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

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Narrative Development (13-24 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carole Peterson and Beulah Jesso, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Introduction to Narrative Development

Between their first and second birthdays children typically gain experience with two different types of narratives or stories: fictional narratives such as the ones found in the storybooks that are read to them, and personal experience narratives, or the stories about the events of their lives. Young toddlers greatly enjoy being read to. For example, by 18 months Jacob would go to his mother and repeat the words 'mumba, mumba' to indicate to her that he wanted her to read a particular book to him. 'Mumba, mumba' were the first few words of the poem 'Mumbo Jumbo' in the book, Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee that Jacob loved. While these fictional stories are important for developing children's language skills and knowledge of how formal stories can be told, the first steps along the road to children producing narratives themselves involve personal experience narratives. Children first begin producing narratives by learning to tell stories about themselves and the events of their lives. This could include anything from a visit to nanny's house, a trip to the playground or eating breakfast this morning.

Abilities of Young Toddlers That Support Narrative Development

Young toddlers typically experience rapid development in many areas. Increasing and inter-related abilities in cognition (thought), memory and language support growth in their narrative skills.


Young toddlers experience numerous developments in their cognition, or thinking skills, that foster the development of their narrative skills. The most important of these include the development of a fundamental sense of self, improvements in cause-and-effect and time reasoning, and learning about scripts for everyday events.

Sense of Self

A basic sense of self typically develops during the second year of life. One way in which this development can be determined is to mark (e.g., with lipstick) a young toddler's nose, and then place him or her before a mirror. Children who recognize themselves in the mirror will typically try to touch the mark on their own nose, rather than reaching for or trying to play with the mirror. Children begin to recognize that it is themselves during their second year of life. By 15-18 months of age, some children have begun to recognize themselves in the mirror and by 21-24 months of age, most children show such self-recognition.

Cause-and-effect and time reasoning

Young infants begin to understand the relations between events from an early age. For example, if they hit a musical toy, it will begin to make noise. If they wave an arm that is connected by string to a rattle, it will begin to move. Between 1 and 2 years of age, children begin to make more complex cause-and-effect and time connections between events. The stories that they will come to produce when they get older will be webs of inter-connected events. Being able to perceive the cause-and-effect and time connections between events is crucial for telling stories that make sense.


Many events recur frequently in similar forms, and young toddlers begin to form simple expectations of how some of these events are put together. That is, they begin to form "scripts" of routine events. For example, they know that when the bath water is running, they will soon be undressed and put into the water, and so on. In the morning when Jacob's mother was putting on his shoes, two-year-old Jacob would say "I go car. I go nan's." These statements indicated that Jacob had formed a script of the events of his morning - once he gets his boots on, he goes into the car and is taken to the sitter's (Nan's). These scripts will become more complex as children age.


The ability to tell personal experience narratives is heavily dependent upon memory. The type of memory that is crucial for narrative development is episodic memory, a form of memory in which specific events in one's past are recalled. Memory for events includes time and space because the events occurred at a specific time and at a particular place. Thus, there is always a when and where for the events. Event memory also includes a specific awareness of self in the experience, such as the feeling that "I was there, I did that." Although young toddlers have well-functioning memories, those closer to one year of age do not yet have a sense of self. That is, their sense of themselves as being an individual with unique thoughts and feelings is not yet developed. Because they have no real sense of "I", they will not have a sense of remembering events about "me." Such awareness only begins to be acquired in the middle or latter half of this second year of life (see previous section on cognition).


Children produce their first words somewhere around their first birthday and begin putting them together into simple two-word utterances about 7 months later. By his first birthday Jacob could say simple words like mama, dada, baby, and doggie, and when he was about 1½ years old he could string a few of these words together into simple phases like 'baby cry', 'doggie woof-woof,' and 'juice mommy'. By their second birthdays they typically begin to produce longer and more complex sentences. When Jacob was 2 years old these simple utterances grew to short sentences like 'more juice mommy' and, Jacob fall down. 'Jacob cry.' Being able to communicate with sentences rather than single words is an important foundation skill that underlies narrative development. In addition, between one and two years of age, children's vocabulary expands enormously. On his first birthday Jacob had a vocabulary of four words and when he turned 2 years old he had a vocabulary of more than 200 words. A larger vocabulary helps children's narrative skills develop because it gives them the words to use to talk about personal experience events as well as fictional stories.

Probably the most important language shift that underlies narrative development is children's emerging ability to use "displaced reference". When children first begin to talk, they mostly talk about the here-and-now, or what is immediately happening (or just happened or about to happen) in the world around them. At 18 months of age, Jacob, would say 'baby juice' while holding his bottle or "fall down" when dropping a toy. He is clearly talking about the present in these examples. An important shift occurs when children can begin to talk about the there-and-then, what happened at another time and place. This major shift is known as "displaced reference" and it opens up an entire new world of things for children to talk about. They can now talk not only about what they are currently doing but also what they have done in the past. This crucial shift must occur before children can begin talking about the experiences that they have had in their lives.

Children begin occasionally referring to non-present objects while still in the one-word stage, but this talk is typically tied to their present needs or wants (e.g., they want to find a non-present toy such as their teddy bear which is upstairs). During their second year of life, children begin to refer to distant events, although most such references are prompted by parents who also provide a lot of information to cue their children. Consider the following examples:

    • Mother: "Tell Daddy about our visit to Nana's house."
    • Child to father: "Nana."
    • Mother: "What did Nana give you?"
    • Child: "cookie."
    • Mother: "What did we go to look for yesterday with Melanie?"
    • Child: "Pebbles."
    • Mother: "Pebbles and what else?"
    • Child: "Leaves."

Although young toddlers are beginning to talk about the there-and-then, this type of talk is not very common at that age and generally parents and caregivers provide considerable structure as well as hints as to what young toddlers should say.

How Parents and Caregivers Influence Young Toddlers' Narrative Development

Parents and caregivers play important roles in helping young toddlers develop their narrative skills. Parent and caregivers influence young toddlers' narrative development by both the amount and type of talking they do with their children.

Amount of Talking

Researchers have found huge differences among families in the number of words addressed to their children. Between families who talked to their children the most and those who talked to them the least, there was a difference of 2500 words per hour in the number of words addressed to the child. This means that some children arrive at kindergarten having heard 32 million fewer words than their classmates. The more parents talk to their preschool children, the faster the children's vocabulary and other language skills grow and the better prepared they are to develop narrative skills.

Type of Talking

Type of adult-child talk is a factor in the types of narratives children learn to produce. There are two basic types of parent/caregiver talk. One is language that is directed toward care and socialization or "business talk". "Business talk" includes behavior management (for example, "it's time to brush your teeth"), imperatives ("come here"), and prohibitions ("don't do that"). Almost all families direct approximately the same amount of language toward the necessary business of caring for and socializing their children. When parents and caregivers engage children in more talk than is needed to take care of business, the content of that talk changes. In this "extended talk", parents and caregivers discuss past events, provide explanations, talk about future plans, and describe properties of objects, pets, people, and events. Interestingly, when parents and caregivers engage in extended talk rather than business talk, the style of the verbal interaction also changes. The adults use a more varied vocabulary with more descriptions of objects and events. They make more cause-and-effect and time connections between events, and they are more likely to relate events to feelings. This talk is also often more positive in tone and more responsive to what the children say. Although young toddlers may not yet display much narrative development, extended talk sets them upon the path toward competent narrative development.

How Cultural Differences Influence Young Toddlers' Narrative Development

Families in different cultures differ in terms of how much language about past events they direct toward children as well as the purposes of that talk. For example, researchers found that European-American mothers talked about the past three times more frequently than did Korean mothers. Some cultures emphasize group membership rather than individuality, and families from those cultures are thus much less likely to talk about the individual experiences of their children. For example, European-American parents are likely to talk about children's individual achievements, such as the first time they jumped off the dock into the water, whereas Chinese parents are more likely to talk about group activities, such as joint family activities. Families from cultures which emphasize group membership are also likely to focus on continuity, i.e., what is unchanging in the child's life (like weekly visits to their grandparents) rather than what is unusual or distinctive. In summary, families from different cultures differ in terms of how much language about past events they direct toward children as well as the purposes of that talk, and family talk is sensitive to the goals of socialization that differ between cultures.

Peterson, C. & Jesso, B. (2008). Parent/Caregiver: Narrative Development 13 - 24 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 4. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development