The “Give a Story to Get a Story” technique is one we all know makes sense. We’ve seen what often happens when we ask students to produce a narrative out of the blue. More often than not, we are rewarded with a blank stare!
The use of the “Conversational Map,” the formal name for this technique, was first described by Peterson and McCabe (1983) and, in web-accessible articles, adapted by McCabe and Rollins (1994) and Hadley (1998). In my experience, these articles hit on principles applicable when working with preschool through adult clients, who can all benefit from language scaffolding.
McCabe and Rollins write:
In spontaneous interactions you have to tell a story to get a story. Almost everyone has experienced awkward silences in social situations. No one can think of a thing to say. However, the minute one person launches into a tale about locking keys in his or her car or leaving lights on in a parking lot, virtually all others in the group share a similar incident that happened to them. The exact content of a story prompt is not important per se. What is important is that children are asked to talk about experiences that mean something to them. In general, children are likely to tell their best stories about being hurt or scared. These are experiences that almost all children have had but are significant enough to any particular child to be worth talking about.
As a case study of sorts, I’d like to share some examples of sharing personal narratives with a student in order to elicit conversation and “same but different” narratives from him. This student is one with moderate language challenges, and narratively he’s pretty good at retelling stories, but much less adept with sharing personal narratives. This has broad implications for his social interactions and also for problem solving situations (see the work of Westby/Noel on this). In providing personal narratives, when a photo is used as a visual support, and depending on his level of engagement, he’s somewhere between Descriptive and Action sequence, describing often who was involved and where, or if a sequence, often describing the items involved but not with full elaborated verb phrases.
In addition to eliciting weekly photos of fun activities from his family to use to “jog his memory,” each week I have been presenting some examples of my own personal narratives and working on his response to these!
This is still through a teletherapy context for the moment, but my tools would likely have been the same in person: my phone’s camera and Photos app, Google Slides (remember—we can think of this tool as just like a whiteboard or flipchart), and MindWing’s Digital Icons. It helps to be kind of an annoying selfie-taker (I won’t encourage you to follow me on Instagram) but one of my points here is as always: keep it simple. Little stuff happens to you, snap a photo! So, some examples of how we did this:
This was “deep pandemic.” In our first few weeks at home, I became frustrated at several missing doorknobs and set out to replace them. I used this story to talk about broken things and having a Plan about them!
In a very strange turn of events, on an early pandemic walk about the neighborhood, I discovered a Kick-Off icon on the ground, which was definitely a kick-off. I used this story to scaffold from the student some guesses about what I thought and felt about this discovery (it was near an elementary school but still, way weird) and a story about things he’d found outside.
“Gross” is good for eliciting language. After a trip to Cape Cod, I scoped out the house and found bird poop in several places. Still not sure how this happened, but it was a good prompt to talk about animal mishaps!
After another trip to the Cape (I am lucky to have it so close), I incorporated a bit of a tech trick—a YouTube point-of-view video of someone riding the bike trail I rode. This provided a good context for Setting: What do you see on the trail? You can see also here the integration of Zones of Regulation vocabulary; I felt tired and the bike ride put me in the Green Zone.
Again, you can keep it real and mundane! This week we talked about safe social matters in the backyard. To work on verb phrases we implemented a modification of the shape coding intervention, used also in modeling.
Lastly, the mundane turned more into a kick-off some weeks later, when after cleaning up the fire pit I sliced my finger open and needed to go to the ER! The student loves to talk about injuries!
I hope these examples inspire you for some (simple!) visually supported uses of personal narrative in your sessions.