Improving storytelling skills in childhood – Narrative language

Kimberly Martins, M.A. CCC-SLP
November 18, 2021

Storytelling in the professional field is referred to as narrative language. If a speech-language professional is speaking to you about your child’s narrative language skills, they are referring to your child’s ability to tell you a story. This “story” can be about something that happened to them during the day, a “story” about a movie they watched or book they read, a made up “story”, and more.

In this post, I will explain what narrative language is, what skills are required, why it is important, types of narratives and their development across the lifespan, activity examples to improve narrative skills and the transition from oral to written narratives.

What is a narrative?

A narrative is basically like a monologue or a story. We use narratives in conversation. For example, when you ask someone what they did over their weekend they are re-telling their weekend events to you (what they did, where they went, who they saw, how it was). A narrative can also involve re-telling a story you read or a movie you saw (plot, characters, main events). Children also use narrative skills in play when they use play scripts, describe what is happening as they play or integrate dialogue between toys (e.g. when playing with dolls).

There are four basic components to all narratives – plot, character, conflict and theme. They also follow a similar sequence – beginning, middle and ending. For instance, when re-telling a story that was read, a child should start with the events in the correct order from beginning to ending and not start telling the story by jumping between the ending, beginning and then middle.

Main Story Elements

  • Setting (introduction to characters, time and space description)
  • Initiating event (conflict/event that induces the character to act, mission)
  • Internal response (character reactions/emotions/intentions)
  • Internal plan (plan of action to resolve the problem/attain goal)
  • Attempt (action taken by characters to attain goals)
  • Reaction (characters’ emotional response to the outcome of their actions)
  • Ending (a clear statement that the story is over)

Skills required for narratives

Good oral narrative skills will help improve your child’s expressive and receptive language skills and social communication skills. Oral narratives comprise the foundation for crucial academic skills such as reading comprehension, writing stories, writing book reports/summaries, formulating oral presentations, and more.

Narratives and Receptive/Expressive Language

Narratives help children use higher level language skills. When re-telling an event that happened to them, they have to use the appropriate vocabulary and combine words into long grammatically correct sentences. Also they have to first understand the story that was read to them. Children have to demonstrate understanding of the new vocabulary/concepts, emotions (e.g. frustrated), the context, the plot of the story, problem (what is a conflict?), solution (what is a solution?). Then they have to use their understanding of the story to re-tell you the story verbally using age-appropriate semantic (words) and syntactic (grammar) skills. Story-telling also requires good sequencing skills and the ability to tell events in the order that they occurred. Can you start your story with the ending? I don’t think so.

Narratives and Social skills

Narrative language also requires a good foundation of social communication skills. Children with social language skills often have co-morbid narrative language difficulties. When telling a story or talking about a previous event, you need to be clear, concise, specific, use only relevant information, take into consideration your listener’s perspective and knowledge (do they understand you? can they follow your story or have you lost them? did you forget an important piece of information?). Therefore, children need to be able to check in with their listener, take their perspective (what they know/don’t know), and maintain the topic of their story.

Example (Re-telling a story)

Story – “There was a boy who found a giant dragon that was terrorizing villagers and burning down villages. At first, he was afraid of the dragon but he tried to be brave and went up to the dragon to speak with him. The dragon had a huge toothache and was angry with pain, he didn’t want to burn down villages but every time he screamed with pain, fire shot out of his mouth. The boy helped the dragon and took out a bone that was stuck in his mouth. The dragon was relieved and thanked the boy. Then he flew off and the villagers cheered for the brave boy.”

Child’s narrative re-tell –There was a boy who went somewhere and then a giant dragon and the village burned down but they won.”

This child did not take into consideration the listener’s perspective. The child knows what happened because they read the story, therefore, in their mind that may be enough information, but not for someone who hasn’t read the story. You can help your child by asking questions for more information and practicing re-telling the story with all the relevant story elements in a clear manner. Let them know you did not understand what the story was about and that they need to check in with you. Did mommy/daddy look confused? Help them read your facial expression/body language.

Example (Personal narrative)

Someone asked your child about their family vacation trip.

Child’s narrative – “I got home today. I fell down and my brother liked swimming. It was fun. I liked eating. The first day lots of driving. I wanted to climb. It was fun.

Confused? This child lacks sequencing skills, specific semantic information (words), cohesion (flow of story, link between sentences, grammatical sentences), no perspective taking or checking in with the listener. You can help your child tell personal narratives by sequencing events in a particular order, going over the appropriate words for the actions, setting, emotions, and relevant information.

Child’s appropriate narrative – “We went to a cabin in the woods. We drove for a long time. I had fun climbing up the trees and my brother liked swimming. One day I fell down from a tree, but I was okay. We had a lot of fun. We ate a lot of yummy food like hot dogs and roasted marshmallows. I got back home today.”

Types of Narratives

Scripts

  • Response to telling routine events (e.g. tell daddy what we do at the park every day)
  • Response to request to tell what is usually done at a sit-down restaurant (predictable sequenced routine)
  • Response to teacher’s request to tell a new student the classroom routine
  • Response to request to tell what is usually done in a grocery store (daily routine event)

Recounts

Recounts are narratives prompted from the child by others. They are not spontaneously produced by children.

  • Retelling events (e.g. response to “tell daddy what we did at the park today”)
  • Show and tell (sharing your favorite toy or book and talking to your peers about it)
  • Relating an event that happened to another person
  • Prompted personal narrative (e.g. re-telling visit to grandma’s house, field trip, etc.)

Accounts

Accounts are narratives that are usually personal and spontaneously produced by children. There is no secondary person prompting the information from the child.

  • Relating an experience that happened at school
  • Unprompted telling about a play-date
  • Spontaneous reminiscing about a childhood event

Event Casts

  • Narrating out loud (broadcasting) ongoing actions during pretend play
  • Directing others to play roles in pretend play (e.g. playing house or doctor)

Fictional Stories

Children tell fictional (made-up) stories created by themselves, parents or that they read.

  • Bedtime stories made up by parents (can involve the child in creating the story with you by adding elements for characters, setting, events)
  • Ghost stories told around the campfire
  • Fairy tales/Fables that are read or told

Development of Narrative Language Skills

Just like other communication milestones, simpler narrative language skills emerge first in the form of scripts for routines, description of events, and lists. Afterward, children will start to use more personal narratives that are prompted and spontaneous. Once they have acquired higher level language skills they will attempt to re-tell a fictional story or create their own story.

Toddlers (2-3 years old)

  • Uses mental schemas for representing events (i.e. organization of events in their mind)
  • Uses scripts for general routine events (e.g. eating breakfast, going to the park/restaurant)
  • In play – will use scripts using some words (e.g. taking care of the animals in the barn, cooking, taking care of baby)

Preschool (4-5 years old)

  • Action sequences with visual support (e.g. sequence pictures, picture books)
  • Starts to understand sequencing (beginning/ending) through generic statements (e.g. once upon a time, the end)
  • Uses Accounts and Recounts
  • Uses Event Casts during play

Example (Drawing pictures)

One way to elicit narrative language and practice telling personal narratives with pre-school age children is through drawing. You can have them draw a picture of a specific event (e.g. tell me what you did at the park). Then they can tell you what happened at the park as they draw their picture by explaining what they will draw and why. You can wait for them to finish the drawing and then describe their time at the park via the drawing for reference.

You can also let the child draw anything they want. Then ask them to tell you about their picture and see what they come up with. You can help them create a story around their drawing. Even if it’s just scribbles and lines, you can be imaginative. For example, “Oh that looks like a dragon, he is breathing fire, is he a friendly dragon?

When I read a book, I also like to ask the child to draw a picture regarding the book. It could be a specific story event that we just read about or their favorite part. Then they can use their drawing as a reference to re-tell the story to me or a parent.

Early School Age (K-3rd grade)

  • Uses stories with pictures and text to narrate the story
  • Narrative length increases across elementary school years
  • Uses multiple themes and embedded plots
  • Uses more literate stories
  • By age 8 years old, includes characters’ emotions and thoughts

Example (Writing a Journal)

Having your child write in a journal is a fantastic way to increase language, reading/writing, sequencing, narrative language, reasoning and problem solving skills.

For young children who are learning to write. Have them write in a journal everyday about something that happened. You can tell them to pick one thing that they want to write about their day. Have them draw a picture and then verbally express what they’d want to write. Then help them write one or two sentences. You can also write it for them. This can be done with children as of 5 years old.

Older children can simply write or also draw pictures. Give them specific things to write about everyday. They can even come up with stories. For example, you could tell them to write about summer vacation, what they would do if a genie granted them three wishes or about their dream last night.

Later School Age (4th to 6th grade)

  • Includes narrative story elements such as obstacles to the goal and multiple attempts to reach the goal
  • Uses conjoining and embedded sentences
  • Uses temporal and causal connections among characters’ actions and episodes
  • Tells tales of deception or trickery
  • Uses flashbacks and flash-forwards

Tip for improving narrative language

Read the same story over and over with younger children until they are able to tell it back to you, this will boost their narrative language skills and confidence in telling stories.

Example (Using the same book)

I run narrative language groups and we read the same story each week and it usually takes us about 1-2 months per book. I always start the story from the beginning each time. At first, I tell the story and check for comprehension of concepts as I go through. Then I start to slowly fade away my language model while keeping the pictures and have them fill in the blanks with target concepts/words.

For example, I’d say “there was a _ and a _, they lived in a _, they were best _, then one day the _ did _, that made the _ feel_.” The children fill in the information for characters, setting, relevant actions/events, problems, solutions and character reactions. I gradually fade away verbal models and have them re-tell the story solely using the story pictures. Lastly, I have them practice re-telling the story without pictures.

Try this at home and you’ll see your child’s story telling skills vastly improve. Just make sure to take your time going through the book, read 2-3 new pages at a time (each day) and review previous pages. This will keep your child engaged and wanting to know what will happen next!

Reading a lot of books and telling stories to your child will help improve their narrative language skills. The more stories they hear the more they will realize the common aspects found across all stories and discriminate the relevant information such as setting, characters, the problem, plan of action, outcome/resolution, and character reactions.