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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Narrative Language Skills: What Do We Know?

Whether I am working with students with language-learning disabilities (LLD) or AAC users with Complex Communication Needs (CNN), I focus a lot of time on building narrative language skills.
In fact, with even my most complex nonspeaking students I want narrative skills to be a goal that we are working towards.

A recent discussion among some SLPs  about narrative skills in assessments sent me looking to the research.  In a  2008 edition of Topics in Language Disorders (vol.28:2. Apr-June 2008) editors Nickola Wolf Nelson, Katherine Butler, and Donna Boudreau quoted Jerome Bruner:

One of the most ubiquitous and powerful discourse forms in human communication is narrative.”  (Bruner 1990).  Narrative is crucial in human interactions, yet often receives the least attention.  Bruner went on to name the 4 areas of grammar critical to narrative production:

  1. A means for emphasizing actions towards obtaining a goal,
  2. A sequential order should be established and maintained; so that events are stated in a linear way
  3. Sensitivity to what forms and patterns of language are acceptable
  4. Containing a narrator’s perspective or ‘voice.’

Narrative has been found (Nelson et al 1989) to capture not only the events of daily interactions, but to encourage interpretation, imagination, and use of self-talk to solve problems.  This particular issue of TLD includes an update from J. Johnston on her seminal work (1982), which signaled a wake-up call to clinicians to consider examining narratives in clinical practice.

Johnston was the first to call attention to the importance of narratives in clinical practice.  She argues for distinct areas of knowledge in order to support narrative skills:
  • knowledge of the content  of narrative
  • knowledge of an appropriate framework in which to build narratives
  • linguistic abilities to form a cohesive text
  • the ability to consider the adequacy of the listener’s comprehension.

This last point is particularly discussed in her update, considering the processing competence of the listener;  how well can he comprehend at the narrative level.

Narrative skills begin to develop in young children and are mediated by parental support.  These early interactions build the foundation upon which children build their narrative and academic skills (Boudreau 2008).  The narrative skills of preschoolers are predictive of academic success in school, as well as social success.  As students with narrative language deficits continue having difficulties in academic and social success, we are reminded of the importance of intervention at the narrative levels.

Johnston’s (2008) update to her original article discusses the value of narrative intervention in school aged children.  While this study is now 10 years behind in current research into narrative development in students, the continuum of crucial skills for SLPs to consider continues along the same path that Johnston took.

Johnston (1982) listed on the 4 areas crucial in narrative development, and reviews and elaborates on it in the 2008 update.
  1. The speaker must know the content of the narrative; both general qualities and specific details
  2. The speaker must have understanding of a narrative framework, in order to turn the facts of the event into a story that includes context and emotion.
  3. The speaker must have understanding of the forms of language, in order to create a cohesive story whose sentences blend together well with appropriate parts of speech.
  4. The speaker must be able to shape the narrative to meet the linguistic needs of the listener; must be able to tailor the content of his narrative to the processing and knowledge levels of his audience.

Johnston goes on to discuss the cognitive difficulties of narrative creation.  Narratives require planning ahead for content and structure, for cohesion, and for adjusting to the partner’s abilities.  This is a huge cognitive load.  In addition, Johnson points our that the listener’s needs may change over time during this narrative, and the speaker must be able to process this information, change his narrative to meet it, and continue with the narrative.

Johnston continues with an interesting notion based on the research results of Gillam and Pearson, (2003).  That while language-competent students were equally in both form and content in their narratives, students with language disorders tended to be stronger in one area than another.  This was seen to indicate that focusing cognitive energy in one area left the other area weak. 

Narratives are important because they allow us to move away from the “here and now,” and to focus less on our personal experiences, while allowing students to talk about what is not immediate, but rather the decontextualized language of the classroom.

There are 3 basic types of narrative scripts: personal experiences, scripts, and fictional stories (Hudson & Shapiro, 1991). Personal narratives are the easiest place to begin in intervention with children.  And they are the most often used types of narrative.

Narrative interventions have been used to improve listening skills; by providing a supportive framework of story elements  for listening.
They have been used to improve reading comprehension. The link between oral language skills and reading success has been verified (Catts, et al, 1999); making it appear that oral language facilitates literacy.  Students who understand and use the general narrative schemes use this knowledge to help the understand and grab meaning from texts.

By focusing on narratives in our language intervention, we can explore processing limitations, create opportunities for using decontextualized language, facilitate social relationships, provide practice in constructive listening, improve reading comprehension, and identify language learning strengths and weaknesses.” (Johnston 2008)

By focusing on use of core words and important fringe, and by moving from single symbols to sequences of symbols for generating novel utterances, we need to keep our AAC users moving on the "oral" - literate continuum.  This means teaching AAC users to construct messages and sequence ideas in order to engage in meaningful conversations.

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Susan Berkowitz, M.S.,C.C.C., M.Ed. has been a speech-language pathologist for 40 years. She has worked in a variety of settings, both as a SP and as an administrator. She speaks at local, national, and international conferences, and has published research in peer-reviews professional journals. She is currently the Director of Print Content at 

Boudreau, D. (2008) Forword. Topics in Language Disorders, 28 (2), 91-92

Catts,H et al (1999). Language basis of reading and reading disabilities: Evidence from a longitudinal investigation. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3(4), 331-361.

Gillam, R, & Pearson, N. (2003)The Test of Narrative Language. Austin, Tx: Pro-Ed.

Johnston, J. (1982). Narratives: A new look at communication problems in older language-disordered children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in the Schools, 13, 144-155.

Johnston, J. (2008). Narratives: Twenty-five years later. Topics in Language Disorders, 28 (2), 93-98


  1. I was delighted at the changes I saw in my middle schoolers' language skills after I addressed their weak narrative skills! It helped their conversation skills and reading comprehension as well. Great post!

    1. We see so many kids who look ok on the tests, but they can't formulate a narrative to save their lives. It's a big area. Thanks for giving your kids the tools they need. And thanks for reading.