Literacy and narrative in the early years: Zooming in and zooming out

Funding year: 
3 years
University of Waikato
Cross sector
Project start date: 
January 2014
Project end date: 
December 2017
Principal investigator(s): 
Dr. Amanda Bateman
Research team members: 
Professor Margaret Carr; Dr Alex Gunn and Professor Elaine Reese
Research partners: 
Teacher researchers from early childhood centres and schools in South Auckland and Timaru

Project description

This project is about exploring and strengthening young children’s story-telling expertise. Project members will research the ways in which a narrative-oriented culture can be deliberately developed by teachers in early childhood centres and junior school classrooms. The project’s ‘narrative partnership’ between families, university researchers, early childhood teachers and primary teachers will weave cultural connections into storying strategies in early years settings outside the home. We anticipate that the ways in which this partnership might be effectively established will contribute to the research literature on breaking the low-literacy-low-income cycle for non-dominant families.


Building on research that shows that children’s narrative competence is linked to later literacy learning at school, we want to understand more fully how conditions for literacy learning are, and could be, supported within early education settings. Using a design-based methodology and a multi-layered approach to analyse story-telling episodes within early childhood centres and school classrooms, we will research the contributions of story-partners and other supports for developing early narrative competence. Our aim is to contribute to the international literature and develop storying strategies with and for teachers.

Why is this important?

We have known for a long time that the extent of very young children’s oral vocabulary is related to their later literacy performance in the early school years (Clay, 1991; Ministry of Education, 1999; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005; Suggate, Schaughency, & Reese, 2012). Children’s oral vocabulary is particularly important for their later reading comprehension once they have surpassed the “learning to read” phase in Years 1 and 2 and have entered the “reading to learn” phase by Years 3 and 4 (Senechal & LeFevre, 2002; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005). Reese et al. (2010) demonstrated that the quality of children’s oral narrative expression in the first two years of reading instruction uniquely predicted their later reading, over and above the role of their vocabulary knowledge and decoding skill. Stuart McNaughton’s research in south Auckland (McNaughton, 2002) has also emphasised the value of narrative competence, while illustrating the different styles of story-telling and reading across different cultural communities. His conclusions from research with colleagues on literacy practices and language development in years 0-1 in Māori medium classrooms (McNaughton et al., 2006) recommends ‘the need to consider the place of personal conversation narratives at home and in Māori medium early childhood’ (p.66). This project extends this conclusion to other cultural communities and to early years education outside the home.

What we plan to do

This project plans to learn more about early education practices that support children’s narrative capacity in early childhood and school settings. This will be achieved by using a Design-based Intervention Research methodology where observations of storytelling episodes will be analysed using a multi-layered approach involving narrative analysis, conversation analysis and mediating resource analysis. The iterative cycle format in this methodology (design – intervention – critical collaborative discussion/evaluation – adaptation of the design) will actively engage the participants in a collaborative and responsive research process that builds on each stage of analysis. The participating teachers, family members and university researchers will contribute to each design and follow-up discussions in what we might call a ‘story-making advisory group’. In this way we aim to further the theoretical knowledge in the field; at the same time the project will provide practical ideas, linked to valuable purposes, for practitioners. The research project outcomes in this proposed project will: a) inform and strengthen pedagogies for language development in early education settings, and b) influence literacy outcomes in early years settings, across early childhood and primary school sectors.