Narrative Competence and Executive Functioning in Young Children with Varying Degrees of Bilingualism




Mead, Danielle L.

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Narratives are verbal accounts of an event—fictional or real—that follow a temporal sequence of clauses (Justice, Bowles, Pence, & Gosse, 2010; McCabe, 1997; Schick & Melzi, 2010). Narratives represent an interaction of linguistic, cognitive, and socio-cultural abilities, and are a culturally universal mode for expression and understanding experience. Researchers have emphasized the cognitive demands placed on an individual when creating a cohesive narrative, requiring the narrator to monitor the story’s organization while presenting the causal and temporal sequence of events; however, there are few studies to explicitly test relations between narrative complexity and executive functioning. In bilingual samples, advantages in executive functioning have been established, and more recently, narratives are being used in lieu of or in addition to standardized assessments of expressive vocabulary because narratives are considered ecologically valid and culturally unbiased measures of language complexity (Bedore, Peña, Gillam, & Ho, 2010; Fiestas & Peña, 2004). Thus, the current study examines the narrative structure and complexity of stories during a storytelling task and relates that to several direct measures of executive functioning. Additionally, language group (monolingual vs. bilingual), along with a continuous measure of degree of bilingualism, were tested as moderators to see if the relation between narrative complexity and executive functioning varies by the bilingualism status of the child. Narrative complexity was coded using several different measures to sensitively detect individual differences among the narratives produced in English and/or Spanish in (N = 79) 5- to 7-year-old children, consisting of English/Spanish bilinguals, dual language learners not yet fully proficient in a second language, and monolingual (English) children. Exploratory factor analyses (EFAs) yielded underlying constructs of narrative complexity and executive functioning; thus, a series of structural equation models was run to explore the relation between comprehensive measurements of narrative complexity and executive functioning. In addition, regression models were run to determine how degree of bilingualism may affect the relation between narrative complexity and executive functioning. Results indicated that age significantly predicted English narrative complexity (i.e., older children produced more complex narratives), and gender and receptive vocabulary, but not age, predicted Spanish narrative complexity (i.e., girls and children with stronger Spanish vocabulary produced more complex narratives). There was a positive association between overall narrative complexity and executive functioning, but this correlation was partially accounted for by controlling for age. Also, when narrative was separated into micro- (e.g., vocabulary and grammar) and macro-levels (e.g., organization and plot details) of analyses, only the macro-level was significantly correlated with executive functioning. When only examining the Spanish narratives of the bilingual children, the association between narrative complexity and executive functioning was not found. Several variables were tested to see if the relation between narrative complexity and executive functioning was different for children based on age, language group, or degree of bilingualism, but none of these variables altered the relation. This study contributes to the larger body of narrative research that has only highlighted the cognitive skills required to tell a coherent and well-organized narrative without ever directly relating narratives to executive functioning. Although direction of effect is still unclear, parents and teachers may consider providing children with numerous opportunities for practicing their narrative storytelling, as improvements in narrative may also lead to improvements in executive functioning. Future research can build off of the comprehensive models that were run in this study and apply them to other populations or in a longitudinal framework.



Developmental psychology, Bilingualism, Executive functioning, Language, Narrative