How do we help young children develop a love of story, ownership of story language, a profound understanding of story structure and a repertoire of rich language?

All young children like to listen to fairy tales and other traditional stories, but do they really understand them or are they just responding to the adult reading or telling the tale? Sometimes what we read is interesting, but also incomprehensible, for children. We need to ensure that the child is, in fact, following the story. If you tell stories often enough then gradually understanding will come. But how can you, without pushing your child, speed up this process, so that they can internalise the ability to comprehend stories at a much deeper level more quickly and boost their own language skills simultaneously?


The value of traditional stories

Traditional stories like The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, The Magic Porridge Pot, The Three Naughty Puppies, Three Billy Goats’ Gruff and The Enormous Turnip, to name just a few of the typical ones available in the English language, all contain repetitive structures that help build a love of story language and enable a child to join in, as well as hold in mind the story structure – a very important skill to develop.

There are many activities you can do around any of these stories, from ‘story baskets’ to role play, but to maximise the learning opportunities that these provide for your child, consider what those activities will actually achieve and how you could extend them further.

To help with this, here is a list of aims for any story-telling activities you do with your child. This is the minimum you should aim for, for your child to deepen their love of, and comprehension of, story-telling:

  • To develop the ability to listen, understand and master the content of a traditional story
  • To develop a rich emotional understanding and the capacity to empathise
  • To develop the ability to share responses, feelings and personal experiences
  • To develop the ability to respond appropriately to others’ contributions
  • To develop familiarity with the distinctive patterns of the story
  • To develop the ability to give detailed answers to questions about the story
  • To develop knowledge of the main characters
  • To develop the ability to link language to movement
  • To develop understanding of intonation as a marker of expressive meaning
  • To develop the ability to recognise different characters through the distinctive intonation and movements used to depict them
  • To develop understanding of the basic structure of a story: a clear beginning, middle and end
  • To develop analytical skills – identify key episodes in the story and sequence them logically
  • To develop the ability to use pictures as prompts for retelling episodes
  • To develop the ability to retell the story in the correct sequence
  • To develop sequencing skills – identify the storyline/plot
  • To introduce basic cause and effect logic
  • To develop and extend logical thinking
  • To develop the ability to work co-operatively
  • To extend comprehension by developing the ability to focus on each part of the story
  • To develop early literacy skills – acquire knowledge of story language and the ability to use it fluently
  • To develop the ability to take on a role – use appropriate voices and actions to represent different characters in the story; use intonation to express characters’ emotional states
  • To develop self-regulation and co-operative work – the ability to stay in the role and say the correct lines at the correct moment
  • To develop understanding of the message (meaning) of the story


More possibilities

However, 30-plus years of research and practice by esteemed developmental psychologists on how young children can best secure outstanding cognitive, communicative and self-regulative skills, has highlighted that there is much more that you can do to help your children master what we call ‘Story Grammar’ – as well as to boost their overall intellectual development at the same time.

Key to Learning’s Story Grammar module starts by providing a rich emotional experience of the story to ensure that the storyline becomes apparent to the child. It then uses an extremely effective process called ‘Visual-Spatial Modelling’ to help young children to understand the content and sequence of events in a story, and to identify the relationships between characters. With this modelling technique, substitute shapes are used to help children to create a mental link between the real object and the geometric form. This allows young children to hold in their hands the objects and characters that appear in a story – objects that are, in fact, otherwise imaginary and intangible.

This activity is of particular benefit in developing abstract thinking skills. Using these substitute shapes and ‘Episode Models’ helps a child to analyse essential events in a story. They create a visual model of the story, using what is called the ‘Story Skeleton’, and then use that model to help them remember and re-tell it as independently as possible. Choosing and showing substitute shapes helps the child to direct and maintain their own attention. Moving the shapes allows them to re-enact the most important events of the story. These external mediators help the children to focus on, and remember, important features and key events, rather than those that are simply salient, as well as to organise their own attention and mental activity.


What Story Grammar can achieve for your child

In addition to the aims listed above, Story Grammar also supports the child – through playful, shared activities with a responsive adult – in achieving the following objectives:

  • To develop a profound understanding and knowledge of traditional stories from different cultures
  • To develop understanding of the directional conventions of print (moving to the next page, and reading text, from left to right and from top to bottom, in the English language)
  • To introduce external mediators (substitute shapes and kinaesthetic procedures) as supports for cognitive development
  • To understand what the substitute shapes represent and how to use them to depict different aspects of the story
  • To develop, and be able to express concisely, a deep personal understanding of the key episodes of the story
  • To develop the ability to use an external mediator (a substitute shape and/or kinaesthetic procedure) to support a mental event (the ability to hold in mind the characters and events of a story)
  • To develop the ability to analyse a story – use Episode Models to identify the key features, to summarise them and to sequence them logically
  • To create a sequence of eight Episode Models with the Story Skeleton, one that accurately summarises the whole story
  • To develop the ability to use the Story Skeleton as a prompt for retelling the story
  • To develop abstract thinking and early literacy skills – the ability to ‘read’ (decode) Episode Models
  • To develop abstract thinking and early literacy skills – the ability to ‘write’ (encode) Episode Models
  • To develop self-regulation
  • To hone the ability to remember and re-tell the story accurately using external mediators (substitute shapes, visual-spatial models and kinaesthetic procedures)
  • To develop an internalised mental model of the story structure – to remember and retell the story fluently with reducing reliance on external mediators
  • To develop cognitive skills – to recognise and identify transformations
  • To develop symbolic skills – the ability to decode and encode visual models


This is why Key to Learning graduates excel in language arts, as well as in all other learning areas.

 Key to Learning @Home - creating happy and highly motivated children with exceptional mental abilities, through an exciting, engaging and unique collection of 20-minute play-, game- and story-based activities for use in your own home.

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