Is there anything more beautiful and versatile in speech therapy than a good narrative?
Everyone loves a good story! Narratives, or connected sequences of events or stories, are the language of the classroom and academics, especially in the younger grades. They can entertain and inform.
Narratives are also the backbone of every good social exchange.
“What did you do this weekend?” is nothing, if not an invitation to tell a personal narrative. Children as young as 3 years old need narrative abilities to participate and understand the world around them.
Most importantly, SLPs love narratives because they are a functional way to address our students’ language needs. Drills and flash cards might make sense during articulation therapy when we are trying to create or change motor patterns. Context is what matters most for language therapy – if we only drill language abilities, then our students will not generalize and use their skills out in the real world.
Best of all, everyone can benefit from learning story grammar! What about different cultures? Do all cultures tell stories the same way? There are definitely cultural differences in story telling, but across cultures, most stories include characters trying to solve problems.
Narratives are important because they provide a foundation for all other language skills, including semantics, syntax, and pragmatics.
The very first thing that all of your language students should be able to do is to understand story grammar and tell a story using those elements in a logical, sequential way. Story grammar is the key!!
Think about it, if your students inherently understand narrative elements and can tell a story in order, that is one less thing they will have to consciously think about. We reduce the cognitive load placed on our students by teaching them to understand stories automatically. Stories rely on memory, attention, and theory of mind. If a child can’t even remember the problem or put it in the right sequence, how can that child make a complex sentence using causal conjunctions? Or make inferences about the character’s emotions?
Teach them the critical elements of a narrative so they can at least tell a minimally complete episode. Set the stage for building more complex language.
What is story grammar? If you need a back-to-basics summary, check out this post. I talk about story grammar elements, my story grammar graphic organizers, and showcase my original story grammar worksheets.
Can your students retell a basic story or episode, including these critical elements (character, setting, problem, goal, action, solution, ending)? If not, start there so we can start building up the good stuff! This story grammar goal is a great place to start:
Bonus Tip: When your student leaves out an element, stop immediately and give direct feedback. If an initial question asking for the information doesn’t work, give them a direct verbal model to imitate. Feedback is what makes this intervention!
Spencer & Petersen (2020) give some great tips for increasing the level of difficulty. You can adjust your narrative speech therapy goals to match your student’s level of need accordingly.
Keep these in mind:
When you are ready to move on to story generation, I love my Creating Narratives from Real Pictures for Speech Therapy product. This resource includes 60 unique, relatable photos and tons of visuals! This functional resource targets storytelling, story structure, story grammar elements, and producing self-generated narratives.
When you’ve mastered what you can with pictures, check out my Learning and Identifying Story Grammar Parts in Narratives for Speech Therapy product. It includes 15 short stories, perfect for narrative intervention, with tons of graphic organizers and visuals to support and teach your students!
Ok, you’ve set the stage and your students are master storytellers!
Or, they can retell a simple episode. It’s ok if we haven’t achieved perfection yet!
Now it’s time to build on that awesome foundation with some more complex language skills!
Do your students struggle to form good, grammatically correct sentences?
Narrative intervention improves the complexity of syntax microstructures, such as using conjunctions, adverbs, elaborate noun phrases, tense, and grammaticality (Gillam, et al., 2018).
That means that narratives provide the perfect formula for building compound and complex sentences! When your students have that story structure fixed in their mind, they are free to dive deeper into the text and discover higher-lever language skills.
After all, characters experience feelings because a problem happened. Before they can do anything about the problem, they have to make a plan. First they take an action, then a consequence occurs.
Need a narrative-based sentence combining goal? Let’s build on our previous goal, but take it up a step:
If desired, you could specify the type of conjunction (e.g. coordinating, subordinating, causal, and/or temporal) depending on your student’s age and ability level.
If you need a systematic way to target these syntax targets, check out my product, Systematic Sentence Combining: Target Syntax in Speech Therapy. In this packet, I have included 5 levels to progress your students up to combining sentences with 9 different conjunctions, plus relative clauses, all to tell and improve a simple story.
Children who receive narrative intervention improve in the number of different words (NDW) they use (Gillam, et al., 2018). NDW is a measure of the variability of language. The more words we know, the more words we use, the more complex semantic knowledge we demonstrate.
Narratives include higher level vocabulary, and a greater variety of vocabulary than spoken language. This gives us lots of opportunities to target semantics within a functional context!
My goal bank has a bunch of great vocabulary goal suggestions!
We can also build on our original narrative-based goal and target vocabulary within the context of a story retell. Using words appropriately is an excellent way to demonstrate knowledge. The context will show if a student understands the nuances of the word used.
For more information about Tier 2 vocabulary words, or the right words to target, check out this post about vocabulary.
Story telling abilities have social implications. From the very first moment of the first day of school, students are asked to share personal narratives (What did you do over summer vacation?). Most good conversations include some kind of story:
These questions all require some element of narrative language.
Not only that, but peers enjoy a good story. Think about the last time you hung out with your friends. If you’re like me, it’s just one story after another.
Let’s revisit our original goal and modify it for telling a personal narrative:
One thing to keep in mind is that not all personal experiences include a problem. But good stories do! It can be helpful to think of a personal problem, and then the rest of the story falls into place after that.
Another way to encourage personal narratives with good narrative structure is to teach your students to think of parallel stories. After reading a narrative, dive deeper into the problem. What was the character’s problem? Have you ever had that same problem? How did he feel? How did you feel? What did she do to solve the problem? What did you do to solve your problem?
You’re helping your students identify problems, solutions, and talk about their own emotions!
Now that we’ve talked about targets and goals, it’s time to talk therapy materials! Goals should always drive intervention, after all!
I love this quote from a recent journal article:
“If stories are strategically and carefully designed for intervention, it may be easier to facilitate instruction on the embedded targets…than if clinicians are dependent on what is available in published storybooks. Stories can be designed (or selected) for instructional purposes that include the promotion of grammar, syntax, cohesion, elaborated noun phrases, mental state verbs, dialogue, inference, theory of mind, vocabulary, and social problem solving, to name a few.”– Spencer & Petersen, 2020
I created my Searching From Home Narrative-Based Intervention Kit with this exact idea in mind. On one hand, some books are better than others for teaching narratives. On the other hand, some books teach narrative structure well, but miss out on some more complex language elements. Searching From Home is a strategic story that includes intentionally-selected targets for:
It follows a traditional narrative structure with a predictable action sequence to help establish the basic story grammar foundation. The picture cards allow for the highest level of flexibility and individualization to provide that specialized, individualized instruction promised to our students with special needs.
Eventually, you will want to move to regular story books for generalization. But in the beginning, to establish those skills, it’s easier to work with more predictable texts. Consistent symbols and graphic organizers will help guide your sessions.
I hope this guide has been a helpful resource to you for all of your narrative-based intervention needs!
Gillam, S., Olszewski, A., Squires, K., Wolfe, K., Slocum, T, & Gillam, R. (2018). Improving narrative production in children with language disorders: An early-stage efficacy study of a narrative intervention program. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. https://doi.org/10.1044/2017_LSHSS-17-0047