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

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Narrative Development (49-60 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Anne McKeough, Stan Bird, Angela Romaine, and Erin Tourigny, University of Calgary

Introduction to Narrative Development Four to Five Years: Great Gains in Storytelling

Four-year-old children become more able to tell their personal stories and to make up simple make-believe stories. Their improved storytelling skill comes about as a number of other abilities develop. As is the case at earlier ages, the storytelling of 4-year-olds is related to expanding capabilities in the areas of memory, cognition (thinking), and language. Children's interactions with their family and the world around them also influence the narrative skill development of older preschoolers. Ultimately, the development of their storytelling skill serves as an important gateway for children, leading them to develop other critical life skills.

Abilities of Older Preschoolers that Support Narrative Development

Between four and five years of age, your child will likely experience expanding capabilities in the areas of autobiographical memory, cognition, and language. These expanding capabilities will enable further development of his or her narrative skills.

Autobiographical Memory

Just as an autobiography is a self-authored story of one's life, "autobiographical memory" is the memory we have of our life's experiences. Children's autobiographical memories develop through talking and reminiscing with others in their family about the past events in their lives. The following conversation between 4-year-old Claire, her mother, and younger brother, Jac, as they pack for a camping trip, illustrates how this happens. Notice how Claire's mother supports her daughter's recollection of their last camping trip by guiding her to remember specifics events and how she felt about the things that happened.

At four years of age, children also are able to distinguish their own experiences from others' and so begin to understand that their stories are unique or different from other family members, as we can see as the conversation continues:

As well, older preschoolers begin to see how their stories connect with the stories of others in their family, as the family's continuing conversation shows:

As a parent or caregiver, you can help your children form personal memories by reminiscing with them about common every-day events as well as special occasions. Reminiscing with your children is important because it lets your family share a personal history, and shows your children that their own individual stories are connected to, yet somewhat different from, the stories of other family members. Therefore, by reminiscing with your children, you help them develop a sense of themselves as unique and, at the same time, connected individuals. These personal memories form the basis of their identity as they develop throughout childhood, the teen years, and adulthood.


Three important thinking tools help older preschoolers tell more advanced stories. These are (1) understanding cause-and-effect relations and relations between events in time, (2) understanding how people's minds work (known as Theory of Mind), and (3) understanding how stories are organized.

Cause-and-effect and time-based reasoning

Understanding cause-and-effect and time relations between events is very important for children to be able to tell about their experiences in story form. In cause-and-effect relations, event 'one' causes event 'two.' For example, a young boy wants a dog (cause) and so he asks his parents to get him one (effect). In time relations event 'one' comes before event 'two.' For example, the boy's family goes to the humane society, looks at the dogs, and adopts one, and then takes it home.

Although children understand cause-and-effect relations and time relations well before 4 years of age, between 49 and 60 months they become better at using words to communicate these relations within stories. Children gradually learn to use connecting words such as "because" and "so" to say that one event causes another event. They use words such as "then" and "before" to communicate time relations. The following personal story segments, told about a birthday party held at a swimming pool, shows how Claire begins to use these connecting words by four years of age:

Children who are able to communicate cause-and-effect and time relations usually tell coherent stories - ones that a listener can understand. Connecting words are the "super glue" of stories; they help events "stick" together and make sense as a whole. Although 3-year-olds may use connecting words when they talk about what is going on around them (Mother: Why are you running through the sprinkler? Jac: 'Cause I'm too hot!), it is not until your child is approximately 4 years of age that he or she will use connecting words such as "then," "because," and "so" in extended oral narratives about past events. The best way for you to support your child's understanding of cause-and effect relations and time relations is to read and talk to him or her often. Preschoolers 'pick up' knowledge of these relations through frequent exposure to stories and conversations about them.

Theory of Mind

"Theory of Mind" refers to children's belief (or 'theory') about what is in the mind of another person. By the time he or she reaches 5 years of age, your child will likely have made great strides in developing a theory of mind. Younger preschoolers do not think that other people can hold beliefs different from their own - even when they lack the necessary information. In other words, three-year-olds do not understand that what is in another person's mind can be different than what is in their own mind. For example, three-year-olds, who have looked inside a crayon box and learned that it (surprisingly) contains candies, not crayons, will say that another person, who has not looked into the box, will also think it holds candies (for more information see Narrative Development in 3-year-olds). They do not think that the other person will hold a false belief. By age five, however, children typically understand that people, who do not have the knowledge or information that they do, will hold beliefs that are different than their own. In other words, your older preschooler will begin to understand that others may hold untrue beliefs if they do not have correct information.

Between 49 and 60 months, your child will also begin to understand that people have unique and different desires, likes and dislikes, and goals. Older preschoolers also understand that people's particular desires, likes and dislikes, and goals determine their emotional reactions to events. Researchers found this to be the case when they told the following short story to 4-year-old children.

Ellie the Elephant loves to drink milk, but hates cola. Mickey the Monkey puts some cola in a milk carton and offers it to Ellie to drink. Will Ellie feel happy or sad when she tastes the drink?

Four-year-olds, but not 3-year-olds, answered correctly that Ellie will feel sad (she liked milk and didn't like cola). They based their answer on Ellie's particular and unique feelings, not on what they themselves liked or what most people like. Therefore, your four-year-old child will also likely be able to understand that people's specific likes and dislikes will determine their reactions and that the likes and dislikes that other people have will not matter.

To help your child develop a Theory of Mind, you can talk to your child about his or her experiences, paying special attention to his or her particular and unique feelings, thoughts, and desires. You can also read stories to your child, discussing what each character feels and wants and how the characters' feelings and thoughts are the same or different. The following conversation illustrates how you can help your child understand that story characters have unique feelings. Claire and her mother are discussing "The Three Little Pigs," as they read the story together. Claire is familiar with the story, as the book is one of her favorites.

By focusing your child's attention on story characters' feelings and goals, and discussing them, you will help him or her understand that people sometimes share the same feelings, thoughts, and desires (to be safe from the wolf) and sometimes they do not (the third little pig planned ahead, while his brothers did not). Always, though, people's actions are governed by their particular feelings, thoughts, and desires.

Older preschoolers' developing Theory of Mind is reflected in the stories they tell. The following story that Claire told to her father, while driving home from school, shows that she understands that people's likes and dislikes are different from one another and that their likes and dislikes shape their actions:

Story schemas

As children hear more stories, they develop a better understanding of how stories are organized. This knowledge of story organization is called a "story schema." Schemas are sometimes called "mental blueprints" because they provide an overall plan for thinking about something. By four years of age, children have an overall mental plan for stories if they have listened to many personal stories and storybooks. At this age, your child will understand that a story is composed of a setting (where and when the story takes place), initiating event (the event that starts the action rolling), response (the character's reaction to the initiating event), and a conclusion (ending). Claire used this basic story schema in the following story she told to her grandma about a picture she had drawn:

There's a girl and her magic horse and they live in a magic castle (setting) and the horse can fly and ... even with the girl and they flied over the fence and then the tree and the moon (initiating event). And they like to fly high up (response). And then they flied home (conclusion).

Precocious older 4-year-olds and 4-year-olds that have been specifically taught to do so can tell stories that include an initiating event in the form of a problem, as well as a response and a problem resolution, as shown in the following story Claire told to her preschool teacher during circle time:

Once a little girl was walking in the woods (setting) and she saw a sad lamb and he wanted a friend (initiating event/problem). And the girl said, "I can be your friend." And he says, "OK" (response). And then she built a little house in the woods for it and kept it there and brought food for her everyday (problem resolution).

The type of story structure in the preceding story includes two "worlds" - the physical world of actions and things (for example, a girl walking in the woods), and the mental world of feelings and desires (for example, sad and wanting a friend). Thus, by the time children reach their fifth birthday, their story schemas become more like the standard stories that are told and read to them.


There are a number of ways in which older preschoolers' developing language skills foster their narrative skills. These include (1) improvements in vocabulary and (2) development of more sophisticated syntax (the order and relation of words in a sentence).


Vocabulary is composed of the words we use to communicate. Four-year-olds' vocabularies include a 'listening or receptive vocabulary' (the words they understand when they hear them) and a 'speaking or expressive vocabulary' (the words they use when they speak). Later in development, children's vocabularies also include 'reading and writing vocabulary' (words they can read and understand, and words they can use in their writing).

Four-year-olds are in a stage of rapid vocabulary learning. Average children learn about 860 word meanings each year or just over 16 new words per week. Unfortunately, children from less advantaged homes, where fewer words are used and less parent-child conversation occurs, learn far fewer word meanings -- approximately half of the number of more advantaged children. Many children who have limited vocabulary also face learning challenges in school. You can help your child learn word meanings by having many books located in your home where your child can use them, visiting the public library to get books, and reading and discussing books together.

Sentence syntax

Syntax is the order in which words, phrases, and clauses are used in sentences. Although older children and adults take sentence syntax for granted, rarely having to think about how to put a sentence together, preschoolers must learn many rules simply from hearing language spoken around them and to them.

Young preschoolers are usually able to put simple sentences together, using correct word order by following a subject-verb-object pattern [The boy (subject) played (verb) with his dog (object)]. They may also begin to use connecting words (and, because, but) to make their sentences longer and more complex (the boy played with his dog and they were best friends).

Older preschoolers begin to use adjectives (the big boy) and prepositional phrases (ran in the water) to elaborate on the people, places, and things they talk about and tell stories about. They also begin to use pronouns to make links across characters, places, things, and events (Once there was a boy and a dog. They lived on a farm. It had horses and cows and pigs, and lambs). Finally, 4-year-olds use verbs to express desires (He wanted a doggie) and thoughts (He thought it was his dog) of others. As they progress, 4-year-olds become more able to construct "tag" questions (I'm going too, aren't I?) and links to direct and indirect objects (She gave the kitten some milk).

As a parent or caregiver, you can help your child develop sentence syntax by providing good models of speech and by reading to your child. When you hear your child make a mistake when putting a sentence together, it is better to simply restate the sentence correctly, than to draw his or her attention directly to the mistake. Remember, children learn to speak by speaking, and so parents and caregivers need to be gentle so that children will feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences.

Narrative Abilities of Older Preschoolers

The time between 49 and 60 months is a time of remarkable change in children's narrative capacities. First, the focus of stories moves from exclusively action-oriented stories to goal-oriented. Second, stories become more complex. Third, the subject matter of boys' and girls' stories begins to differ.

Story Focus

Between 49 and 60 months, children get better at relating action-oriented stories. Although these stories are often about children's personal experiences, 4-year-olds begin to create simple fictional narratives, as well. The following story told by Claire to her preschool teacher when she just turned four years is a clear example of a fairly coherent action oriented story:

Once when I was in Disneyland, I saw Mickey Mouse. And then we were going into a balloon till... um... We go up in the sky and then... um... we saw lots of things in the sky. And then the balloon came down and we got out and we went to see a show.

By five years of age, however, children begin to use language that represents what people know, think, and feel - their mental states. This development shows that children are gradually developing a Theory of Mind (see preceding section, "Theory of Mind"). As a result, older preschoolers are able to tell stories in which the characters' desires and feeling influence their actions. The following story told by Claire to her preschool teacher, when she was about to turn five, shows this ability (mental states are underlined):

Once upon a time there was a horse that wanted to be wise. And a little girl found him and she said, "Do you want to be wise?" And she teached him all the things that little horses are supposed to know. And so the little horse went to the farm and the little girl trained the little horse and the little horse had a happy life.

Story Complexity

In addition to being more goal-oriented, four-year-olds' stories also become more complex, and this happens on at least three fronts. First children describe characters in more complex ways. They change from describing only characters' actions to including their feelings and thoughts, and using the character's desires and goals to drive their actions. In the story below, told by Claire to her preschool teacher during story circle time, when she was approaching five years of age, you can see that she tells about the story character's mental states -- what she "didn't know" and what she "wanted" (character's thoughts and desires are underlined):

There once was a girl that didn't know how to read and she wanted to read. And so went to school and she asked her teacher, "May I try to read?" And her teacher said, "Yes." And so her teacher gave her an easy to read book. And then she started to try and read it and she tried and then she could read the whole book.

Second, older preschoolers create more complex plots that include a problem that is solved or goal that is reached. This type of plot is similar to the plots in many of the stories that are read to children. In the story above, Claire has included a problem and goal (the little girl cannot read and wants to read), which is resolved (teacher gives her an easy to read book and she reads it).

The third way children's stories become more complex is through their use of connecting or "super glue" words. By using connecting words that signal cause-and effect (and so) relations and time relations (and then), Claire was able to tie events together throughout her story (above), with the result that a listener can follow the flow of events.

These three aspects of storytelling (character, plot and connecting words) come together to produce more complex stories in which feelings change from negative to positive. In Claire's story above, the little girl's reading problem is addressed through her teacher's help and her own effort.

Story subject matter

A third way that the narratives of older preschoolers develop involves the subject matter of the story. At this age, when left on their own to select a topic, girls' and boys' stories differ greatly in terms of what the stories are about and how the stories are put together. Girls' spontaneous stories are often set in a family context, with family members as the characters (mom, dad, child or king, queen, princess). The story action starts in the home, then the characters go out of the home where they face some problem, and finally return to the home where they are safe again. Thus, the stories of 4-year-old girls focus on maintaining social order within a family context. The following story told by Nellie in her preschool is a clear example of this type of story:

Once upon a time there was a castle and a king and a queen and a princess and a unicorn and a pony lived in it. And they went for a walk. And they found a playground and they swang on the swings, and they slide down the slide and then they went back home. But they had some trouble finding the way. But then a dog came to them and said, "I'll help you find the way home." And he did. The End. (From A. Nicolopoulou, 1997).

In contrast, boys' spontaneous stories focus on characters that act alone, rather than together, and that are defined by their actions, which typically involve conflict (a bee buzzes and stings or a dragon breathes fire). The following story told by Ethan in his preschool is a clear example of this type of story:

Once there was Robin Hood. And Batman came. Then Prince John came - he's the king. Then Superman came. Superman battled with Batman and Batman died. Then he came alive again. Superman died. And then Splinter, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo came. And then an Indian came with a bow and arrow. Then a cowboy came on a horse with a bow and arrow just like the Indian and shot Superman so he wouldn't come alive again. And they lived happily ever after. The End. (From A. Nicolopoulou, 1997).

Although we know that boys and girls often tell very different stories, we are less sure of why they do. Some reasons for the differences are discussed in the section on how parents and caregivers influence children's narrative development.

How Parents and Caregivers Influence Older Preschoolers' Narrative Development

There are a number of ways in which adults influence the narrative development of young children. The most important of these are (1) conversational style, (2) response to their child's gender, and (3) exposure to storybooks.

Conversational style

By the age of 3 and 4 years, children talk with the adults in their life about present events, as well as past events. This talk supports children's oral storytelling, as we discussed in the "autobiographical memory" section. However, parents and caregivers do not all use the same conversational style and some types of styles are more supportive of children's oral storytelling than others.

Some parents, referred to in the research literature as 'elaborative parents', follow their child's lead and ask questions to clarify when they don't understand, as the following conversation on the way home from a play date shows:

Other parents, referred to in the research literature as 'non-elaborative parents', rarely ask questions and when they do, they tend to direct the child to a different topic. The above conversation between Claire and her mother has been altered below to reflect this different conversational style:

Elaborative parents also tell stories that contain a good deal of information about the events and how people feel about the events. The following conversation segment, which occurred on the way to visit Claire's grandparents, shows this elaborative style. Notice how Claire's father describes the story character, 'Gramps' when he was young. He also adds details, such as Gramps being hungry, which allow Claire to imagine why her gramps was fishing and why he took a risk. Finally, the colourful details that describe his fall into the water and the consequence of the fall allow Claire to almost 'be there' with her gramps on that day so many years ago:

If you provide rich detail when talking to your child about past events, you will help him or her learn how to link information in a way others can understand and you will foster storytelling skills. Parents and caregivers who provide only the 'bare bones' of events may still support their children's memory of events, but that memory will be for isolated facts instead of integrated events.

Response to Gender

The gender of a child influences the ways parents and caregivers reminisce with the child. Research has found that parents use an elaborative style with their daughters more than with their sons, and this, in turn, causes their daughters to provide longer, more detailed accounts of past events than their sons.

The different way parents talk to their boys and girls doesn't just help girls tell longer, more detailed stories about past events; it also helps them talk more about emotions. Although, mothers and fathers talk about emotion the same amount, they both talked more about emotion and elaborated more on emotion when talking with their daughters compared to when they talked to their sons. Interestingly, this difference in style doesn't seem to affect the talk of three-year-olds, but older girls typically talk about emotions more than three times as frequently than boys.

People and relationships may also be discussed differently when parents talk with their boys and girls. Researchers have found that when parents reminisced with their daughters, they tended to focus more on social group activities. In contrast, when they talked to their sons, they focused on independent, self-directed activities. It is believed that parents reminisce in particular ways to provide their children with culturally appropriate gender roles. It is not surprising, then, that gender differences are evident in the storytelling children's 4-year-olds (for more information see Story Subject Matter).

Exposure to Storybooks

In addition to their preferred conversational styles and different patterns of responding to boys and girls, parents and caregivers also contribute to children's narrative development through storybook reading. Through repeated exposure to storybooks, children learn that (a) story events follow a time line, (b) stories are about one particular event, (c) stories involve characters' desires, thoughts, and feelings, and (d) the normal course of a character's life is disrupted and the character must try to bring things back to a positive state. Exposure to printed storybooks provides models of good story organization and story content. Storybooks broaden and deepen children's understanding of what makes a good story as well as their knowledge of who and what a story can be about. Storybook reading also fosters vocabulary development, which in turn can affect the development of reading skills throughout the school years. By age four, children who are read to often will have developed preferences for certain books over others. They are also able to join in the reading process, by 'reading' familiar, repeated words and phrases. Parents and caregivers who encourage 'side bar' talk around the story - discussing the story at critical points and helping the child to relate to the story events and characters - support not only their child's oral narrative development, but general literacy development, as well. See "Three Little Pig" conversation from Theory of Mind section for a sample conversation.

How Cultural Differences Influence Preschoolers' Narrative Development

Children's understanding of story is shaped by their families and families share values through stories. Therefore, the values children hold often come to them through the stories that are told and read within the family. Research has shown that values differ among cultures. For example, in Western societies there is an independent self-orientation, where individuals' inner qualities and self-expression are emphasized. Individuals are encouraged to stand out from the group, and express their thoughts, feelings, and actions as unique and separate. In contrast, in cultures that favor interdependence, such as Asian cultures, individuals are seen largely as belonging and connected to the group. The actions, thoughts, and feelings of the group are more important than the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the individual. The narratives of children from each of these cultural orientations are different, as well. Children from Western societies tend to tell stories with characters meeting their independently set goals, whereas those from Asian societies tell stories in which the characters have goals that fit with the group's needs. Thus, children's stories reflect a way of knowing and understanding that is specific to their home cultures.

Narrative as a Gateway to Continued Development

Are specific narrative skills important to children's overall developmental growth? In a word, yes. They are very important. Early narrative capabilities, which are acquired throughout children's first 60 months of life, serve as a springboard into middle childhood by making children 'ready' for the challenges of becoming socialized and entering the world of literacy.

Research has shown that by discussing past experiences with parents and caregivers, young children learn to relate their experiences to those of others. There are, of course, many differences within a culture and across cultures. But in spite of these differences, it is clear that children need to have certain narrative capabilities to thrive as individuals and social beings. Chief among them are recognizing how events are related, forming integrated memories of past events, developing language skills, and understanding that people's mental states drive their actions. These early narrative capabilities are what allow children to understand, remember, and tell stories of their experiences. This serves as the basis for creating the story of their life in later years, when 'who I am' and 'what I have experienced' become so important in the development of an independent identity.

These early narrative capabilities also prepare children to become literate. The stories that children learn to read in the first few years of schooling share many features with the personal experience stories told in families. Knowledge of these narrative features allow children to understand how stories are organized and this knowledge is very important for reading and comprehending stories during the early school years. Importantly, parents and caregivers can help children gain this knowledge by talking about the past in particular ways and asking meaningful who, what, when, where, and why questions when reading storybooks. When parents engage in these two activities (talking about the past and reading story books), their children enter kindergarten with more highly developed language and storytelling skills. This is important because research has shown that these two abilities are related to higher literacy achievement throughout schooling.

Narrative is therefore much more than a narrow skill. It is a tool that opens the door to our futures and our pasts, allowing us to understand how we fit into our social world. More than that, though, early knowledge of narrative provides a toehold by which children gain access to the world of print, which offers endless opportunity for continued learning and development.

McKeough, A., Bird, S., Romaine, A., & Tourigny, E. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative Development: 49-60 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 13. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development