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Narrative language skills: The power of storytelling

Narrative language refers to the ability to use all parts of language (vocabulary, grammar, pragmatics) together to tell a story.

Narrative skills, or storytelling skills, are a complex and important part of communication. These skills begin to develop as early as 2 years of age! We use our narrative language skills several times a day to…

  • retell events/stories
  • tell others about ourselves
  • comprehend what we read
  • give instructions to others
  • socially connect with peers, family members, and other communication partners

To be able to generate a comprehensible and cohesive narrative, a student must be able to:

1) Recall events (memory)

2) Put events in the correct order (sequencing)

3) Use correct words (vocabulary/semantics)

4) Use correct sentence structure (syntax/grammar)

Students that struggle with narrative skills may appear to “jump all over the place” when telling stories, include information not relevant to the story, lack important details, and use vague vocabulary. Oftentimes, the listener will have to ask many questions of the student to try to decipher what exactly is being communicated.

Narrative skills and literacy go hand in hand as children with poor narrative skills might have difficulty with understanding text, grammar, and expressing ideas.

Various language skills can improve when addressing a child’s narrative language abilities:

  • Story grammar (characters, setting, problem, solution, etc.)
  • Concept of beginning/middle/end
  • Use of transition words (first, next, then, last)
  • Use of conjunctions (and, because, before, so, but, if) to create complex sentences
  • Inferencing skills
  • Social pragmatic skills

How can you work to improve narrative language skills at home?

Teach story grammar when reading. Reading books in general is a great way to address a variety of language skills that are necessary for producing effective narratives. Identify various story elements as you read (characters, setting, problem, solution, feelings, etc) by asking wh-questions “what, who, when, where,” and “why” questions.

Model storytelling by discussing your own daily experiences. Be detailed. Include story grammar (characters, setting, problem, etc). “I went shopping at the mall with Aunt Lisa today. On the way home, we got a flat tire! We were so frustrated! We had to call your dad to come and change the tire for us. Luckily, it didn’t take very long!”

Model sequencing words (first, next, then, last). Use sequencing words, or transition words, when talking about your day or when retelling an event. This will help your child understand the order in which things happened. “We have a really busy day running errands today! First, we have to stop by the gas station. Then, we will need to get some food at the grocery store. Last, we will stop by the post office to get some stamps.”

​​ Create your own stories! Encourage your child to make up their own story. Ask questions (“What happened after that?”) to keep the narrative moving.

Providing your child with ample opportunities to tell stories and other personal narratives can set your child up for future social and academic success!

Sydney Berg, MS, CCC-SLP. Clarksville, IN