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Children’s stories offer insights into how they think about the world (Paley, 1997; Wright, Bacigalupa, Black & Burton, 2008). Incorporating storytelling activities into early childhood educational environments is associated with many benefits, including emergent literacy, creativity, social relationships, and more. Storytelling provides the opportunity to engage socially with peers and adults and forges an important relationship between the storyteller and an audience. This relationship enables the child to develop empathy for listeners as well as cognitive flexibility (Wright et al., 2013).
The study aim was to examine preschoolers’ stories, with a particular focus on the role of teacher support and the development of story characteristics over time. Data collection occurred in a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool with a teacher who incorporates weekly storytelling activities into the curriculum. Using the Paley method, the teacher writes and records the stories as children tell them, scaffolds by asking questions about the characters and plot, and introduces provocations like inviting well-known figures such as Martin Luther King (MLK) into the stories (Paley, 1997). Children draw scenes, make props and act out stories in daily meetings. In this preschool, 12 three-to-five-year-old children participate in weekly storytelling activities. The teacher sends story transcripts to parents in weekly emails.
In this study, four children’s stories over a two-year period were analyzed. Stories were coded for 22 elements, including narrative complexity (Stadler & Ward, 2006), themes (e.g., friendship, death and revival), number and type of characters, and teacher scaffolding. Coding and analytic techniques were based on conventional qualitative methods (e.g., Saldaña, 2016). The prevalent themes and a sample story are portrayed for each child in Figure 1, along with a graph depicting their narrative complexity scores over time.
Overall, the findings indicated that preschoolers’ narrative complexity, including temporal sequencing, cause and effect, and increasingly developed plots, generally improves over the course of two years. However, there is high variability in this pattern on a week-to-week basis. Teacher scaffolding ensures that a minimum level of complexity is achieved (e.g., children who begin by merely listing characters are encouraged to develop a plot). Weekly experience and peer modeling and interaction also impacted the stories over time. Analyses showed that while individual children’s stories often followed specific themes (see Figure 1), they were also influenced by themes in other children’s stories in a given week. For example, if Zach told a story about Superman, then other children who were listening in, or spoke with him, often incorporated Superman into their stories as well. When asked to tell stories that included provocations, such as inviting MLK into the story, children created clearer and better structured stories.
Study findings highlight the importance of the social context, and teacher scaffolding and peer interaction in particular, for the development of storytelling. Future directions include interviewing the participating teacher and analyzing the influence of the social context on a larger group of stories, such as partner stories, stories with provocations, and stories told in specific locations (e.g., on the steps outside).