What Makes a Good Story? Supporting Oral Narratives of Young Children from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds

By Cheatham, Gregory A.; Jimenez-Silva, Margarita | Childhood Education, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

What Makes a Good Story? Supporting Oral Narratives of Young Children from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds


Cheatham, Gregory A., Jimenez-Silva, Margarita, Childhood Education


All children come to school with the language and culture of their homes and communities. However, the formal uses of language in schools often favor children who speak in ways that meet teachers' expectations (Corson, 2001). For example, the story structure used many children can be a mismatch with teachers' expectations, resulting in teacher and child frustration and the inability of some children to demonstrate their linguistic and cognitive skills. To ensure equity, early educators can consider diverse children's narratives from a difference rather than deficit perspective; that is, teachers can view the differences in these narratives as a strength, rather than as an indicator of a child's intrinsic lack of narrative ability. Teachers should seek out ways to support all children's storytelling (Jimenez-Silva, 1996; Jimenez-Silva & McCabe, 1996; McCabe & Bliss, 2003).

In this article, we discuss definitions and characteristics of children's narratives, the importance of young children's narrative skills, and cultural differences as illustrated by two children's example narratives. We demonstrate how knowledge of different types of culture-based story structure and a new pedagogical approach can help early educators support the narratives of young children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Definitions and Characteristics of Narratives

Children can choose from among several types of oral narratives, including event casts (i.e., telling what they are doing as they do it) (Westby, Moore, & Roman, 2002) and fictional narratives (i.e., recall of a story read previously) (McCabe, Bliss, Barra, & Bennett, 2008). Here, we discuss those stories closest to children's experiences--personal narratives, descriptions or retellings of actual events experienced by the child or someone the child knows (Bliss & McCabe, 2008; Labov, 1972; Peterson & McCabe, 1983). In early childhood classrooms, children often can be heard narrating their experiences. During show-and-tell or sharing time, a child may talk about his/her play with a favorite puppet or about a recent family outing. Early educators may support and scaffold these children's stories, prompting them to provide greater detail. During these activities, peers typically listen quietly, although they may ask questions when the story is complete. At home, children's narratives include telling parents about their day at school or recounting for an uncle how they skinned a knee.

These narratives can be thought of as having several dimensions: topic maintenance, event sequencing, informativeness, referencing, conjuctive cohesion, and fluency (McCabe & Bliss, 2003). (See Table 1 for narrative dimensions and definitions.) We have focused on the first four of these dimensions, and on how children's age and development naturally affect their narrative competencies within these dimensions.

Importance of Children's Narratives

As noted by McCabe and Bliss (2003), narratives serve academic functions, particularly related to language and literacy development. Oral narratives are entry points to literacy for young children (Michaels, 1981). Telling a story requires planning, organization, meaning generation, and self-monitoring (Hadley, 1998), which are all skills needed for literacy. Indeed, studies have illustrated that children's narrative skills are positively related to literacy skills (e.g., Tabors, Snow, & Dickinson, 2001).

Additionally, children's oral narratives serve an important role in language socialization (McCabe & Bliss, 2003). At home, narratives are a primary source of interaction and language socialization within families and communities. Hymes (1974) asserted that starting from infancy, children learn culturally specific behaviors, including language use, through interactions with adults and other individuals. Adults' interactions (e.g., adults' oral narrative solicitations and ongoing prompts) serve as the basis for culturally appropriate language acquisition (Minami, 2002) and allow children to communicate, participate, and gain community acceptance (Heath, 1986). …

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