California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

The Art Of Telling A Story

Published: July 10, 2017

Kimberly Kelly

Human Development’s Kimberly Kelly directs a Child Language Interactions and Memory research lab on campus that wants to tell a story about the importance of telling stories.

Kelly, a member of the university since 2013, uses her lab in LA5 to study the power of narrative and especially how parents can use stories to sharpen their children’s memories and deepen their emotional bond.

Her lab maps the crossroads between the use of language and the cognitive development of children. Specifically, it investigates how child characteristics, parent-child interaction and emotional attachment influence how children tell stories and how they remember their lived experiences. Looking at the “Influence of the Mother-Child Attachment on Young Children’s Narrative Abilities” was the topic of her doctoral dissertation from UCLA.

Kelly believes telling narratives strengthens memory.

“You see the impact of narrative on memory via the conversations children have with their parents,” she explained. “Parents point out the important details of a story through their questions and prompts about such personal experiences as a trip to Disneyland. That clues the child into what is memorable and important about an event. Parents give scaffolding for their kids’ conversations that allows them to rehearse a coherent story that reinforces memory. Building a coherent story—one that orients their listener as to who was where and what time everything happened, the setting, the actions and resolution—shapes the child’s mental representations of those events and allows the memory to be more easily accessed.

“There are stories kids tell themselves and there are stories moms and their kids tell together,” she added. “We’ve been busy analyzing this rich language data. In the fall, the students analyzed 195 mother-child narratives. Clearly, having student help is integral to this lab.”

Students have contributed to Kelly’s most recent study, a qualitative analysis to identify strategies mothers use to help their children to learn how to chronologically sequence their stories. Other students have looked at the relationship between the structures of stories kids tell themselves versus what they tell with their mothers. One student is interested in differences between the stories told by children who are securely attached to their mothers versus those who are not. Other students examine father-child narratives.

Kelly presented to the Society for Research in Child Development in April about her research collaboration with international colleague Ana Carmiol of the University of Costa Rica examining differences in the structure of Anglo-American children’s independent narratives and those of Latin American children.

“My research has found there is a great deal of variability in the way moms help their kids straighten out their chronological sequencing,” she said. “Some moms corrected their children directly and some corrected indirectly by asking questions. Some moms just usurped the story. These strategies are important because both independent narrative storytelling and narratives built with parents predict early literacy.”

According to Kelly, narrative plays a role in the development of conversational skills.

“Narrative skills and conversational skills are usually considered separate domains,” she said. “It takes narrative skills to know what is important to tell about a story. However, in a conversation, you need a separate set of skills that allows the storyteller to know when it is appropriate to take turns. When and how should storytellers respond? I want to know how these two skills impact each other in the way children learn to tell narratives.

“Developmentally, older children are better at staying on topic,” she added. “They are better at taking turns when it is appropriate. Normally, children learn to respond conversationally when they are 2 years old. When you look at older children’s ability to stay on topic, their conversational skills sharply increase. When children’s conversational and narrative skills begin to reach their peak at age 5, you see them assert their own autonomy in the conversation to drive the narrative topic.”

Some studies suggest technology may have a deleterious effect on memory.

“Instead of using our own faculties to hold a memory, we outsource our memories to devices,” she said. “There is a way to use technology to take back our memories. For instance, you go to the Long Beach Aquarium with your child. You use your phone to snap pictures of a jellyfish. You could leave it at that and put your phone away. I believe if the parent uses the photo as a springboard for a conversation with the child about the experience of seeing the jellyfish, the child’s memories of the aquarium will be enhanced and the experience of reminiscing about the trip will strengthen the parent-child bond.”

Kelly earned her B.A. in psychology from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and her master’s and Ph.D. in education from UCLA, the latter in 2011.

Her research has deepened her appreciation of language’s power.

“When people prefer to engage with their phones than their families, those are lost moments,” she concluded. “They lose the opportunity to make connections and the chance to develop the language ability of a child. Every bit of language exposure makes a big difference.”