Assessing Narrative Skills in
Children
Peter de Villiers
(Smith College)
Frances Burns
(University of Massachusetts, Amherst
and Vanderbilt University)
Supported by NIH grant N01-DC-8-2104
* web page: www.umass.edu/AAE
Acknowledgements
 Jill de Villiers
 Elizabeth Engen
 Debbie Topal
 Harry Seymour
 Barbara Pearson
 Tempe Champion
Smith College
Rhode Island School for the Deaf
Rhode Island School for the Deaf
University of Massachusetts
University of Massachusetts
University of South Florida
Why Assess Narrative Skills?
Essential for continuity of personal memory,
encoding of experiences, and social and cultural
connection.
A major prerequisite language skill for adequate
reading and writing development (Snow et al,
1998)
A test of the productive application of syntactic
and semantic skills in functional communicative
contexts.
A primary early form of extended discourse/
taking a sustained turn = decontextualized
language with more complex syntactic forms..
What Aspects of Narrative to
Assess?
1. What makes for a “well-formed narrative”?
Thematic coherence on the macro-level of plot
and episode organization.
Linguistic cohesion or connectivity at the microlevel of noun phrases and clauses and their
interrelationships across the discourse.
Appropriate elaboration of the different points of
view of the characters.
2. What specific features of these properties of a
well-formed narrative can be easily scored and
will translate directly into intervention?
Narrative Coherence
Plot/Episode Structure = “the landscape of action”
(Bruner, 1986)
 Setting/Introduction + Episode(s) + Resolution/Coda
Episode Structure:
 Onset/Initiation -- introducing the problem, goal, or event
that initiates and motivates the action in an episode of the
story.
 Unfolding/Elaboration/Action Attempts -- development of
the action of the protagonists in terms of actions and
attempts to solve the problem or reach the goal.
 Consequences -- immediate effects of each of these
actions.
 Resolution -- the outcome of these endeavors.
Narrative Cohesion
Referential Cohesion -- introducing, maintaining
reference to, and contrasting the characters (or
objects) in the story (Karmiloff-Smith, 1981).
Temporal and Causal Connectivity -- clearly
marking the time and causal relationships
between events (Berman & Slobin, 1994).
Foregrounding and Backgrounding -- placing the
unfolding plotline events (the foreground) in the
context of attendant circumstances in which they
take place (Perrera, 1986).
Point of View and Evaluative
Commentary
“the landscape of consciousness” (Bruner,
1986) -- talking about the mental states of
the characters -- their emotional reactions,
desires, and thoughts, and what they do
and don’t know as events take place.
Linguistic Devices in
Narrative
Referential Cohesion -- articles “a” and “the”,
pronouns, names, adjectives, descriptive
prepositional phrases, relative clauses.
Temporal and Causal Connectivity -- adverbs,
adverbial phrases, adverbial clauses.
Foregrounding and Backgrounding -- adverbial
clauses of time and place, often at the beginning
of sentences.
Point of View / Evaluative Commentary -- mental
state words and complement clauses.
How to Elicit Narratives
Open-ended stories from a topic prompt
Familiar “scripted” events (e.g., a birthday party)
Story retelling
Picture or video sequences -- long or short
How well does the elicitation technique get the
child to produce language that incorporates the
narrative features we have outlined AND can be
easily evaluated and scored for those features?
For a more complete evaluation use more than
one type.
Case Study 1: Coherence and Cohesion in
the Written English Narratives of Deaf
Students
Oral subjects:
63 eight to sixteen year olds, mean age 11;10.
Average hearing loss 95dB (range 70 to 120).
Hearing loss onset prior to 18 months.
Total Communication subjects:
56 eight to sixteen year olds, mean age 12;3.
14 with deaf parents (DoD), 42 with hearing
parents (DoH)
Average hearing loss 99dB (range 70 to 120).
Hearing loss onset prior to 18 months.
Written Narrative Samples - 1
 One multi-episode narrative based on a wordless
children’s story -- “The Pirate Story.”
This was a multi-episode story chosen because it had
three clear episodes, each of which depicted an initiating
event or problem, an action or attempt to deal with that
event, and a resolution or consequence of the action
sequence.
The story was presented twice in the form of 16
color slides. Then the students wrote the story from
memory.
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The End
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Pirate Story sample -- Age = 9;6
Hearing Loss 98dB, Reading Grade 1.6
The man carrying the boat.
The man go the water.
I ride the boat. The man fighting to the boat. The man shot the gun.
The monster chseed the man.
The monster shot the gun.
The man take the monyey.
The man take bringing the boat.
The man to boat sount.
The man think. The man fixing the boat.
Pirate Story sample -- Age = 12;5
Hearing Loss 93dB, Reading Grade 3;4
The men and women carrying a big ship. They threw ship on the
water. One ship is good, other is bad. The ship want to go to Skull
and cross bones ship. The ship shoot connon Skull and cross bones
ship. The skull and crossbones ship was under the water. The ship the
winner. The monster want the ship, but he didn’t. The ship shoot
arrow to moster. Monster was dead. Ship are going to look island.
The men climb down get golds. They put in ship. The golds was
hevey in ship. The ship fell in the water. Everybody swimming off
the water. Everybody sat the island. They cut the tree. They fell the
tree. Everybody going to made a new ship. The everybody o.k.
The End.
Pirate Story sample -- Age = 13;3
Hearing Loss 93dB, Reading Grade 5;0
There is a group of men that made a ship. They dicide to find a
treasure. That day they were on the boat and travel until there was
another boat. They had a war. The other ship lost and the pirate ship
won. The pirate ship went to find the treasure. The Monster that was
in the water heard the war and blew fire to the ship. One of the man
killed the Monster. They went to find the treasure and when they got
to the sandy island with a trap door, the men went down and took the
treasure and left. But it was too heavy and the ship sank. The men
swim to the island and live and made the ship forever.
The End
Coherence
-- Episode Completeness
S A T G ra d e
< 2.0
S A T G ra d e
2 .0 to 2.9
A ll
In co m p let e
(6 2.5)
6 2.5
(5)
30
P a rti ally
C o m pl ete
(2 5)
1 8.8
(2 5)
10
(2 2.2)
M o st ly
C o m pl ete
(1 2.5)
6 .3
(4 5)
25
(2 2.2)
8 7.5
(5 .9)
9 .1
1 2.5
(2 5)
30
(5 5.6)
1 2.5
(9 4.1)
9 0.9
Ep iso d e
S tr u ct u re
A ll
C o m pl ete
( ) = oral students
S A T G ra d e S A T G ra d e
3 .0 to 4.9
> 5.0
Written Narrative Samples - 2
 Two short narratives based on picture sequence scenarios.
These were designed to motivate the need to identify
the characters in a contrastive way, to express temporal
and causal relationships between events, and to refer to
their mental states in explaining their actions.
They were written with the picture sequence in front
of the students all the time.
The Candy Stealing Story
The Balloon Popping Story
Candy Stealing Story sample -- Age = 9;6
Hearing Loss 98dB, Reading Grade 1.6
He want to the candy
The girl gave to the a penny
The girl gave to the cookies
The girl don’t went the cookies
The girl dreaming police
The girl gave penny
The woman said thank you
Candy Stealing Story sample -- Age = 12;5
Hearing Loss 93dB, Reading Grade 3;4
Kerian Steal Candy Bag
Jane and Kerian went to the store. Jane like to buy some jelly bean in
jar. Kerian saw candy in the shelf. Kerian want to steal some candy in
the shelf. Then take candy and put in her purse. Kerian told Jane her,
you want some candy, I steal candy bag in the shelf. Jane said no
thank, because she learn in school. Kerian went to sleep. She dream
about policeman take Kerian go to jail. Then went into the store.
Kerian pay for Mrs. Williams. She said I’m sorry I steal candy bag in
the shelf. Mrs. Williams said, that o.k. you won’t go to jail. Kerian
feel O.K.
Candy Stealing Story sample -- Age = 13;3
Hearing Loss 93dB, Reading Grade 5;0
There two girls in the store and one girl with a pocket
purse. The girl was looking at the store lady and was
stealing some candy on the counter, then they left.
Outside the girl ask the girl who was buying the candy,
and she didn’t wanted it. That night the girl had a bad
dream about going to jail and the police took her. The
next morning she went to the store and paid for the candy,
and then the store lady was happy and pat her on the
head! The girl went home happily!!
Cohesion
-- Pronoun Use
SAT
G ra d e
3 .0 to
4 .9
SAT
G ra d e
> 5 .0
P ron o un
U sage
SAT
G ra d e
< 2 .0
SAT
G ra d e
2 .0 to
2 .9
No
C on tra s t
(5 0 )
5 6 .3
(5)
40
M o st ly
In c o rre c t
(5 0 )
3 1 .3
(3 0 )
30
(2 7 .8 )
3 3 .3
1 2 .5
(5 5 )
25
(5 0 )
3 3 .3
(1 7 .6 )
1 8 .2
(1 0 )
5
(2 2 .2 )
3 3 .3
(8 2 .3 )
8 1 .9
M o st ly
C o rrect
A ll
C o rrect
( ) = oral students
Reference Specification
R e fer e n c e
Sp ec ific a ti on
SAT
G ra d e
< 2 .0
S A T G ra d e
2 .0 to 2 .9
S A T G ra d e
3 .0 to 4 .9
S A T G ra d e
> 5 .0
N on e
(5 0 )
6 .3
N a me s /
“o th e r”
(1 2 .5 )
4 3 .8
(4 5 )
30
(3 3 .3 )
3 3 .3
A dj ect iv e s
(3 7 .5 )
50
(5 5 )
40
(5 .6)
2 2 .2
(2 3 .5 )
9 .1
5
(1 6 .7 )
0
(2 9 .4 )
9 .1
25
(4 4 .4 )
4 4 .4
(4 7 .1 )
8 1 .8
P re p o s itio n
Ph ra s e
R e la ti v e
C la u s e
( ) = oral students
Temporal Links
T em po ra l
C oh es io n
S A T G ra d e
< 2.0
N on e
(3 7.5)
1 2.5
A nd /t h e n
A d v erb ial
Ph ra se
S A T G ra d e
2 .0 to 2.9
S A T G ra d e
3 .0 to 4.9
(5 0)
6 8.8
(3 5)
50
(2 7.8)
(1 2.5)
1 2.5
(5 0)
30
(4 4.4)
6 6.7
(1 7.6)
A d v erb ial
C la u s e
F in a l
(5)
5
(5 .6)
1 1.1
(1 1.8)
A d v erb ial
C la u s e
In itia l
(1 0)
15
(2 2.2)
2 2.2
(7 0.6)
1 00 .0
( ) = oral students
S A T G ra d e
> 5.0
Partial Correlations between Reading
Comprehension level and Features of Written
Narrative (controlling for Age and Hearing Loss)
Ep iso d e
S tr u ct u re
T em po ra l
C oh es io n
P ron o un
U sa g e
R efer en ce
Sp ec ificat io n
O ra l
(d f=5 6)
.55 ***
.61 ***
.67 ***
.54 ***
TC
(d f=4 6)
.43 **
.55 ***
.58 ***
.45 **
G ro u p
** p<.01
*** p<.001
Assessing Narrative Skills in
Children
Case Study 2: African-American
English and Mainstream American
English Children
Frances Burns
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Previous Narrative Research
Only a few studies on narrative development
have focused on children who speak a dialect
other than mainstream American English (MAE).
Of these studies, an even smaller number have
focused on the discourse skills of young children
who speak African American English (AAE)
(Champion,1998; 2003).
Previous studies of young AAE speakers have
focused on their overall narrative structures and
the content of their stories (Champion 2003).
Narrative Style in AAE Children
 Michaels (1981), described the structure of African
American children’s narratives as complex but different
from those of middle class European American
children.
 The narratives of the majority of African American
children were seen as topic-associating (TA) rather than
the topic-centered, linear style that dominates early
schooling.
 Topic associating refers to a narrative style in which the
“main topic is not explicitly stated but implied via a
number of loosely connected episodes.”
 Topic-centered refers to “a linear progression of
information with explicit lexical temporal grounding
and no significant shifts in temporal-spatial
perspective.”
Narrative Style Contrasts
Topic-centered
 Organized around a single
topic or closely related
topics.
 Main characters and
temporal/locational
grounding remain constant
and are lexically explicit.
 Clear thematic progression
with beginning, middle and
end.
Topic-associating
 Organized around loosely
linked topics with implied
(associative) connections.
 Frequent shifts in key
characters and
temporal/locational
grounding.
 Does not adhere to a linear
pattern of organization.
Example of Topic Associating
Narrative (8;5 - girl)



















1. I live on lyme street
2. it’s a nice place
3. I got a- my auntie lives up there
4. I was gonna go to my- another school
5. this year I’m going to a different new school
6. so I might be happy there
7. but about my house
8. I just love being at my house
9. my cousins come over to play with me
10. an sleep over sometimes
11. sometimes I have slumber parties
12. great!
13. an den in the morning sometimes my mother takes us- my grandpa take us to the park
14. get us mcdonald’s or ummm all of that
15. sometimes he take us to the zoo
16. an see all the animals
17. it was fun at the zoo
18. I saw the animals, bears
19. it was great!
Example of Topic Centered
Narrative (6;10 - girl)




















1. one day I was going over aunt’s house.
2. then me and my cousin Jenea, we wanted to go to the liberry.
3.then we got there and I was reading books.
4. and then I wanted to um go on computers.
5. so I signed up.
6. but then we…which.
7.uh then a magic show was um startin to come on.
8. then this guy, he was just, he didn’t know where his magic hat was.
9. so he made a hat with big balloons like clowns.
10. and then after he made a hat he made um the duck out of balloons.
11. um it was like that duck that’s on Michael Jordan.
12. he made that of balloons.
13. an then he, he had helpers.
14. but he didn’t pick me.
15. an then he, whoever go, whoever did the job he gave them a wand.
16. an then when the magic show was done we, they had snacks.
17. they had cracker fishes, cookies and juice.
18. then I wanted to go a computer.
19 but I forgot that I had to go on the computer.
20. then we leff.
Further Research on Topic
Associating Narrative Style
Hyon and Sulzby (1994), looked at the
narrative styles of 48 African American
low-income urban kindergarteners.
 58.3% of the narratives were topic
centered.
33.3% were topic associating.
Further Research on Topic
Associating Narrative Style
 Champion (1998), found that African American children,
ages 6-10, produced a variety of narrative structures
including the “classic” narrative structure.
 In fact 66% of the narratives were classified as classic or
topic-centered.
As defined by Labov (1972), these narratives included an
orientation, a complicating action, and a resolution, and
then concluded with a coda.
 Only 11% were classified as “performatives” or topic
associating.
Current Research, Burns (2003)
Study 1: Open-Ended Narratives
 21 typically developing African American children from the
Northeast aged 5;9 to 11;6 (Mean age 8;2).
 The participants were video-taped telling at least three open-ended
stories to one adult African American listener.
 The example topics (i.e., hurt, fieldtrip, a hero, vacation) were
provided in order to prompt non-fictive narratives.
 Fictitious narratives were discouraged because children may be
tempted to tell fairytale or story book narratives that are limited in
AAE features and perhaps bias the children toward topic-centered
narratives.
Study 1- Data Analysis
 A total of sixty-six narratives were transcribed and
analyzed for AAE dialect features, T-Units, and narrative
style (topic centered vs topic associating).
 The children were placed on a dialect continuum that
ranged from low to high use of AAE on the basis of the
frequency of appearance of several distinctive syntactic,
semantic, and phonological features of AAE (Washington
& Craig, 1998) in their spontaneous speech.
Study 1 - Results
 Only 11% of the open-ended narratives were
categorized as topic-associating, confirming
Champion’s (1998) findings.
 There was no relationship between depth of AAE
dialect and the likelihood that the children would
produce topic-associating forms of narration.
 There was a trend in the data for the younger children to
produce more topic-associating narratives.
 The younger children also produced a higher
percentage of “series of events” stories. In these there
were clear topics but no orientation, complicating action
or resolution.
Example of “series of events”
(6;10 – boy)
 1.once upon a time I saw my friends at the beach.
 2. it was ??? and Carmen and Carmen’s friend.
 3. den we went an we ate there.
 4. there were little pointers on the floor.
 5. only in some ???
 6. an I- den I we lef
 7. den I rode my bike
 8. den the end
 9. oh, den I went in the house
 10. den I got somin to drink
 11. den I ate
 12. den I went to bed
Conclusions
 These results and those of Champion (1998) suggest that
by the time African American children are aged 7 or 8,
they have a range of narrative styles available to them.
 By this age they predominantly produce the topiccentered, classic narrative (Labov, 1972).
 This may result from code switching into the style that
they are exposed to in school.
 Younger African American children produce more of the
topic-associating and “series of event” types of stories.
 More research is needed to explore whether the topicassociating narrative style is dominant in still younger
children, less than age 6.
Current Research, Burns (2003)
Study 2: Picture Sequences
 78 AAE (n=53) and MAE (n=25) speaking children.
 Ages 4 to 6. No difference between the AAE and MAE
groups in age distribution or mean age.
 One picture sequence narrative from the Diagnostic
Evaluation of Language Variation-Criterion Referenced
(DELV-CR), San Antonio, TX: The Psychological
Corporation (2003)
 Assessing Reference Contrasting, Temporal Links,
Mental State References, and Theory of Mind.
 Narratives were audio-taped and transcribed.
 SEE THE DELV-CR FOR STIMULUS PICTURES
Narrative Samples 1
 I want my train. I’m gonna hide the train from him. I’m
gonna play out of the toy box. I’m gonna find that train.
Bring that train. (C: 4;2, MAE)
 He was looking for the choo choo train because the other
boy was playin’. And then… and then he said, “I want
that choo choo train back”, and umm… he put it in his toy
box. And then he came back to find it and he looked
under the bed and it wasn’t there. (SC: 4;9, MAE)
Narrative Examples 2
 The big boy came into the little boy’s room and took away the little
boy’s train. Then he hid it under the boy’s bed where he couldn’t get
it. Then the little boy… when he left… he got out his train and put it
in the toy box while the big boy was eating. Then the big boy thought
about the train and he went under the bed to go see it but it wasn’t
there.
(A: 6;4, MAE)
 The little brother was trying to get his toy from the big brother. And
the big brother hiding his toy under the bed. When he is eating his
sandwich, the little boy go and get it and put it inside of his toy box.
When his big brother walk in, he think about the train and he look
under his bed for it. (J: 6;3, AAE)
Study 2 - Data Analysis
 For reference contrasting, the children were given 1 point
if they contrasted the two boys in some way in their story
(e.g., “the big brother” vs “the little boy”)
 For temporal links the children were given a score based
on the most sophisticated type of temporal expression
they used: 0 = no time links expressed, 1 = only
sequencers like “then” or “and then” used, 2 = adverbial
clauses of time used (e.g., “while” or “after”).
 For mental state references in describing the thought
balloon picture in the eliciting sequence, the children
received 1 point if they referred to the intention or desire
of the boy (“He wants his train.”), but 2 points if they
referred to his cognitive state (“He is thinking about his
train.”)
Study 2 - Data Analysis
For their answers to the final question
about why the boy was looking under the
bed for the train, the children again
received 1 point for an answer in terms of
his motivation for looking (“to find his
train.”), but 2 points for a theory of mind
explanation (“because he thinks his train
is there.”)
So the total score on the narrative was 7
points.
Study 2 - Statistical Results
(ANOVA)
For reference contrasting there was a significant
age effect (p=.018), but no effect of dialect, and
no interaction between age and dialect.
For temporal expressions there was a significant
age effect (p=.003), but no effect of dialect, and
no interaction between age and dialect.
Study 2 - Statistical Results
(ANOVA)
For mental state references in Picture 5
descriptions, there was a significant age effect
(p=.015), but no effect of dialect, and no
interaction between age and dialect.
For theory of mind explanations there was a
significant age effect (p=.003), but no effect of
dialect, and no interaction between age and
dialect.
Overall Picture Sequence
Narrative Scores
Narrative Score
7
A v e ra g e S c o re /7
6
5
4
AAE
MAE
3
2
1
0
4
5
Age
6
DELV-CR Field Testing Study Typically-developing and
Language-impaired Children
Narratives elicited by the train story
sequence.
On-line scoring by the clinicians
administering the test (a reliability check
showed 87.5% agreement with audio-taped
and transcribed narratives)
DELV-CR Narrative Study Subjects
1014 four to nine year olds from all around the
USA.
60% of them speakers of AAE, 40% speakers of
MAE.
30% of each group (roughly equally spread
across the ages) were diagnosed as being
language-impaired and were receiving
intervention services.
AAE and MAE groups were matched for parent
education level (average level = high school).
DELV-CR Narrative Study Results
No differences were found between the dialect
groups on any of the separate measures:
reference contrasting, temporal expressions,
mental state references, or theory of mind.
BUT there were strong developmental growth
effects for each of the measures.
AND there were clear differences between the
typically-developing children and the languageimpaired children on each of the measures.
Development of reference contrast in narratives
(contrasting the two main characters) in typically
developing MAE and AAE speaking children.
Reference Contrast in Spoken Narrative
P ro p o rtio n o f G ro u p
1
0.8
0.6
AAE
MAE
0.4
0.2
0
4.5
5.5
6.5
8
Age
10
12
Development of reference contrast in narratives
(contrasting the two main characters) in typically
developing and language impaired children.
Reference Contrast in Spoken Narrative
P ro p o rtio n o f th e G ro u p
1
0.8
0.6
Impaired
Typical
0.4
0.2
0
4.5
5.5
6.5
8
Age
10
12
Development of the expression of temporal links between
events in the narratives of typically developing MAE and
AAE speaking children.
Temporal Links in Spoken Narrative
A v e ra g e S c o re /2
2
1.5
AAE
1
MAE
0.5
0
4.5
5.5
6.5
8
Age
10
12
Development of the expression of temporal links between
events in the narratives of typically developing and
language impaired children.
Temporal Links in Spoken Narrative
A v e ra g e S c o re /2
2
1.5
Impaired
1
Typical
0.5
0
4.5
5.5
6.5
8
Age
10
12
Development of mental state references to describe
the “thought balloon” picture (typically developing
MAE versus AAE speaking children)
Mental State Descriptions of Picture 5
A v e ra g e S c o re /2
2
1.5
AAE
1
MAE
0.5
0
4.5
5.5
6.5
8
Age
10
12
Development of mental state references to describe
the “thought balloon” picture (typically developing
versus language impaired children).
Mental State Descriptions of Picture 5
A v e ra g e S c o re /2
2
1.5
Impaired
1
Typical
0.5
0
4.5
5.5
6.5
8
Age
10
12
Development of “theory of mind” explanations for the
character’s mistaken action in the picture narrative
(typically developing MAE versus AAE speaking children).
Mental State Explanations of Action
A v e ra g e S c o re /2
2
1.5
AAE
1
MAE
0.5
0
4.5
5.5
6.5
8
Age
10
12
Development of “theory of mind” explanations for the
character’s mistaken action in the picture narrative
(typically developing versus language impaired children).
Mental State Explanations of Action
A v e ra g e S c o re /2
2
1.5
Impaired
1
Typical
0.5
0
4.5
5.5
6.5
8
Age
10
12
Development of combined narrative skills in MAE
and AAE speaking children aged 4 to 12.
Spoken Narrative Score
7
A v e ra g e S c o re /7
6
5
4
AAE
MAE
3
2
1
0
4.5
5.5
6.5
8
Age
10
12
Overall narrative scores in typically developing and
language impaired children aged 4 though 12.
Spoken Narrative Score
7
A v e ra g e S c o re /7
6
5
4
Impaired
Typical
3
2
1
0
4.5
5.5
6.5
8
Age
10
12
Conclusions
The last two studies demonstrate that these
picture sequences produce a dialect neutral
assessment of important features of
narrative cohesion and point of view.
The materials can be used for diagnosis of
language impairment in both Mainstream
American English speaking children and
African American English speaking
children.
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Assessing Narrative - University of Massachusetts Amherst