BY ANDREA ZEVENBERGEN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, SUNY FREDONIA
What did we do at the beach?” Susan asked her daughter, 2-year-old Makenna. Makenna says, “Made castle!” Susan and Makenna are telling a family member about the day’s events. It’s fun to talk about past events with one’s child, to see what the child remembers and hear the child’s perspective on the events. Parents also talk about shared events with their child because it can increase emotional closeness, and can also help the child understand why events occur. Researchers have shown that shared storytelling between parents and young children can also assist in the child’s language and later literacy development.
The ways in which personal stories are told do vary across cultures, but in many cultural groups, parents and children tend to co-construct personal stories together; that is, they tell the stories together rather than having the child just listen while the parent tells the story. The parent asks the child questions to give the child a chance to tell part of the story, even if the parent knows the answers to the questions. For example, Susan knows that they made castles at the beach, but wants to give Makenna a chance to talk about the parts of the beach trip that were most exciting to her.
There are many ways to facilitate children’s language development through shared storytelling. Researchers have made the following recommendations:
1. Take time each day to talk with your child about shared past events. Conversations can take place in the car, on a walk, in a store, eating supper, anywhere!
2. Particularly in the early preschool years, children can more easily contribute to discussions about shared past events compared to events that only they experienced. Conversations about shared past events can be directed to another family member or friend, or the parent can review the event with the child even if no one else is present. For example, a conversation can begin with something like, “What did you like best at the picnic?”
3. When talking with your child about past events, ask questions that will keep the conversation going as long as possible, such as “who”, “what”, and “where” questions. Asking your child questions such as, “What happened next?” will help the child to see the event as a chronologically-organized set of smaller events. Use open-ended questions to elicit longer statements from your child, particularly as he/she gets older. For example, you might ask your child, “What did we do today? Tell Aunt Rose all the places we had to go to today.”
4. If your child does not know the answer to a question you ask when telling a story together (i.e., the child does not remember), provide the answer and ask the child to provide another detail. Here’s an example: Steven (father): “How old was Matty at the birthday party?” Noah (son): “Uh.” Steven: “You don’t remember? He’s 5 now. Do you remember what he got for a present at the party?” Noah: “A plane!”
5. Provide positive feedback to your child when he or she contributes to the shared storytelling. Saying, “You’re right!” and “That’s great you remember all that” are very encouraging to your child. Repeating what the child says shows you are listening to the child’s contributions. Even brief comments such as “Uh, huh” and “Wow” reinforce the child’s efforts to tell the story.
6. Stay on one topic as long as possible, rather than switching quickly from one topic to another. This will help your child to understand more fully the past event you are talking about together, and give him/her more chances to contribute his/her words to the discussion.
Researchers Peterson, Jesso, and McCabe showed that parents’ using these strategies in conversations about past events with their preschoolers lead to significant vocabulary improvement and greater ability to tell stories independently in the preschoolers. So, it’s definitely a double-bonus: staying connected, while helping to prepare a child for kindergarten!
Andrea Zevenbergen is an associate professor of psychology at SUNY Fredonia. She has been conducting research related to parent-child shared reading since 1990. She lives with her husband and son, who is now a fifth-grader, in Chautauqua County.