Maria Y. Finger, M.A. (December 2007)
(Mentor: Linda Baker)
Hearing and telling stories are very important parts of almost every child’s early educational experience. Storytelling activities are used to both teach and assess children’s language skills in the first few years of formal schooling. Some children come to school better equipped to tell the type of story that is considered superior in a classroom setting. Stories and storytelling practices that are valued in schools are most often associated with middle income European Americans. Stories that deviate from the style valued in school settings are often considered inferior, and it may even be assumed that the child telling the story has language difficulties. This leaves low income, non-White children at a disadvantage.
The differences that exist in the stories of children may be rooted in ethnic and income-related differences in the narrative and instructional practices of their parents. For example, middle income, European American children will often have more exposure to stories similar to those valued in the classroom via more books in the home, more time spent in book reading activities, and parental instructional practices more in line with school practices than their low income peers. Given the impact of the home literacy environment on the narratives of young children, this study examined the narrative structure and style of a biographical and a story generation narrative among low and middle income, European and African American kindergarteners.
Seventy-three kindergarten children were asked to tell a story about an event that actually occurred in their lives (a biographical narrative) and a story based upon the pictures in a children’s book (story generation narrative). Each child’s storytelling was recorded and analyzed for possible differences related to the child’s ethnicity or income. Once all of the stories were elicited from the children, a questionnaire about certain aspects of each child’s home literacy environment was sent home; forty-three of the 73 participants’ parents returned the completed questionnaires.
European American children told stories that were organized in a more linear fashion than African American children; this occurred both in the biographical and the story generation narratives. Overall, middle income children produced stories more in line with those highly valued in educational settings than their low income peers. Low income children typically told stories that were either not long enough to be characterized as a complete story or were presented in a manner that made them extremely difficult to understand. Middle income children also told stories that were significantly longer than those of low income children and that contained more intensifiers; middle income African American children produced the highest proportion of intensifiers in the story generation task.
The parent data also revealed some statistically significant income and ethnicity related differences. African American parents had fewer books in the home and first read to their children at a later age than European American parents. Middle income parents had more books in the home than low income parents and participated in more shared book reading activities with their child. In addition, the more books a child had in the home, the more likely the narrative he or she produced in the story generation task was in line with the structure and style valued in school settings.
The relations between ethnicity and narrative organization support previous empirical evidence regarding African American’s narratives being less clear and concise than European Americans narratives in both storytelling conditions. The number of narrative production differences that existed related to income is also quite meaningful; in almost every category analyzed, low income children produced narratives that would be considered inferior by school standards.
These findings have implications for teacher training and parent education/assistance programs. Providing low income parents with books and information regarding the most developmentally appropriate ways to instruct their child may serve to increase the child’s exposure to and familiarity with print materials and also reduce the gap in narrative production abilities related to low income status. It is also important to introduce the differences that exist among ethnic minorities and/or low income children to teachers. Teachers may unintentionally use these differences in narrative production to form opinions and develop unrealistic, low expectations of certain students. Educating teachers about the differences that may exist in narrative production related to ethnic minority and/or low income status will aid them in understanding, and potentially, educating all students more effectively.