Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Narrative Development (0-12 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by:Anne McKeough and Susan Graham, University of Calgary

Introduction to Narrative Development: The Foundation for Storytelling at Birth to 12 Months

Storytelling is one of the most powerful means we have to capture, interpret, and share our experiences. Creating and sharing stories is an ancient human practice and an efficient and powerfully effective one. From toddlerhood to old age, we use stories to share and reflect on our experiences. We also use stories to connect with others emotionally because stories speak of our actions, goals, and intentions and how we feel about them. Additionally, we use stories about ourselves, other people, and even fictional characters to entertain and teach. These stories are typically referred to as narratives in the research literature. Narratives are complex language creations that children must master for successfully living in their social worlds and becoming literate.

In the first year of a baby's life, there is not yet enough language development to support storytelling. However, several abilities develop during this time that form the foundation for later narrative development. These include memory; thinking skills, including time and cause-and-effect reasoning, social scripts, sense of self; and language. Parents and other caregivers play a very important role in supporting these developments. For example, parents tell stories to their babies all the time to describe events in the here and now. Following is an example of a mother, Sandra interacting with her baby, Cathy.

Caregivers also link present and past events through the telling of simple stories.

Emerging Abilities that Support Narrative Development


The ability to remember things that happen in one's life is at the basis of storytelling. Oral stories do not occur in the 'here and now,' but rather in the 'there and then.' Because stories tell of past events, memory is critically important. We know that memory begins to develop very early in the months shortly after birth. Within 2 to 3 months of being born, your baby can remember simple events, such as kicking a mobile to make it move.

If a baby's environment is not consistent, he or she cannot learn that experiences form predictable patterns. Even very minor changes in a baby's environment can interfere with memories being formed. For example, researchers determined that simply changing the pattern on the blanket in the crib, where babies first learned to kick a mobile to make it move, interferes with their being able to kick a new mobile. When the same blanket was used, however, babies kicked a new mobile, showing that they recalled kicking another mobile earlier. This does not mean that you must keep absolutely everything the same around your baby at all times, but it does mean that consistency is important for helping your baby to develop memories of the world around him or her.

Of course, babies' ability to remember improves with age, as they gradually become able to remember more complicated sequences of actions. For example, researchers have shown that although 6-month-olds can remember some of the actions in a 3-step sequence (taking a mitten off a puppet, replacing the mitten, and taking it off again), the memory is retained for only a matter of hours. By 9 months of age, however, the memory can be retained for a matter of weeks, and by 11 months of age, memories can extend to several months. By establishing simple routines early in your baby's life, such as patterns of changing, dressing, and feeding, you are, in fact, helping the baby's memory development.

Children gradually come to expect that events occur in a particular order during their first year of life and disruption of a particular routine can be a cause for minor distress or fussing. Such fussing in response to changes in routines should not be seen as a cause for worry but rather a sign that your baby is recognizing that familiar patterns are not being followed. In other words, babies can sense that current events do not match remembered events.

Remembering the simple action-based events involved in routines over time is an essential skill that must be in place before toddlers can talk about past events. Thus, the basic memory developments that occur in the first year of life lay the foundation for later narrative know-how.


There are several thinking competencies that must be in place before early oral narrative development can occur. These include (1) cause-and-effect and time-based reasoning, (2) social scripts, and (3) sense of self.

Cause-and-effect and Time-based Reasoning

Babies must make sense of their experiences in the world before they can develop narrative abilities in toddlerhood. An important part of making sense of experiences involves understanding how events are related in time and by cause and effect. In a cause-and-effect relation, event 'one' causes event 'two' as when pressing a doorbell causes it to ring. In a time-based relation, event 'one' comes before event 'two' as when one opens a bottle before pouring out of it. Cause-and-effect and time-based relations are useful for identifying which events go together to make up a complete event sequence. In addition, understanding these relations is useful for forming expectations about the behaviour of others and for producing desired outcomes - two fundamental requirements of the later development of narrative ability.

Caregivers can help babies understand cause-and-effect and time-based relations by acting out these relations again and again in many contexts. To help your baby learn about cause-and-effect relations, you can model actions with simple consequences such as pushing a button to cause a bell to ring or pressing a lever to cause 'Jack' to pop out of the box. To illustrate, following simple routines, such as reaching toward your baby with outstretched arms before picking him or her up, helps your baby learn about time-based relations. Repeating these sequences frequently is key to supporting your child's understanding of cause-and-effect and time-based relations. Encouraging your baby to imitate actions with guidance and then independently also helps develop his or her understanding of cause-and-effect and time-based relations. For example, Cathy's mother, Sandra, holds a rattle in front of Cathy, shakes it, and says: "Do you hear that? Yes, you do! Can you make it rattle?" Sandra then places the rattle in Cathy's hand and shakes it, saying, "Now Cathy's shaking the rattle!" In this interaction, Sandra is guiding Cathy to imitate her actions. Cathy will gradually understand the time-based relation between holding the rattle and shaking it, as well as the cause-and-effect relation between shaking and the rattling sound. By the time Cathy is three to four months of age, she will be able to imitate Sandra's actions, without physical contact. That is, if Sandra reaches for the rattle, holds it in her hand, and shakes it, then places it close to Cathy, Cathy will reach for the rattle, hold it, and shake it. Eventually, Cathy will be able to reach for the rattle and shake it on her own, without Sandra's modeling the action. These accomplishments are important in a baby's development because they show that he or she is learning cause-and-effect and time-based relations.

Cause-and-effect and time-based relations are only understood at this early age through actions - a very basic level of understanding. This basic level is important though because it underpins later developing abilities to use words to organize events in time and relate events through cause and effect.

Social Scripts

Social scripts are representations or 'blueprints' of frequently occurring events. For example, many Canadians have a script for ordering takeout food or a coffee from their favorite 'java joint.' Babies' social scripts are, of course, much simpler, involving actions and feelings but no language. For example, your baby will have social scripts for feeding, changing, and bathing. By consistently following routines, such as feeding and changing, you help your baby form basic social scripts, which are composed of a set sequences of actions and feelings associated with them. You can help your child learn more about his or her scripts by playfully adding unexpected actions into a script, such as, you tickling your baby’s tummy with a toy while changing her or him. Because these social scripts involve actions and feelings; they form the basis of narrative development later in your child's life. Early caregiver talk to babies often revolves around these events, as caregivers' use words to describe actions and ask questions about actions and feelings that make up the script. In the following example, Sandra is interacting with her baby, Cathy, during bath time.

Social scripts can be formed in the first year of life because babies are naturally attuned to people and their actions. Research has shown that babies can quickly identify when people's actions are goal-directed. For example, when babies observed a person reaching for the same object again and again, they showed surprise when she reached for a different object. Their surprise indicated that the babies had built up an expectation that the person's goal was to get a particular object, and that this expectation was violated when the person reached for a different object. The very basic abilities to see people as goal-directed, develop expectations around people's actions, and recognize that expectations can be violated are very early steps toward understanding that stories often focus on people's goals and challenges. This understanding will prepare your child to understand characters' actions in the stories you will read to him or her later in life.

Sense of Self

Early narrative skill first appears in the form of personal or autobiographical stories that are co-constructed by toddlers and their parents. However, the capacity to tell such stories stems from competencies acquired in the first 12 months of life, when babies begin to develop a sense of self. Although a sense of self is not firmly established until the second year of life, it begins to develop during the first 12 months through social interactions between babies and their caregivers and through babies' observations of their own bodies. You support the development of your baby's early sense of self simply by interacting with him or her in feeding and changing routines. Through these interactions, your baby will come to understand that his or her role differs from your role [You (the mommy) sprinkle powder and I (Cathy) kick and laugh]. Additionally, by observing his or her own body, your baby will develop an awareness of his or her own self (Cathy comes to know that it is her hand moving and reaching toward the rattle). The distinction between 'you' and 'me' lays the foundation for autobiographical memory and early narrative that develops throughout subsequent years of life.


The language and communication skills that develop during the first year of life are another of the building blocks of oral narrative development. Between birth and 12 months, babies undergo dramatic changes in their language development. Two major accomplishments during this period are learning the sounds of their native language and acquiring first words. These accomplishments are essential foundational skills for using phrases and eventually sentences to share experiences. Early speech and language development has been addressed in more detail elsewhere in this website.

Even before he or she uses language, however, your baby will use gestures and actions to communicate his or her wishes. When you respond to these gestures and actions, you show your baby that he or she can communicate. Moreover, when you engage in simple games you demonstrate the basis of turn taking, an essential element of the conversations that will occur after the child has acquired language. For example, Sandra plays a turn-taking game with Cathy as she makes believe she chews on a toy and passes it to the Cathy who chews on it and eventually passes it back to Sandra, and so on. Because early narrative is, in essence, a long conversational turn, these early interactions support later storytelling skill.

How Parents and Caregivers Influence the Foundation for Narrative Development

Parents and caregivers play a critical role in the growth of memory, thinking, and language skills, which form the basis of later oral narrative development. By being sensitive to your baby's signals and responding appropriately, you positively influence these fundamental abilities. For example, parents who 'reply' to a baby's cooing when the baby stops, and stop 'replying' when the baby starts cooing again, help their baby learn about conversational turn-taking. Additionally, interactions between caregivers and babies throughout the first 12 months help babies understand that 'self' is different from 'other.' Finally, activities such as feeding and bathing routines lay down the time-based and cause-and-effect links of social scripts that later become the stuff of storytelling.

McKeough, A. & Graham, S. (2008). Caregiver Narrative: Narrative Development 0-12 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 5. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development