“What happened at school today?” - “Nothing”. Why doesn’t my child tell me about her day at school?
We’ve all been there; You ask your child what they did today, and the reply is: nothing. Even as therapists we fall into this trap and must get creative with our conversations to find out more. That said, what if your child can’t tell you about their day because they don’t have the right skills to? Sometimes this may be a result of poorly developed narrative language ability.
Narrative language is essentially a set of skills encompassing comprehension (understanding) and expression (narration) to communicate related ideas. Narrative language skills include formulating rich cohesive plots, with people, events, actions, and consequences. These must all be expressed in correct sequence, with appropriate grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary to convey the right message and meaning. Narratives can be fictional or non-fictional and can include a recount of an event, such as in answer to, “What happened at school today?”
Difficulty in any one or more of these areas, not to mention with additional memory or communication challenges, can affect the answer to this seemingly simple question, and much more.
Students will sometimes undergo assessment by the Speech and Language Therapist for narrative language skill, despite their child being able to talk and even write without major complaint. However, as narrative language requires so many complex and simultaneously integrated skills, assessment helps define critical areas of normal function or dysfunction and gives clues about language processing.
Depending on the case, the therapist might make a clinical decision to screen narrative skills with a short assessment such as the Bus Story Test which can be done with children as young as 3 years. A more comprehensive assessment such as the Test of Narrative Language will look in depth at both comprehension and narration in children and adolescents up to 15 years old.
Narratives aren’t just ‘made-up’ stories and they are an essential part of complex communication development, not to mention culture and society. Being able to tell a parent about a serious incident or tell a friend about a family holiday are important examples of how this skill is used functionally to communicate information and connect socially. Academic success depends largely on a student eventually understanding (for example) entire novels and write organised essays.
The foundations for narrative language skills start as early as children can listen to story books and build their own sentences. And, as evidenced by powerful TED talks, profound bestsellers, and billion-dollar blockbusters, the effects can stay with us throughout our lives.