How Language Is Learned (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Children’s narrative skills may also be tied to the kinds of language opportunities that parents and other caregivers provide. Consider how different the narrative skills of two 5-year-olds in the same classroom proved to be. Both children were retelling a story they were told about a boy’s trip to a grocery store. Both children were clearly familiar with all of the details of the story, having successfully acted it out with dolls and other props.

First Child: John went to the grocery store. He got a cake for his grandmother’s birthday party. And he paid the clerk and ran home.

Second Child: He got cake and he ran home. (Feagans & Farran, 1981, p. 723)

Several studies have found that narrative skill differences like these are connected to the way that mothers converse with their children. If they use an elaborative style, engaging in lengthy discussions about children’s past experiences, providing lots of details, asking questions and encouraging children to provide details as well, their children’s narratives tend to be more adequate and informative (e.g., Reese & Fivush, 1993). An interesting twist is that mothers who engage their children in this kind of high-quality narrative practice also have children who remember past events in their own lives better (e.g., Boland, Haden, & Ornstein, 2003; Haden, Ornstein, Eckerman, & Didow, 2001). In one study, after 3-year-olds visited a museum with their mothers they could remember only what they had actually talked with their mothers about during the trip (Tessler & Nelson, 1994). Discussing an event with preschoolers either before, during, or after it actually happens benefits children’s later memory of it (McGuigan & Salmon, 2004). Katherine Nelson (1993b, 1996) has proposed that narrative practice is a key ingredient in the development of autobiographical memories. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of infantile amnesia, the difficulty we have remembering events in our lives earlier than about our 3rd or 4th year. There are probably many factors that contribute, but perhaps one is that our early experiences occur before we have much mastery of language. Nelson argues that it is the mastery of narrative language that is particularly important. When we tell our own life experiences in conversation with others, we also learn to encode stories in language form, a form that is well suited for later recall. In a way, talking out loud about our experiences teaches us not just how to tell stories but how to remember them as well. Nelson’s view of how autobiographical memory develops is consistent with the ideas of a highly influential psychologist and educator, Lev Vygotsky, who was a contemporary of Piaget and who emphasized the importance of social experience in many aspects of cognitive development.

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