In a broad sense, parents who habitually engage in more nonpresent and related-to-present talk with their young children provide more opportunities for children to learn to represent past events, to report intentions, feelings, and reactions, and to tie experiences in one context to those in another. All of these, we believe, are skills that are critical to later autonomous narrative production. As children become more capable of extended nonpresent talk, parents' topic extensions begin to include more specific prompts for information about narrative participants, setting, consequences, and resolutions, elements of narrative structure that our most successful children were able to produce independently at age 5. Thus, the relationships demonstrated between nonpresent talk at 20 and 32 months and the production of narrative structure and evaluation at 5 years of age, both in personal narrative and in fantasy play, reflect interactional histories that go beyond specific narrative exchanges. As Peterson and McCabe (1992, 1994) and Fivush and Hayden have argued (Fivush, 1994; Hayden & Fivush 1997), young children acquire understandings of culturally important elements of narrative structure through participation in joint conversation about past events with parents. The present study suggests that this interactional picture should be broadened to include other kinds of talk about the nonpresent (talk about nonobservable feelings and thoughts, for example), as well as talk about the related-to-present.
Pragmatic flexibility assesses another feature of extended parent-child talk, the ability to engage in a variety of communicative activities and to shift between here-and-now and nonpresent frames of reference. This aspect of interactional experience is only moderately associated with children's later ability to produce personal narrative, but shows stronger associations with the ability to participate successfully in fantasy play. Unlike personal narrative, fantasy play is a context that requires frequent shifts between talk with the adult partner in the immediate context of joint pretense (Oops, the lion's tail fell off!), relatively autonomous narration of story happenings (Out jumped the lion cub's mommy), and shifts into the voice of story characters. (And the dragon said to all the other animals, "I don't like you. I'm gonna eat you all up.") The ability to manage these shifts in narrative role may be facilitated by early practice in shifting frames of reference in conversation with parents.
Early morphosyntactic attainment as indexed by mean length of utterance and by IPSyn at 32 months shows little association with any of the areas of extended discourse competence at 5 years of age, though there is a hint of involvement in children's construction of a fantasy world. This may preview a larger role for morphosyntax as children begin to use more sophisticated anaphoric strategies for marking shifts in focus between central and peripheral story characters, and as they more consistently use anchor tense to bind together events in the story world.
The picture that emerges, then, as we consider continuity between early and later pragmatic skills is not simply one of homotypic continuity, with early experience in relating past events or engaging in fantasy narration with an adult partner predicting later personal narrative and fantasy narrative skills. Rather, it is also one of heterotypic continuity, in which experience in talking about the nonpresent, practice in negotiating shifts between talk about the here-and-now and talk about the nonpresent, and engagement in a broad range of communicative interchanges, may be crucial preparation for later autonomous narrative production.
The work described here is limited in a number of respects and only begins to scratch the surface of children's abilities to tell different kinds of stories. As is true of the vast bulk of spontaneous-language based research, the dyads studied here were primarily from white, English-speaking, middle-class families. Data on parent-child conversations in low-income and racial/ethnic minority families are woefully scarce, and for the most part have not been analyzed from a pragmatic perspective; we know little about the early language experiences of children in such families and how those experiences may be related to narrative and other discourse skills children bring to kindergarten. Greater depth of information is also needed about the naturally-occurring fantasy talk of children from all backgrounds in interaction with peers and siblings, and in small group as well as dyadic contexts. Mother-child verbal interaction, though indisputably important, is only one of many communicative participant structures most toddlers experience. Talk with fathers and other caregivers, siblings, and familiar peers undoubtedly each provides grist for the mill as toddlers and preschoolers come to understand and verbalize the physical (sometimes not present) world, multiple social worlds, and universe of fantasy worlds. Narrative offers a window on children's emerging understandings of such worlds and on the linguistic skills with which they navigate among them.
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