By Colin Macpherson, M.A., CCC-SLP

Children need to have good spoken language skills in order to be successful in early literacy events. Research has shown that children’s ability to tell a good story with grammatical sentences predicts later reading success. What makes a good story, how does children’s storytelling develop from preschool to first grade, and what can parents do to promote storytelling?

The Relationship Between Language Skills and Literacy

Strong literacy skills are necessary for students to be successful, both in the classroom and as they pursue future careers. However, many students struggle with reading and writing, with the National Assessment of Educational Programs indicating that 65% of fourth graders and 64% of eighth graders scored below a proficient reading level in 2013.

Researchers’ findings indicate that preschool aged children who have language delay and approximately 40-60% of school-aged children with language impairment are likely to exhibit a reading disability later in their academic careers. Although early language intervention strategies exist for preschool children, the children have to be identified as having a delay or disability in order to access services. It is not until most children reach school age that they are able to benefit from universal screening that indicates they require additional supports to be successful in school.

It is clear from research that a strong relationship exists between talking and listening and reading and writing. A number of recent studies have examined how children’s ability to tell a story relates to future reading success. The implication of these studies is that promoting children’s ability to tell stories may result in improved reading and writing skills.

What Makes a Good Story?

Children learn about stories by listening to stories read to them by parents and preschool educators. Stories tend to have a particular structure that can be used by children to both understand and create their own verbal stories. A good story typically includes some information about the characters in the story, the central problem of the story, the characters’ feelings about events in the story, the actions that take place in the story, and the ending or resolution. Stories can consist of a single episode or multiple episodes.

What Can I Do to Help My Child’s Storytelling Ability?

One way parents and educators can assist children in developing their storytelling skills is by engaging them in a practice known as dialogic book reading (DBR). Dialogic book reading is an evidence-based technique for increasing vocabulary, grammatical skills, and storytelling ability that can be used by teachers with small groups of students, or individually by a parent and child at home.

The teacher and students look at the book together while discussing the pictures on each page, a practice often referred to as “taking a picture walk.” Teachers also ask their students questions about the story while they are reading it aloud. After a student answers a question, the teacher reiterates or expands the child’s response by adding words to make the sentence longer or more grammatically correct. DBR is frequently done using the same book, with the story being discussed for four or more different sessions. Children enjoy the familiarity of listening to the same story over time and can assume the role of the teacher and tell the story to other students. Teachers employing this practice frequently report that their students develop a stronger belief in their ability to “read.”

 The following suggestions may help parents make the DBR activity relevant to your children.

  • Before reading a story to your child, talk about life events that are similar to those portrayed in the book.
  • Start the book reading session by looking at each picture and talking about it.
  • When your child makes a comment or answers a question, repeat what your child said and add some words to extend the meaning of his/her sentence. For example, if you ask your child how the girl in the story feels, and she replies, “Girl sad,” you could reply with “Yes, the girl is sad because her friend moved away to a new house.”
  • Read the book aloud to your child after you have discussed the pictures, again extending the child’s sentences by repeating them with additional meanings.
  • Stop frequently while reading aloud and ask your child to talk about what has happened or to make predictions on what will happen next.

The time you spend with your child engaging in DBR should be a pleasant and friendly experience that will promote future language and literacy development.

If you have any concerns about your child’s language ability, consult with a speech-language pathologist. Speech-language pathologists can conduct an assessment to identify whether your child’s language and storytelling skills are typical for his or her age and determine whether treatment is indicated.

The information contained in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, care, or treatment. Always consult a qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding any possible health condition.

Colin Macpherson, M.A., CCC-SLP, is Director of Clinical Education and Assistant Professor for the Speech-Language Pathology Program at the Midwestern University College of Health Sciences. Midwestern University students Julia DePaula, Heidi Deary, and Sarah Chilson, Speech-Language Pathology Class of 2019, also contributed to this article. The Speech-Language Institute at the Midwestern University Multispecialty Clinic in Glendale, Arizona utilizes the latest technology to provide high-quality care for the entire family at affordable prices. Learn more at 623-537-6000 or www.mwuclinics.com/az.

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