The Strength of Storytelling Skills among Black Children and Positive Outcomes for Emergent Literacy
Written by Sureshi Jayawardene
Historical Significance of Storytelling and “Good Speech”
Oral traditions are a strong feature in the Black community. This has been the case for many, many years. Rarely do we acknowledge the strength of these cultural forms even today. Over the years, various scholars have studied the continuities between these traditions and their roots on the African continent. The significance of the spoken word can be traced all the way to African antiquity. In ancient Egypt, the category, mdw nfr (medu nefer), refers to “good speech,” meaning speech that is not just effective and eloquent, but also anchored in an ethical value system (Karenga, 2014). “Good speech” applies equally in the private and public realms (Karenga, 2014). Tracing this tradition from antiquity, the principle of “good speech” is very much present in the storytelling practices found in other parts of the continent. In West Africa, storytelling functioned as both a social and cultural practice during the daily rituals of any given day.
Storytelling was thought to be an art form and thus, nurtured in order to help preserve history, and to teach and comfort community members (Champion, 2003). Here too the principle of “good speech” is clearly in operation.
Under conditions of slavery, we see a continued, and perhaps even necessary, reliance on oral narratives. Despite the horrific conditions of their new homes in the New World, Africans continued to tell stories as a way of comforting and teaching each other, as well as recording their history (Champion, 2003). In fact, “Africans took the language forced on them and interwove patterns of their native languages” such that storytelling continued well into the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and is prominent even today (Champion, 2003). In other words, as Molefi Asante has written, “the African brought to America a fertile oral tradition, and the generating and sustaining powers of the spoken word permeated every area of life” (Smith and Robb, 1971, p. 1).
Forcing Africans to face alien environments and cultural forms did not result in the complete annihilation of the storytelling tradition. These cultural forms are very much a part of contemporary Black communities. More specifically, however, oral narratives within the Black community tend to involve sophisticated literary techniques such as sound play, parallelism, and prosody (i.e., rhythm of sound like in poetry) (Gee, 1985). What’s more, these techniques reflect African forms of discourse further reinforcing the continuities of storytelling between Africa and the Americas (Smitherman, 1977). This article summarizes the findings of a recent study that builds on these rich traditions. In this study, investigators examine the associations between race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and pathways to literacy acquisition among young children.
Linking Early Language , Oral Narrative Skill, and Emergent Literacy
In this study, researchers explored the linkages between early language, oral narrative skill, and emergent literacy development. Although there is some evidence linking language and emergent literacy in general, differences by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status remain understudied. Past research also focuses on associations and patterns among school-age children. Addressing these gaps, in their study, Gardner-Neblett and Iruka (2015) investigated the role of preschool oral narrative skills in the language-emergent literacy pathway. They used data compiled from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort, a nationally representative dataset, to examine the role that oral narrative skill splay in the pathway between early language and emergent literacy. They explored how language in toddlerhood (age 2) is associated with oral narrative skills in preschool (age 4) and the subsequent associations with emergent literacy skills in kindergarten (age 5) (Gardner-Neblett and Iruka, 2015). The sample included approximately 6,150 African American, Latino, Asian American, and European American children of varying socioeconomic designations born in 2001. African Americans comprised 18% of the sample.
Racial and Socioeconomic in Disparities in Literacy
Disparities based on race and socioeconomic status in literacy acquisition have been documented (Snyder and Dillow, 2013). For instance, 56% of African American and Latino (54%) children demonstrated proficiency in expressive (words used by one in their own speech and writing) vocabulary compared to European American (71%) and Asian American (62%) peers. This is measured by the ability to communicate using gestures, words, and sentences (Snyder and Dillow, 2013). With socioeconomic status, children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds demonstrated greater expressive vocabulary than those from lower socioeconomic families (Snyder and Dillow, 2013). In terms of kindergarten reading, African American (33%) and Latino (30%) children scored lower compared with European American (37%) and Asian American (40%) children (Snyder and Dillow, 2013). Here too, children from higher socioeconomic families scored had higher reading scores than those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Snyder and Dillow, 2013). Gardner-Neblett and Iruka (2015) note that a greater percentage of African American children live in poverty (39%) than European American (13%) and Asian American children (13%). These data indicate that African American (and Latino) children are at greater risk of poor reading achievement.
Although the expressive and receptive (words one understands when used by others) vocabulary skills of African American preschoolers tend to be below expectations when they enter kindergarten, some research suggests those who regularly use both Ebonics and Standard American English possess the linguistic skills that can benefit their literacy development (Connor and Craig, 2006). In terms of the linkage between early language skills and the oral narrative skills developed at a later age, another recent study found that among Black preschoolers of primarily low-income households, their complex syntax and higher vocabulary scores were associated with oral narratives of greater quality (Terry et al, 2013). Gardner-Neblett and Iruka (2015) contend that for African American children oral narrative skills may reflect a strength that can prove useful in later reading development. In addition, research shows that African American children tell vivid, elaborative, and well-developed narratives that are also rich in detail and imagery (Reese et al, 2010). These narratives comprise complex organizational structures (Mainess et al, 2002). The quality of storytelling among Black children, research suggests, parallels and sometimes even exceeds that of narratives by their European American counterparts (Curenton, 2004).
African American Children's Storytelling Skills
The results of Gardner-Neblett and Iruka’s (2015) study are as follows: Nonpoor European American and nonpoor Asian American children had toddler language skills that were above the overall sample mean. In terms of preschool narrative skills, in general, all nonpoor children scored above the overall sample mean, and poor children scored below the sample mean. In the emergent literacy category, nonpoor Asian American children had the highest score, and poor African American and poor Latino children had the lowest scores.
The researchers conducted a path analysis to determine the paths from toddler language and narrative skills through emergent literacy based on race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. For poor African American children, toddler language predicted preschool narrative skills and emergent literacy. Narrative skills also predicted emergent literacy. Oral narrative skills partially mediated the language-emergent literacy link for poor African American children. For nonpoor African American children, toddler language was predictive of narrative skills, but not emergent literacy. Narrative skills were also predictive of emergent literacy. These analyses showed that narrative skill was a significant mediator of the association between toddler language and emergent literacy for both poor and nonpoor African American children. That oral narrative skills fully mediated the link between early language and emergent literacy among nonpoor African Americans likely reflects the influence of additional resources. However, overall, these findings highlight that oral narrative skills have important implications for African Americans’ literacy development.
Early language skills include syntax, vocabulary, communicative ability, and morphology which is thought to be both directly and indirectly related to the development of emergent literacy skills (Gardner-Neblett and Iruka, 2015). This means that the stronger children’s early language skills are, the greater their reading achievement in later years (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005). In Gardner-Neblett and Iruka’s (2015) study, African Americans were the only racial category for whom narrative skills were a significant mediating factor in emergent literacy. This finding reflects the long historical and cultural influences of storytelling and rich oral traditions in the Black community. Over the years, these influences have likely fortified oral communicative practices such that storytelling has emerged as a strength among African American children today.
If we approach the oral narrative skills, or storytelling abilities, of Black children through the African cultural framework of nommo, the word, we are also able to appreciate the communal character of the practice. We see that it is a “rhetoric of community,” one through which communal action, discourse, and debate are activated toward the overall good of the community (Karenga, 2014). Through this approach, we can see the importance of continuing to nurture our children’s early language skills. Moreover, the findings of Gardner-Neblett and Iruka’s (2015) study show that solutions to our community’s problems are within reach, not ones that need to be sought from external sources. As Black families and parents continue to stimulate storytelling skills not just for the high scores on reading tests, but toward developing literacy skills and harnessing multiple communicative modes we ultimately put into motion “good speech” for the benefit of Black communal advancement and longevity.
Champion, T.B. (2003). Understanding storytelling among African American children: A journey from Africa to America. New York, NY: Routledge.
Connor, C.M. and Craig, H.K. (2006). African American preschoolers’ language, emergent literacy,
and use of African American English: A complex relation. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 49: 771-792.
Curenton, S.M. (2004). Oral storytelling: A cultural art that promotes school readiness. Young Children 61: 78-89.
Gardner-Neblett, N. and Iruka, I.U. (2015). Oral narrative skills: Explaining the language-emergent
literacy link by race/ethnicity and SES. Developmental Psychology 51 (7): 889-904.
Gee, J.P. (1985). The narrativization of experience in the oral style. Journal of Education 167: 9-35.
Karenga, M. (2014). Nommo, Kawaida, and Communicative Practice: Bringing good into the world. In M. Asante, Y. Miike, and J. Yin (Eds.), The Global Intercultural Communication Reader (pp. 211-225).
Mainess, K.J., Champion, T.B. and McCabe, A. (2002). Telling the unknown story: Complex and explicit narration by African American preadolescents – preliminary examination of gender and socioeconomic issues. Linguistics and Education 13: 151-173.
NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). Pathways to reading: The role of oral language in the transition to reading. Developmental Psychology 41: 428-442. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0012-16126.96.36.1998
Reese, E., Levya, D., Sparks, A., and Grolnick, W. (2010). Maternal elaborative reminiscing increases low-income children’s narrative skills relative to dialogic reading. Early Education and Development 21:318-342.
Smith, A.L. and Robb, S. (Eds.). (1971). The voice of Black rhetoric. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Smitherman, G. (1977). Talkin and testifyin: The language of Black America. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Snyder, T. and Dillow, S.A. (2013). Digest of educational statistics 2012. (No. NCES 2014-015). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Terry, N.P., Mills, M.T., Bingham, G.E., Mansour, S., and Marencin, N. (2013). Oral narrative performance of African American prekindergarteners who speak nonmainstream American English. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 44: 291-305.