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Tell Me a Story
A Conversation with Nicole Gardner-Neblett
Diversity Committee (DC): Please tell me about yourself and about the work that you do.
Nicole Gardner-Neblett (NGN): I'm a developmental psychologist, and my work looks at children's language and literacy experiences. So, how can we take what we know about research and apply it in a way that supports and improves children’s developmental outcomes? … I have a couple of lines of research around that. One looks at working with infant and toddler teachers and how we can take what we know about infancy and toddlers and how they learn how to speak and help teachers to provide the support that children need in order to be able to learn more.
… But I've also had another line of research around African American children and their storytelling skills. … There's some work that I've done that suggests that for African American children from a very young age, as young as preschool age, their storytelling skills have an impact on how they learn to how to read and on emergent literacy skills. So, what I want to do is understand more about what's going on in terms of the mechanisms and how we can support African-American children to have better reading outcomes.
DC: Can you tell me about a recent publication that you have and what the significant findings were of that in relation to your work?
NGN: … A colleague of mine and myself, we published a paper … in Child Development that looks longitudinally at early oral narrative skills, these storytelling skills that children have … from when they were preschoolers, and looked at their reading trajectories over elementary school. We found that early oral narrative skills, like how well a child is able to tell a story, have implications for their reading trajectories. And, there's a difference between boys and girls in terms of the impact over time. For girls we see the impact earlier. [For them] having strong narrative skills predicts better reading outcomes until about 3rd grade, and then the effect Peters out. But for boys, we see that these early oral narratives skills have an impact that lasts well through 6th grade. …Boys who have really strong oral narrative skills, the ones who were really able to tell wonderful, well-structured stories, they end up having reading trajectories that improved at a faster rate. So, the reading achievement scores increased faster for boys who have weaker oral narrative skills. To me, the take home from that is that these early oral narrative skills are really important. They can set children on a trajectory. And, yet, a lot of the times, just anecdotally from interviews I've done with teachers, there's a focus on written stories more. And I wonder to what extent that might be a result of testing and having to make sure that children can write a compelling argument or story as opposed to being able to verbally deliver a story.
DC: What are the policy implications or the practical implications of that work for you? What would you like to see it used to do?
NGN: Well, I would love to understand more about the mechanisms first, to understand why these oral narrative skills are having an impact on reading, particularly reading comprehension. …We want a child to not only know that C-A-T is “cat,” but to know what is a cat like? and what does a cat do? To comprehend what they read more than just decode it. … That is where narrative comes in. And understanding what the mechanisms are between those two are really important. If we can understand that, then we can have a point of intervention where we can support better narrative skills in order to support better reading outcomes.
DC: … What are the major sources of inspiration for the research that you're doing currently?
NGN: For me the major source of inspiration is just lived experience as an African American in the United States, and seeing how important verbal skills are within the community. You see this with preachers on Sunday morning. They have to be able to deliver a riveting sermon and inspire and move their congregation. You see this with just guys, you know, battling each other out just verbally. You see this with kids on the playground telling “yo’ mama” jokes. I mean, there's a value for being able to hold your own verbally and, yet, in the research literature we're seen as having deficits in terms of language skills. And, that discrepancy— the lived experience versus what the literature says—is the one that I'm constantly grappling with.
And trying to understand how can this be. I want to be able to understand these strengths that exist within the African American community, … and how can we make a connection with school experiences that children have, because right now there seems to be a disconnect.
DC: What new directions will your work be taking?
NGN: Just recently I've gotten a grant funded from the Spencer Foundation and it's to look at the perceptions that teachers have of these oral narrative skills. I want to be able to understand to what extent teachers may have a certain bias towards African American children and their storytelling skills. Maybe there is no bias. I don't know. But I have some work that I'm going to be doing based on that funding to conduct an experiment and see … if we present teachers with a narrative and the only thing that differs is a child's name either stereotypically black or white name or a stereotypical girl or boy name, how will their ratings change as a function of that? So, if I say this story is by written by or this story is a story told by Malik versus this is a story that Jake told, will I get differences in terms of how teachers rate the stories? So that's … the next step I'm going to. And, if we can understand this better, and understand the teacher's perspective, and also what the children are bringing to the table, then we can better support both the teachers in providing better reading instruction and helping children make that jump from oral narratives to oral language to written language. And we can better support children in fostering those skills that will support their reading development.