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: Susan Graham and Anne McKeough, University of Calgary

Introduction to Narrative

Storytelling is one of the most powerful means to capture, interpret, and share our experiences. Creating and sharing stories is an ancient human practice and an efficient and powerfully effective one (Campbell, 1988). Stories capture people's actions, goals, and intentions and how we feel about them (Bruner, 1990). From toddlerhood to old age, we use narratives to articulate, reflect on, and share interpretations of our experiences (McAdams, 1993; McCabe & Peterson, 1991) and to connect with others emotionally (Reese, 2002). We also use stories about ourselves, other people, and even fictional characters to entertain, inform, and teach. These stories are typically referred to as narratives in the research literature. Narratives are complex linguistic constructions that children must master for successful integration into their social world as well as successful navigation of the world of school.

Introduction to Narrative Development (0 -12 Months)

In the first year of an infant's life, there is no oral narrative development, per se. However, several foundational abilities develop that form the basis for later narrative development. These foundational abilities include memory, temporal and causal reasoning, social scripts and schemas, sense of self, and language. Parents and caregivers play a pivotal role in supporting these developments.

Child Developmental Abilities That Support Narrative Development


The ability to retain memories over time is essential to oral storytelling. Oral stories do not occur in the 'here and now,' but rather in the 'there and then,' making memory critically important. Research has shown that the development of memory begins in the months shortly after birth. In particular, studies by Rovee-Collier (1997, 1999) have demonstrated that important aspects of memory are in place as early as 2 to 3 months from birth including remembering an event from the past (e.g., kicking to make a mobile move) and the use of cues to stimulate recall. Early memories can, however, be easily disrupted by simply changing a minor element in the environment. For example, changing the pattern on the blanket in the crib where infants first learned to kick to make a mobile move will disrupt their capacity to generalize to a new mobile. In general frequency of exposure to an event is critical in supporting children's memory for the event, at this age. To illustrate, encounters with mobiles that occur within a three-day timeframe will be recalled better five to seven days later in contrast to single encounters or encounters that are spread out over a longer timeframe (Rovee-Collier, Evancio, Earley, 1995).

When infants are required to remember more complex events, it is apparent that memory retention is initially fragile but becomes more robust over the first 12 months of life. To illustrate, using deferred imitation paradigms, researchers have demonstrated that although 6-month-olds can remember some of the actions in a three-step sequence (e.g., taking a mitten off a puppet, replacing the mitten, taking the mitten off again), the memory is retained for only 24 hours (Barr, Dowden, & Hayne, 1996). By 9 months, the memory can be retained up to 5 weeks (Carver & Bauer, 1999, 2001) and, by 11 months of age, memories can extend to 3 months (Carver & Bauer, 2001; Mandler & McDonough, 1995). Remembering simple action-based events over time is an essential first competency that must be in place before toddlers can represent past events linguistically in conversations with parents. Thus, the basic memory developments that occur up to 12 months lay the foundation for early narrative competencies.

Thought Structures

There are several areas of cognitive development that are essential precursors to early oral narrative, the most important being (1) causal and temporal reasoning, (2) scripts and schemas, and (3) sense of self.

Causal and Temporal Reasoning

In order to develop narrative abilities in toddlerhood, infants must first make sense of the vast amounts of new information they encounter in the world. Narrative competence requires that events be connected in meaningful ways. It has been proposed that causal and temporal understanding is one of the fundamental skills that is available to infants and that sets them on the road to connecting events meaningfully. Understanding temporal relations and cause and effect is useful for identifying those actions that can be treated as parts of meaningful events, rather than as independent actions. Such understanding is also essential for forming expectations about the behaviour of others and acting to produce desired outcomes - two fundamental requirements of narrative.

Studies have demonstrated that during the latter part of the first year of life, infants use spatial and temporal contiguity to infer causality (e.g., Leslie, 1982, Oakes, 1994, Oakes & Cohen, 1995). To demonstrate, researchers presented 6- to 10-month-old infants with films of moving objects colliding with stationary objects. When a second object fails to move when impacted by the first object, or if it moves only after a delay from initial impact, infants registered surprise, indicating that they expected spatial and temporal coherence. This rudimentary causal and temporal understanding, which is only understood motorically at this very early age (Baillargeon, 1995), under girds later efforts to organize events temporally and to imply causality linguistically.

Social Scripts and Schemas

Social scripts and schemas underlie narrative development, especially as they apply to human intentionality. In the first 12 months of life, precursors to this competence emerge as infants begin to become attuned to people and their actions. A critical achievement during this time period is the beginning of an understanding that people's actions are goal-directed and intentional. To illustrate, Woodward (1998) showed six-month-olds a person's hand repeatedly reaching towards one of two objects. When the hand reached for the other object in subsequent trials, infants registered surprise, suggesting they expected the person to maintain his/her initial goal of getting the first object and recognized that the expectation was violated. Thus, it appeared that infants interpreted the initial reaching behaviour as marking intentions. This early interpretation of motor movement is the first step toward representing people as intentional or goal-oriented in children's early personal narratives co-constructed with parents. Moreover, constructing expectations of standard actions and recognizing when expectations are violated is an early precursor to understanding that stories centre on breaches in the social order (Bruner, 1990).

Sense of Self

Early narrative competency takes the form of autobiographical stories, as evidenced by the personal stories co-constructed by toddlers and their parents. But the capacity to tell such stories stems from competencies acquired in the first 12 months of life, when infants begin to develop a sense of self. Although not firmly established until the second year of life, a sense of self begins to develop during the first year through social interactions between infants and their caregivers and infants' observations of their own bodies (Rochat, 2001). That is, by interacting with caregivers, infants come to understand that their role differs from that of their caregiver (e.g., feeding and changing routines). Additionally, by observing their own bodies, infants develop an awareness of self (e.g., that's my hand moving). The distinction between 'you' and 'me' lays the foundation for autobiographical memory and early narrative that develops during the second year of life.


The language and communication skills that develop during the first year of life are another of the building blocks that eventually come together to allow oral narrative development. Between birth and 12 months of age, infants undergo dramatic changes in their language development. Major accomplishments during this period include learning the sounds of their native language(s), learning to segment the speech stream, and acquiring first words - all essential foundational skills for using words and eventually sentences to share experiences. Even before they are using productive language, infants will use gestures and actions to communicate intentionally (Adamson, 1996). From the first months of life, infants engage in interactional sequences with their caregiver, which form the basis for conversational turn-taking (Heimann, Strid, Smith, Tjus, Ulvund, & Meltzoff, 2006). Because early narrative is indeed an extended conversational turn, this early skill scaffolds later oral narrative capacity.

Parental Influences

Parents and caregivers play a critical role in all aspects of the previously described developmental growth, which forms the basis for later oral narrative development. By being sensitive to and appropriately responsive to their infants' signals, parents and caregivers positively impact these fundamental competencies (Fogel, 1993). For example, responding in a contingent manner to early vocalizations (e.g., cooing) helps the infant learn about turn-taking (Hsu & Fogel, 2001). Moreover, interactions throughout the first year of life scaffold the differentiation of self from other (Rochat, 2001) and activities such as feeding and bathing routines lay down the causal and temporal basis of social scripts that later become the stuff of storytelling.


Although oral narrative obviously does not exist per se in the first 12 months of life, critical capacities develop, laying the groundwork for further development throughout toddlerhood and early childhood. These foundational competencies include the following: memory for simple events as a precursor to more complex linguistically represented events; motoric temporal and causal reasoning, which precede linguistic representations of events that follow a timeline and are related causally; social scripts and schemas that represent goal-directed actions; an emergent sense of self that distinguishes 'you' from 'me,' which forms the basis of autobiographical memory and hence, early narrative; and language, in the form of early gestural communication and turn-taking, which paves the way to extended conversational turns typical of early oral narrative. Parents and caregivers play a central role in these early developments, scaffolding emerging competencies by providing a linguistically rich and socially stimulating environment.

Graham, S. & McKeough, A. (2008). Research Review: 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 - 3. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development