What's in a Narrative? Variation in Storytelling at the Interface Between Language and Literacy

by Christiane Bongartz (Volume editor) Jacopo Torregrossa (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 242 Pages
Series: Inquiries in Language Learning, Volume 27


Research on narrative production plays a central role in linguistics, psycholinguistics and language acquisition. Narrative elicitation allows researchers to investigate specific linguistic structures and the processes involved in their acquisition in an ecological way. This book provides methodological remarks on how to approach research on narratives, identifying factors that underlie variation in narrative production, including the type of narrative task, cross-linguistic differences, learners’ literacy and cognitive development and the narrative practices in society. The volume features contributions on theoretical and methodological aspects of research on narratives from 16 researchers in linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics and developmental psychology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Vorwort
  • Table of contents
  • Christiane Bongartz and Jacopo Torregrossa: Introduction
  • Cristóbal Lozano, Ana Díaz-Negrillo and Marcus Callies: Designing and compiling a learner corpus of written and spoken narratives: The Corpus of English as a Foreign Language (COREFL)
  • Phyllis Schneider and Allison Laing Menard: Is “narrative ability” a unitary skill?
  • Eva M. Knopp: What’s in an adult story? – Modality effects on the narrative productions of adult Germans
  • Birgit Hellwig: Children’s narratives in Papua New Guinea: A case study of Qaqet
  • Elisa Di Domenico: Clausal types and syntactic subjects in narratives
  • Despina Papadopoulou: Reference patterns in language comprehension & production: The “Greek case”
  • Maria Andreou, Ifigenia Dosi and Christiane Bongartz: Aspectual choices by Greek-Italian and Greek-English children
  • Eleni Peristeri and Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli: Reference use and attention shifting abilities in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Specific Language Impairment
  • About the authors

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Christiane Bongartz and Jacopo Torregrossa


What kind of education shall we give them then? We shall find it difficult to improve on the time-honoured distinction between the physical training we give to the body and the education we give to the mind and character.


And we shall begin by educating mind and character, shall we not?

Of course.

In this education you would include stories, would you not?


(Plato, Republic 376e, Lee 2003)

Abstract: Almost all existing studies on narrative production observe a great variability in speakers’ narrative outcomes. This is due to the fact that storytelling is a complex task, requiring the integration of linguistic knowledge and discourse information, and is thus vulnerable to speaker-internal and external variables. The aim of this volume is to identify factors that are involved in variation in narrative production, considering the impact of cross-linguistic differences in the use of cohesive devices, the nature of the task used to elicit narrative production, the sociological profile of the speakers as well as their cognitive skills. By so doing, this volume aims to investigate the emergence of narrative skills at the interface between language, literacy and cognition.

Keywords: narrative production, narrative elicitation, narrative components, variation in narrative production

Storytelling has always been a basic way of human communication. It allows speakers to make sense of the world and their experience (Egan 1988). Furthermore, across cultures and generations, it has been considered as a powerful educational tool, as the above quote from Plato’s Republic ←11 | 12→makes clear. In more recent years, this basic human activity has come to play a central role in research in linguistics, psycholinguistics and language acquisition, serving for instance as an assessment instrument for different types of acquisition (child and adult first and second language acquisition in typical and atypical development; see Gagarina et al. 2016 for a review). Due to the fundamental nature of story-telling activities, narratives offer the possibility to investigate language acquisition outcomes in an ecological way, especially when compared to constrained or forced elicitation tasks. Narratives are able to capture a wide range of linguistic data, since they can be analyzed from many different perspectives, including plot and syntactic complexity (e.g., Gagarina 2016 and Mäkinen et al. 2014, respectively), use of mental state words (e.g., Berman & Slobin 1994) and accuracy in nominal and verbal morphology (Reilly et al. 2004; see also Balaban & Hohenberger 2020 for a general overview). In this sense, they provide a rather comprehensive picture of learners’ language abilities. In particular, due to their contextualized nature, they can be seen as a crucial testing ground for the acquisition of syntax-discourse interface structures, whose production requires the integration of morphosyntactic and discourse-level information, such as referring expressions, tenseaspect categories and adverbial clauses (which are all structures considered in this volume). Several studies have shown that these structures are particularly vulnerable in first and second language acquisition (Avrutin 1999; Sorace 2011). Furthermore, investigations related to children’s and L2 adults’ acquisition of morpho-syntactic structures seem to yield more reliable results when the production of these structures is observed in a narrative task situation (Torregrossa, Bongartz & Marinis 2019).

Because of the complexity involved in story-telling tasks, learners’ narrative outcomes have been shown to be particularly sensitive to speaker-internal and external variables (cf. Paradis 2011 for terminology). Among the former, several studies have disclosed a strong relationship between Theory of Mind and executive function skills and aspects of narrative production (e.g., Fernández 2013, Torregrossa et al., to appear and Peristeri & Tsimpli in this volume). For example, Theory of Mind skills affect the use of articulated mental language and the complexity of coherence representations (e.g., Accorti Gamannossi & Pinto, 2014), while executive functions are involved in story-planning and reference use (Balaban ←12 | 13→& Hohenberger 2020; Torregrossa et al., to appear). Among the latter variables (speaker-external variables), the quality and quantity of exposure to a language (especially in bilingual language acquisition) is related to different measures of narrative production. In particular, the use of cohesive devices at the local (sentence) level (e.g., connectors and referring expressions) appears to be more sensitive to cumulative language exposure in one or the other language than global (discourse) measures (e.g., complexity of story structure) – see, e.g., Maviş, Tunçer and Gagarina (2016), which are more easily shared across the two languages. Literacy exposure has been shown to play a significant role in the possibility of this sharing. Again, the relevant factor here is not the amount of hours dedicated to one or the other language, but the extent to which educational programs support a balanced and integrated teaching of these languages (Bongartz & Torregrossa 2017). In this sense, the analysis of children’s narrative production provides a privileged viewpoint for investigating the conceptual, interlinguistic and literacy-related resources that underlie a bilingual individual’s two languages (e.g., Cummins 2000, Francis 2012). Overall, this overview of studies suggests the necessity to develop a multi-factorial approach to the analysis of narratives, by identifying different components of narrative competence and investigating how the abovementioned factors differently affect them.

Due to the several factors involved in narrative production, it comes as no surprise that one of the most common features observed across studies is the extreme variation in speakers’ narrative outcomes (Veneziano & Nicolopoulou 2019). Therefore, any investigation aiming to understand how one or the other factor contributes to this variation should be able to control for additional interacting factors, while allowing the ones of interest to change. The aim of the present volume is to identify some of these factors of variation, by addressing the following questions:

1.How does the type of elicitation task affect variation in narrative production by native and non-native speakers? Which features of the elicitation tasks are more relevant in determining this variation?

2.To what extent do child narratives reflect the story-telling practices in the society in which they live?

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3.How do cross-linguistic effects shape the production of different narrative components by bilingual speakers and second language learners? Does the impact of cross-linguistic influence vary depending on the target structure to be acquired?

4.Which components of narrative production are sensitive to which cognitive variables? What is the relationship between cognitive development and the emergence of narrative skills?

Each contribution relates to one or more of these questions, as we will show in the following overview of the single chapters.

In Chapter 1, Designing and compiling a learner corpus of written and spoken narratives: The Corpus of English as a Foreign Language (COREFL), Cristóbal Lozano, Ana-Díaz-Negrillo and Marcus Callies provide best practice guidelines on how to design learner corpora of written and spoken narratives, by describing the main features of the COREFL corpus. Due to their contextualized nature, corpus data serve as a window into learners’ narrative skills from different aspects (such as the production of referring expressions) and are useful instruments to complement more controlled (and hence less contextualized) experimental data. By triangulating information about learners’ profiles (in terms of their L1, proficiency in the L2 and learning contexts) with a variety of tasks (e.g., different types of oral and written narratives) and matched data from control groups of native speakers, the analysis of corpus data allows to identify several factors that contribute to variation in learners’ outcomes, ranging from cross-linguistic and second language acquisition patterns to task effects.

In Chapter 2, Is “narrative ability” a unitary skill?, Phyllis Schneider and Allison Laing Menard focus on variation in child narrative skills as motivated by the type of elicitation task and the level of narrative analysis which is taken into account (macro- vs. microstructure). In particular, the authors compare the performance of a group of typically developing children in three narrative tasks differing from each other to the extent that they involve story generation or retelling (or both). The observation of weak correlations (or no correlations at all) between the three tasks contributes to the methodological discussion of how different types of tasks as well as different aspects of narrative production (e.g., story grammar or syntactic complexity) pose different demands on children’s ←14 | 15→narrative skills. Furthermore, children’s individual cognitive profiles (e.g., greater attention to oral materials vs. visual stimuli) interact with the complexity and the characteristics of the task.

In Chapter 3, What’s in an adult story? – Modality effects on the narrative productions of adult Germans, Eva Knopp compares the production of oral and written narratives of different complexity by German monolingual adults. The author analyses adults’ oral and written narratives from different points of view, including macrostructure (e.g., story grammar and use of mental state terms) and microstructure measures (e.g., syntactic complexity and argument shifting in reference production) and shows that only certain features of narrative production are affected by modality. Furthermore, story complexity often interacts with modality effects. These findings put in perspective what has often been claimed in the literature (more as an assumption than an empirical result), i.e., that written narratives are linguistically more complex than oral ones, mainly because of greater planning times. A more differential picture – which takes into account different narrative components and degrees of story-complexity – emerges from this study.

In Chapter 4, Children’s narratives in Papua New Guinea: A case study of Qaqet, Birgit Hellwig discusses the cross-linguistic validity of traditional instruments of narrative elicitation (such as the Frog Story), by reporting on her observations related to narrative production among Qaqet-speaking children of Papua New Guinea. The children’s Frog Stories collected by the author reflect the narrative practices of the society, being constructed collaboratively between the child and her interlocutor, as well as the narrative style of adult narratives (e.g., use of repetitions for reference chains and narrative setting in the here and now). These observations suggest that children’s narrative assessment in non-Western societies cannot be carried out following the same methodologies and criteria for analysis as in Western societies, but should take into account the narrative and literacy practices of the sociocultural context.

In Chapter 5, Clausal types and syntactic subjects in narratives, Elisa Di Domenico argues that the idea that speakers “choose” referring expressions holds only for reference use in finite clauses. For example, there are syntactic environments in which null subjects cannot occur (e.g., as subjects of infinitives) and syntactic environments in which only null subjects can ←15 | 16→occur (e.g., in pseudo-relatives) and, hence, no alternation between null subjects and overt pronouns is possible. In other terms, certain uses of referring expressions are syntactically constrained, being dependent on the type of clause in which they occur rather than pragmatic factors related to the accessibility of the corresponding referent. From the point of view of information structure, some of these clause-types are used for subject/ topic-promotion, which allows the corresponding referent to be resumed by a null subject in later discourse. Crucially, while near-native speakers of Italian (with L1-Greek) differ from native speakers in their use of referring expressions in finite clauses (in which referring expressions can be chosen), they exhibit a similar behavior with respect to the production of different types of clauses and the associated strategies for reference introduction and reintroduction.

In Chapter 6, Reference patterns in language comprehension & production: the “Greek case”, Despina Papadopoulou presents a state-of-the-art of different studies on reference production and comprehension with a special focus on Greek adult native speakers. She argues in favour of a multi-factorial approach to reference production and comprehension, considering both the factors that previous studies have shown to affect a referent’s discourse accessibility (such as the argument and information status of its antecedent) together with less studied factors, such as the prosody of referring expressions and the overall discourse structure. The author accounts for the different patterns of results displayed across the reviewed studies both in terms of the different experimental methodologies that have been used or of the different cognitive mechanisms that underlie reference production and comprehension. She also considers the role of cross-linguistic differences and developmental effects in determining how a certain type of referring expression (i.e., a null subject) may be associated with different discourse functions (e.g., reference to a subject or an object antecedent) across languages or across the lifespan.

In Chapter 7, Aspectual choices by Greek-Italian and Greek-English children, Maria Andreou, Ifigenia Dosi and Christiane Bongartz compare the acquisition of aspect marking in Greek by Greek-English and Greek-Italian bilingual children. The study is framed within the Lexical Aspect Hypothesis (LAH), according to which the perfective/imperfective distinction in the aspect domain corresponds to the divide between telic and atelic ←16 | 17→verbs, respectively. The language constellations considered in this paper allow the authors to test the LAH on a cross-linguistic basis, since Greek and Italian have more similar aspectual systems than Greek and English. The authors show that these cross-linguistic differences are reflected in the extent to which bilinguals conform to the LAH. Furthermore, the authors show that cognitive functions (i.e., updating) as well as experience and proficiency variables play a significant role in how bilingual children acquire aspect marking.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 242 pp., 20 fig. b/w, 19 tables.

Biographical notes

Christiane Bongartz (Volume editor) Jacopo Torregrossa (Volume editor)

Christiane Bongartz is a professor of English linguistics at the University of Cologne. Her research covers a range of theoretical and applied issues in language acquisition in various contexts (L1, 2L1 and L2), with particular reference to the interaction between language internal factors and acquisitional context(s). Jacopo Torregrossa is a professor of multilingualism and second language acquisition at the Romance Department of the Goethe University of Frankfurt. His research interests focus on the interaction between linguistic, metalinguistic and cognitive abilities among bilingual children.


Title: What's in a Narrative? Variation in Storytelling at the Interface Between Language and Literacy