Why Storytelling Skills Matter for Early Literacy Among African-American Kids

Teacher reading a book with a class of preschool children

Children begin telling stories as young as age two or three. And they continue to develop storytelling skills in their interaction with parents and others who provide guidance and feedback.

The ability to tell a coherent and well-developed narrative may be important for children’s literacy development. However, most of the studies on children’s storytelling and reading skills have been conducted with samples of middle-class white children.

To address this gap in the research, my colleague, Iheoma Iruka, and I studied data of children from different socioeconomic and racial/ethnic groups from across the United States.

What we found surprised us.

STORYTELLING AMONG AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHILDREN
For our research, we used national data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a study of about 14,000 children born in the US in 2001, that examined their development, school readiness and early school experiences. We focused on 6,150 children who were identified as African American, Asian American, Latino and European American.

To understand the role that storytelling skills play in the link between language and early literacy, we used data from when children were two years old until they were five years old.

When the children were two years old, parents were asked to describe their children’s language abilities. Later, when children were four years old, their storytelling skills were measured by asking them to retell stories they had just heard a researcher tell them. At five years old, children were given an assessment of their early literacy.

For most racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups of children, we found that children who had better language skills as toddlers did better on the literacy assessment when they were five years old.

But when we looked at how storytelling plays a role between early language and early literacy, we found that when it came to African-American children, it made a big difference. For these children, the higher their storytelling scores, the better they did on the early literacy assessment. Interestingly, it didn’t make a difference for the other groups.

WHAT THIS STUDY TELLS US
Storytelling skills may be less important for the early literacy skills of most children. But for African-American children, these skills seem to be important for early literacy in a way that may not be true of other children.

We also know from other research that from early on, African-American children tell stories that are vivid, elaborate and rich in imagery. The quality of stories produced by African-American children has been found to be on par with or exceed that of stories told by their white peers. Other studies find that African-American children have a wide repertoire of storytelling styles, which they use flexibly depending on the context.

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SOURCE: Urban Faith, Nicole Gardner-Neblett