storytelling allows ELLs to apply new learning objectives to their prior knowledge to help with the cognitive-processing load for working memory and long-term memory retention. This learning is effective in all situations and content areas.

3 memory systems for cognitive development in digital storytelling

Digital storytelling can leverage the metacognitive thinking skills of ELLs through the brainstorming, planning and completion phases of the development process. It helps learners with their three memory systems: sensory memory (audio and visual), short-term memory and long-term memory.

Metacognition development helps ELLs become aware of their knowledge and ability to manipulate their cognitive processes. Elaine Blakely says, "Metacognition is thinking about thinking, knowing 'what we know' and 'what we don't know.'" It helps ELLs identify:

  • what they know and what they don't understand (person variables)
  • information to complete a task (task variables)
  • prior knowledge to determine strategies for learning on a particular task (strategy variables)
  • strategies to use for problem-solving, reflecting on and evaluating their learning (strategy variables)

Metacognition helps ELLs through minimizing their cognition load by helping the processing of their working memory. This allows these learners to have the working memory capacity to add new information for effective processing. Students learn to think about their thinking to analyze what they know about story development.

Metacognition can be used in digital storytelling through using one's memory to access prior knowledge for storytelling, analyzing sounds and images that project the feeling and emotion of the story, and analyzing content area materials to compare and interpret information that can be used to tell a story.

Metacognition propels cognitive processes to engage the student in active working-memory usages and applications that propel the processes to long-term memory. Students can be taught to access information, compare it to their existing knowledge, and manage and monitor their learning process.

While working on memory systems, digital storytelling helps ELLs rehearse information within their working memories while accessing their long-term memory for processing and cognition.

ELLs can have problems with accessing their inert knowledge. Digital storytelling can help ELLs with this by accessing knowledge through the near and far transfer processes. Teachers can set guidelines and tasks to help with the knowledge transfer. Storytelling through technology enables ELLs to apply auditory and visual data to help with their knowledge processing.

Memory load and retention techniques

Storytelling through technological processes allows learners to utilize and access all three memory systems, which help ELLs with language, writing, reading, speaking and content-area development.

Digital storytelling is effective for accessing these systems because it can incorporate effective learning principles on memory load and retention. These principles include: the modality principle, the contiguity principle, lesson and spacing principles, and work samples to study.

  • The Modality Principle: Teachers can teach ELLs to narrate with audio and visuals rather than with text only to help their cognitive processing.
  • The Contiguity Principle: Teachers can teach ELLs to integrate text into pictures rather than separately to help them better access their working memory.
  • Lesson Size and Spacing: Teachers should space the project development into short lessons over a determined period of time. This helps the learners place the learning into their long-term memories for the cognitive-load theory.
  • Study Work Examples: Teachers can help ELLs with their working memory work load and metacognitive processing by having students study existing examples of digital stories.

Long-term memory applications

Digital storytelling can also help ELLs with the three memory systems by helping ELLs with storage of information in their long-term memory. Teachers can plan these projects through usage of strategies and tasks that help ELLs with long-term memory processing and retention.

These strategies and tasks include ones that help learners with encoding and the transfer of learning (near and far transfer).

1. Encoding: Teachers can include encoding tasks and strategies through digital storytelling to help ELLs add the learning objectives to their long-term memory. This can include group activities, answering metacognitive questions during the monitoring phase, and including shorter project tasks.

2. Transfer of Learning: Teachers can include near-transfer tasks to help students with their long-term memory of the learning objectives. This includes listing and demonstrating the procedures of digital storytelling through segmented instructional lessons. Teachers can also use far-transfer tasks like the study of existing project procedural examples, development examples, and final project examples of digital stories that match the project scope and learning objectives.

Metacognitive questions in digital storytelling

Teachers can plan the inclusion of metacognitive skills in storytelling projects through guiding, regulating and evaluating information. This can be accomplished by teaching learners to guide the information by developing a plan, regulating information by using strategies to help fix gaps in understanding and evaluate information after a task is completed.

These skills can be taught through self-questioning techniques (such as below), reflective writing journals and through discussing the processes with other learners (cooperative grouping).

Metacognitive questions teachers can teach learners to ask during the scope of the digital storytelling process are the following:

  • Planning phase: What is the purpose of the learning project? What prior knowledge do I have that can be used on the learning project? What materials do I need to identify to use in the project? What is my plan for the project?
  • Monitoring phase: How am I doing on my project? Am I taking the right direction on my project? Do I need to access a different direction for my project? What don’t I understand on the project?
  • Evaluating phase: What did I learn during the scope of the project? How did I do on my project? Can I apply what I learned on this project to other projects or learning tasks in the future? Is there anything I still don’t understand related to the learning and the project?

Teachers can place these questions and other similar questions on task cards or written out on an activity sheet for students to use before, during and after the learning and project process.

Other cognitive strategies for digital storytelling

Teachers of ELLs can integrate strategies for cognitive development during the writing process to facilitate digital storytelling development. They can have learners use the script-writing process of digital storytelling to identify strategies to use for: the writing process, problem solving in the translating process and strategies to self-evaluate and revise the writing.

Digital storytelling should be student-centered with a focus on story development: beginning, problem, solution and ending. Learners can use prewriting strategies to brainstorm information such as using graphic organizers or concept maps to help in the planning phase and identifying person, task and strategy variables to guide and develop their project plan.

Additionally, they can use monitoring graphic organizers to identify their progress on a project, what they might not still understand, and what they might still need to do through use of strategy variables.

ELLs can benefit from digital storytelling projects that integrate cross-curricular information that helps them relate existing information to new information for cognitive processing. Digital storytelling can also help struggling writers become motivated with learning to write.

Teachers can learn to support students as writers to help them learn to tell their narrative. Teachers can teach these lessons through use of a graphic visual for storytelling development.

Resources for digital storytelling

Teachers can use digital storytelling resources to develop instructional units and plans to map out their project scope, content area inclusion, language objectives and utilization of all three memory processes.

There are many resources available online to help teachers learn how to create digital storytelling units and lessons for the development process. Some of these resources are the following:

ELLs can learn to become aware of their learning through cognitive applications and tasks in learning. Such tasks teach these learners to access, use, and become aware of their three memory systems.

Teachers of ELLs can teach students to access and develop these three memory systems through interactive projects that have them relate the learning to their prior knowledge and to their visual and auditory systems for learning and memory.

Teaching students to create digital stories allows students to access, apply and develop their memory through narrating their stories while applying language and content-area objectives for acquisition of the English language.