Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children


Next time a child says, “tell me a story,” ask them instead to tell you a story. It may help them become stronger readers.

New research shows this may be particularly true for African-American boys.

Strong storytelling skills correlate with better reading in some children, according to researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Knowing how to tell a clear and coherent story is an important skill for helping young children to develop strong reading skills, which, in turn, can help them to be successful across a number of different subjects in school,” says Nicole Gardner-Neblett, an FPG advanced research scientist.

“Prior research suggests that historical and cultural factors foster strong storytelling skills among African-American children, which has implications for their development as readers.”

Building on her earlier research, Gardner-Neblett and her FPG colleague John Sideris launched a new research project that “uses longitudinal data of a sample of 72 African-American 4-year-olds to examine how preschool oral narrative skills predict reading from first through sixth grades and explores differences by gender,” the study explains.

Nearly three-quarters of the children were from low-income families.

Gardner-Neblett and Sideris “wanted to better understand if and how gender plays a role in the link between African-American children’s storytelling skills and reading development,” a news release explains. Strong storytelling skills had a bigger impact for boys.

The release adds:

‘We asked preschoolers to tell a story from a wordless picture book and analyzed their skill in structuring and organizing the story,’ Gardner-Neblett explained. ‘We examined how boys’ and girls’ storytelling skills as preschoolers predicted their scores on a reading achievement test for each grade, from first through sixth.’

“According to Sideris, the connection between children’s storytelling skills and reading achievement is more complex than expected.

“‘We found that oral storytelling is linked to different trajectories for boys and girls,’ he said. ‘Boys’ storytelling skills had an effect on how quickly their reading scores increased from first through sixth grade. The stronger the boys’ storytelling skills as preschoolers, the faster their reading scores increased over time.’

“Gardner-Neblett explained that preschool girls told more coherent and organized stories than boys did.

“‘Girls’ storytelling skills appeared most important for their reading achievement during the first years of school,’ she added. ‘In contrast to the boys, storytelling skills were less important over time for the girls and unrelated to how fast their reading scores increased.’”

A video posted on the Teaching Channel that’s unrelated to the study shows how one preschool program in California helps children develop their storytelling skills.

“Fostering the early oral narrative skills of African-American boys may present a mechanism for supporting positive reading outcomes for a population of children deemed at risk of reading failure and poor academic outcomes,” the FPG study concludes.

More research is needed, Gardner-Neblett and Sideris say. “Exploring under what conditions and at what points in childhood that storytelling skills are relevant for girls and boys may help with identifying how these skills in extended discourse have long-term implications for African-American children’s reading success.”