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"If you can't say it, you can't write it" - Pie Corbett

Tell me a story when you are five, and I will be able to predict the quality of the story you write when you are 6!

We no longer have to wait for children to fail before we put measures in place to assist them with literacy development. We know what to look for in their oral language in order to predict the speed, accuracy and ease of their literacy acquisition.

One of the most outstanding examples of this correlation exists in the relationship between how children tell a story when they are in pre primary and then how they write a story one year later when they are in Year 1.

Two Italian researchers (Lucia Bigozzi & Giulia Vettori) conducted a longitudinal study of 80 children in 2015. They tested the children’s oral story telling in pre-primary and then their narrative writing in Year 1. They found that the ability to tell well-structured, cohesive and consistent stories predicts the ability to write stories with the same qualities.

So what should we do with this knowledge?

Already, we are routinely using a narrative assessment as part of our pre-primary screening battery. When we sample a children’s oral retell of a story from a well known test called the Renfrew Bus Story, we can glean a lot of information about how they are travelling in this particular area of language development.

Take a look at these two samples; each one from a child in the same pre-primary class.


Once upon a time

The naughty bus driver jumped

Then he ran off


The bus and faces

Then go in the tunnel

Then then stop bus

Then a road country

Then over the fence

Go moo moo moo

Then went in the pond

Then a big splash

Back road


Once upon a time there was a naughty bus and when his driver was mending him he decided to run off

He runned off into the street

On the way he met the mean train and they pulled funny faces at each other and they raced each other but he had to go into a blue tunnel

Then he got into the city

The policeman blowed his whistle and everyone runned away because they thought he was going to run over them

And he was driving on the other side

He was tired so he said I’m tired

So he jumped over the fence

The cow saw him and he said I can’t believe a bus can ride over a big hill

It is obvious that Brent is so much better equipped to tackle the world of story telling and story writing than Thomas! Look at how he joins ideas together and how he embellishes his verbs and nouns. He adds so much more detail into complex sentences; his command and control of language is really strong!

But what about Thomas?

The plan for Thomas is to explicitly teach him how to expand and extend ideas using stories as the “vehicle” to “drive” his oral language development. He has three terms left before he has to enter the more formal phase of Year 1, so it is vital that he learns to explain the main ideas in a story and develop the minor ones in order to create the cohesion required between events. He has to learn how to join ideas using connecting words such as “but” “so” and “because” in order to code relationships between events such as, ”The train went into the tunnel so the bus went on the road.”

Thomas needs to hear us tell stories and explain what we are doing to make them interesting and detailed. He needs to have the language of story telling modelled to him, and he needs to be given multiple opportunities to rehearse telling the same story under a variety of different conditions.

Thomas can be taught to use better quality language; that is entirely possible to achieve, but it must be taught, as it won’t just develop as a matter of fact. Once he has embarked on the narrative journey, his chances of writing what he can say will place him in good stead for the acquisition of written expression.

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