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

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Narrative Development (25-36 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carole Peterson, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Introduction to Emergent Narrative Development (25 - 36 Months)

During the year that children are 2 years of age they make a significant start in their acquisition of narrative skills. By the beginning of this year, or within a few months of turning 2, children have built a foundation of a number of skills which are important for narrative development. These include a cognitive sense of self and an ability to talk about the there-and-then (see Narrative Development in 1 year olds). As well, they have developed more adequate language and memory skills to help with the process of narrative acquisition. As 2 year olds, they begin to talk about their past experiences with some frequency. However, their early forays into narrative production are short, simple, and generally highly prompted or supported by adult conversational partners. During their second year of life, they make a beginning in figuring out how to structure narratives about personal experiences.

Child Developmental Abilities That Support Narrative Development


Autobiographical memory is defined as memory for specific episodes in one's past, i.e., events that have a particular there and then. Furthermore, there is the sense that "I was there," i.e., the events relate to oneself. An additional property of autobiographical memory according to a number of theorists is that these episodes need to have personal meaning or significance (Conway & Rubin, 1993; Nelson & Fivush, 2004). Although there is no question that 2 year olds have episodic memory and realize that the events they recall were about themselves, there is debate over whether or not children this young have autobiographical memory. Theorists such as Nelson and Fivush (2004) argue that these memories are not yet well enough embedded in personal meaningfulness (which "emerges from emotions, motivations, and goals that are constructed in interaction with others" p. 488) to yet be called autobiographical.

Nevertheless, there is a major shift in the verbal accessibility of personal memories that takes place when children are 2 years of age, and this is an important foundation milestone in narrative development. Typically, all or almost all of the events that occurred when children were under 2 years of age become verbally inaccessible, although children may sometimes show behavioral signs of nonverbal recall for those experiences. However, events that occur when children are 2 (or at least by age 2½) are often recalled for several years. This shift in the verbal accessibility of memories has been well documented (Peterson, 2002). Even events that were highly distressing (Peterson & Rideout, 1998) or extremely traumatic (Terr, 1988) are seldom able to be verbally retrieved if the child was less than 2 years of age at the time those events occurred. In short, the specific language skills that are available to a child at the time an event occurs play an important role in what can be subsequently recalled verbally, and only after age 2 do children have language skills that are sophisticated enough to support the development of a verbally accessible memory for prior events in their lives. Thus, memory that is readily verbally accessible is a key tool for narrative development.

Thought structures

There are several cognitive developments that foster children's narrative skill acquisition when they are 2, the most important being (1) improvements in causal and temporal reasoning, and (2) developing scripts and schemas of narrative macro-organization.

Causal and Temporal Reasoning

Causal and temporal reasoning are important constituents in thinking, and 2 year olds are working hard to understand causal and temporal relationships between events, although they still have a considerable way to go. As infants, they were able to observe simple temporal and causal relationships between events (see review in Bauer, 2004), and during this year they will have many more experiences that will allow them to observe the connections between events. Their endless "why?" questions such as "Why do dogs wag their tails?" are often efforts to understand causal relationships.

One especially important type of causal reasoning is the understanding of relationships between emotions and events. A characteristic of personal experience narratives is that they are meaningful - that is, they have an evaluative component: They communicate what is important to the narrator, how he or she feels about the events discussed, and why they have personal significance (Labov & Waletzky, 1967; Peterson & McCabe, 1983). Narratives are structured around these personal meanings, "emphasizing goals and plans, motivations and emotions, successful and failed outcomes, and their meaningful relation to the teller as well as to the other players" (Nelson & Fivush, 2004: 494). Children are learning about these connections, and past event conversations with parents and caregivers who talk about these emotion connections help children acquire such knowledge (Bird & Reese, 2006; Bretherton, Fritz, Zahn-Waxler, & Ridgeway, 1986; Dunn, Brown, & Beardsall, 1991).


Although children began to form scripts of routine events (Nelson, 1978) as 1 year olds, 2 year olds make considerably more progress in developing these expectations of how a routine series of events is structured. Scripts are an organized series of events, and through scripts, children come to understand that there is a macro-organization to an event series: There are beginning events, there are middle events, and there are ending events (Nelson, 1986). As children begin telling personal experience narratives, they must come to understand that these too are composed of a series of events with an overall macro-organization or schema, with beginnings (e.g., orientation to the context of the events such as where and when they took place), middles (such as sequences of events describing what happened, problem complications, actions to achieve goals, etc.), and ends (resolutions, goal achievement or failure, etc.) (Labov & Waletzky, 1967/1997; Nelson & Fivush, 2004; Peterson & McCabe, 1983). Two-year-olds are beginning to develop schemas about this macro-structure of narratives. For example, in a longitudinal study of middle-class Caucasian 2 - 3½ year olds, Peterson and McCabe (1994) found that children between 2 and 2½ years of age spontaneously included an orientation to when and where narrated events took place in 7% and 29% of their narratives, respectively. When they were between 2½ and 3 years of age, they spontaneously included an orientation to when and where in 19% and 40% of their narratives, respectively. Thus, 2 year olds are beginning to acquire schemas of narrative structure.


Children's vocabulary increases substantially during this period (see section on Vocal Skills), which allows children to encode a lot more objects and relationships with language. Furthermore, 2 year olds are now producing short sentences, and these allow the children to communicate more complex representations. Having the appropriate words in which to verbally encode an event helps young children not only talk about it but also remember it (Haden, Ornstein, Eckerman, & Didow, 2001). As well, young 2 year olds with better language skills spontaneously talk about past events more frequently (Reese, 1999). However, there are many aspects of grammar and the lexicon that will come to play an important part in verbally reconstructing the past that have still not been acquired by most 2 year olds, including complex tense construction, many words referring to specific temporal locations such as "yesterday," "last week," or "Saturday," words referring to relative temporal locators such as "before," "after," or "while," and words expressing causal relationships such as "because" or "so."

Early Narrative Production

The narratives of 2 year olds are not independent tales of personal experience, but rather are co-constructions that take place within an interactive context (Eisenberg, 1985; Harley & Reese, 1999; Miller & Sperry, 1988; Nelson & Fivush, 2004). Very young 2 year olds mostly participate in narrative co-construction by responding with one-word answers to caregiver requests for information about events displaced in time and place (Eisenberg, 1985), although they sometimes initiate such conversations (Reese, 1999).

Miller and Sperry (1988), in a longitudinal investigation of working-class children's conversational interactions from age 2 to 2½ years of age, found that negative events were especially likely to be talked about by the children, especially events of physical harm. During this six month period, the amount of past-event talk doubled and the number of sentences about temporally-ordered sequences of past events increased substantially. They also found that these young 2 year olds used a range of ways (sometimes nonverbal) in order to communicate their attitude toward these events. Thus, these authors conclude that "(1) by age 2½ stories of personal experience emerged in incipient form and (2) the roots of this genre lie not only in cognitive skills and social interactional support but in the emotional significance of the depicted event" (p. 293). During the second half of their second year, they contribute increasing amounts of new information to these co-constructed narratives as well as spontaneously initiate more such conversations.

Parental Influences

Research has shown that the amount and style of talk directed by parents to their children as well as parents' help to learn narrative structure are three critically important factors in narrative development at this time in children's narrative development.

Amount of Talk About Past Events

The amount of talk directed at children is an important variable in children's language and cognitive development, and as documented by Hart and Risley (1995), there is an enormous difference between parents in such talk (see Narrative Development in 1 year olds). Most importantly for narrative development, there is a difference in the amount of extended talk, especially talk about past events, between parents/caregivers. Some parents frequently discuss past events with their children, while other parents seldom do so (McCabe & Peterson, 1991; Ratner, 1984). Such talk about past events provides substantial help to both children's narrative development and their ability to remember past events.

Style of Parental Talk

The way that parents talk about past events with their children has repeatedly been shown to differ in systematic ways. Some parents are highly elaborative and topic-extending in their reminiscing style (Fivush, Haden, & Reese, 2006; McCabe & Peterson, 1991; Peterson & McCabe, 2004; Reese, 2002). These parents ask questions of their children that extend their contributions, they introduce new information themselves about the topics being discussed, and they respond to and confirm their children's contributions. Parents that are low in elaboration are less likely to encourage their children's contributions, are more likely to repeat the same question if their children cannot respond appropriately rather than re-phrase or elaborate their prior question, and are much more likely to change to a new topic (i.e., 'topic-switching') if their children do not respond the way they want them to. These different styles of parental talk have been shown to have far-reaching effects on children's narrative development. In addition, they have been shown to influence a number of other aspects of both cognitive and socioemotional development (see review in Fivush et al, 2006). For example, a more elaborative reminiscing style has been linked to autobiographical memory skills, literacy acquisition, attachment relationships, understanding of the self, and theory of mind development.

Helping Children Learn Narrative Structure

A number of investigators have used the concepts of Vygotsky's (1978) theory of socio-cultural development to describe the role of parents and other mature conversational partners of young children. In Vygotsky's view, complex cognitive tasks are learned within a social, interactive context, and the inter-psychological processes that take place within that interaction are then internalized by the child (i.e., become intra-psychological processes). Novices learning any new cognitive skill are optimally helped by having more knowledgeable partners scaffold their early attempts to learn new tasks. Adults regulate how a task is done as well as provide extensive guidance and feedback, thereby providing the structure and much of the content of the task. Thus, the parent/caregiver or other conversational partner provides the basic scaffold for the child's narrative by the questions they ask and the comments they make. Good scaffolding by an adult is sensitive to the child's level of accomplishment, and as a child gets more competent, the scaffold is decreased.

Recent theoretical formulations have also proposed a spiral model of increasing task sophistication by parents as child competence increases across the early years of narrative skill acquisition (Haden, Haine, & Fivush, 1997; Reese, Haden, & Fivush, 1993). Specifically, these authors suggest that adult scaffolds may be primitive when child skill levels are very low, and as children become more competent at narration, the adult scaffold increases in sophistication. Essentially, feedback from children about increasing skill competence leads to more elaborate concepts being scaffolded, so that both adults and children are engaged in increasingly complex narration.

When parents are elaborative and topic extending with their 2 year olds, their children produce more sophisticated narratives later. In a longitudinal study documenting children's developing narrative skill between 2 and 6 years of age, Peterson and McCabe (see review of this body of work in Peterson & McCabe, 2004) found that children whose parents were elaborative when they were 2 and 3 year olds were able to tell longer narratives when they were asked to produce narratives on their own, with no adult scaffold (such a task assesses children's internalization of narrative skill). Children were also more likely to produce narratives that had complex structure when they got older. Specifically, their narratives were more likely to conform to schemas that represent good narrative structure, with beginnings, middles, and ends. Children of parents who used an elaborative reminiscing style were more likely to orient their listeners to the context of the narrated events (where and when - Fivush, 1991; Peterson & McCabe, 1994, 1996). As well, the more parents talked about causal relationships with their children during co-narration, the earlier and more frequently their children talked about causality in their narratives (Fivush, 1991; Peterson & McCabe, 2004). In short, parents help their children learn narrative schemas through the interactive conversations they have about past events.

Cultural Differences

Wang (2004) has argued that narrative conversations between parents and children serve different functions in different cultures, and thus these conversations differ in systematic ways. She differentiates three major functions of memory-sharing: self, social, and directive.

The self function emphasizes the culture's view of the self. North American parents from Western European cultural backgrounds value individuality and autonomy, and they facilitate the development of an "independent" self through the sort of narrative conversations that they have with their children (see Wang, 2004, for a review). In these conversations they focus on their child's individual actions, adventures, and emotional reactions. In contrast, many other cultures, such as Chinese, value group solidarity and interpersonal relatedness, i.e., an "interdependent" self. Reminiscing emphasizes group interaction and interconnectedness. It also emphasizes group membership. For example, Hungarian gypsy parents use narratives to enculturate their children into gypsy society and values (Gleason & Melzi, 1997).

The social function of memory-sharing is the extent to which parent-child narrative conversations serve to strengthen interpersonal ties. For example, European American parents use co-constructed narratives as a way to strengthen emotional bonding between parents and children, whereas "for Asian parents, it is more important during a memory conversation to situate the child in a nexus of relational hierarchy and define the child's right position in his or her social world" (Wang, 2004, p. 287).

The third function described by Wang (2004) is the directive function: Cultures differ in "how much they value the moral, social, and intellectual importance attached to past events" (p. 290). Thus, some cultures use narratives and memory-talk to help children learn the lessons from the past that were learned by themselves, their parents, their ancestors, and others in their culture. As part of this, they use past-event talk about child misbehavior to convey moral messages about appropriate current and future behavior (Miller, Wiley, Fung, & Liang, 1997). In comparison, European American parents seldom use narratives in directive ways to point out and correct children's transgressions. When stories about child transgressions are told, they are more likely to be used for entertainment value. Thus, parent-child reminiscing differs considerably between cultures because such memory talk serves different functions within different societies.


When children turn 2 years of age, their narrative skills are quite primitive. They typically respond with one word or a short phrase to questions that specifically ask for information about a past event. Although occasionally children spontaneously bring up past events, it is rare. However, near the beginning of their second year, children become much more competent at talking about the there-and-then, and the frequency of such talk increases dramatically. As well, events that happened to them as a 2 year old can now be recalled for a substantial length of time, and therefore are available to be reminisced about. In contrast, events that happened prior to their second birthday are most likely to be unavailable to verbal reminiscing. During their second year, their narratives are typically highly scaffolded by parents, but children are beginning to learn the rudiments of narrative structure or schemas. For example, they are beginning to learn that it is important to orient listeners to context information such as where and when remembered events took place. Parents have an enormous impact on narrative development through how frequently they reminisce, how elaborative their style of narrative co-construction is, and the sort of narrative scaffolding they do. In addition, narrative conversations serve cultural goals, and so different cultures have divergent ways of fostering narrative skills in their children.

Peterson, C. (2008). Research Review: Narrative Development 25-36 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 6. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development