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Stories and narratives

Children’s engagement with stories are an important focus of oral language development.

Narrative skills are developed through shared book reading, storytelling, performing arts, and fine arts, as well as children’s creation of oral, visual, written, and multimedia stories.

Overview

Through these experiences, children develop a strong sense of how stories work, including the parts of a story:

  • settings
  • characters
  • plot
  • themes.

The importance of stories and narratives

Telling stories is an opportunity for children and educators to learn about culture, community, and language. We support children to learn about the stories and history of their own cultures, as well as the broader community.

Stories are a medium with which all children become familiar and enjoy. Whether through books, pictures, dance, music, rhymes, multimedia, or the spoken word - storytelling is crucial part of early childhood education and beyond.

Children’s ability to understand and tell stories also have strong links to their later language and literacy success.

Every good story has …

A start, middle, and an end. This basic story structure is understood by young children, and they also start to tell stories with these parts by around 3 years of age. Every story has at least a start, middle, and an end. More advanced stories also have a complete “episode”

(Story Grammar: Stein & Glenn, 1975).

This means the story has:

  • a clear setting (including characters, place, time)
  • problem/starting event (an event or issue that starts the story – which is not necessarily a ‘negative’ event)
  • character reactions to the problem, and their plan(s) of how to respond to the problem
  • attempts to solve problem (sometimes plans don’t work!)
  • consequences of these attempts to solve the problem (what happens next?)
  • resolution to the problem (often with some kind of message or lesson that has been learnt).

A good story has more than a start, middle and end. It has the parts of a complete 'episode'. A complete episode has all of these elements. Children start by telling simple stories, but will start to tell a full episode by around 7 years.

Key developmental milestones

Early communicators (birth - 18 months)

  • Enjoy listening to simple stories
  • Benefit from listening to oral stories, and shared book reading
  • Will show interest in pictures in books, as well as props/costume used to tell stories.

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

Children are interested in listening to stories, and from 2 years most will start telling their own stories:

  • from 2 years: will start to tell a description of unrelated ideas/events
    • e.g. a child might tell a story like this: “A girl is eating cookies. The man is going to the car. The baby is sleeping.”.
  • 2-3 years: will start to tell stories with a central character, topic or setting
    • e.g. a child might say: “The girl lives with her mum and dad. The dog lives with them too. They all live together”.

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)

(Note: Examples adapted from Hedberg and Stoel-Gammon (1986) and Ukrainetz (2006)):

  • 3-4 years: usually tell stories that are in the right order
    • e.g. “Once there was a boy. One day he was playing in the pond. And he found a frog. And he took it home and put it in his room and went to eat dinner.”

These example stories about a boy and his frog show how children begin to tell more advanced stories as they get older:

  • 4 years onwards: will start to tell stories that are almost complete episodes (except for the character’s decisions/plan)
    • e.g. “Once there was a boy, a dog, and a frog. But then the frog left. And the boy went into the forest. And the boy kept looking for him. And then finally the frog came out. And they all went home.”
  • 5 years onwards: will start to tell stories with complete episodes (including character reactions and plans)
    • e.g. “Once, a boy had a frog. But, the frog jumped away! He went into some trees. In a minute, the boy couldn’t see him anymore. He was sad! The boy called and called for him. And then he saw that his frog had taken a scary path. The boy decided to take the scary path too. And it was very, very creepy. Then he saw something jumping. He grabbed it. And it was his frog.”

Types of stories (narratives)

Narratives can be oral or written. They can also be presented through art and theatre, or through audio-visual media like film, television, sound and music. All stories have the elements of setting, character, and plot. Below are some broad types of stories that children can listen to, and tell themselves:

  • cultural/traditional stories (including Dreamtime or other Indigenous stories)
  • fables and fairytales (including folktales, and modern versions)
  • myths and legends
  • other fictional stories (like picture storybooks, or stories that children make up themselves)
  • biographies and autobiographies
  • recounts and personal stories (like educators’ or children’s own experiences).

For examples of children’s literature, and multimedia/ICT texts, refer to exploring and creating texts.

Learn more about story structure

Stories have a particular structure, sometimes called a “story grammar” (Stein & Glenn, 1975).

Setting

Setting includes the time and place of the story. For older children, stories may have multiple settings. Settings can be:

  • real or imagined
  • somewhere near to home, or far away
  • in the past, present, or future.

Characters

Most stories have main characters, who can be the hero (protagonist), the villain (antagonist), or somewhere in between. The characters in children’s early stories are likely to be familiar to them.

However, through modelling of different kinds of storytelling and book reading, children may start to create stories with new characters of their own.

Plot

Stories can be about familiar or unfamiliar events or topics.

Nearly all stories will have a problem (or starting event) which sets off the action of the narrative. The events that follow the problem of the story, are usually attempts to solve the problem, and the consequences of these attempts.

Think of a story you have read/heard recently and try to identify the main starting event in the story, and what events followed.

Responses from characters

The characters drive any good story. The audience wants to know what they are experiencing, how they are feeling, and what they will decide to do. When children start to tell more advanced stories (towards the start of primary school) they will include elements like:

  • character reactions to the problem in the story (She was shocked that the tree had fallen down!)
  • character thoughts and planning into how to solve the problem (She thought about how she could get around the fallen tree, and decided to try climbing over the top instead)
  • responses by the characters to the consequences of their actions (She was surprised at how easy it was to jump down from the tree).

Resolution(s)

Stories usually have an obvious ending as well. This where the initial problem of the story is resolved, or at least the characters have learnt something along the way. Including a clear resolution is a sign of more developed narrative skills.

Themes

Stories often communicate a message or deeper meaning. Authors or storytellers can communicate these themes through:

  • the thoughts, feelings, or actions of the characters
  • what the characters learn about themselves in the story
  • the events that occur
  • how stories develop or resolve.

Talking about the themes of narratives is an important part of making meaning from stories. Some general themes that might arise in children’s stories include:

  • courage
  • friendship
  • belonging/identity
  • family
  • love and kindness
  • loss/grief
  • growing up
  • learning to share
  • learning to cope with feelings
  • sustainability
  • importance of culture.

Theory to Practice

Narratives are an important part of the Social and Academic Uses of Language, in line with Bloom and Lahey’s (1978) Form Content and Use model. Children learn to use language to making meaning from stories, and to tell their own stories.

Listening to stories and telling one’s own stories are opportunities for practising all parts of oral language, including speech, vocabulary and grammar.

It is also important for the development of inferencing skills, which become important when children begin to read, and practice reading comprehension (Kleeck, 2008).

Evidence Base

Being able to understand and tell stories is a key skill for early reading and writing success in the early years of school (e.g. Gardner-Neblett & Iruka, 2015).

Through exposure to stories (both oral, written, and visual), children become prepared for the stories/narratives they will encounter in written language once they transition to primary school.

These opportunities include:

  • learning how stories work
  • making meaning from stories they hear
  • creating their own stories (in oral, visual, or written form).

Outcome 1: identity

Children develop knowledgeable and confident self-identities:

  • use their home language to construct meaning
  • develop strong foundations in both the culture and language/s of their family and the
  • broader community without compromising their cultural identities.

Outcome 2: community

Children become aware of fairness:

  • begin to understand and evaluate ways in which texts construct identities and create stereotypes.

Outcome 3: wellbeing

Children take increasing responsibility for their own health and physical wellbeing:

  • respond through movement to traditional and contemporary music, dance and storytelling of their own and others’ cultures.

Outcome 4: communication

Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts:

  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhymes in context
  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme
  • view and listen to printed, visual and multimedia texts and respond with relevant gestures,
  • actions, comments and/or questions
  • sing chant rhymes, jingles and songs
  • explore texts from a range of different perspectives and begin to analyse the meanings
  • actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways
  • recognise and engage with written and oral culturally constructed texts.

Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media:

  • share the stories and symbols of their own cultures and re-enact well-known stories.

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work:

  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme.

Experience plans and videos

Early communicators (birth - 18 months)

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 -60 months)

Learning foci and teaching practices

  • Bloom, L., & Lahey, M. (1978). Language development and language disorders. New York, NY, US: John Wiley & Sons.

    Gardner-Neblett, N., & Iruka, I. U. (2015). Oral narrative skills: Explaining the language-emergent literacy link by race/ethnicity and SES. Developmental Psychology, 51(7), 889-904.

    Hedberg, N. L., & Stoel-Gammon, C. (1986). Narrative analysis: Clinical procedures. Topics in Language Disorders, 7(1), 58-69.

    Kleeck, A. Van. (2008). Providing preschool foundations for later reading comprehension: The importance of and ideas for targeting inferencing in storybook-sharing interventions. Psychology in the Schools, 45(7), 627–643.

    Stein, N. L., & Glenn, C. G. (1975). An analysis of story comprehension in elementary school children: A test of a schema. In R. O. Freedle (Ed.), New Directions in Discourse Processing (pp. 53–120). Norwood, NJ, US: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

    Ukrainetz, T. A. (2006). Teaching narrative structure: Coherence, cohesion, and captivation, In T. A. Ukrainetz (Ed.), Contextualized language (p. 203). Claire, WI: Thinking Publications.

Reviewed 14 April 2023

Literacy teaching toolkit for early childhood

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