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Communicating — Narrative Coherence

Narrative Coherence (Storytelling) Issues in Children

Little girl reading story.

Anna Kroncke


Last modified 19 Oct 2023

Published 13 Jan 2022

What is Narrative Coherence in Childhood?

Narrative coherence in childhood means telling stories that make sense.

Narrative means storytelling. Coherence means putting stories together so that they make sense. You observe narrative coherence when a child tells you a story they heard in a book or movie or tells you about an event, like a recent vacation or birthday party.

A child with poor narrative coherence often leaves out important information or gives too many details. 

“With a focus on actions and events, children often fail to tell you who the characters are or give context for what is happening. Poor narratives leave you guessing: Who are we talking about right now? Where did this happen? What is the main point of all this?” 

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Symptoms of Narrative Coherence Problems in Children

  • Telling stories that don’t make sense: If your child has poor skills in this area you will notice they tend to start stories in the middle. For example, “he was all alone, and someone was chasing him.” As a parent, you might find yourself asking, “Wait, was this in a movie? Was this a video game?”
  • Adding information to a story that doesn’t make sense: Your child may add dialogue to the story that seems like something your child wouldn’t typically say. For example, “He was on the edge of his seat as the man walked away in haste.”
  • Writing well but dislikes the ‘personal narrative’: Your child may be able to write about favorite subjects or nonfiction topics. However, if narrative coherence is an issue, they may avoid or struggle with telling stories about their own experiences. The ‘personal narrative’ assignments at school may be highly frustrating.
  • Not understanding what is read to them: Your child may struggle to tell you about the story you just read to them. They might have difficulties with ‘meaning-making,’ which is understanding how the words in the book fit together to form a meaningful whole.
  • Forgetting to tell you who they are talking about: Your child may begin a story without any setting or context. As a parent, you might be wondering, “did you take that from a movie, or did this really happen?”
  • Starting conversations in the middle: Your child may start a story right at the cliff-hanger. For example, your child may say, ‘Then he ran away.’ As a listener, you ask, “Who? Where?” This confusion on your part is a sign that your child is having trouble coherently telling stories. 
  • Telling stories that are most likely not true: If you ask your child what happened at the birthday party, your child may tell a story that seems very unlikely. For example, “we jumped off a roller coaster!”
  • Leaving out important information: Your child may tell a story that is very unclear because it doesn’t describe the main idea or give you the ‘gist.’ As the listener, you may be left wondering about the characters, plot, and main idea.
  • Telling stories out of order: Your child tells you a story that lacks the correct order of events, leaving out important words like ‘first, next, and then.’ As a listener, you get lost as your child might start the story at the end or jump around so much that you cannot follow along

Essential storytelling (narrative coherence) skills 

Clinically, narrative coherence is a skill needed for language development and social development. Children tell stories to each other all the time. Students are often asked to retell a story they have read in school.

In the following section, you will read a bit about Dr. Willard’s research on narrative storytelling. The present study followed a group of 71 children as they told stories and diagrammed the important elements of a coherent narrative. [1]

The study found the following six elements to be essential to children’s narratives.

  1. Characters: Identify and describe characters.
  2. Actions: Explain what the story’s important people or animal characters did or what happened to them.
  3. Sequence: Put events of the story in a logical order. Problems with sequencing are generally the first sign of a child’s struggles with narrative coherence. The ability to put story events in order is also called ‘temporal coherence,’ which means that the whole narrative hangs together in a logical and meaningful order.
  4. Perspectives: Identify what the characters are thinking or feeling.
  5. Main idea: Describe the story’s most important events and clarify that this idea is the story’s main idea.
  6. Integrative statement: Put it all together at the end, with either a moral of the story or a meaningful conclusion. The ability to ‘wrap it up’ in this way is often called ‘global coherence,’ which means that the narrative makes sense as a whole. 

“Kids who tell good stories make pictures in their heads. Like a storyboard or scenes from a movie, the storyteller describes the setting, the main characters, the events that happened, and wraps up the story with a moral, conclusion, or a statement that pulls it all together.” 

In this short video, Dr. Marcy Willard gives an example of a coherent narrative. This kind of narrative, or story, has a main idea, some characters, and a good sequence of events.

Causes of Narrative Coherence Issues in Children

  • Poor perspective-taking: Your child might be struggling with narrative coherence because they do not understand what the listener would like to know from the story. Your child might not provide the necessary information to help you understand the story. They might say, “Mimi is the meanest person in the world.” The child fails to tell you who Mimi is. 
  • Struggles with comprehension: Your child may not tell coherent narratives because they are not comprehending the stories they are told. For example, the teacher may tell a long story in class, and your child doesn’t follow along. Then, when your child attempts to retell it to you, it is hard for you to follow along as well. 
  • Missing the big picture: Your child may tell weird stories because they don’t focus enough on the gestalt or main idea. With a focus on actions and events, they often fail to tell you the main idea or the context of the story. 
  • Too many details or tangents: Your child may struggle with storytelling because they leave out important information or provide too many details. You may hear a lengthy description about a tangent to the story but still be confused.
  • Weak listening comprehension: Your child may have difficulties telling stories because of weak verbal comprehension. Children with weaker comprehension may hear the words without making a picture in their minds or forming a mental representation of the text.
  • Developmental disabilities: In Developmental Psychology, we have found that narrative coherence can signify a developmental disability or delay. Although there are typically developing children with narrative coherence issues, sometimes social deficits are a sign of one of the following disabilities:
    • Hyperlexia: if your child struggles with hyperlexia know it is not a diagnosed condition. Instead, this is a pattern of reading difficulty whereby a child can decode words well but struggles with comprehension. Most school professionals are familiar with this issue and may offer associated interventions. 
    • Autism spectrum disorder: if your child has deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. There may be problems with comprehension, even if high IQ. Want to know if your child’s challenges are a sign of Autism Spectrum Disorder? Cadey courses are taught by licensed psychologists and walk you through the symptoms of autism and how they may present in your child. Sign up today.
    • Intellectual disability: if your child has deficits in cognitive ability; with low IQ scores they may have difficulties with verbal comprehension and expression, particularly for more abstract information
    • Expressive or receptive language disorder: If your child struggles with receptive language problems they may not comprehend stories well. They may struggle to put together a logical sequence in their minds as they hear stories. 

What to Do About Narrative Coherence in Childhood

  • DO: Ask your child, “What are you picturing?” Have your child describe their mental picture. As your child tells you about an experience or event, really ask your child to describe it in vivid detail. Your child should be able to tell you about what the characters look like, what the setting looks like, and any emotional tone of the story or experience.
  • DO: Have your child draw a picture of the story: Have your child draw a picture of the story or write a ‘thought bubble’ for each character to describe what people in the story are thinking or doing.
  • DO: Ask clarifying questions: Prompt your child by saying,  “tell me more,” and talk your child through the story as you understand it. If you are way off, laugh with your child about it. Say something like, “well, I guess I needed more information on this, huh?”
  • DON’T: Pretend to understand: if your child’s stories make no sense, say something like, “I don’t understand” or “Wait, can you start over from the beginning?” 
  • DON’T: Tune out: If your child’s stories are hard to understand, it can be easy to start to drift off and miss what they are saying. Try to listen and take the time to understand the real meaning of the dialogue.
  • DO: Seek help as needed: If your child’s problems with storytelling are relatively significant, it may be that a disorder is present or intervention is necessary.
  • DO: Learn more: research is emerging about narrative coherence in the social sciences [1, 2, 3, 4]. Researchers know the signs now of narrative problems and understand the importance of these skills for social development and academics. If you would like to understand better what is going on with your child’s storytelling, check out the resources at the end of this article. Future research should address better intervention techniques for mild storytelling issues throughout a child’s development. 

When to Seek Help for Narrative Coherence 

If your child’s problems with storytelling are causing significant social problems, seek help from a professional. Substantial difficulties socializing and making friends may indicate a disorder like ADHD or Autism could underlie these challenges.

If your child is falling behind in school, first seek help from your child’s school. If the issues with storytelling interfere with school performance, you will notice difficulties with classroom presentations, narrative story writing, or listening comprehension in class. The school may provide support to your child through classroom interventions or services.

If your child’s storytelling is the main issue, some students will be fine socially and in school but simply struggle with storytelling. If that is the case for your child, it may be helpful to get some tutoring in this specific area. Check out tutors such as Lindamood-Bell Learning Centers or Orton-Gillingham.

Further Resources on Narrative Coherence

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a mental health context and provide treatment for social or psychological problems
  • School psychologist: to test IQ and to consider the academic impact
  • Lindamood-Bell: to directly work on story telling skills with a tutor. Visualizing & Verbalizing is an excellent program for teaching storytelling skills. A more fundamental approach is called ‘Talkies,’ also offered by Lindamood-Bell Learning Centers. 

Similar Conditions to Narrative Coherence Problems

  • Auditory processing: children with poor abilities to understand the sounds within words may struggle to comprehend and tell stories
  • Intelligence: children with limited intellectual functioning may struggle with storytelling
  • Social skills: children who struggle with story-telling may have trouble in social communication
  • Expressive language: children who struggle with story-telling may have challenges with the general ability to express their thoughts and ideas
  • Receptive language: children with poor receptive skills may struggle with the ability to comprehend and retell stories

References on Narrative Coherence

[1] Willard, M. (2013). Development of an integrative comprehension imagery scale for children with and without autism. Proquest: Dissertations and Theses (PQDT) UNIVERSITY OF DENVER, 177 pages. 

[2] Losh, M. & Capps, L. (2003). Narrative ability in high-functioning children with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2003;33(3):239-251.

[3] Suh, J., Eigsti, I. M., Naigles, L., Barton, M., Kelley, E., & Fein, D. (2014). Narrative Performance of Optimal Outcome Children and Adolescents with a History of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). J Autism Dev Disord, 44(7), 1681-1694. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2042-9.

[4] Diehl, J., Bennetto, L. & Young, E.C. (2006). Story recall and narrative coherence of high-functioning children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 34 (1), 87-101.

Book Resources for Narrative Coherence

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Bell, Nancy (2007). Visualizing and Verbalizing: For Language Comprehension and Thinking

Bell, Nancy (2005) Talkies Visualizing and Verbalizing for Language Comprehension and Expression