Share this article on:

From the Editors

Nelson, Nickola Wolf PhD, Editor; Butler, Katharine G. PhD, Editor Emerita

doi: 10.1097/01.TLD.0000318929.24054.4f
From the Editors

One of the most ubiquitous and powerful discourse forms in human communication is narrative. [italics in original]

Jerome Bruner (1990, p. 77)

This quotation from Bruner's (1990) Acts of Meaning highlights the importance of narrative in human interaction. Bruner elaborated how narrative requires “four crucial grammatical constituents if it is to be effectively carried out”:

It requires, first, a means for emphasizing human action or “agentivity”—action directed toward goals controlled by agents. It requires, secondly, that a sequential order be established and maintained—that events and states be “linearized” in a standard way. Narrative, thirdly, also requires sensitivity to what is canonical and what violates canonicality in human interaction. Finally, narrative requires something approximating a narrator's perspective: it cannot, in the jargon of narratology, be “voiceless.” (p. 77)

Around the same time that Bruner was writing Acts of Meaning, Katherine Nelson (1989) was leading a group of language and cognitive scientists (originating with Nelson, Jerome Bruner, John Dore, Carol Feldman, Daniel Stern, and Rita Watson) who called themselves the New York Language Acquisition Group (NYLAG). The NYLAG convened on a regular basis to consider the presleep monologues of Emily, a 2-year-old child whose parents were both well-educated professionals, as a window into early language, memory, and cognitive development. Nelson wrote:

Emily's talk to herself in her crib conveys to most listeners a strong sense that she is giving an account of her life, as she understands it at the time, an account that changes over time as her experience in the world changes and expands. (p. 27)

Narratives, thus, not only capture the events of daily living and human interaction and drama, but they permit, encourage, and even obligate interpretation of life's events by the narrator, including one's own life. Feldman (1989) focused on Emily's use of narrative monologue as a form of problem solving—with herself as audience. Feldman's observations included the remarkable finding that Emily's problem-solving talk for herself was pragmatically marked, although there was no immediate listener to cue Emily for the need for greater explicitness. Feldman observed that “once the lights are out and her parents leave the room, Emily reveals a stunning mastery of language forms we would never have suspected from her dialogic speech” (p. 100). Feldman concluded that “Speech-for-self seems to provide the medium within which Emily develops her ability to take a perspective and to think interpretively” (p. 119).

Stories for self as well as stories for others—the implications are stunning also for clinicians working with toddlers, children, adolescents, and adults coping with developmental or acquired language disorders (for the adult perspective, see Shadden and Hagstrom, 2007, in TLD issue 27:4, Life Participation Approaches to Aphasia, issue editor Michael Kimbarow). Narratives offer not only authentic contexts for using increasingly complex language to represent increasingly complex ideas and for interpreting feelings but also a means for coping with challenges that otherwise might seem overwhelming.

In this issue, issue editor, Donna Boudreau, has collected an outstanding group of articles by exceptional authors, who build on Bruner's premises and extend them for an audience of clinicians and researchers of today. The lead article, by Judith Johnston, provides an update to Johnston's (1982) seminal article, which led many of us in the field of speech–language pathology to contemplate the power of narrative as a clinical context for the first time. It was one of those paradigm shifting articles that nudges, leads, and impels professionals to look at a phenomenon in a different way. Johnston continues to urge practitioners to think beyond the sentence as the unit of communication and to appreciate the interaction of the communicator as a processor of information but also a conveyor of purposeful information with pragmatic impact.

Boudreau's article in this issue provides an overview of the topic that will help readers update both theoretical understandings and practical knowledge for using narrative discourse in assessment and intervention for children with language disorders. Other authors in the issue focus specifically on features of narrative assessment, including innovative methods for assessing narrative comprehension as well as expression (Skarakis-Doyle and Dempsey), and for assessing the language of children whose discourse styles are influenced by diverse cultural experiences (Bliss and McCabe). Both pieces can extend clinicians' skills for conducting comprehensive assessments and reducing bias associated with exclusive focus on classical Euro-American story grammar forms and production alone. Authors in this issue also provide new tools for assessing narrative probes as a measure of language intervention progress (Petersen, Gillam, and Gillam) and evidence that previously described tools can be used reliably to transcribe and analyze narratives produced by children who are dual language learners (Heilmann, Miller, Iglesias, Fabiano-Smith, Nockerts, and Andriacchi). Justice, Swanson, and Buehler emphasize uses of narratives as a primary language intervention context. They offer original data on a project in which they used narrative-based language intervention to target sentence-level abilities for young children with cochlear implants as a context for family-centered practice.

The use of stories in assessment and intervention offers a wealth of opportunities for addressing the language and pragmatic needs of essentially any person with a language disorder. The power of narrative is particularly striking, however, for children with language and communication disorders, whose stories are restricted to a single theme or are limited in some other way. Paley (1990), a consummate storyteller herself, told of her worry about one such child, Jason, in The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Paley described Jason and his monologues and solitary repetitive play at the beginning of the year in her kindergarten classroom:

He plays alone; he tells stories to himself; he seems unaware of our habits and customs. Ask him a question and he says his helicopter is broken. Suggest an activity and he rushes away to fix his helicopter, sometimes knocking over a building in his path. (p. 29)

Paley's book is the saga of how Jason's social world changes along with his stories. It begins as Paley accepts his helicopter narrative but encourages him to build expanded narratives in the related context of social dramatic play, formal story dictation, and story dramatization. Through such vehicles, Jason gradually moves beyond his safe but restricted helicopter narrative to join the stories of his peers. Emphasizing the role of fantasy play in this process, Paley observed that “Any approach to language and thought that eliminates dramatic play, and its underlying themes of friendship and safety lost and found, ignores the greatest incentive to the creative process” (p. 6). By showing how fantasy narratives converge with personal ones, Paley opens the door to an expanded clinical paradigm. It is in the context of dramatic play that Jason eventually joins a peer's kitten-theme narrative of “friendship and safety lost and found,” bending down to whisper in the other child's ear, “Okay, the lady isn't going to lock you out. If you get out, I'll put you back in. Here kitty meow meow” (pp. 129–130). It was a breakthrough moment for Jason.

We are pleased to open the door to these pages and to invite you to explore and contemplate their implications for breakthroughs with your own clients. We know that many of you already have helped clients enrich their personal narratives while developing their language. We wish you all the satisfying experience of engaging with people with language disorders and related challenges to help them construct and comprehend their own “acts of meaning.”

Nickola Wolf Nelson, PhD, Editor

Katharine G. Butler, PhD, Editor Emerita

Back to Top | Article Outline


Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Feldman, C. (1989). Monologue as problem-solving narrative. In K. Nelson (Ed.) Narratives from the crib (pp. 98–119). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Johnston, J. (1982). Narratives: A new look at communication problems in older language-disordered children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 13, 144–155.
Nelson, K. (1989). Monologue as representation of real-life experience. In K. Nelson (Ed.) Narratives from the crib (pp. 27–72). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Paley, V. G. (1990). The boy who would be a helicopter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Shadden, B. B., & Hagstrom, F. (2007). The role of narrative in the life participation approach to aphasia. Topics in Language Disorders, 27, 324–338.
© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins