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

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Narrative Development (37-48 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

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

Introduction to Narrative Development

During the year that children are three years of age, they already have some of the important basic skills that are needed for narrative development, such as a sense of self that is becoming more sophisticated than it was when they were first developing it as one-year olds. As 3-year olds, children are beginning to understand their own and other people's motivations and knowledge states. They are learning more about their world and about the sort of relationships there are between events. They can now talk about the then-and-there. That is, they now talk about what happened yesterday, last month, and long ago as well as what will happen in the future. Their language is more complex and they are continuing to learn how to use language so they can talk about objects, actions, events, and relationships. At this stage there is still a lot to learn about building narratives, and the ways children interact with their parents as well as their culture are important influences in helping them to learn narrative skill.

Child Developmental Abilities That Support Narrative Development


Memory for particular events in one's past that have personal meaning is called autobiographical memory. Some memories of 3-year olds can clearly be called autobiographical and children can now express these memories with words and they can often be remembered for many years. Some of these memories can even be recalled when the child has become an adult. Adults' first memories typically date from the time they had been three years of age. Being able to remember events for long periods of time as well as being able to talk about these events is important tools for narrative development.

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is the understanding of people as mental beings who have thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions. By the end of their first year of life, infants understand that people have intentions, and 2-year olds begin to talk about the feelings that are associated with various events. When children are 3 years of age they still do not quite grasp theory of mind. If, for example, they look into a box of crayons and see that there are candies in there, they will assert that a new person entering the room (who has had no opportunity to see what is in the crayon box) will think that there are candies, not crayons, inside. That is, they do not understand that someone can believe something that is different from what they know or believe.

Nevertheless, children do make some strides in their understanding of minds during the year that they are three. They are beginning to understand that people have thought processes and by this time they begin to use words such as "think," "remember," and "pretend." An understanding of people as mental beings is an important building block for narratives because the life events that we talk about are often created or influenced by these inner thought processes, and children begin to acknowledge this understanding in their narrative language as 3-year olds.

Thought structures

Two important developments that help children learn how to tell narratives are (1) improvements in their understanding of cause and effect, and of events in time, and (2) developing understanding of how narratives are organized.

Understanding of Cause and Effect

Understanding the world requires us to recognize the relations between events. Even infants are able to observe simple temporal and causal relations between events. However, children's understanding of these relations continues to improve with age. Three-year olds must learn about situating events in time (last Monday vs. yesterday), and they must learn the words that tell the listener the order of events (e.g., before, after, since, when, then). Children have an easier time understanding and talking about psychological causality (the relationship between intention or emotion and behavior, e.g., "I wanted one too so I grabbed one," "I cried because I was scared") than physical causality (the causal relationship between objects in the world or objective conditions, e.g., "the bumper got bent because the other car hit it," "it snowed because it was wet and cold"). It takes many years for children to understand, much less linguistically encode, all of these complex relationships.

Developing Understanding of How Narratives are Organized

Through experience with repeating events in the world as well as through listening to storybooks, children develop an understanding about how events are organized and this understanding can be used to help structure narratives. The experiences that we talk about are mostly organized series of events, and over time, children come to understand that there is an organization to events. That is, there are beginning events, there are middle events, and there are ending events. As children begin telling personal experience narratives, they come to understand that these too are organized with a beginning, middle and end. For example, beginnings should orient the listener to where and when the events took place, and narratives that do not tell us about when and where those events happened are more difficult to understand. Three-year olds are continuing to learn the necessity of providing such orientation.

However, three-year olds have much more difficulty figuring out and incorporating other aspects of narrative organization. In order to understand a narrative it must describe the events that make up the middle section of a narrative in the order that makes sense, but 3-year olds often have difficulty doing this. Children at this age often hop around from event to event when narrating about past occurrences and they often do not provide an ending to their narratives, but rather leave the ending events untold. This jumping around makes it more difficult for adults (parents, teachers) to understand children's narratives.

In the following example, a 42 month old tells about her sister breaking her arm.

In this narrative the child is talking about her sister's injury but then mentions getting a spanking from her dad. The reader has no way of knowing how or if the spanking related. Did the child do something to cause her sister's injury? The child is hopping around from event to event, apparently leaving out important parts, and we have no way of knowing whether the events are related. We see a similar pattern in the following narrative, by a 44 month old.

Again we have the child first mentioning that he went some place but then proceeds to mention going somewhere else and then mentions a party. There are no connections made between these events so again we have no idea whether they are related. This type of hopping around in storytelling makes it very difficult for adults to understand the event being talked about.


There are a number of ways in which children's developing language skills foster narrative skills. These include (1) improvements in vocabulary and grammar, (2) ability to talk about cause and effect and time relationships, and (3) noun identification.

For example, consider the following by a 3-year old:

"I told him to don't put it. I told her what he was doing. And when I was doing it I turned and pushed him."

We cannot understand this narrative because the pronouns are not identified: him, he, her, and it are all unidentified. It is also not clear whether each it refers to the same thing. Three-year olds understand and correctly use pronouns in their here-and-now talk, but they often have difficulty using them properly in narratives. Such confusion in identifying pronouns can make it very difficult to understand children's narratives.

Narrative Production

Narratives not only report what happened in the past, but they also place the events within space and time. They also explain how and why events happened as they did, and why these events are meaningful. The narratives of 3-year olds, like those of 2-year olds, are not usually independent tales of personal experience. Instead, they usually take place while interacting with parents and others. However, more and more of these narratives are started by children themselves, and children are contributing more and more new information. They are also responding more appropriately to the questions that the person they are talking to asks and they are contributing more information. These narrative skills are strongly influenced by parents, culture, and even gender.

Parental Influences On Narrative Development

Amount of Talk About Past Events

Parents direct a lot of talk toward their preschool-aged children. However, there are huge differences between children in how much talk is directed toward them and in turn how much and how well children can talk about past events. Also, the amount of talking about the past varies between families. It is such talk about the past that is especially important for the development of both memory and narrative skill.

Style of Parental Talk

Parents differ in their style of talking about the past. Some parents encourage extensive narration about the past events being talked about. They ask lots of questions, especially open-ended wh- questions ("What did we do at the zoo?"). They also add a lot of new information to the narrative. For example, if their child said that they saw a bear at the zoo, the parent might embellish by saying that the bear was big and fuzzy, too, and then ask for more information about the bear. Thus, they provide elaboration about the events being talked about, and encourage and support their children's elaborations. Some parents do not elaborate and tend to ask specific questions for which they want specific answers. They are also more likely to have short discussions of each past event as well as change to a new topic more quickly. These different styles of parental talk have an effect on children's narrative development.

In the example below we have a high elaborative style mother. Notice how she encourages the child to keep talking by asking questions (...Do you remember..?. What did we pick up?) and provides new information about the event (We used to walk on the beach, we collected sea shells...).

In contrast, the next parent example shows a low elaborative style. This parent simply asks questions and provides no new information and does not support the child's responses.

Helping Children Learn Narrative Structure

Parents play a significant role in shaping their children's narrative development. Children learn how to build language structures according to how parents (grandparents, teachers, and so on) have prompted them to do these tasks. Adults who are helping children learn new tasks provide guidance and feedback, thereby providing the structure and much of the content of the task. Thus, parents provide the 'scaffold' for the child's narrative by the questions they ask and the comments they make. Good scaffolding by an adult is achieved by being attentive to the child's level of accomplishment, and as a child gets more competent, the scaffold changes accordingly. When parents are elaborative with when children are 3-year olds, their children produce more sophisticated narratives later. They are also more likely to produce narratives that have complex structure when they get older. In short, parents help their children learn narrative skill through the conversations they have with them about past events.

Consider the following narrative. The parent is helping the child tell the story by providing guidance and feedback throughout the conversation and asking lots of wh- questions. Each time the child provides a little information the parent is building on it by encouraging more information from the child.

In the example above, the child is prompted to provide contextual information including where she was and who was there (The mother provides 'when' in her initial question). The child is then prompted to provide considerable information about various aspects of this event, including causal linkage between the child's cognitions and what she was doing ("Why did it feel like you were driving it?" "If you wanted to turn away from the snow bank, what did you do?"). The mother through her questions is also providing considerable elaboration about the event, herself. In fact, without the mother's continuing extensions of the event and prompting for additional information, the child would probably have told a very minimal story about her sledding experience. Finally, the mother caps off the event by prompting for how it ended ('hot chocolate').

In the example below the parent does not scaffold. There is almost no elaboration provided by the parent in her turns at talk, and no feedback or guidance is provided. Not surprisingly, the child's narrative makes little sense.

Conversations that foster the development of narrative skills include the following:

Gender Influences

Although parents mostly talk to their sons and daughters similarly, some differences have been found. Parents tend to be more elaborative when talking with their daughters than with their sons and they are more likely to talk about emotions and social relationships with daughters. But whether and how much gender differentiation there may be is probably determined by culture as well as the child's temperament and interests.

Cultural Differences

Although narratives and stories are universal, there are differences in the value assigned to them as well as their function within different cultures. Narratives serve different functions in different cultures. And these are reflected in how parents socialize their children through narrative. There are considerable differences between cultures in how much narrative talk parents foster as well as in how they engage in such talk. Nevertheless, across cultures parents who engage in more frequent and more elaborative conversations about past events with their children have children who produce longer and more elaborated narratives. Furthermore, an elaborative parental style has been linked to children's language and literacy skills as well as memory.


Children at the age of three years have much of the foundation they need for narrative skill acquisition, such as memory, language, self-concept, and so on. They are learning to understand the many relationships between events, but they still have far to go in terms of learning all of the aspects of narration. They still require a great deal of help from parents or others to tell their narratives, and they still have difficulty with many aspects of learning how to tell a narrative. Parents (mothers and fathers, as well as other adults in the child's life) play an important role in helping children to learn these skills through how frequently they reminisce, how elaboratively they do so, and the sort of narrative scaffolding they do. And these in turn are influenced by their culture.

Peterson, C. & Jesso, B. (2008). Parent/Caregiver: Narrative Development (37-48 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 10. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development