Encouraging Language Growth through Storytelling

Storytelling lies at the heart of every culture. It’s the way we capture people’s attention, build social connections, and share our experiences with one another. Although storytelling may make you think of someone crafting elaborate tales, storytelling is actually an everyday, functional skill that we use to talk about everything from a funny, unexpected event that happened while we were out grocery shopping to retelling a friend about the plot of a movie you saw. For our kids, we want them to not only be able to summarize the books they read for academic purposes, we also want them to be able to tell us about what happened on the playground at recess. For our kids with language disabilities, this is not an easy task. Effective storytelling requires the storyteller to consider the perspective of their listener in order to provide the right amount of detail in a logical manner using precise vocabulary and complex sentence structures. A tall order, indeed! But storytelling and retelling, or narrative-based intervention, is a powerful, research-backed tool that speech-language pathologists use to tackle language comprehension, production, and even social skills and problem-solving. In this post, we’ll talk about what makes narrative-based therapy unique and how you can support your child at home.

What makes a narrative?

A narrative is a story based on a real or imaginary event in which there is a goal, some problem or complication that arises, and a consequence from trying to find a solution. All narratives have a story grammar, which are elements for telling a story in a logical way. Below are the elements of a basic narrative and some examples:

Setting

Background information to “set the stage” for the story, which can include the character(s), where the story takes place, and when the story takes place

  • Long ago, in a faraway land, there lived a pretty girl.
  • Mommy and I went to Dairy Queen yesterday.

Initiating Event

An event or problem that happens to the main character(s)

  • The girl wanted to go to the ball at the castle, but her evil sister locked her in her room.
  • My dilly bar fell on the ground.

Attempt

What the character(s) does as a result of the problem

  • The girl tied all of her clothes together to make a rope and climbed out of her bedroom window.
  • I started crying.

Consequence

The outcome of the attempt or resolution

  • The girl went to the ball and met a handsome prince, who whisked her away and made her a princess.
  • Mommy bought me a new one.

These four elements make up a single basic narrative episode, but additional elements and details can be added to increase the complexity of the narrative, such as how the characters feel, multiple attempts to solve the problem, or multiple problems that arise (think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears).

It is important to point out that a narrative is different from a simple sequenced chain of events. Consider the two examples below:

Sequenced StoryNarrative Story
We wanted ice cream on the 4th of July. First, we got in the car. Then, we drove to Coldstone. I got an ice cream cone with sprinkles on it. After we ate our ice cream, we went home.We wanted ice cream on the 4th or July. First, we drove to Dairy Queen, but it was closed. Then we drove to Coldstone, and they were open. I got an ice cream cone with sprinkles on it. After we ate our ice cream, we went home.

In the sequenced story, there are four events that happen, one after another. In the narrative story, a problem arises that needs to be solved during the sequence of events, which makes it more complex and more interesting. We often hear that “a good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end”, usually indicated with words like “first, next, then, last”. While narrative stories can often be sequenced in this way, a problem and an attempt to find a solution are the key features that set narratives apart from other kinds of stories or event retells.

How you can support storytelling at home:

Narrative-based intervention is often a long and carefully-planned process that involves breaking down the elements of story grammar piece by piece. At the same time, research suggests that one of the most critical pieces to successful narrative-based intervention is repeated exposure to narrative structures, which is easier to incorporate into your everyday home routine than you may think.

You can model narrative structures for your child by sharing about events from your day, a complication that came up, and how you tried to solve the problem. This can be done while driving home from school in the car or can even be made into a family tradition at the dinner table.

Book sharing is another essential part of narrative-based intervention in the therapy room and can easily be done at home, as well. The key is to select books that have a strong plot. Illustrations also provide great visual supports.

Here is a list of narrative-based book suggestions:

Of course, the best way for children to become good storytellers is to practice doing it themselves. In general, it’s easier for kids to tell a personal narrative (something that happened to them) or to retell a story. Ask specific questions about your child’s day to see if something unexpected came up or try having your child retell a book or TV show episode to another family member. To help support your child, you can ask questions like “What did you do to fix the problem?” or “How did Charlie feel when Lucy took his ball?”

Providing your child with opportunities to hear, read, and share narratives is a wonderful way to build their language skills as well as connections to family and peers. It’s really no surprise that narratives are an SLP fan-favorite for therapy, and we hope you find them helpful at home, too!

-Olivia Edelman, M.A. CF-SLP

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