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Telling stories

This article explains how storytelling is a complex skill where children build on their understanding of word and sentence structure.
A book case with illustrations on the side

Listening to stories and telling stories is a common experience shared by children all over the world. Stories allow children to connect with their family and friends and to make sense of themselves and of the world around them. As children’s language skills develop, so does their ability to tell a good story and to understand the stories that they hear from the adults around them.

What’s in a story?

What characterises a good story will vary but, essentially, stories have two main functions: a referential function and an evaluative function. The referential function relates to the narration of events in a sequential chronological order, while the evaluative function establishes the narrator’s point of view and their own interpretation of events. Children, like adults, tell stories to communicate to others what happened (referential function), but also to convey their thoughts and feelings about the character and the events in the stories (evaluative function).

The study of storytelling typically involves analysing its macro-structure and micro-structure. The macro-structure includes the organisation of a story around a setting, one or more episodes, and an ending. The setting introduces the character(s), the time, and the place of the unfolding action. Episodes include an initiating event (eg, a dog stealing a cat’s toy), an internal response (eg, the cat being annoyed by the theft), a plan (eg, the cat plotting to trick the dog), an attempt (eg, the cat sneaking up on the dog to get the toy back), a consequence (eg, the cat successfully getting the toy back), and a reaction (eg, the dog pretending not to care and ignoring the cat). A good episodic organisation requires children to use words and sentence structure to convey this structural organisation.

The micro-structure of a story relates to the number of different words used (lexical diversity); the use of morphology to mark tense and aspect (eg, The dog was barking and he woke up the boy); the use of pronouns (such as he, she, they in English) to refer back to previously mentioned characters (eg, The boy and the girl left the house. She got in the car and he waited by the door); and the use of complex syntax to mark chronological and causal events (eg, After the teacher arrived at school it started raining; The little girl cried because she was scared).

Understanding stories

When listening to a story, children need to pay attention to the literal information in the story; they need to understand and remember what is being said to them. And they also need to fill in the gaps when the narrator is not explicitly mentioning things that are important to make sense of the story – they need to make inferences. Inferences may require the connection of words and sentences within the story. For example, understanding that a pronoun like ‘she’ will refer to a feminine rather than a masculine character. Additionally, inferences require children to use their world knowledge and connect that to the story. For example, if ‘driving’ is mentioned, they will need to infer that a car is involved in the story even if the word ‘car’ is not explicitly used.

Storytelling and story comprehension are complex

Telling stories and understanding stories are clearly complex skills that rely on children’s understanding of how the world works and of how words and sentences need to be organised in a whole that makes sense. Acquiring these skills takes time and typically children are not very competent story tellers before the age of 7-8. Before then, the inclusion of a setting and the chronological organisation of the narrative are relatively immature and inconsistent. So is the ability to use evaluative language to take a point of view and to reflect on the thoughts and feelings of the characters.

How do multilingual children deal with stories in different languages?

Multilingual children may have the opportunity to tell stories and listen to stories in both of their languages, potentially in different contexts. Some multilingual children may read and hear stories in both languages, others may have limited, if any, literacy in their home language and will not have that opportunity. Some more formal storytelling contexts that are mostly encountered through reading or listening to books might therefore be limited to one language. For other storytelling contexts, personal narratives for example, multilingual children will be able to use both of their languages. This means that they will need to deal with macro- and micro-structure, and with literal information and inferences, in both languages. There is now a fair amount of evidence1 suggesting that macro-structure is typically not an issue for multilingual children. Because the organisation of stories is not very different across different languages and cultures, multilingual children can tell a story in an age-appropriate manner regardless of the language they are speaking.

At the same time, using appropriate words (for example, temporal adverbs like ‘before’ and ‘after’), the relevant tense (eg, ‘went’ instead of ‘go’), mental state verbs (like ‘thinking’, ‘expecting’), and complex structures like causal subordinates (eg, ‘The fox ran away because he was scared’) are all necessary to understand a story. The amount of experience children have in each language will partly determine how much linguistic knowledge they have at the level of micro-structure. And of course, the macro- and micro-structure levels are intimately related.

Cultural differences also exist in the ways that children are socialised by adults into constructing a narrative. Different cultures place more or less importance on chronological order and on evaluative language2 and this will affect the extent to which children may deal with macro- and micro-structure differently in their two languages3.

When it comes to understanding stories, one of the strongest predictors of inferential understanding (the ability to fill the gaps when information is not explicitly mentioned), is vocabulary. What matters is both vocabulary breadth (how many words children know), and vocabulary depth (how robust children’s knowledge is about individual words and how well connected these words are to each other). For multilingual children, the amount of experience they have with the language – how many opportunities they have to hear it and use it – will contribute to the breadth and depth of their vocabulary and in turn, to their ability to make sense of the stories they hear4.


  1. Gagarina, N., Klop, D., Tsimpli, I. M., & Walters, J. (2016). Narrative abilities in bilingual children. Applied Psycholinguistics, 37(1), 11-17.
  2. Carmiol, A. M., Kelly, K. R., Ocular, G., Ríos-Reyes, M., González-Chaves, M., & Plascencia, J. (2020). Talking about past experiences in two cultural contexts: Children’s narrative structure and maternal elaboration in dyads from Costa Rica and the United States. Early Education and Development, 31(2), 234-249.
  3. Rochanavibhata, S., & Marian, V. (2020). Maternal scaffolding styles and children’s developing narrative skills: A cross-cultural comparison of autobiographical conversations in the US and Thailand. Learning, culture and social interaction, 26, 100413.
  4. Valentini, A., & Serratrice, L. (2022). Longitudinal Predictors of Listening Comprehension in Bilingual Primary School‐Aged Children. Language Learning.
© University of Reading
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Understanding Multilingual Children's Language Development

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