Language specific narrative text structure elements in multilingual children

Heike Tappe, Agness Hara


The investigation of narrative skills in children is significant in many respects; amongst other things, narratives can yield information about a child’s use of decontextualised, literate language features (Curenton and Justice 2004) while simultaneously providing access to the child’s level of competence concerning narrative-specific aspects. Narrative abilities have been linked to literacy development and academic achievement (Dickinson and Tabors 2001) and are often used to predict language progress (Botting, Faragher, Simkin, Knox and Conti-Ramsden 2001). Moreover, narrative skills constitute an area of verbal language development in which delays are difficult to compensate (Girolametto, Wiigs, Smyth, Weitzman and Pearce 2001, Manhardt and Rescorla 2002). However, in multilingual settings the assessment of narrative skills cannot be restricted to language proficiency measurements in each of a child’s languages. Rather, this assessment needs to include “linguistic descriptions of ethno-linguistic discourse patterns (contrastive rhetoric)” (Barnitz 1986:95) in order to assess the roles which cultural knowledge and language-specific narrative text structure elements play in the development of narrative skills in multilingual children. This article discusses the necessity to identify such language-specific elements of story structures. Empirical findings are presented which illustrate that 10- to 12-year-old children from Malawi exhibit narrative practices while they retell visually and aurally presented stories. It appears that these narrative practices are influenced by African folktales. The children’s retellings in both Chichewa and English cannot simply be measured by canonical narrative text structures commonly used in academic settings. The global significance of such a discussion is reflected by a growing concern that academic success may be compromised by a misalignment between the narrative practices in a child’s primary language(s) and the narrative practices in a respective language of teaching and learning (e.g. Makoe and McKinney 2009, Souto-Manning 2013). 


Language-specific narrative text structure, story grammar, narrative development, multilingualism, African folktale

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ISSN 2224-3380 (online); 1726-541X (print)

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