The Importance of Narrative Development in School and in Life

Having worked within the dual fields of speech/language pathology and reading/writing disabilities for the past 35 years, I see the ability to comprehend and/or express a story as vital to both academic and social success. Our conversations with family and friends are made up of stories, about ourselves, and others. We take perspectives of others through stories, we are asked to analyze the actions of characters and even notice their facial expressions and feelings in stories (books and TV) and in life as we strive to understand human nature: why people do what they do.

In short, the ability to comprehend and express stories is as vital to life as it is to academic success!

When working with children surrounding this topic, we frequently use questions to determine their understanding of the story. Who, Where, When, What happened, Why and How are the most common question words we use. However, I have often noticed that the very students who can answer these “Wh” questions still have great difficulty expressing what they have seemingly comprehended to others orally and more so, in writing. These students seem to get the action but not “make connections.” Some can answer Who, Where, When and What happened, but “Why and How” seem too complex. I have found that I must continue to probe with questions in order to motivate my students. In conversations with peers who do not usually persist in asking these questions, my students have often become silent onlookers within the conversational group.  They also can never “think of anything to write!”

Do you recognize your students in these scenarios? If so, you may want to try using a linguistic structure known as story grammar to facilitate retelling, telling and writing stories. Story grammar is the organization of a story. Children are exposed to story organization through graphic organizers. One type of graphic organizer calls for the beginning, middle or end. The other common graphic organizer calls for a character, setting, problem, events and solution.  Neither of these provides the in-depth organization that story grammar structure does. Many children need an explicit scaffold to assist them along the often “scary” road to writing. There is a large body of research on story grammar and its broader category, narrative discourse.   

When looking at story grammar, we encourage children to think about the following components:

  • Character (Who)
  • Setting (Where, When, What usually happens there?)
  • Initiating Event: A happening or situation that caused a change in feeling on the part of the character? Or, a happening that was not expected in the Setting?
  • Feeling: How did the character feel about the Initiating Event? It is important to explain to the children that all Initiating Events are not problems. Many times, these happenings are events that cause feelings that are positive. For instance, a surprise party causes joy; a flat tire causes concern, maybe anger!
  • Plan: What does the character want to accomplish? Desires and intents are words to use.
  • Attempts: Attempts are planned actions that are done to carry out the intent of the character.
    • There may be many.
  • Direct Consequence: The outcome or result.
  • Resolution: A simple resolution is a statement of the feeling that the character now has.  In most instances the resolution will be different from the original feeling that motivated the character to make a plan. A more complex resolution is a “lesson learned” or a “moral.”

These components comprise an entity known as an “Episode.” According to the National Reading Panel Report (2000), an episode is the basic unit of a plot.  A plot is a series of episodes.
Try the following lesson to get started:

Choose a picture book, such as Rosie’s Walk. Read the book to the child. Ask the child to retell the story to you using the pictures (a book walk). Notice what the child includes in the retelling.  For instance, does the child mention:

  • Rosie (the main character)
  • The farm (the setting)
  • Where Rosie went (actions in a sequence at the setting)
  • The fact that there is a fox (character) awaiting Rosie (an “initiating event”/problem)
  • The Fox’s plan (what the Fox wants; needed to be inferred)
  • What the Fox did (his planned actions/attempts)
  • The outcome or result for Rosie  (consequence/result of actions)
  • The outcome or result for the Fox  (consequence/result of planned attempts)

Rosie got home after having a pleasant walk. She had no intent other than to walk (a series of actions). The fox did not have a positive outcome. He did not achieve what we inferred that he had planned: to eat Rosie! Prior knowledge about the relationship between foxes and hens needed to be understood. Actually, there are two episodes here, Rosie’s and the Fox’s.

Maryellen Rooney Moreau M.Ed. CCC-SLP, is the founder and president of MindWing Concepts, Inc.


Maryellen Rooney Moreau
Maryellen Rooney Moreau

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