Language Play: What Can a Parent Do to Encourage Good Narrative Skills?

Narratives: What did you do today?

Have you ever tried to find out about your children’s daily experiences? Well, of course, teenagers rarely want to share their day with an adult, but younger children do. For some kids this is one of the hardest things to do. Why is that? It seems like such a simple thing to do!

Well, let’s think about it. Telling a story pulls all kinds of language skills together. First, you have to remember (and you have to think it’s important enough to attend in order to store the memory). Then, you have to organize how to explain it. This includes understanding the main idea of the event, the important characters involved, the setting, the steps and sequence in which it happened, the outcome, the emotions involved. This is all before you say anything; this is the planning stage. Then, there’s choosing the vocabulary and remembering the words you need, deciding what’s most important, telling the steps in the right sequence, giving just the right amount of information for the person in front of you (what do they know and not know? How long will they listen to me? What will they be most interested in?), and describing and explaining clearly, and expressing emotions for the reactions to the event and to the ending.

Holy cow! No wonder speech language pathologists often use a story retelling task as a way to check functional language skills. Some kids have a glitch along the way and it’s our job to figure out where the gaps may be and teach kids explicitly how to fix or compensate for the skill that’s hard. Of course, there are also developmental stages involved. A preschool child is not going to sound much like a teenager telling a story!

So what can a parent do to encourage good narrative skills?

First of all, read stories to your kids. And tell your kids stories about what your day was like!

Start with specific prompts. “Tell me 2 things you did today.” Or “tell me something you liked or didn’t like today.” Or “what’s something you learned today?”

Eventually, you want them to not need prompts. So you can teach them how a story goes. After I read a picture book to a child, I often copy or take photos of three or four of the illustrations. I show them out of order and let the child sequence them. Then I start with “First________, then________, next________, last________.” and wait for the child to finish each sentence using the pictures. I do this with many stories until they do this on their own. You may need to write the words “First, Then, Next, Last” on a card to support them visually even if they aren’t yet reading (they may notice the first letter sounds to remember the words). Or you may need to use the card when you tell a story to your child, to model how to tell stories.

Lately, I’ve been using an app called Making Sequences by Zorten Software, LLC. This app allows me to make custom stories by taking pictures on my iPad to use for sequencing, typing in a sentence for each picture that the child dictates, recording the child saying the sentence, and playing back the whole story in the child’s voice. The kids love it!

Older children may need manipulatives or graphic organizers to remember what to put in and in what order. Many speech therapists use Story Grammar Marker.

Some older children may need practice with main ideas and summaries. They can tell lots of details but you don’t know the topic. I tell them to start with the big idea of the story or ask them to tell me about the story in one or two sentences. Then I ask for more details.

Just a few ideas to help your children be good communicators!


Kathy Puckett

Kathy is a private practice speech-language pathologist living in Shelburne, MA and the author of our monthly speech and language column, Time to Talk. Living in Western Massachusetts since 1970, she raised two children here and has two grandsons, ages 15 and 8 years old. She has worked as an SLP with people of all ages for the last 14 years. She runs social thinking skill groups and often works with teens. As a professional artist, she has a unique and creative approach to her practice. She loves technology, neurology, gardening, orchids, and photography. She uses an iPad for therapies. She grows 500 orchids and moderates her own forum for orchid growers (Crazy Orchid Lady). Kathy is dedicated to the families of her private practice, and offers practical, creative ideas to parents. She blogs about communication at

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