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Narrative Structures of African American Children: Commonalities and Differences

Abstract and Keywords

The purpose of this chapter is to review research on African American children’s acquisition and development of narration. We describe various analyses used to highlight diverse aspects of narratives told by African American children and explore the implications of such narrative for language and literacy acquisition. We compare and contrast the narratives told by diverse groups of African American children. Our working assumption is that African American children produce a variety of narratives; that is, there is no reason to assume that narratives of African American children will be homogenous. As Zora Neale Hurston documented so well, storytelling in African American culture is highly valued and distinctive.

Keywords: African American children, narrative, storytelling, acquisition and development, literacy acquisition

26.1 Introduction

Narratives may be defined as the linguistic meeting grounds of culture, cognition, and emotion, and narratives often contain a chronological sequence of events often given in the past tense (McCabe 1991, 1997). Narratives refer to real or fictional past experiences. African American children’s narratives are complex, varied, and both reflective of and contributive to African American culture. Labov and Waletsky (1967) were the first researchers to document narration by preadolescent (9- to 13-year-old) and adolescent (14- to 19-year-old) African American boys. They found that African American boys told narratives that began with orientation (see table 26.1 for definitions), gave a series of complicating events that built to a heavily evaluated climax (meaning that the narrator told the listener how strongly they felt about this experience), followed by a series of resolving events, and often ended with a coda that brought discourse from the past to the present. This form is what Peterson and McCabe (1983) termed a classic narrative pattern in their work on the development of narration in European North American (ENA) children. Kernan (1977) investigated personal and fictional narratives of African American girls aged 7 to 14 years and also found that even the youngest participants tended to follow the same classic narrative pattern by beginning with orientation statements.

In contrast to Labov (1972) and Kernan (1977), Michaels (1981, 1988, 1991) argued that African American children tell topic-associating narratives during Sharing Time1 performances for their peers that are very different in form from the kind described by Labov and very different from those of their ENA peers, which are classic narratives (p. 493) that Michaels called topic-centered. According to Michaels (1981), topic-centered narratives are “tightly organized, centering on a single clearly identifiable topic and thematic development … characteristically achieved through a linear progression of information” (428), whereas topic-associating narratives are a “discourse consisting of a series of implicitly associated personal anecdotes” (429).

Table 26.1 Elements of High Point Analysis

  • Orientation: information that describes who, what, when, and where some past experience occurred (e.g., “Last Friday, my sister was playing outside in our back yard.”).

  • Evaluation: statements or words that tell a listener what a narrator thinks about some aspect of an experience (e.g., “My sister is a clutz.”). There are many types of evaluation, including negative events, sound effects (“Geeesh”), specific evaluative words (e.g., “clutz”), and repetition. As Gates (1988) defines signifying in African American culture, it is a type of narrative repetition, sometimes with a twist.

  • Some researchers (e.g., Reese et al. 2010) refer to some such information as “descriptors”—adjectives or adverbs that describe objects, characters, or actions (e.g., “ran quick”). Other types of evaluation in that study included “qualifiers”—adverbs or adjectives that amplify meaning (e.g., “that chair was way too small”). “Internal states” was a third type of evaluation (e.g., thought, wanted).

  • Complicating Action: Specific past tense events in a sequence that build to a high point, a climax (e.g., “She ran and fell down.”).

  • High Point: A cluster of evaluative clauses that define the most important, most emotional point of a narrative (e.g., “She cried and cried.”).

  • Resolution: Specific past tense events that occur in a sequence after the high point (e.g., “My mama put a Band-aid© on her knee.”).

  • Coda: a statement at the end of a narrative that returns the conversation to the present (e.g., “Do you want to sign my cast?” at the end of a narrative about breaking an arm).

  • Dialogue is a reference to what was said directly and indirectly in the past and has been differentiated from other past nonverbal events by some (e.g., Ely and McCabe 1993; Reese et al. 2010).

  • Cohesion is an aspect of narration that is often studied in conjunction with the above aspects of High Point Analysis and looks at ways that narrators tend to integrate their narratives. This includes conjunctions and temporal (e.g., first, next) and causal (e.g., because, so) terms, as well as character introduction (e.g., “my sister).

Source: After Labov 1972; Peterson and McCabe 1983.

The apparent contradiction in the literature regarding the structure of African American children’s narration is due primarily to methodological differences among researchers; specifically, Michaels studied narratives performed for a group of other children and teachers, while other researchers (such as Hyon and Sulzby 1994; Kernan 1977; Labov 1972) studied narratives told to a single adult listener. Most of the rest of the research also looks at narratives told by African American children to single adult listeners. Champion, Seymour, and Camarata (1995) found that the 6- to 10-year-old African American children they studied produced narratives that displayed highly structured narratives in terms of two analyses: High Point Analysis and Story Grammar. Peterson and McCabe (1983) adapted High Point Analysis from Labov and Waletsky’s (p. 494) (1967) work for studying children’s development of narrative structure. As Peterson and McCabe (1983) noted, the most advanced developmental structure is termed classic narrative structure and is a property of the narrative as a whole, with evaluative (meaning, feelings) as well as informative (orientation and action) content registered. Story Grammar (Stein and Glenn 1979) is adapted from an analysis of Russian folktales (Propp 1968) and looks at the extent to which a narrative conforms to a canonical story schema organized around the precipitation and resolution of problems. Champion et al. (1995) found that African American children most frequently produced classic personal narratives consisting of complete and/or complex sequences and that they did so at a rate higher than that of their ENA peers. Similarly, other researchers (Hyon and Sulzby 1994; Gorman et al. 2011) found that the majority of African American children’s narratives were topic-centered. Reese et al. (2010) found that narratives told by low-income African American preschoolers were more likely to include descriptors (see table 26.1 for definitions), qualifiers, internal states, temporal and causal terms, character introduction, and dialogue than were narratives told by low-income ENA or Hispanic peers because of the way their mothers encouraged those children to elaborate narration (see also Gardner-Neblett, Pungello, and Iruka 2012, for review). Studies by Champion, Seymour and Camarata (1995), Hester (1996), Champion (1998), Champion et al. (1999), and Bloome et al. (2001) have shown that African American children produce a range of narrative structures depending on their audience, the task, and the prompts they are given.

Not only do researchers find variation in the structure of stories produced by individual African American children on different occasions or when given different tasks, systematic differences have also been documented for various groups of African American children. For example, there are gender and socioeconomic differences in narration among African American children: African American girls tell narratives with more complex propositions than African American boys and African American children from low-income homes tell narratives with more complex propositions than African American children from higher income homes (Mainess, Champion, and McCabe 2002). While girls of various ethnicities are often found to verbally outdo boys (Hyde and Linn 1988), the greater discourse elaboration of the low-income children is counter to the kind of social class (SES) effects found with older lower SES European American girls (e.g., Hemphill 1989). It is worth noting that Vernon-Feagans et al. (2001) also found low-income African American boys to tell the most elaborate narratives. This may reflect African American cultural values regarding elaborate storytelling noted below, cultural values that may be displaced by middle-class, school-based values of succinctness and explicitness; in particular, middle-class African American boys in the Mainess et al. (2002) study tended to be quite terse and extremely explicit in their narration.

Structural differences among African American students from different SES classes reflect profound SES and cultural differences in the kinds of stories valued by a community. Heath (1982, 1983) conducted an ethnographic study of three communities in the South: (a) a working-class African American community; (b) a middle-class (p. 495) community; and (c) a working-class ENA community. Heath’s (1982, 1983) studies, like previous studies (Michaels 1981, 1991), observed children prior to beginning school. In each community, children were socialized differently toward literacy. The middle-class children were socialized toward school literacy from an early age. Children were read topic-centered stories and talked to in a way that matched discourse in school settings. That is, children were encouraged to pay attention to books and information derived from books and to answer questions about books. While the working-class ENA children were also read to, their parents did not link the events in books to events in life like their middle-class peers did. African American working-class children interacted socially with adults and children on a continuous basis. Children were not often given books as presents, had to learn how to insert themselves into conversations instead of being invited to participate, and were encouraged to draw analogies (e.g., “What’s that like?”) but not to name specific features that make two items or events alike. As far as narratives are concerned, once in school, both working-class ENA and African American children encountered notions about truthfulness and language appropriateness in stories that differed from those they were accustomed to at home. The working-class ENA community allowed only concise, factual stories, while the working-class African American community valued narratives that were more creative than factual and more contextualized than decontextualized; African American children expected their listeners to be able to figure out who they were talking about rather than needing to be told. These characteristics of narration in both working-class communities contradicted classroom expectations of elaborate, decontextualized, factual personal narratives, causing both groups of children to experience difficulty in the classroom.

In historical research on narration in African American communities, Zora Neale Hurston (1935, 65, 124) noted that occasions of storytelling are often referred to as putting down “lies,” a means of signifying or showing off. Gates (1988, xxiv) expands on this: “signifyin(g) … is repetition and revision, or repetition with a signal difference.” As Gates defines it, then, signifying in narration may be considered to be an especially valued type of narrative evaluation in African American culture (see table 26.1). Gee (1985, 1986) underlines ways in which African American narration displays more of an implicit/oral rather than an explicit/literate style of narration, the latter a style in which repetition and other features of talk meant to be heard, rather than read, are prominent.

However, Hester (1996) complicated Gee’s depiction of African American children demonstrating an oral style of narration. Hester examined two narratives each of African American fourth-grade students from a database of sixty-one African American children in an urban school setting. There were three different prompting tasks in the original study: having a conversation, retelling an event, and generating a narrative from pictures. Hester (1996) selected narratives about an accident scene and a fight because those topics had been found to evoke the most elaborative narratives in a prior study (Peterson and McCabe 1983). Hester found that African American children displayed flexibility by means of shifting back and forth from oral to literate styles in their narratives and that this was also accompanied in complex ways by code-switching from Standard American English (SAE) features to those typifying African American English (AAE) on the levels (p. 496) of grammar and phonology. Furthermore, shifting style from oral to literate form was task dependent; the story-generation task elicited topic-centered narratives from both children, while the story-retelling task was interpreted in different ways by the two.

Others (Hicks 1991; Hicks and Kanevsky 1992) have also found that African American children occasionally interpret narrative elicitation tasks differently from each other and from their non-African American peers. This is specifically due to some African American children telling topic-associating narratives on some occasions (Michaels 1991). Hicks and Kanevsky (1992) followed the journal writings of one African American first grader over a two-month period and found that he never engaged in topic-associating narration; individuals, as well as groups, should be the focus of further study regarding the intersection of narrative and literacy in their view.

In addition to gender and SES differences, African American children from Caribbean families differ from their peers whose families have resided in the United States for much longer. Children from families who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic (Cuneo, McCabe, and Melzi 2008) are much less likely to tell the kind of classic, complete episodes told by the non-immigrant African American children studied by Champion et al. (1995). Haitian American children, for example, also tell narratives that are quite distinct from those told by African American children and employ devices commonly found in West African oral storytelling defined below (Champion, McCabe, and Colinet 2003).

The deep cultural roots of African American storytelling have been explored by a number of researchers, who provide alternative analyses of topic-associating narratives. Gee (1985, 1986) illuminated a strong poetic pattern of four-line stanzas in some of the performed narratives collected by Michaels. Craddock-Willis and McCabe (1996, 108) found that some of Michaels’s narratives exhibited a cyclical pattern quite similar to the one described by Winton Marsalis (1994) for some African American jazz forms: “In … rondo form … a theme keeps coming back … like going away from home and returning.” One example of this, taken from Michaels’s (1981) corpus, involves a 6-year-old African American boy who begins and ends his Sharing Time narrative with references to Thanksgiving dinner, but in between the two narrates a series of episodes improvising on Thanksgiving themes such as eating and family exchanges.

Champion (2003) prefers the term performative narratives to describe Michaels’s (1981) topic-associating narratives. She links such a term to characteristics of oral storytelling in West Africa, as delineated by Okpewho (1992). Specifically, Okpewho (1992) notes that oral West African literature is characterized by (1) repetition; (2) parallelism, in which identical words are transposed within the same or adjacent statements; (3) piling and association, or heaping one detail onto another to build the whole narrative to a climax; (4) tonality, or intonation changes throughout the narrative; (5) ideophones, or the use of sound to convey meaning; (6) digression, or departure from the main theme of a narrative to address or comment to a person or object related to the theme of the narrative; (7) imagery, including metaphors; (8) allusion; and (9) symbolism. In Michaels’s Sharing Time narratives, as well as in Champion’s (2003) own corpus, African American children made frequent use of repetition, parallelism, and digression especially.

(p. 497) 26.2 Example of Well-Formed Narratives Displaying Diverse Structure

Examples help clarify the contrast between topic-centered and topic-associating narratives, as well as those displaying Africanist features. The following examples are offered in order for readers to understand what well-structured African American narratives look like—their similarities (each of the three is lengthy and engaging) as well as their differences (different analyses are required in order to highlight the different structural forms the children were using). Examples of good narration are offered so that professionals working with African American children can compare their productions to these exemplary ones.

The following is a topic-centered, classic narrative produced by a 10-year-old African American boy (from Champion 2003):

Narrative 1 Topic-Centered, Classic Narrative by a 10-year-old African American boy analyzed using High Point Analysis (0 = Orientation, CA = Complicating Action, EHP = Evaluation: High Point, RA = Resolving Action)

  1. 01 A: Have you ever had to get stitches?

  1. 02 C: No but my little brother


  1. 03 C: He, um he was real young


  1. 04 C: I think he was two years old


  1. 05 C: An’ my mother was drivin’


  1. 06 C: An’ my uncle was in fron’ seat


  1. 07 C: An’ me an’ my younger cousin dat lives in Baltimore,


  1. 08 C: She’s eight years old


  1. 09 C: Her name is Whitney


  1. 10 C: An’ my little brother was sittin’ next to us


  1. 11 C: An’ we was lookin’ aroun’


  1. 12 C: An’ he started playin’ with da door


  1. 13 C: An’ the door was unlocked


  1. 14 C: An’ he opened the door an’ fell out the car


  1. 15 C: An’ he was flippin’ back


  1. 16 C: An’ he his head was busted open an’ he had to get stitches


  1. 17 C: An’ me an my cousin Whitney was sittin’ in the back o’ the car cryin’


  1. 18 C: Because he fell out the car


  1. 19 C: My mother kep’ goin’


  1. 20 C: An’ he did then my uncle Al said, “Rhonda stop the car”


  1. 21 C: because he fell out the car


(p. 498) Contrast the previous narrative, which was tightly focused on a single, dramatic incident, with the following topic-associating, performative narrative of multiple dental experiences produced by an 8-year-old African American girl. It has been analyzed and displayed using Gee’s (1985, 1986) stanza analysis, showing a more-or-less regular pattern of about four lines for each subtopic discussed:

Narrative 2 Topic-associating, performative narrative of multiple dental experiences produced by an 8-year-old African American girl

Stanza 1

  1. 01 We went to the dentist before

  1. 02 and I was gettin’ my tooth pulled

  1. 03 and the doc, the dentist said, “Oh, it’s not gonna hurt.”

  1. 04 and he was lying to me.

Stanza 2

  1. 05 It hurt.

  1. 06 It hurted so bad I coulda gone on screamin’ even though I think some.

  1. 07 (I don’t know what it was like.)

  1. 08 I was, in my mouth like, I was like, “Oh that hurt!”

  1. 09 He said no, it wouldn’t hurt.

Stanza 3

  1. 10 Cause last time I went to the doctor, I had got this spray.

  1. 11 This doctor, he sprayed some spray in my mouth

  1. 12 and my tooth appeared in his hand.

Stanza 4

  1. 13 He put me to sleep,

  1. 14 and then, and then I woke up.

  1. 15 He used some pliers to take it out,

  1. 16 and I didn’t know.

Stanza 5

  1. 17 So I had told my, I asked my sister how did, how did the man take (it out).

  1. 18 and so she said, “He used some pliers.”

  1. 19 I said, “Nah, he used that spray.”

  1. 20 She said, “Nope he used that spray to put you to sleep,

  1. 21 and he used the pliers to take it out.”

Stanza 6

  1. 22 I was, like, “Huh, that’s amazin’.”

  1. 23 I swear to God I was so amazed that, hum.

  1. 24 It was so amazing, right? that I had to look for myself,

Stanza 7

  1. 25 and then I asked him too.

  1. 26 and he said, “Yes, we, I used some pliers to take out your tooth,

  1. 27 and I put you to sleep, an, so you wouldn’t know,

  1. 28 and that’s how I did it.”

Stanza 8

  1. 29 and I was like, “Ooouuu.”

  1. 30 and then I seen my sister get her tooth pulled.

  1. 31 I was like, “Ooouuu”

  1. 32 Cause he had to put her to sleep to, hmm, to take out her tooth.

  1. 33 It was the same day she got her tooth pulled,

Stanza 9

  1. 34 and I was scared.

  1. 35 I was like, “EEEhhhmmm.”

  1. 36 I had a whole bunch cotton in my mouth, chompin’ on it

  1. 37 Cause I had to hold it to, hmm, stop my bleeding.

Stanza 10

  1. 38 I, one day I was in school.

  1. 39 I took out my own tooth.

  1. 40 I put some hot water in it the night, the, the night before I went to school.

  1. 41 and I was taking a test.

Stanza 11

  1. 42 And then it came out right when I was takin’, when I finished the test.

  1. 43 And my teacher asked me, was it bleeding.

  1. 44 I said, “No It’s not bleeding,

  1. 45 Cause I put some hot water on it.”

Stanza 12

  1. 46 And so my cousin, he wanted to take out his tooth,

  1. 47 and he didn’t know what to do,

  1. 48 so I told him.

  1. 49 “I’m a Pullin’ Teeth Expert.”

Stanza 13

  1. 50 “Pull out your own tooth,

  1. 51 but if you need somebody to do it,

  1. 52 Call me,

  1. 53 and I’ll be over.”

(p. 499) Note that both the aforementioned narratives by African American children contrast with that told by a 7-year-old Haitian American girl. The child produced it in English (she speaks primarily English but also Creole and a little French, as is typical for Haitian American children). Note that while it would be seen as rather a minimal two-event narrative in High Point Analysis and a descriptive sequence in Story Grammar (the most primitive developmental structure), Gee’s (1985, 1986) stanza analysis displays its poetic form and Okpewho’s (1992) Africanist analysis recognizes the rich use of repetition (rep), parallelism (par), and detailing (det) of her dress and hair and even the dress and hair of another flower girl: (p. 500)

Narrative 3 Stanza Analysis (Gee 1985, 1986) and Africanist Analysis (Okpewho 1992) of the dress and hair of the flower girl (Repetition = Rep, Parallelism = Par, and Detailing = Det)

Stanza 1

  1. 01 And once when I was in this wedding,

  1. 02 I was a flower girl.

  1. 03 And my friend Isadora too was a flower girl

Rep, Par

  1. 04 And I was wearing this dress.

  1. 05 Can I show the dress?


Stanza 2

  1. 06 It was a long dress with a ribbon around it.

  1. 07 It was a blue dress.

Rep, Par, Det

  1. 08 It was a long dress.

Rep, Par, Det

  1. 09 And they stuck something on it.


  1. 10 I think it’s still there.

  1. 11 And it was a pretty dress.

Rep, Par, Det

Stanza 3

  1. 12 And I was sooo lucky

  1. 13 Because there was a flower girl with curly hair

  1. 14 —the same thing as me—

  1. 15 at this other wedding.

Stanza 4

  1. 16 This flower girl—they wore ugly dresses.

  1. 17 They was green.

  1. 18 And my friend said it was ugly dress.

Rep, Det

Stanza 5

  1. 19 Their hair was ugly.


  1. 20 This girl had, her hair was like this, like that (demonstrates).


  1. 22 And it was up


  1. 23 And curled up

Rep, Par, Det

  1. 24 And curled.

Rep, Par, Det

Stanza 6

  1. 25 I, I was like ewww!

  1. 26 I was glad I wasn’t that flower girl!

  1. 27 Because, and her hair was like, did she wake up in the morning?

Stanza 7

  1. 28 And these other flower girls their hair was different from my hair.

Rep, Par

  1. 29 Cause theirs was curly too,

Rep, Det

  1. 30 But it was different.

Rep, Par, Det

  1. 31 It was skinny curly.

Rep, Par, Det

Stanza 8

  1. 32 But I don’t like the dress

  1. 33 And I don’t like their hairs,

Rep, Par

  1. 34 But I like, but they had this same flower girl from at the wedding.

  1. 35 It wasn’t different.

Rep, Par, Det

Stanza 9

  1. 36 And the reception: Ghetto superstar.

  1. 37 And I like “Ghetto Superstar”


  1. 38 It goes (singing), “Ghetto superstar, that is what you are.”


  1. 39 Yeah, Mya sings it.


  1. 40 Maya and Pras from the Fugees.


Stanza 10

  1. 41 Can I show you the dress now?


(p. 501) 26.3 African American Narration and Peer Culture

Several studies document a rich involvement of peers in African American storytelling. As we now understand it, Michaels (1991) in effect documented the increased sense of a need to perform by young African American children addressing their narratives primarily to peers during Sharing Time. Goodwin (1982) documents the phenomenon of “instigating,” a gossip-dispute activity in which working-class African American girls ages 7 through 13 inform a person that another person talked about her poorly behind her back. Such events sometimes lead to a restructuring of friendships. Similarly, Shuman (1986) looks at story exchanges among African American adolescent girls and finds that they often concern quarreling over who said what to whom, frequently going beyond what actually happened to elaborate blow-by-blow accounts of fights in which actual physical blows were never exchanged, accounts that are sometimes challenged by others who shared the experience and at other times accepted by audiences. Champion (2003) also found these types of narratives by girls in her study.

26.4 Narrative Content

Narrative structure is not the only important topic to consider in giving a full account of African American children’s narratives; content of narratives is also worthy of analysis. In a series of articles and papers, Bloome et al. (2001) and Champion et al. (1999) (p. 502) examined the production of oral and dictated narratives among three different groups of African American preschoolers over a span of four years. In order to collect young children’s narratives, Bloome and colleagues developed a storytelling project that was conducted two times a week in a preschool and was designed to elicit children’s narratives in a variety of settings and in both spoken and written modes (Champion 2003). Preschool and kindergarten children revealed their current and projected future identities (e.g., as members of their families, schools, community), among other important themes, in their narratives, as in the example below:

Narrative 4 Preschool and kindergarten children’s current and projected future identities

  1. 01 My mama and me went to the grocery store to buy ice cream for my sister.

  2. 02 She had the chicken pox.

  3. 03 And then she gave them to me.

  4. 04 And then my mama came and I told her my sister dropped me off the bed with her feet.

  5. 05 And then my daddy said “why don’t you sleep up there with her.”

  6. 06 And I said no because she stinks.

  7. 07 She doesn’t brush her teeth.

  8. 08 And then we went swimming with each other and we saw a shark.

  9. 09 And then I took my sister to the part.

  10. 10 We played for 20 minutes and

  11. 11 Then we went home and to bed.

  12. 12 I sleeped up there with my sister

  13. 13 Because I told her she could brush her teeth with me.

In addition, this narrative displays the kind of moral-centered theme that Champion (2003) has found in other samples of African American children’s narration; here the moral value is being a good sister, which she exemplifies by taking her sister to the park and having her brush her teeth with her.

Another kind of content that has been noted in African American narratives is the relatively abundant inclusion of fantasy even in narratives that purport to be true. This is the central value of African American culture encapsulated in the use of lies to refer to stories, as was mentioned above (Hurston 1935). Relative to their Latino and Caucasian peers, African American first- and second-grade children included more fantasy in their retellings of a wordless picture book (Gorman et al. 2011). Having a boring life is no excuse for telling a boring narrative in the African American community (Craddock-Willis and McCabe 1996). At times, this strong cultural preference (Miller et al. 1990) has been documented to be misunderstood by white teachers and peers who criticize African American children for not telling the (p. 503) truth; one graduate student noted that an African American boy who met with such criticism retorted, “Some of the boring parts are true” (Craddock-Willis and McCabe 1996, 102).

26.5 Development of Narration in African American Children

African American children’s narration develops with age, though this has primarily been examined in African American children from low-income (lower SES) backgrounds. McGregor (2000) found that 3-year-olds used significantly fewer settings, complicating actions, and codas than did 4- and 5-year-olds in a story retelling task. Curenton and Justice (2004) found that 3-year-olds used fewer conjunctions than 4- and 5-year-olds and fewer mental and linguistic verbs than did 5-year-olds in a story retelling task, but that there were no differences between African American and ENA peers in any regard. There was a significant increase in length of narrative with age.

Price, Roberts, and Jackson (2006) studied preschool African American children’s narrative skills exhibited in a retelling of “The Bus Story” (Renfrew 1991) using Story Grammar Analysis. These researchers included African American children from diverse SES backgrounds. The specific questions for the study were to describe and differentiate story grammar elements at two age levels: 4 and 5 years old. This was a longitudinal study and the research is part of a larger study of children recruited at ages 6 and 12 months. There were a total of sixty-five African American children (thirty-five girls and thirty boys) in this study from nine center-based childcare centers in two small southern cities. The results demonstrated growth in narrative structure of African American children between 4 years and 5 years of age. At age 4, children had fewer elements of story grammar, including introductions, initiating events, attempts to achieve a goal, and endings, although they did include some attempts to solve problems and some elements of endings. At age 5, kindergarten-entry children were using more total story elements.

Horton-Ikard (2009) researched the use of cohesive devices (personal reference, demonstrative reference, conjunctive, and lexical markers) produced by 7-, 8-, and 9-year-old African American English speakers. Participants for this investigation were thirty-three African American children (fifteen girls and eighteen boys). The children attended public schools in middle and upper SES communities in Wisconsin. Their elicitation procedure asked participants to retell a story or movie that they had previously encountered. The prompt used to initiate talk in this context included the following: “What’s your favorite movie; tell me about your favorite movie.” Counterintuitively, the average total number of t-units2 decreased with age: Average t-units for 7-year-olds was 116.00; for 9-year-olds 112.00; and for 11-year-olds 108.00. However, the average number of t-units may not be the most appropriate (p. 504) measure of complexity. Nelson et al. (2004) argue that mean length of t-units (MLTU) is more sensitive to development; MLTU registers the elaboration of independent and dependent clauses in the t-unit. Using the latter, Horton-Ikard (2009) found that MLTU did significantly increase with age: 11-year-olds had significantly longer MLTU than their 7- and 9-year-old peers. Referential adequacy also significantly increased with age. Findings indicated that African American participants used all four forms of cohesive devices at rates comparable to their peers who spoke SAE.

26.6 Narration and Literacy Skill

The relationship between African American children’s narrative abilities and literacy skills is complicated and to some extent contradictory due to differences in the kinds of narratives examined; as noted above, different tasks elicit different kinds of narratives. On the one hand, consider the results of an important longitudinal study of Head Start children that began when those children were 4 years old and followed them through graduation or dropping out of school (Snow et al. 2007). Working with a sample that was 21 percent African American and 7 percent biracial (with the rest either Latino or ENA), the researchers used a series of pictures to prompt children entering kindergarten to tell a story and found that their ability to do so predicted fourth-, seventh-, and tenth-grade reading comprehension. (Note that African American children were not examined apart from children of other ethnicities in that study.) On the other hand, Vernon-Feagans et al. (2001) review their work looking at low-income Black children’s storytelling and literacy. While they found that although African American children’s joint construction of a fictional story with an older child—especially low-income African American boys—was often more elaborate and complicated than that of their female and middle-class peers, measures of these superior narrative skills were negatively related to literacy and other school-related and teacher-rating measures. (Note also that these researchers found a positive relationship between narratives skills and literacy for their Caucasian peers.) Vernon-Feagans and her colleagues argue that the aforementioned notable cultural preference for elaborating stories by adding fantasy to them led these African American children to eschew accurately paraphrasing a story just told to them—a story retelling task—in favor of making up a better one themselves—something teachers did not value. In short, African American children’s narration advances their performance in literacy tasks when they are asked to tell, rather than to retell, a story.

Hester (2010) looked at the relationship between narratives and reading skills of African American children. She looked at sixty-one fourth-grade African American children, about half of whom spoke AAE and half SAE. The AAE speakers were from low-income, usually urban homes, while the SAE speakers were from middle-income, suburban homes and had college-educated parents. None of the children involved (p. 505) exhibited language impairment. She elicited two narratives from each child that were generated in response to two pictures. Hester analyzed these narratives using Peterson and McCabe’s (1983) High Point Analysis. Furthermore, she used the Reading Comprehension subtest of the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT; Wechsler 1992) to classify children with reading disability (one‒two years below grade level) or children who were reading on age level or up to two years above grade level. Hester (2010) found no effect for dialect (for extensive description of the features of AAE; see Mills and Washington, this volume; Newkirk-Turner, Horton, and Stockman, this volume; Oetting, this volume; van Hofwegen, this volume; Wyatt and Fullerton, this volume), but she did find a significant effect of reading level. Thus, dialect was not found to relate to children’s reading difficulty, but narrative ability did. Specifically, African American children with reading difficulty told stories with significantly fewer evaluations, complicating actions, high points, resolutions, and codas than did their African American peers who read on or above age level. Of these components of high point structure, resolution statements were the single best predictor of reading comprehension.

Klecan-Aker and Caraway (1997) studied the relationship between storytelling ability and reading comprehension for eighty middle-class fourth- and sixth-grade African American students with typical development. She asked children to make up a story in response to a picture and analyzed t-units and story grammar components. She used the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (Hieronymous, Hoover, and Lindquist 1986) Reading Subtest grade equivalency score as a measure of reading achievement. She found that children whose narratives were at a higher developmental level had significantly higher reading achievement than their peers with lower narrative skill.

In short, the narrative skill of African American children has been demonstrated to correlate with reading comprehension so long as the narrative task in question is one involving storytelling (Klecan-Aker and Caraway 1997; Snow et al. 2007; Hester 2010), rather than story retelling (Vernon-Feagans et. al 2001). Gardner-Neblett, Pungello, and Iruka (2012) explore the ways in which African American children’s narrative skills could be leveraged to bolster their reading comprehension.

26.7 Clinical Applications

Professionals such as teachers and speech-language clinicians need to be very careful to distinguish cultural differences from cultural deficits, as both misdiagnosing differences as deficits and mistakenly attributing deficits to cultural differences—in effect denying children services that could benefit them—are both unacceptable mistakes that do not serve African American children well. Bliss, Covington, and McCabe (1999) offer a way of summarizing the variations in form of typical and atypical African American narration (see figure 26.1).

Narrative Structures of African American ChildrenCommonalities and DifferencesClick to view larger

Figure 26.1 Possible narrative performances from African American children.

(p. 506) The following narrative is from an African American boy aged 4 years, eight months, diagnosed with Language Impairment and impaired narration:

Narrative 5 African American boy aged 4 years, 8 months, diagnosed with language impairment and impaired narration (A = Adult, C = Child)

  1. 01 A: My neighbor had his car stolen last night. He went outside and it was gone. He was really mad. Have you ever had anything stolen?

  2. 02 C: Didn’t. I was big. I was … I was a baby. I didn’t want speak.

  3. 03 A: Do you know anybody who had something stolen?

  4. 04 C: My daddy. Him, my, our car. And him got it back. Him car got stolen and him got it back. Him got it back. It, it was a hole. When him got it back, there was a hole. When him got it back, there was a hole. Him got it back. He took the speakers in their hole. There was a hole for the speakers. Bigger. It was…it was a speaker right here and a speaker right there. And when it got stolen now, him got speakers back. Go through here.

  5. 05 A: He put the speakers back?

  6. 06 C: No, him got them back. But he didn’t put them here.

Although the narrative is topic-centered around the stolen car, there are very few actions (car got stolen from father, father got car back) and mostly repetitive descriptions of a hole. The construction “Him got it back” is not AAE; rather it is also disordered (p. 507) in terms of referencing. And also consider Narrative 6, which is an example of an impaired narrative that is topic-associating in form:

Narrative 6 Topic-associating, impaired narrative of an African American boy aged 4 years, 7 months

  1. 01 No … when I get some pets, they be, they be using it in our house.

  2. 02 Because we be taking them outside and they don’t be move because they don’t need to move.

  3. 03 Ain’t no need to use the bathroom though.

  4. 04 When they come in there, they use it.

  5. 05 We be going outside quickest.

  6. 06 We be running outs … out the door.

  7. 07 We be on the door, and we run out through it.

  8. 08 And our pappy in the back, uh, and she, uh, he use it.

  9. 09 He got a big cage for all of them.

  10. 10 We got lots of dogs.

  11. 11 Once when we have five dogs and none ran away.

  12. 12 Then we played with them.

  13. 13 We brought them some chew toys, and they chew them when they hungry.

  14. 14 They get … they, we, be seeing they full. That’s the end of my story.

This narrative is meaningful (Bliss et al. 1999), and it has elements of chronological structure in the first sequence until “We got lots of dogs,” where a topic-associating pattern emerges. Both sections are connected through the thread “dogs,” which makes it a topic-associating narrative (Michaels 1981). This narrative has characteristics of AAE with the use of the habitual be and double negatives. However, the sentence “We be on the door, and we run through it” appears to not be appropriate in AAE and could be an indicator of SLI, as one SLI characteristic that has been repeatedly noted is problems with verb formation (Paul and Norbury 2012).

A professional seeking to determine whether the narration of an African American child is typical or not should first examine the language the child uses; presence of nonstandard constructions not typical of AAE is a sign of problems. If the professional is not a speaker of AAE, s/he should consult an adult who is. Whether or not such morphosyntactic problems occur, the next step is to determine whether the narrative is topic-centered, performative, or one displaying Africanist features of repetition, parallelism, and detailing, rather than concern for a plotted action sequence. Once professionals know what kind of narrative the child is telling, they can then determine whether it is well-developed in comparison to those of peers or not by comparison to examples (p. 508) given above or from their own sample. More research focusing on African American children is needed in this area to provide professionals with the kind of quantitative norms that would be useful in assessment of such culturally relevant narrative forms as that of personal narration (Champion 2003).

Knowledge about the narration of African American children can influence not only assessment of narration but also therapeutic intervention. For example, McGregor (2000) found not only that preschool AAE speakers can be influenced by the narratives of their peers but that this influence can be harnessed for clinical benefit for African American children with language delay in cases in which clinicians are not from the African American child’s cultural background. In another project specifically designed to improve the narrative writing skills of severely remedial third- and fourth-grade African American children, Lee et al. (2004) capitalized on much of what we have reviewed above. They used pictures by the famed African American artist Annie Lee that depicted scenes relevant to African American life (e.g., a Black church, the historical act of jumping the broom) to elicit written narratives. Children were encouraged to work together. Use of African American Discourse Features was appreciated. Lee et al. (2004) present examples and analysis of many of the engaging written stories produced by the children. The authors make the point that typical instruction of “severely remedial students” focuses on surface features of writing (spelling, punctuation) and gives little or no attention to the deep narrative structural level skills promoted by their program, a situation that quite probably ensures that such students remain severely remedial writers.

26.8 Conclusion

African American children develop the ability to tell narratives between the ages of 3 and 11 years. This development involves the ability to produce narratives that vary in terms of structure, depending on task and audience. To fully appreciate that structure requires employing diverse narrative analyses. While African American children usually tell classically formed stories, they also occasionally tell performative ones. Not all African American children tell the same kinds of narratives; that is, there are differences among African American children due to gender, socioeconomic class, and culture of origin of their parents. African American children often involve their peers in storytelling. Not only does the structure of narration in this community require commentary, but the typical content of narration does as well. In particular, African American narratives involve relatively frequent inclusion of fantasy even in factual stores, along with mention of children’s identities, and presentation of morals (e.g., “I am a good big sister”). Storytelling (though not necessarily retelling) is related to literacy acquisition in African American children, and the information in this chapter may be used in both diagnosis and treatment of African American children who lag behind their peers in this critical ability. Storytelling in the African American community both reflects and contributes to African American culture in myriad deep and meaningful ways.


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                                                                                                                (1.) Sharing Time is an event in many preschools in which children sit in a circle and listen as, one at a time, each child tells about an important experience they had.

                                                                                                                (2.) “A T-unit was defined as a main clause with all of its subordinate clauses attached to it” (Hunt 1965, 1970, as cited in Horton-Ikard 2009).