Each Friday afternoon during the 1981-82 school year, storyteller Donald Davis collected fifteen fourth and fifth graders from a Charlotte, North Carolina, school and told them stories. His goal was to see if, just by listening to stories, they could internalize the organization of effective stories. Teachers found that the writing ability and grades of these underachieving students in core academic subjects advanced over the course of that year far ahead of their peers who were not part of the storytelling experiment (Haven 2007,100).
The New Jersey storytelling company, Storytelling Arts, provides in-class storytelling programs to inner-city schools. Over an eight-year period (1995-2003), they collected almost 1,000 Teacher Observation Sheets describing behavioral or academic changes that the teachers attributed to the storytelling program. Seventy-eight percent of teachers (second grade and above) believed that storytelling significantly improved student writing skills (Haven 2007, 86).
Do these examples suggest that the role of the school librarian is just to tell (or read) stories and trust that her minions will magically absorb writing skills by osmosis? Is there anything the school librarian can do to tip the scales in favor of improved school-wide writing?
The common theme of these and hundreds of other similar studies is that a mastery of the structure of effective stories is the surest road to literacy (in general) and to improved reading comprehension and writing (in specific).
Why focus on story structure when standardized writing assessments now emphasize everything but story writing? The answer is clear in new neural science and developmental psychology research.
The bottom line of this research: For over 100,000 years humans have relied on the form of story to communicate and to archive essential histories, events, attitudes, values, and beliefs. One hundred thousand years of reliance on stories has evolutionarily wired human brains so that they are now hardwired, before birth, to process narrative and experiential information in specific story form. Human minds are predisposed from birth to make sense, to understand, and to remember through this specific story structure (Haven 2007, Chapter 7). Story structure is how humans think.
If school librarians help students master the elements that define this story structure, then students can be assisted in efficiently and effectively mastering both reading comprehension and all forms of writing.
Without exception and without equivocation, research studies conducted over the past quarter century praise the ability of story structure instruction to improve comprehension. Period. Literally hundreds of studies have substantiated that conclusion. Here are highlights from but a few.
Greenwald and Rossing compared comprehension scores for a test group of third graders who followed a standard basal program with an experimental group that surrounded the same basal stories with instruction on story structure and the core structural elements of a story (1986). Their work with each group took place over a period of four weeks before the final assessment. "The experimental group significantly outperformed the control group on free recall, guided recall, and retelling post tests"(Greenwald and Rossing 1986).
They concluded, "Children's knowledge of the structure of stories is critical to comprehension"(1986). This conclusion was supported through studies by Mandler and Johnson (1977), Liang and Dole (2006), and Snow and Burns (1998).
In another study, Short and Ryan compared fifty-six fourth grade "less skilled" boys (reading at least two grades below their actual grade) with fourteen "skilled"boys as a control (those who read above grade level) (1994). They found that even short-term training (five sessions over three weeks) in story structure elevated the poor readers to actually out perform the good readers. Taylor reached identical conclusions (1996).
Buss, Ratliff and Irion divided fifty-two third grade students into three groups: good readers, poor readers in their test group, and poor readers in a control group (1995). Tests following story structural instruction showed that the test group outperformed the good reader group on comprehension texts. Their conclusion: "There is a direct and significant relationship between knowledge of story structure and comprehension of narrative and expository texts"(Buss, Ratliss, and Irion 1995).
I have conducted a quantitative experiment five times: once with fifth graders in central California, once with fourth graders in Maryland, once with fifth graders in New Mexico, and twice with fifth graders in Nevada. This experiment was done with a total of 192 students.
I visited the school mid-week and then each class took a standardized writing assessment at the end of a week. Each of these tests required students to write a persuasive essay. I arranged for each class to take a practice writing assessment at the beginning of the week and then paid to send those tests out for grading not as practice tests (usually scored in-house), but to the same sets of graders who would grade the actual tests. The graders did not know that these were practice tests.
During my one-hour to ninety-minute mid-week, in-class visit, I conducted a workshop on story structure (character, character traits, goal, problems, resolution, etc.) and showed how those same story elements could be applied to persuasive essay writing.
When we averaged scores across all students, the Friday test scores of those who participated in the workshop rose almost a full point (0.86) above their Monday scores. Friday scores for the control groups who did not get the workshop were only 0.11 (averaged) better than their Monday scores meaning that the 0.86 increase can be primarily attributed to the effect of the story structure workshop on writing proficiency.
Additionally, I have conducted writing workshops with over 260,000 students in forty-two states over the past dozen years. Each of those workshops focused on the specific informational elements that define effective story structure. I have rarely been able to personally conduct post-workshop student assessments following these sessions. But I have interviewed many teachers (265), school administrators (31), and parents (96) of students who have attended these workshops.
Through the consistency of the responses I received, I have determined that even one-hour story structure workshops have a lasting, noticeable impact on the quality and effectiveness of student narrative writing for most students as well as a large impact on their enthusiasm and willingness to spend school and home time on writing.
Cooper (1997) and Tierney and Shanahan (2001), among many others, have all come to the same conclusion. From their in-class research, collectively, they conclude that story structure instruction is an essential part of both reading and writing programs. In a detailed, quantitative 1999 study, Trostle established that exposure to story structure improves literacy including both narrative and expository writing.
School librarians don't have to allocate time in the library for classes to actually write in order to effectively enhance their writing skills. Time can be used to present and to review the essential elements of effective story structure.
It is often easier to demonstrate some elements of story structure while these elements are still incomplete—that is, during the story.
I have found three such questions worth discussing. Luckily teachers and librarians, like parents, routinely establish a pattern of momentarily interrupting a presentation for comment or analysis. These pauses for discussion won't be overly disruptive.
- Who's the main character? Why? This question forces students to decide which story character has explicitly stated goals and conflicts that block them from that goal. This is the definition of a main character.
- How will the story end? Why? Stories end when the goal of the main character is finally resolved. Students cannot answer this question until they identify the main character and that character's goal.
- What will happen next? Why? This question calls on students to use cause and effect sequential logic to assess the flow of the recent plotting events.
First, the characters should be reviewed. Students should be allowed time to discuss and debate their answers.
- Who is the main character? Why? A story's main character is a structural position. It is this character's primary goal that is resolved at story's end.
- Who is the most important character? Why? This answer can vary from student to student based on their evaluations of each character's role in the essential story elements.
- Who is the student's favorite character? Why? This answer also varies based on how each student responds to the character traits presented in the story.
Now the essential story elements that surround these characters should be reviewed. What were the characters after (goals) and why were those goals important (motives)? What blocked them from reaching these goals (conflicts and problems)? Only after reviewing these elements should students approach the plot (how a character struggles to overcome conflicts to reach an important goal).
With this focus on the essential story elements under their belts, students can give rein to their own creative and writing muscle.
- How can the story be retold? Can the perspective and the viewpoint of the character be changed? Who else could tell this story? How would the story change?
- How else could this story have ended? Students can sift through early story information to detect other plausible endings or outcomes.
- What happened next? Students can extend the story beyond its current ending point. They must be sure to support and justify their extension ideas with information from the existing story.
- What happened before? Students can use story events and character information to build a picture of events that could plausibly lead up to the story as told.
- Can the story be retold by changing character personalities and goals? Major story events must stay the same, but the character interactions and event outcomes all change. This is a classic way to alter fairy and folk tales.
Every story and book shared is an example of good writing. The elements of effective story structure can be used to fire students' writing skill and interest.
Buss, R., J. Ratcliff, and J. Irions. "Effects of Instruction on the Use of Story Structure in Comprehension of Narrative Discourse." National Reading Conference Yearbook 34 (1995): 55-58.
Cooper, J. Literacy: Helping Children Construct Meaning. Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Greenwald, M., and R. Rossing. "Short-term and Long-term Effects of Story Grammar and Self-monitoring Training on Children's Story Comprehension." National Reading Conference Yearbook 35 (1996): 210-213.
Haven, Kendall. Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. Libraries Unlimited, 2007.
Liang, L., and J. Dole. Helping with Teaching Reading Comprehension: Comprehension Instructional Frameworks. International Reading Association, 2006.
Mandler, J., and N. Johnson. "Remembrance of Things Parsed: Story Structure and Recall." Cognitive Psychology 9 (1977): 111-151.
Short, E., and E. Ryan. "Metacognitive Differences between Skilled and Less Skilled Readers: Remediating Deficits through Story Grammar and Attribution Training." Journal of Educational Psychology 76, no. 2 (1994): 225-235.
Snow, C, and M. Burns, eds. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. National Research Council and National Academy Press, 1998.
Taylor, D. The Healing Power of Stories. Double-day, 1996.
Tierney, R., and T Shanahan. "Research on the Reading-Writing Relationship: Interactions, Transactions, and Outcomes."In Handbook of Reading, Vol. 2, edited by R. Barr, et al., 246-280. Longman, 1991.
Trostle, S. "The Effects of Storytelling Versus Story Reading on Comprehension and Vocabulary Knowledge of British Primary School Children." Reading Improvement 47, no. 8(1999): 127-136.