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Using the How to Catch a Series for Narrative Language Intervention: Yay or Nay?

*Note: Throughout this post, I use the work "creature" to refer to whatever character is trying to be caught.

The short answer to this question (which I get frequently) is...

It completely depends on your purpose.


The long answer, which I suppose is what you want to know if you are reading this, is the rest of this blog post.


To best understand my "long answer" you have to remember that "narrative language" is not a single skill. Rather, it is comprised of multiple different skills. Think of all the different skills that are required to be an effective storyteller. Consider macro (e.g., structure, story grammar) and microstructural (e.g., descriptive vocabulary, figurative language, dialogue, cohesion, etc.) elements of stories and all of the cognitive underpinnings (e.g., attention, regulation, working memory, monitoring, cause-effect reasoning, etc) that are necessary.

Therapeutically, you may consider:

  • Do I want to target comprehension? Expression? Both?

  • Am I going to target retell skills? Generation skills?

  • Within those tasks, are I going to target story grammar (macrostructure)? Descriptive language (e.g., microstructure)? Both?

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to assume that your purpose is to target story grammar, meaning that you want to teach and help your students acquire the story grammar schema, as this is what I find most people mean when they ask me about whether to use this series to support "narrative language." I'm also frequently asked if they are good stories for retell, so I'll touch on that too.


So here's the question I'm going to answer:

Is the How to Catch a series good for A) modeling a story grammar schema/helping your students effectively acquire a story grammar schema? and B) retell?


Let's start with part A.


First let's recap what we know about how to teach and establish a story schema. While there isn't a single way to teach or establish a story schema, the article Narrative Intervention: Principles to Practice (Spencer & Petersen, 2020) suggests that an effective, efficient and systematic way to establish the story schema is to choose stories that clearly model the story grammar structure/schema you are teaching and then use multiple stories with that same structure to teach the schema.

*While visual representations and names of story elements may vary, the common story schema that is used

and taught includes: character, setting, problem, feeling, attempt, consequence, ending.


From a general therapeutic standpoint, we also know that choosing stimuli that will bring a child to their zone of proximal development (ZPD; Vygotsky, 1978) will result in optimal learning outcomes.

*Consider the macro and microstructural complexity of your stimuli and

whether it will help you work in your student's ZPD


It is typical for kindergarten and first grade students to tell/retell supported stories with a single episode. By about 8, children are able to tell/retell a single episode narrative and start telling/retelling dual episode narratives. With all of that in mind, let me talk about a couple aspects of and considerations for the How to Catch a series.


Structure

The structure of the storylines in the How To Catch a Series are not uniform across books. While they all have some episodic elements, some of the books have more clearly episodic structure than others, meaning that the story has a clearly defined character who is actively attempting to resolve a problem. Character perspective, which is also not uniform across books, complicates the structure of the stories because there is no resolution from the children's perspective, but there is from the creature's. To learn more, read this blog post! The inconsistency and lack of clarity in structure may make it difficult for children to acquire the story schema, at least initially. Once established, these may be more suitable for use!


Length/Complexity

Most developmentally appropriate stories for K-3 grade are 1-2, maybe 3 episodes long. The books in this series tend to have, on average 6-8 episodes. This makes independent retell difficult. Also, the "attempts" to catch the creature don't typically have any rhyme or reason to the order--which make it cognitively "heavy" and results in more of a rote recall task. Remember, a good rule of thumb is: if you can't independently retell the story, don't expect your students to.


These two factors alone, in my opinion, make many of the books in this series poor for A) clearly establishing a story schema and B) serving as stimuli for developmentally appropriate, independent retell (without simplification or modification).


Now, I want to be clear. Just because they may not be the best options for establishing story schema or serving as stimuli for independent retell, doesn't mean they can't be useful in supporting narrative language as a whole! Consider other purposes or tasks.


I might instead opt to use them to model causality between events (attempts of the children and reactions/consequence of the creature. The core of a true narrative is the episode (problem-attempt-consequence sequences). Therefore, it is certainly worthwhile to explicitly point out attempts and consequences. This series is great for this--as there are 6-8 opportunities to identify attempts and consequences (i.e., What did they try? Did it work?).


Another option would be to identify existing story grammar features as you engage children in shared book reading. Click here to see an example! This draws the child's attention to the key, important parts of the story.


Lastly, I mentioned this previously, but if the child already has a good grasp of the story schema, they will likely be more successful using stories like this that may deviate from typical structure. I always say-- if you know what's normal, you can identify how it's different and you don't get thrown off. If structures are all over the place all the time and you don't have a reference established to compare the incoming structure to... it's going to be MUCH harder. I do not recommend this.


So let's recap! The take-home message here is: this series, just like any other book, isn't inherently "good" or "bad" for working on narrative langauge (because it's not just one skill!). Depending on your purpose (or the task/skill you are targeting), this series may or may not be a good option.

  • If your purpose is to establish and acquire a story schema or to use the stories as stimuli for independent retell, you may consider choosing a different story that clearly models the schema you are teaching OR you may choose to modify/simplify the story to better model the schema you are targeting with a developmentally appropriate quantity of information.

  • If you are going to allow children to retell with pictures or you have purposes other than the ones mentioned in the previous point, they may work just fine!

So, is this series good for narrative language?


It all comes down to your purpose. First ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish? Then ask yourself: will this book help me do that? If yes, you are good to go! Use your clinical judgement. It's your most powerful tool!


A couple additional notes I will add...

  • Personally, the greatest benefit of the How to Catch a series is the repeated exposures to attempt-consequence sequences.

  • The stories in this book also lend themselves well to the SWBST (Somebody Wanted But So Then) Framework, especially if you consider the story from the perspective of the children. Click here for visuals!


References

Spencer, T. D., & Petersen, D. B. (2020). Narrative intervention: Principles to practice. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 51(4), 1081–1096. https://doi.org/10.1044/2020_lshss-20-00015o


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

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