cartoon characters on seesaw. Beware the pendulum swing in literacy
Alice McTyer

Alice McTyer

Literacy learning: two facts that stunned me

As a trained fiction author, I’d been ask to help some 3rd to 8th grade students who “hated” writing. I decided to teach them the writing methods I learned as an adult. To do this,, we analysed excerpts from successful published stories to illustrate how great stories really work and how to write them. The results were pleasing, but also surprising. Even the youngest and least engaged student wrote logical, cohesive and compelling stories. They reported they found this authorship method  easier, too.

Did this mean that all school-aged children could write and comprehend stories like real authors do? Or was I just lucky with this group?

To find out, I took a deep dive into 60 years of literacy research. I uncovered two facts that stunned me:

1. Decades ago, scientists proved that a simple set of story rules boosted literacy outcomes and engagement

Indeed, the research shows that these rules help school students:

·         Comprehend the point, purpose, structure and themes of stories they read;

·         Mentally organise, comprehend and recall stories;

·         Write unique, logical and meaningful stories that are structured to engage the audience and the writer;

·         Enjoy reading and writing more.

Now to the second fact that stunned me.

2. These rules were almost identical to those I was being taught today as an adult author - yet they weren't being taught in schools

Story experts – from Pixar movie scriptwriters to Shakespeare to our ancient ancestors  – use these rules  to structure great stories. The reason for this is simple. These rules allow authors to create the stories they want to tell in a way that’s proven to engage audiences.

Yet despite robust scientific evidence, these meaning-based approaches have broadly fallen out of favour in the classroom. (We will review the research in a moment.)

Is there a case for dusting off these old-school story literacy methods?

Perhaps, if our goal as educators is to both boost literacy outcomes and nurture a life-long love of reading and writing. 

As literacy researcher Joyce Caplan Fine said:

 “The child must read like a writer” to truly become skilled at comprehending and writing stories.

So is there a case for revisiting these old-school literacy rules? Let’s take a (shallow) dive into the old-school research to find out.

It was the 1970s, and the cognitive and literacy scientists were excited

These scientists had discovered a powerful mind construct. This construct, when distilled into simple rules, made learning fiction reading comprehension and narrative writing easier and more engaging.

They called the construct the story schema.  In time, a broadly accepted definition of story schema emerged, at least as it related to literacy learning:

A story schema is: “A set of expectations about the internal structure of stories that make both comprehension and recall more efficient.”

Mandler and Johnson, 1977

Here’s a quick summary of the science over the last 60 years or so.

Researchers McVee and colleagues called children’s knowledge of this internal story structure a “powerful tool” for understanding reading processes and how children learn.

Baumann and Bergeron concluded a “preponderance of research” suggests explicit instruction in this type of story structure enhances students’ ability to “compose well-formed narratives”.

There’s another crucial benefit too. As Pelletier and Beatty argued in 2015:

“Children will better enjoy stories if they are given the tools to understand story structure.”

You can think of effective narrative structure this way. Just as a finite number of musical notes give rise to infinite compositions, a few proven story rules bloom into a million brilliant stories.

Should methods proven to help children learn to comprehend and write – and enjoy doing so, too – be discounted because they are viewed as passed their used-by date?

Let’s take up the history again so you can decide for yourself.

Story schema soon escaped the lab and took hold in the classroom

Given the research results, it was no surprise that innovative teachers began to embrace these story literacy methods. Indeed, the benefits for reading comprehension and writing have since been proven for kindergarteners to high school students.

Even today,  long after story schema has fallen out of favour, academics concerned about declining literacy rates continue to build on the early research. They have found story schema instruction methods benefit students with some learning difficulties and those with low outcomes, engagement and confidence. 

I should point out that these instruction methods have little to do with contemporary writing models that teach abstract “story form” concepts. Such concepts include hook sentences, consolidation, rising tension, etc.  Arguably, the effective story rules are the opposite to “story form”.  

So why aren’t these methods commonly taught in the classroom today? It might have something to do with fashion.

Beware the pendulum swing in literacy: the baby and the bathwater

In 2005, researchers McVee, Dunsmore, and Gavelek warned against the “pendulum swing” effect of research trends in literacy. They argued against assuming new theories and practices supplant earlier (and proven) story schema teaching methods.

They report that literacy theory swung towards social and cultural models of learning in the 80s and 90s. This shift swept away earlier, and highly effective, practical teaching methods, too.

Perhaps a few other trends are in play, too. For one, we’ve embraced “one size fits all” approaches to writing across disparate disciplines. For example, combining narrative and persuasive writing instruction to meet standardised tests, such as Australia’s NAPLAN.

However, as any writer will admit, training in any one discipline (be it fiction, journalism, science, marketing or essays – and I’ve done all of these with varying degrees of success) does not make you a good writer in any other. It’s not just about learning to wield words and ideas. Indeed, each form has its own unique structural rules of engagement. Once you know them, writing and analysis become easier.

The second trend is a separation in the teaching of reading comprehension and writing. Yet plenty of evidence shows that children will benefit if they are taught together. This is especially true if the same set of structural rules apply to writing and reading comprehension.

The evidence for revisiting these old-school story literacy rules

Foremost, adult writers are still taught meaning-based methods very similar to story schema instruction – simply because they work. Oddly enough, what fiction writers learn today isn’t so different from how cavepeople honed their story craft. In the days before written language, stories had to go viral and echo down the generations. This is because storytellers buried within stories crucial information for surviving the social and natural worlds. They quickly learned what worked – and what had their audience throwing mammoth bones.

Indeed, those early cognitive scientists analysed successful published stories to determine what narrative elements were needed for children and adults to rate a story as “good”. They then used this information to define the effective narrative rules. Given children’s exposure to effective stories in books, movies, and TV shows, it’s not surprising they find these rules easier to learn and apply to their own writing and reading comprehension.

The truth is, not much has changed when it comes to the rules that make great stories – outside the classroom, anyway.

There’s another good reason to revisit these old-school story rules. Most children start their reading and writing journeys with narratives, both fictional and personal, and fiction analysis and writing remain a focus in high school.

Want to see the evidence for yourself?

Kendall Haven’s book Story Proof has an excellent summary of the research up to around 2007. If you want more recent proof, please contact me for a review.

Here you can read more about this approach – and how it differs from commonly taught “story form” writing methods.  

If you are interested in seeing how this method works in the class room – and how it could possibly work for kindergarten to senior students, try a no-obligation free PD lesson. It’s designed for busy K-12 teachers, and will only take you 10 minutes. You might be surprised how easy effective narrative writing and reading comprehension is to teach and learn.

If you’d like to take a NESA-accredited teacher training course in Effective Story Literacy, enrol here

What do you think about these old-school literacy rules?

Leave your comment below.

Know other teachers who might be interested?

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Contact Alice

Contact Alice

Alice is an awarded fiction author and journalist with a doctorate in cognitive psychology. She is passionate about engaging children in reading and writing - and the amazing power of story. As such, she is always keen to talk about story literacy - and how to teach it in the classroom.

Teachers: would you give 10 minutes to make narrative writing and fiction reading comprehension easier and more engaging?

See the single most powerful narrative rule in action - and how to harness it. Learn how young and unengaged writers easily created compelling and logical story plans.

2 thoughts on “Beware the pendulum swing in literacy: how lost old-school rules can boost reading and writing outcomes and engagement. 2021”

    1. Hi Zimara
      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure about wrong, but there is a big difference between how authors write and understand fiction and the way school students are often taught to write. Authors are trained to create the stories they want to tell, but in a way that engages the audience. School children are often taught “story form” approaches, which basically instructs them to follow a fairly abstract formula. This formula doesn’t usually show the student how to write stories that are important to them. Because it abstracts the process, it can also be more difficult and less engaging to learn and apply. As a trained author, I because interested in this difference after seeing the way my children were taught to write narratives at school, how much difficulty they had with the process, and how much it turned them off writing creatively. Strangely enough, plenty of studies support children learning to write like authors do, but this hasn’t always translated into teaching practice. This is possibly because a lot of the research comes from cognitive science, not pedagogy. All the best, Alice

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