Children Who Tell Stories May Become Strong Readers

A new study suggests that oral narrative skills are a strong predictor of early literacy in African-American children.

A new study suggests that African-American toddlers who are strong storytellers turn into strong readers. (National Journal)

Something unusual and wonderful is happening with African-American babies.

Black toddlers who are good at telling stories are more likely to have strong reading skills in kindergarten, according to new research from the Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Surprisingly, the same link doesn't exist when it comes to white, Latino, or Asian children.

"Oral storytelling has been an important part of the histories of many peoples, and an especially rich aspect of the black culture across the African diaspora," Iheoma Iruka, director of research and evaluation at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and one of the researchers for the study, said in a statement.

African-American children are particularly adept at telling complex narratives of many types, added FPG researcher Nicole Gardner-Neblett, who led the study.

"Having a repertoire of different styles suggests that African-American children are flexible in their narratives, varying the narratives according to context," she said. "This flexibility may benefit African-American children as they transition from using oral language to the decoding and comprehension of written text."

Using a sample of more than 6,000 children nationwide, the researchers compared the oral storytelling skills of preschoolers to their emergent literacy a couple of years later in kindergarten.

While the link was obvious only for African-American children, the researchers suggest that the association may also exist for other children. It just might not be apparent until later when more development has occurred.

What does this mean, practically speaking?

It means that parents and caregivers should encourage children — especially black toddlers — to tell stories. The oral narrative skills they pick up in preschool seem to help them begin to read. The more complex stories they tell, the better they are at reading down the line.

"Building on children's oral narrative skills is a strategy for schools looking to connect with children," Iruka said in the statement. "Especially as schools support children of color who come from a culture that has cherished these skills."

While the researchers acknowledge there are still questions about early literacy, the study's initial findings may offer educators valuable clues about how they can support children, particularly African Americans, as they learn to read.