Children Who Tell Stories May Become Strong Readers

A new study suggests that oral narrative skills are a strong predictor of early literacy in African-American children.

A new study suggests that African-American toddlers who are strong storytellers turn into strong readers. 
National Journal
Emily DeRuy
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Emily DeRuy
Aug. 17, 2015, 9:50 a.m.

Something un­usu­al and won­der­ful is hap­pen­ing with Afric­an-Amer­ic­an ba­bies.

Black tod­dlers who are good at telling stor­ies are more likely to have strong read­ing skills in kinder­garten, ac­cord­ing to new re­search from the Frank Port­er Gra­ham (FPG) Child De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute at the Uni­versity of North Car­o­lina-Chapel Hill.

Sur­pris­ingly, the same link doesn’t ex­ist when it comes to white, Latino, or Asi­an chil­dren.

“Or­al storytelling has been an im­port­ant part of the his­tor­ies of many peoples, and an es­pe­cially rich as­pect of the black cul­ture across the Afric­an di­a­spora,” Iheoma Iruka, dir­ect­or of re­search and eval­u­ation at the Buf­fett Early Child­hood In­sti­tute at the Uni­versity of Neb­raska and one of the re­search­ers for the study, said in a state­ment.

Afric­an-Amer­ic­an chil­dren are par­tic­u­larly ad­ept at telling com­plex nar­rat­ives of many types, ad­ded FPG re­search­er Nicole Gard­ner-Neb­lett, who led the study.

“Hav­ing a rep­er­toire of dif­fer­ent styles sug­gests that Afric­an-Amer­ic­an chil­dren are flex­ible in their nar­rat­ives, vary­ing the nar­rat­ives ac­cord­ing to con­text,” she said. “This flex­ib­il­ity may be­ne­fit Afric­an-Amer­ic­an chil­dren as they trans­ition from us­ing or­al lan­guage to the de­cod­ing and com­pre­hen­sion of writ­ten text.”

Us­ing a sample of more than 6,000 chil­dren na­tion­wide, the re­search­ers com­pared the or­al storytelling skills of preschool­ers to their emer­gent lit­er­acy a couple of years later in kinder­garten.

While the link was ob­vi­ous only for Afric­an-Amer­ic­an chil­dren, the re­search­ers sug­gest that the as­so­ci­ation may also ex­ist for oth­er chil­dren. It just might not be ap­par­ent un­til later when more de­vel­op­ment has oc­curred.

What does this mean, prac­tic­ally speak­ing?

It means that par­ents and care­givers should en­cour­age chil­dren — es­pe­cially black tod­dlers — to tell stor­ies. The or­al nar­rat­ive skills they pick up in preschool seem to help them be­gin to read. The more com­plex stor­ies they tell, the bet­ter they are at read­ing down the line.

“Build­ing on chil­dren’s or­al nar­rat­ive skills is a strategy for schools look­ing to con­nect with chil­dren,” Iruka said in the state­ment. “Es­pe­cially as schools sup­port chil­dren of col­or who come from a cul­ture that has cher­ished these skills.”

While the re­search­ers ac­know­ledge there are still ques­tions about early lit­er­acy, the study’s ini­tial find­ings may of­fer edu­cat­ors valu­able clues about how they can sup­port chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly Afric­an Amer­ic­ans, as they learn to read.

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