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Need Speech Therapy Goals for Expressive Language? Consider Narrative Intervention

Narrative intervention can provide meaningful goals for expressive language that will have positive academic and social impacts

As an SLP who has worked extensively with both preschool- and elementary-aged kids, I've always kind of improvised my narrative intervention over the years, using ideas and strategies I've picked up along the way.

But I knew it was time to do a deeper dive into narrative intervention.

I wanted to get a better sense of current research on narrative intervention; I wanted to know if, and why, we should spend our precious therapeutic time on developing our students' narratives. And, if so, I wanted some research-based guidance on how best to do it.

A child working on narrative goals for expressive language

Herewith, I present to you some WHYs, WHATs, and HOWs of narrative intervention -- as briefly as I can -- to get anyone who needs it up to speed.

WHY should we target narratives in our expressive language goals?

First things first: A narrative is the telling, or retelling, of an event -- real or imagined.

Across the board, research asserts that the ability to generate a narrative is very important for students. In an expansive research review, Spencer and Peterson (2020) asserted that "A notable literature documents the predictive nature of early narrative language skills for later academic achievement. Children’s narrative abilities are related to listening comprehension, receptive vocabulary, and writing... The relation between early oral narrative skills and later reading comprehension is particularly strong." Spencer and Peterson cited C. E. Snow et al. (2007) (reference below) who found that the ability to produce a narrative in preschool predicts reading comprehension performance in the fourth, seventh, and 10th grades.

Skills related to narrative generation feature prominently in Common Core State Standards. In addition, working on oral narrative skills will support students' written narrative skills. Narratives are very important for children's social success as well.

So the message here is pretty clear: Narrative intervention is a very meaningful thing to target in our goals for expressive language.

WHAT should we focus on during narrative intervention?

There are two broad areas to consider when we look at children's narratives:

  1. Macrostructure: This is what is commonly referred to as story grammar, story elements, or story structure. Different programs will have slightly different terminology, but all typically include something to the effect of characters, setting, initiating event (problem), internal response, internal plans, attempts, consequences, and reactions. We should expect increasing levels of narrative complexity as children's language skills develop. This site has a table that shows the 7 levels of story structure, as well as descriptions and age ranges for each level.

  2. Microstructure: This is about the child's language sophistication and complexity at the vocabulary, phrase, and sentence levels. Think: sentence/clause types, vocabulary, conjunctions, temporal concepts, mental state concepts, verbs, adverbs, etc. -- essentially many of the things you would assess when doing language sample analysis. Here's a blog post about how I finally got my head around language sample analysis.

HOW can we assess and develop our students' narratives?

Let's cover assessment first. Here are a few resources you can use to assess your students' narratives (both macrostructure and microstructure):

Onto treatment. We can use pre-made programs for narrative intervention, such as StoryChamps ($298 USD), Story Grammar Marker, and SKILL ($150 USD).

We can also provide effective intervention without purchasing and using a specific program. If you're taking this approach, I've compiled a (non-exhaustive) list of things to keep your intervention research-based:

  • Be cognizant of any cultural and linguistic differences your students may have before beginning narrative intervention, including prior exposure to stories, language skills, etc.

  • If a child has a language disorder that negatively impacts their use of conjunctions, this will limit their ability to explain dynamics such as cause/effect, temporal sequences, etc.

  • Avoid overusing temporal concepts such as first, then, next, and last; robotic use of these will result in some pretty unnatural-sounding narratives.

  • Use strategies such as: scaffolding; recasting; asking questions to add in missing story elements; providing specific and immediate feedback; and modeling, all while being cognizant of the child's present language skills and developmental level.

  • Have the child tell and retell the same story. You can write it down for them too.

  • Try to encourage the child to produce as complete a narrative as possible each session, even if you are working on the same narrative over several sessions.

  • You can use visuals (either images of the story, or story grammar icons), but fade them as soon as possible. Encourage students to describe causal links between elements in the story, rather than just labeling a sequence of pictures or elements.

  • For story retells, make sure the student understands the story before they are expected to retell it.

  • Take some time to develop and focus on story-specific, tier 2 vocabulary. Here's a blog post on how I do this with storybooks.

  • Use storybooks -- authentic children's literature -- for retells. StoryWhys story books all have fundamental story grammar elements if you need some.

  • Use a variety of different stories for retells so that kids can see the common elements across stories.

  • Delve into character thoughts and feelings in stories, so your students will be better able to describe these in their own narratives. Here's a blog post that offers an easy way to do this.

Hope this helps! Have you found any strategies that help with narrative intervention? Leave them in the comments below!


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link to StoryWhys homepage


Snow, C. E., Porche, M. V., Tabors, P. O., & Harris, S. R. (2007). Is literacy enough? Pathways to academic success for adolescents. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.


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