Narrative language skills present challenges for many children with social communication issues. A lack of narrative language skills can negatively affect academic success as well as social skill acquisition. In addition, a child unable to generate oral narratives most likely needs help with other language skills, including vocabulary, flexible language, abstract concepts and figurative language, perspective taking, nonverbal language, and executive function.
In this blog post I share a number of strategies in the areas of story grammar, visual supports and vocabulary development to help improve oral narrative language skills in school-age children. And, during my session at ASHA Schools Connect in Baltimore later this month, I’ll present more practical ways to use books and structure sessions to maximize progress.
In typical development, narrative production emerges between 2 and 3 years of age when children begin telling others about what they see and do. As they get older, they begin telling stories that occurred in the past. Narrative language development continues as children begin applying oral narrative skills to analyzing, retelling, summarizing and explaining increasingly complex written language text.
Story grammar. One major aspect of narrative development involves story grammar. Story grammar acts as a cognitive map to guide comprehension and production of narratives. It also provides predictable episode structure enabling a child to process a story efficiently. Children are expected to start school with established story grammar skills. School curricula largely focus on reading and writing. Children without strong oral narrative language skills start school with a distinct disadvantage. School-based speech-language pathologists can recognize and help support students with oral narrative language deficits. They can also work with other educators on supporting narrative development in the classroom.
An SLP uses STEM vocabulary and activities to cultivate language and literacy skills among older students.
Visual supports. One challenge for SLPs teaching oral narrative skills to students is lack of shared context to create meaningful narratives. Books can provide shared context, however. Pictures in books provide visual supports for describing story settings and illustrate the sequence of events. These supports help a student talk about various aspects of the book, including the characters and their perspectives of story events, concepts associated with the story events, and much more.
When using books to set up narrative skills, consider a child’s level of oral narrative development and differentiate oral versus written language structure. Written language is more formal and structured than oral narrative language. When teaching oral narrative skills, SLPs most likely use their own words rather than text from a book.
Vocabulary development. SLPs use several strategies to increase the size and variety of students’ expressive vocabulary, including open-ended questions, sentence-completion activities, modeling, topic boards, or an augmentative and alternative communication device.
Over time, fade supports until the child generates words and word combinations independently. Choosing books relevant and meaningful to students helps them readily generalize their language based on personal experiences. As oral narrative skills improve, you can use complex books with more events and increasingly abstract ideas. Shift the focus from recounting personal narratives to retelling and summarizing stories and information in books.
I hope these strategies will be helpful to you in using books to develop narrative skills in students with language impairments and other disabilities.
Deborah Crawford, MS, CCC-SLP, manages outpatient speech-language pathology services at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders. firstname.lastname@example.org
Rebecca Landa, PhD, CCC-SLP, is the director of the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders, and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Landa@kennedykrieger.org