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The Power of Stories

Posted by Renee , in Orality 10 December 2012 · 1185 views

While living in North Africa for seven years, among many who were illiterate, I saw the power of "stories" and the way they can impact people's hearts. I had heard of people spending years, even decades, trying to teach people how to read and write so that one day they could read the Bible themselves. What a task! I, too, had spent significant time trying to help people understand Biblical truth in a written and literate form, but with little results. I had to re-think the way I was doing things, the way I was communicating with these people. What was the learning style of their culture? Should I try to teach them how to learn like I do as a literate North American?

Jesus was the greatest storyteller ever and communicated to people of all ages, classes, and cultures through stories and parables. In fact, about 75% of the Bible is made up of stories! The Bible is also full of psalms and songs that were originally communicated orally, accompanied by instruments and, at times, even dancing. Everyone loves a good story and a good song, whether they are two-years-old or ninety-nine! We can follow Jesus' model in the Bible.

One day I simply began "telling" Bible stories to my friends while sitting in their living room drinking mint tea and eating couscous, rather than reading the stories to them or helping them to learn how to read them. It was like a light bulb went on in their hearts and minds. I was finally speaking "their language", the language of stories! And to see how they would naturally learn the stories to tell them to their family members and neighbors. I never had to urge them to go and tell someone the story. That is just what they did naturally in their "oral storying" culture!

This is how I discovered "orality", which is simply using stories and other oral methods (songs, drama, etc.) to communicate to people who learn best by hearing. We often call these people "oral learners". Did you know that 2/3 of the world is made up of "oral learners"?

Some oral learners, like those in North Africa, are in areas of the world where they have never had the opportunity to learn how to read and write. These people receive and pass on information through the form of stories and music. They usually have amazing memories and are incredible storytellers.

Other oral learners are sitting in our church pews in North America and other post-modern cultures and simply have a preference for learning orally. I think that this is the case with many of our youth. Sometimes I wonder if tomorrow's teenagers will even know how to read, as they are constantly bombarded by an audio/visual world! Do we know how to communicate with them in a way that they can truly "hear" and respond?

Let's re-think the way we are doing things and re-learn how to communicate to oral people in a way that they can hear, TRULY hear . . . those in the African bush and those sitting next to us in church!

Until ALL have heard,

Renee, Orality Consultant for Alliance International Ministries

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An oral learner is:


Someone whose most effective communication and learning format, style, or method is in accordance with oral formats, as contrasted to literate formats.
Someone who prefers to learn or process information by oral rather than written means. (These are literate people whose preferred communication style is oral rather than literate, even though they can read.)
Someone who cannot read or write (this represents about 5% of the world's population).

Did you know?


There are an estimated 4.35 billion people who are oral learners. This includes 3 billion adults, 900 million very young children, and 450 million children between the ages of eight and fifteen; all of these have basic or below basic literacy skills. They are oral learners because of their limited literacy skills.
The vast majority of missions work has been done for a literate audience. Unfortunately the vast majority of the true audience is therefore not able to connect with the Gospel.
Oral cultures are very relational - they share their lives with one another.
Most oral cultures will communicate with one another in narratives, dialogues and dramas, proverbs, songs, chants, and poetry. When asked what he thought about a new village school headmaster, a Central African replied "Let's watch how he dances".

Partnering Projects

Onestory (OS)

Simply the Story (STS)  

Storying Training for Trainers (ST4T)  

ION  International Orality Network