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In this file photo, a Mississippi kindergarten student thinks about how to correct a sentence written on the white board during class Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Helping African-American boys improve their ability to tell stories in preschool could increase the speed at which they learn to read later on, according to new research from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Researcher Nicole Gardner-Neblett said the results were something of a surprise. Her previous research had found that strong oral narrative skills in preschool predicted better reading comprehension in elementary school for African-American children, though not for white, Hispanic or Asian children. This latest study was an attempt to find out more about that connection, especially as it demonstrated an area of academic strength for a group that is often considered at a disadvantage in school.

Gardner-Neblett said much research on African-American children “is done from a deficit approach. What are these children lacking? What are they doing wrong?” Such an approach can help identify what’s wrong, she said, but “it makes it hard to hone in on what contributes to success.”

Identifying strengths that could lead to success in reading is of particular importance, Gardner-Neblett said, because of the wide skill gap between African- American students and white students. On the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, African-American fourth graders performed 26 points lower than white fourth graders in measures of reading.

26 points – gap between average reading score for African-American fourth graders and white fourth graders on NAEP

However, African-American children of both genders are typically better storytellers than European-American children, according to a survey of the existing research in Gardner-Neblett’s paper, which will be published soon in Child Development, a peer-reviewed academic journal. While they are similar to their white peers on measures of story complexity, African-American children are more likely to tell better-structured stories and to use a wider variety of narrative skills.

What Gardner-Neblett wasn’t expecting was to find was that strong storytelling skills led to a bigger reading advantage for African-American boys than for African-American girls. She was also surprised to find that early oral narrative skills affected the speed with which reading skills increased in elementary school.

“We found the story was way more complicated than just stronger narrative predicts stronger reading,” Gardner-Neblett said.

Seventy-two children participated in the study. They were tracked from the age of about 8 months until they finished sixth grade in 2005. The preschool storytelling task required students to narrate a wordless storybook, a commonly used measure of storytelling ability in young children. In later grades, reading comprehension was evaluated based on a child’s ability to explain grade-level appropriate texts.

Interestingly, African-American boys with strong storytelling skills actually did worse in reading than their less strong peers in first grade, but the trend had reversed by fourth grade. By sixth grade, the last year researchers tracked the students, the reading advantage for boys who’d shown strong oral narrative skills in preschool was clear.

In preschool, storytelling strengths are more pronounced for girls than for boys, regardless of ethnicity. In part, researchers think this is due to girls’ likelihood to tell stories about harmonious relationships versus boys’ likelihood to tell stories about independent characters in conflict. The latter are more difficult to structure coherently as they lack a unifying element, research has found.

Despite African-American girls’ early facility in both language and storytelling however, the boost in later reading skills appeared only for African-American boys who were good storytellers.

“I think the implications of this study – and we haven’t directly tested this – are that fostering storytelling skills would be beneficial” for African-American boys in the early years of their education, said Gardner-Neblett.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education.

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