Many children have difficulty telling stories that makes sense. This ability is what psychologists refer to as ‘narrative coherence.’ A child with good narrative coherence could tell you about a sleepover at a friend’s house, a movie she saw, or a book she read.
A child with poor skills in this area tends to start stories in the middle. For example, “he was all alone, and someone was chasing him.” As a parent you might find yourself asking, “Wait, was this in a movie? Was this a video game?”
Your child may add dialogue to the story that seems like something your child wouldn’t typically say. For example, “And he was on the edge of his seat as the man walked away in haste.”
As a parent you might be wondering, “did you take that from a movie, or did this really happen?” Children with poor narrative coherence tend to have a very hard time telling you the order in which things happened. The story may involve a lot of details, but nothing may seem to fit together.
What do challenges with Narrative Coherence look like?
- Telling stories that start, “Once upon a time” and end… “wait what?”
- Done reading a book but struggling to tell you about it?
- Telling odd stories that don’t make any sense?
- Forgetting to tell you who he is talking about?
- Starting in the middle of a conversation? For example, ‘Then he ran away.’ You are left asking, ‘Who? Where?
- If you ask your child what happened at the birthday party, does she tell you a story that seems very unlikely? For example, “we jumped off a roller coaster!”
- Providing the details in a story but forgetting to tell the characters, plot, and main idea?
Why is Narrative Coherence happening?
Narrative means storytelling. Coherence means putting stories together so that they make sense. Narrative coherence, then, are stories that make sense. Narrative coherence can be observed when someone tells you a story from a book or recounts a personal experience from a recent vacation or birthday party. Poor narratives leave out important information or provide too many details. With a focus on actions and events, they often fail to tell you the main idea or the context of the story. The individual may provide a lengthy description about a tangent to the story but still leave you confused. Narrative coherence or good storytelling is important for many academic tasks and for social skills. In school, students are often asked to retell a story they have read. When writing a story in school, particularly with a creative writing assignment, narrative coherence is important. It is difficult to write well when a person is unable to say stories aloud. For these reasons, narrative coherence challenges often require intervention for a student’s long-term growth and success.
How can I manage Narrative Coherence at home?
If problems are minor, some strategies can be helpful at home and at school. When reading something new, ask your child this question, “What are you picturing?” Require your child to be very clear in describing his or her mental picture. Your child should be able to tell you about what the characters look like, what the setting looks like, and any emotional tone of the story.
As listed above, you would want your child to be able to describe the following to you: characters, actions, sequence, perspectives, main idea, and integrative statements. She may be able to draw a picture of the story or to write a ‘thought bubble’ for each character to describe what people in the story are thinking or doing.
If your child’s problems with storytelling are fairly significant, it may be that a disorder is present. Children with autism, even very high-functioning autism, tend to struggle with narrative coherence. Generally, they have a harder time comprehending stories and retelling stories. Children with autism often can provide some characters and the actions that the characters did. They tend to struggle with sequencing, perspectives, main idea, and integrative statements.
It also could be a receptive or expressive language disorder. Children with receptive language problems do not comprehend stories well. They may struggle to put together a logical sequence in their minds as they hear stories. Children who have stronger receptive language skills can ‘make movies in their heads’ as they read.
However, children with weaker comprehension may hear the words without being able to make a picture in their minds, that is, a mental representation of the text. If this is the case, it is important to consider a speech-language, psychological, or school evaluation to determine whether a disability may underlie these challenges. See Where to go for help section for more direction on evaluations.
Children with dyslexia tend to have much better comprehension relative to their difficulties with accurately reading words (decoding). Dyslexia is esssentially the opposite of the pattern presented in this article.
Children with ‘hyperlexia,’ on the other hand, tend to be able to decode words but cannot comprehend much of what they read. Hyperlexia is not an official diagnosis; it is a term used to describe good readers with poor comprehension. If your child is struggling with this issue, parents are wise to consult the school for strategies and supports in the classroom.
How can Clear Child Psychology help with Narrative Coherence?
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