Home > Strategies and Skill Development > Social Reasoning Strategy Families > Storytelling > Literature Note - Storytelling - The Development of Narrative Skills

As Bruner (1991) noted, narrative has two landscapes—the representation of the physical world in which characters move and interact and the representation of characters’ inner worlds or mental landscape. While some narratives may focus almost exclusively on one or the other (for instance, folktales focus on the external world of events and event sequences, and certain types of literary narrative focus almost entirely inside the stream of consciousness), richly structured, elaborated narratives are typically concerned with both. Bruner (1992) characterized narratives as having 10 characteristics, of which the following are critical in the later literature. We can classify them as having to do with three levels of sophistication: event structure, intentional structure, and interpretive structure.

Event Structure

  • Narrative diachronicity. A narrative presents a sequence of events and their causes tracked through time.
  • Particularity and genericness. A narrative recounts particular events, not a schema or script (Nelson, 1981; Schank & Abelson, 1977). However, the interpretation of stories may depend heavily upon the activation of this kind of prior knowledge, including the interpretive frame provided by the genre of narratives to which a particular story belongs.

Intentional Structure

  • Intentional state entailment. A narrative is about people perceiving and acting in accordance with goals and is therefore interpreted in terms of intentional states.
  • Normativeness, canonicity, and breach. The events in a narrative are judged normatively in terms of what one would expect to happen on the basis of prior knowledge (canonicity), the recounted events, and the intentional state of the characters. The plot arc of a story involves a breach of what one would normally expect, with the resolution of the narrative revolving around the consequences of the breach.

Interpretive Structure

  • Hermeneutic composability, referentiality, context sensitivity, and negotiability (interpretive structure). The entire structure attributed to a narrative depends on an act of interpretation, partially constrained by the way a narrative is structured, but depending very much upon a series of interdependent interpretive decisions, a process which may (but need not) be explicitly invoked within the narrative by means of various literary devices. An interpretive narrative requires the reader to construct a mental representation of characters’ personalities and psychological developments and typically uses metalinguistic devices such as metaphor and irony to motivate the intended interpretations.

The literature on narrative production indicates that narrative diachronicity is the first of these features to emerge; all of the other features are added as children mature, handle more complex story structures (Botvin & Sutton-Smith, 1977), and acquire control over genre norms for narrative and the necessary linguistic devices to express narrative structure and maintain narrative cohesion (Berman, Slobin, Stromqvist, & Verhoeven, 1994; Peterson & McCabe, 1991; Stein & Albro, 1997; Karmiloff & Karmiloff-Smith, 2002).

Anne McKeough presented a theory of narrative development in which children first acquire control of event structure in preschool or early school grades, develop the ability to express the intentional structure later, typically during the primary grades, with interpretive structure emerging last (McKeough, 1992, 1997a, 1997b, 2000). In her 2000 article, McKeough presented evidence, in particular, that low literacy individuals tend to be restricted to story structures characteristic of folk tales, in which intentional structure is present, but not subjected to detailed interpretation, whereas highly literate individuals characteristically construct interpretive narratives.

McKeough constructed a classificational scheme based upon this idea, which has been applied in a variety of contexts and gradually modified (McKeough, Davis, Forgeron, Marini, & Fung, 2005; McKeough & Generoux, 2003). In particular, McKeough (2007) presented the rubric depicted below for evaluating stories in terms of the developmental progression. McKeough and Genereux (2003) indicated that children prior to age 6 generally construct narratives almost exclusively in terms of event structure, represent intentional structure more and more fully in middle childhood, and develop a progressively richer and more complex interpretative stance during adolescence, rougly from age 12 onward.

Literature Note Table 1. McKeogh’s Rubric for Developmental Progression of Stories

Average age
The story has a sequence of temporally, causally, or referentially related events that occur exclusively in the physical world.
The story includes an explicit or implicit reference to the mental states (MS) that motivate the action. There is a problem that is immediately resolved.
The story has a problem and a series of failed attempts or complications, followed by a resolution such that additional MS are stated or implied.
One impediment has more significance than others, broadening the characters’ MS and intentions. The impediment is dealt with in the outcome, resulting in a well-planned resolution.
The focus of the story shifts from the characters actions/MS to why particular mental states are held. A constellation of MS creates a psychological profile or character trait that is represented across time and situations.
Note. Narrative development rubric adapted from “Best Narrative Writing Practices When Teaching From a Developmental Framework” by A. McKeough. In S. Graham, C. MacArthur, & J. Fitzgerald (2007, Eds.), Best Practices in Writing Instruction, p. 60, New York, NY: Guilford Press.

It would be a mistake, however, to take the specific age ranges listed in this table and assume they represent a ceiling of possible student performance. Nicolopoulou (1997) argued for an approach that pays much more attention to the social contexts in which narrative takes place, and reports (Nicolopoulou, 2002) that student levels of performance on narrative can be significantly improved, reaching levels of performance far above what an age norm might predict, through classroom practices that make heavy use of well-structured peer group interaction to encourage narrative development. Similarly, at a much earlier age, parental styles are known to have a heavy impact on children’s narrative development, with concomitant strengthening effects on autobiographical memory (Boland, Haden, & Ornstein, 2003; Cleveland, Reese, & Grolnick, 2006; Fivush, Haden, & Reese, 2006; Peterson & McCabe, 1991, 2004).

Note that the table shown above focuses on narrative development up to age 12. The hypothesized sequence shown in Development Table 3 (Storytelling) extends to higher levels of performance, following lines consistent with this literature, but focusing on metacognitive aspects of storytelling that tend to be the focus of standards for literature in the higher grades.

Since differences in narrative development are also connected to differences in culture and class that disadvantage minorities (Peterson, 1994), and are characteristically associated with poorer reading skill in students with normal decoding ability (Cragg & Nation, 2006), it seems likely that the development of interpretive and expressive skills in narrative are closely linked to one another and to theory of mind, especially since (as expected) students with ADHD and autism display deficiencies in narrative production (Losh, 2003; Tannock, Purvis, & Schachar, 1993). Because ADHD is associated with deficits in executive control, this finding may reflect deficits in planning of narratives rather than directly reflecting deficits in the ability to represent social information (van Lambalgen, van Kruistem, & Parigger, 2008).

Berman, R., Slobin, D., Stromqvist, S., & Verhoeven, L. (1994). Relating events in narrative: A crosslinguistic developmental study. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Boland, A. M., Haden, C. M., & Ornstein, P. A. (2003). Boosting children's memory by training mothers in the use of an elaborative conversational style as an event unfolds. Journal of Cognition and Development, 4(1), 39-65.

Botvin, G. J., & Sutton-Smith, B. (1977). The development of structural complexity in children's fantasy narratives. Developmental Psychology, 13(4), 377-388.

Bruner, J. S. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18, 1-21.

Bruner, J. S. (1992). The narrative construction of reality. In H. Beilin & P. Pufall (Eds.), Piaget's theory: Prospects and possibilities (pp. 229-250). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cleveland, E. S., Reese, E., & Grolnick, W. S. (2006). Children's engagement and competence in personal recollection: Effects of parents' reminiscing goals. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 96, 131-149.

Cragg, L., & Nation, K. (2006). Exploring written narrative in children with poor reading comprehension. Educational Psychology, 26(1), 55-72.

Fivush, R., Haden, C. A., & Reese, E. (2006). Elaborating on elaborations: Role of maternal reminiscing style in cognitive and socioemotional development. Child Development, 77(6), 1568-1588.

Karmiloff, K., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2002). Pathways to language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Losh, M. (2003, Fall). Narrative ability in autism: Strengths, weaknesses, and links to social understanding. CHSA Magazine, 5-7.

McKeough, A. (1992). The structural foundation of children's knowledge and its development. In R. Case (Ed.), The mind's staircase: Exploring the conceptual underpinnings of children's thought and knowledge (pp. 171-188). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McKeough, A. (1997a). Changes in narrative knowledge across the school years: Evidence from typical and atypical populations. In A. Smorti (Ed.), The self as text: Construction of stories and construction of the self (pp. 277-307). Florence, Italy: Giunti.

McKeough, A. (1997b). Narrative knowledge and its development: Toward an integrative framework. Issues in Education: Contributions from Educational Psychology, 2, 146-155.

McKeough, A. (2000). Building on the oral tradition: How story composition and comprehension develop. In J. W. Astington (Ed.), Minds in the making: Essays in honor of David R. Olson (pp. 98-114). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

McKeough, A. (2007). Best narrative writing practices when teaching from a developmental framework. In S. Graham, C. MacArthur & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Best practices in writing instruction (pp. 50-73). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

McKeough, A., Davis, L., Forgeron, N., Marini, A., & Fung, T. (2005). Improving story complexity and cohesion: A developmental approach to teaching story composition. Narrative Inquiry, 2, 96-125.

McKeough, A., & Generoux, R. (2003). Transformation in narrative thought during adolescence: The structure and content of story compositions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(3), 537-552.

Nelson, K. (1981). Social cognition in a script framework. In J. H. Flavell & L. Ross (Eds.), Social cognitive development: Frontiers and possible futures (pp. 97-118). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Nicolopoulou, A. (1997). Children and narratives: Toward and interpretive and sociocultural approach. In M. G. W. Bamberg (Ed.), Narrative development: Six approaches (pp. 179-215). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nicolopoulou, A. (2002). Peer-group culture and narrative development. In S. Blum-Kulka & C. E. Snow (Eds.), Talking to adults: The contribution of multiparty discourse to language acquisition (pp. 117-152). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Peterson, C. (1994). Narrative skills and social class. Canadian Journal of Education, 19(3), 251-269.

Peterson, C., & McCabe, A. (1991). Linking children's connective use and narrative macrostructure. In A. McCabe & C. Peterson (Eds.), Developing narrative structure (pp. 29-54). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Peterson, C., & McCabe, A. (2004). Echoing our parents: Parental influences on children's narration. In M. W. Pratt & B. Fiese (Eds.), Family stories and the life course (pp. 27-54). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schank, R. C., & Abelson, R. (1977). Scripts, plans, goals, and understanding: An inquiry into human knowledge structures. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Stein, N. L., & Albro, E. (1997). Building complexity and coherence: Children's use of goal-structured knowledge in telling stories. In M. G. W. Bamberg (Ed.), Narrative development (pp. 1-44). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Tannock, R., Purvis, K. L., & Schachar, R. J. (1993). Narrative abilities in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and normal peers. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 21(1), 103-117.

van Lambalgen, M., van Kruistem, C., & Parigger, E. (2008). Discourse processing in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Journal of Logic, Language and Information, 17, 467-487.

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