Early Childhood

Oral Storytelling Helps Black Boys, Girls at Different Stages, Study Finds

By Marva Hinton — July 11, 2017 3 min read
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A new study finds that strong oral storytelling skills in preschool lead to better reading scores for black boys as they progress through elementary school, while for black girls proficiency in oral storytelling in preschool has the strongest effect during their first years of school but is less important later on.

The study, entitled “Different Tales: The Role of Gender in the Oral Narrative-Reading Link Among African American Children,” was published in the journal Child Development.

The study by researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill follows a 2015 report by some of the same researchers that found a connection between African-American preschoolers’ oral narrative abilities and their reading skills in kindergarten, but no such connection for children from other racial groups.

The researchers in the latest study followed a sample of 72 black 4-year-olds (38 girls and 34 boys) from preschool to 6th grade to determine what effect, if any, their oral storytelling skills in preschool had on their future reading ability.

At the beginning of the latest study the children were presented with Frog, Where Are You?, a wordless book about a boy, his dog, and his pet frog. Researchers prompted the children to look at the book and tell a story based on what they saw. These sessions were recorded and transcribed for scoring based on the presence of the following elements: “setting, initiating events, internal response and plan, attempts and consequences, resolution, and ending.”

Then, from 1st to 6th grade,researchers tested these students’ reading comprehension.

The researchers found that stronger oral narrative skills among girls in preschool translated to stronger reading comprehension skills in early elementary, but the effect decreased over time. For boys, stronger oral storytelling skills had a negative impact on reading skills in the early years, but the effect became positive as these boys progressed through elementary school.

“It’s not just [that] stronger narrative predicts stronger reading, but stronger narrative predicts stronger reading for different kids at different times in their development,” said Nicole Gardner-Neblett, the study’s lead investigator and an advanced research scientist with the institute.

The researchers theorize that perhaps oral storytelling skills are less important for boys during the “learning-to-read” phase of development versus the “reading-to-learn” phase, which researchers generally say begins in 3rd grade. In the study, they note that this theory is consistent with research that found “that oral language skills, like oral narratives, have an enduring effect on reading achievement in the later elementary school years, when decoding has become more automatic, accurate, and fluent...”

Gardner-Neblett says the study findings suggest that preschool teachers and parents should focus more on children’s storytelling abilities.

“Most often we hear advice for educators as well as parents to focus on reading, reading books to children and developing their ability to read, and we have heard less so in terms of storytelling,” said Gardner-Neblett. “This study suggests that storytelling is one of those skills that we need to pay attention to when we think about supporting children’s reading later on.”

A Tradition of Oral Storytelling

She links this connection to the West African origins of most African-Americans. In that region, storytelling was an important aspect of communication as well as teaching and learning, and that carried over to the United States when Africans were brought to this country as slaves.

Gardner-Neblett says storytelling continued to be important during slavery because it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, so “traditions and stories were passed down orally.”

“Even though today we don’t have those constrictions, the value of orality and oral communication has continued within the African-American community,” said Gardner-Neblett.

She gave several examples of this, from dynamic preachers to children being quick-witted with their jokes on the playground and rappers’ lyrical feats.

“Those are all things that children are learning in their culture in terms of really strong linguistic skills,” said Gardner-Neblett. “The key, though, is how to do we capitalize upon those linguistic strengths for reading success in school, and I think that’s where a lot of work still needs to be done.”

Photo: A preschool student works on an activity with the alphabet. Courtesy Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.