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4 Considerations for Appropriately Leveling Tasks for Narrative Language Intervention

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

Some of the questions I get most frequently are:

How do I choose or level my storytelling tasks?

How do I know when to make it harder?

How do I even make it harder?

The truth is: there are quite a few moving parts, but they are so important to understand so that you can assess, treat and write goals effectively. Don't worry, I'll make it easy for you!

The first thing you need to do is:

Consider the cognitive load associated with the task. The heavier the cognitive load, the more difficult the task.

You might then ask, how "heavy" should the load be? And the answer would be: Consider the child's ZPD (see right).

Consider your muscles. If we want to build or strengthen our muscles, we need a certain amount of "load" to challenge that muscle. If we have too "little" load, the task is too easy and our muscles don't grow. Likewise, if the load is too "heavy" (even with help), growth will still not occur and we risk frustration and injury.

Interestingly enough, our brains work similarly to our muscles. If the cognitive load is too light and the child can already do a task independently, there is nothing to learn and little to no progress will be observed. If the cognitive load is too "heavy", even with support, learning will not occur, progress will not be made, and the child (and likely the clinician) will be frustrated.

So what factors should you consider then? How do you determine the appropriate cognitive load or difficulty? Spencer and Petersen (2020) suggest considering...

  • Task type (e.g., retell vs generation)

  • Task modality (e.g., oral vs written)

  • Supports (e.g., visuals vs no visuals)

In addition to these aspects suggested by Spencer and Petersen (2020), I would recommend considering the following as well:

  • Structural Complexity

  • Vocabulary Complexity

  • Syntactic Complexity

  • Background Knowledge

  • Interest/Motivation

Considering these aspects and their relative difficulty ("weight") directly correlate with the cognitive load of the task or stimuli you present. Manipulation of these characteristics will help you to effectively treat within the child's ZPD.

Consider this example...

*For simplicity, I am going to use only the factors suggested by Spencer and Petersen (2020), but in reality, all factors should and can be considered/manipulated. Click here to learn more about building narrative complexity.

Ronnie is a second grader who struggles with narrative discourse. You have been working on orally retelling a story with visuals. When you first started working on this goal, it was difficult for him, but with visual supports, he started to make progress. After a few sessions, Ronnie's progress really started to pick up. He could consistently retell a story with relative ease with (and sometimes even without) visuals. *The green area below represents Ronnie's ZPD.

You want Ronnie to keep progressing, so you think about how to make the task a little more difficult to stay in his ZPD. You decide to try working on oral fictional generation with visuals. After a few sessions, you notice that Ronnie is struggling to generate a cohesive fictional story, despite your best efforts to support him. Both you and Ronnie leave the session feeling frustrated and exhausted.

You remember that Ronnie enjoyed telling stories about himself when you practiced from time to time after completing a retell task. You decide to try working on personal story generation instead. After a few sessions, you notice that this is still a challenging task for Ronnie, but he isn't overly frustrated and, with your help, he is successful.

You learn that you have to constantly evaluate a child's progress and ZPD and make modifications to the task difficulty to optimize gains.

End of example.

I hope that example helped you to see how this would be applied in practice. In reality, it might take a little more manipulating and trial and error than this example reflected, but the principle holds true.

Summary: If we want to be effective and efficient in our interventions and goal writing, we have to constantly identify and work within the child's ZPD. There are many moving parts and variables to consider when examining cognitive load. You may need to modify aspects (sometimes multiple aspects) of your task or stimuli so that it falls within the child's ZPD.

My narrative language materials are designed based on task type, with included instructional recommendations to allow implementation across a range of skill levels. Check them out here.


  1. Spencer, T. D., & Petersen, D. B. (2020). Narrative intervention: Principles to practice. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 51(4), 1081-1096. []

  2. Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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