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

Early Years Research Centre

University of Waikato research team: Amanda Bateman and Margaret Carr

University of Otago research team: Alex Gunn and Elaine Reese

Project Dates: 2014 - 2017

Partnerships: University of Otago

This Teaching and Learning Research Initiative funded project was about exploring and strengthening young children's storytelling expertise. We aimed to learn more about young children's capacity to tell stories, beginning in early childhood and through to the early school years. Researchers from the University of Waikato and Otago University followed a group of children during their final year of early childhood education through to their early school years to see how they engage in storytelling and what assists them to do this. Participating teachers, family members and university researchers contributed to the development of this research, regularly discussing together the findings.

AB-Literacy & Narrative Proj

Project Highlights

The preliminary findings indicated there were similarities and differences between the ways literacy and narrative are supported in the 2 early years environments at kindergarten and school. Techniques, or teaching strategies for supporting literacy and narrative often involved collaborative 'telling' of story narratives in kindergarten setting where teachers provided ideas, prompts and props for children's narrative and literacy activities. In the school settings we see that support for narrative and literacy activities are still evident, although in different ways to help transition the different types of learning needed in a school context. These school supports included such embodied techniques as 'roboting' for reading difficult words, sounding first letters, pointing to each word when reading it, and "say it, hear it and write the sounds down" strategies.

Selected Findings

The findings have emerged from the everyday interactions that our participating children engaged in during their last year at kindergarten and first 18 months at school. As such, the findings from this project add new information about the opportunities for story-telling in children’s natural everyday experiences, the ways in which specific types of story-telling promote key learning opportunities, and how these opportunities can be strengthened by teachers. The key findings identified were 1) the value of learning stories for story retell; 2) the affordances of mediating resources in supporting story-telling; 3) conversational strategies that encourage story-telling; and 4) observed links between storying and early literacy. (Please see the final report for more details).

Impacts on practice and learning

Throughout our three-year project we have been exploring the opportunities for children’s story-telling in a kindergarten and contributing schools. We have found that story-telling happens in many places within early years classrooms and takes the form of both imaginative story-telling and story-telling in response to teachers’ planned learning experiences. It is supported by resources, the structure of the day—including whether and when teachers plan time for children to engage in open-ended play with resources and materials. It is also encouraged by the ways the story-tellers and their audiences interact. We have taken a very broad approach to story-telling in this research and we have seen many different examples of children’s story-telling being well supported at kindergarten and school.


Our video recordings were taken over three years, beginning in the last year of ECE and ending at the second year of school. During the recording we found that story-telling occurred in many places. Not only did specific contexts afford different story-telling opportunities, resources and relationships support story-telling too. We could see a patchwork of story-telling being supported by approaches to teaching and learning in all early years settings.

By learning more about the stories children tell in their early years settings, this research project was designed with an overall purpose to improve literacy outcomes in early years settings, with a particular emphasis on nondominant and low-income communities, where literacy levels are currently inequitable. The narrative analysis, the analysis of conversation strategies, and the mediational resources analysis has enabled us to theorise and test ideas about how we might support literacy and narrative learning in the early years and to co-ordinate design-based strategies across the transition to school and the first two years of schooling. In bringing families,children, and teachers together in joint conversations we traced over time the complexity of learning outcomes in this domain of interest.

By focusing on a key aspect of oral language learning (an aspect that has implications for later literacy competence), we anticipate that these findings will assist those teachers who struggle to plan meaningfully for children’s language learning during those early months of school. Noticeably, narrative was observable in explanations of play or work, and in conversations about important events in children’s lives (for example, birthday parties or family events). Narrative underpins teachers’ activity when they’re working on specific literacy and numeracy tasks (for example, inventing a story that can be reproduced as a sentence for writing, or a number story being told to represent an equation). It holds children’s free play together as well as being evident as teachers bring entire classrooms of children together to work with each other in collaborative story-telling. The aim of this project was to help develop storying strategies with and for teachers to support children’s early narrative and literacy. We hope that these findings have offered a significant contribution to this important national and international arena.

Project Outputs & Publications

Final Report

Bateman, A. and Carr, M. (forthcoming, 2016). 'Pursuing a telling: Managing a multi-unit turn in children's storytelling' in A. Bateman and A. Church (Eds.) Children and knowledge: Studies in conversation analysis. Springer

Conference presentation:
Bateman, A., Gunn, A., Carr, M., and Reese, E. (2015). Literacy and narrative in the early years: Zooming in and zooming out. Paper presented at NZARE EC SIG, Wellington, New Zealand, 15th May 2015.

Bateman, A., Gunn, A., Carr, M., and Reese, E. (2015). Literacy and narrative in the early years: Zooming in and zooming out. Paper presented at NZARE EC SIG, Wellington, New Zealand, 15th May 2015.
Gunn, A., Bateman, A., Carr, M., and Reese, E. (2015). Reporting to children about research involving them. Paper presented at EECERA, Crete, Greece, 9th September 2014.