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Using story-grammar instruction and picture books to increase reading comprehension.


This study investigated the effects of story-grammar instruction on the reading comprehension of narrative text by 26 first-grade students (six with disabilities) in general education classes. The instruction consisted of two different approaches: 1) basic story-grammar instruction, and 2) story grammar integrated with the students' personal experiences. The narrative texts used were 20 popular children's picture books. A comparison-group design (n=13) was utilized. Results indicated improvement of the experimental subjects' abilities to retell stories, recall and retain information from the stories, and answer story-grammar questions. The effects were maintained over time.


By the time children enter kindergarten, many enjoy listening to stories and are eager to learn how to read. For them, reading instruction focuses on phonological awareness and rules of print. By the time children enter the first grade, they still love listening to stories and are even more determined to read independently. However, as they progress through the elementary grades, they are faced with more complex reading material. There is a shift from rule-based phonological text (e.g., She pat the cat on the hat) to narrative text. They are exposed to irregular words that do not follow phonological rules or sentences that do not follow patterns. Additionally, the academic demands placed on the student switch from decoding and learning to read to comprehension and reading to learn (Gardill & Jitendra, 1999).

This shift in complexity of reading material may account for the significant problems that students with learning disabilities (LD) experience during the elementary grades (Swanson, 1999). Indeed, Bryan, Bay, Lopez-Reyna, and Donahue (1991) reported that a deficiency in reading skills is a primary reason for referral to special education. In fact, 75% of all students with LD have a reading disability as their primary disability (Kavale & Forness, 1985). These effects can persist through high school where students with LD are able to read only at a fourth-grade level (Deshler & Schumaker, 1988) on average. Another contribution to the reading difficulties experienced by students with LD is their limited knowledge of text structure, the organizational features that serve as a frame or pattern to help readers identify important information, make logical connections between ideas, facilitate understanding, and summarize text (Englert & Thomas, 1987).

One narrative text structure that has been successfully used to increase reading comprehension is story grammar. Story grammar evolved from studies by anthropologists and cognitive psychologists who discovered that retellings of stories follow a very distinct pattern (Dimino, Taylor, Gersten, 1995). In its simplest form, the story grammar pattern consists of the main character, his/her problem, his/her attempts to solve the problem, and the chain of events that lead to a resolution (Mandler & Johnson, 1977; Stein & Trabasso, 1982; Thorndyke, 1977).

There is empirical evidence showing that story-grammar instruction is effective in improving reading comprehension of narrative text for students with and without LD at most grade levels (e.g., Carnine & Kinder, 1985; Dimino, Gersten, Carnine, & Blake, 1990; Gurney, Gersten, Dimino, & Carnine, 1990; Idol, 1987; Idol & Croll, 1987; Short & Ryan, 1984; Singer & Donlan, 1982). However, there are no studies to support its usage with students in the first grade. The first grade is considered by many educators to be the critical year for reading instruction. It is also the grade level in which students are faced with increasingly complex and irregular narrative text.

Purpose of Study

The purpose of the study was to investigate the effects of two approaches to story-grammar instruction on the reading comprehension of first-grade children with and without LD enrolled in a general education setting. The two approaches were basic story-grammar instruction, and story grammar integrated with the students' personal experiences. For this study, the basic story-grammar pattern included setting, characters, problem, solution, and reaction to the solution. (See Table 1 for story-grammar elements.) See <>


Setting. The subjects attended an elementary school in a small town in Kansas. The school was specifically chosen for its diverse student population and high proportion of economically disadvantaged students. Three first-grade classes were selected to participate in the study. The students with LD fully included. During the 1999-2000 school year, two intact classes were randomly assigned an experimental condition (Integrated Story-Grammar Instruction [Group A] or Basic Story-Grammar Instruction [Group B]). Group A's teacher also agreed to have her 2001 first-grade class be the comparison group (Group C).

Subjects. A total of 39 students participated. (See Table 2 for student demographic data.) The students classified with LD had Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). They were identified by comparing scores on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised with scores on a kindergarten/first-grade readiness test and a teacher report of classroom functioning. The IQ and readiness test scores were not available to the researcher. See <>

Intervention Materials

Twenty children's picture books were chosen as the primary instructional materials. (See Table 3 for list of books.) Books that were unfamiliar to the students and conducive to teaching the story-grammar elements were selected. For example, Pfister's "The Rainbow Fish" was chosen because of its strong character component. After the books were selected, they were separated based on their appropriateness to each of the five story elements. See <>


A standard test was administered to each student individually three times: before the intervention (pretest), one week after the intervention (posttest), and three months after the posttest (maintenance test). For each test, a story was read aloud to the student. All students heard the same three stories in the same order. The researcher asked questions about each story and the students responded orally. Three measures were derived.

Retelling score. After hearing the story, the student was prompted, "In your own words, tell me what this story was about." The researcher recorded the student's responses on the Retelling Checklist, which listed ten items corresponding to parts of a story (e.g., included details about the characters). As the student included parts in the retelling, a checkmark was placed next to the items. The student was awarded one point for each part included in the retell (total possible ten points). A percentage score was derived for the percentage of items included.

Story retention score. A story retention quiz was used next. Each quiz included eight factual comprehension questions from the story and two questions that required the students to make inferences. A list of acceptable answers for each question was generated, and pre-typed onto the instrument. The researcher orally asked the questions and recorded the student's response on the instrument. If the student gave a response that was on the list of acceptable answers, he/she was awarded one point for each correct answer (total possible ten points). A percentage correct score was derived.

Story-grammar score. Questions and a story-grammar checklist were used to assess the student's knowledge of the five story-grammar elements from the story. The checklist consisted of one to three questions for each of the five elements. For example, one question was, "Where does the story take place?" The researcher orally asked each question and circled either a "yes" or "no" depending on the student's response. If the student gave a correct response, he/she was awarded one point for each correct answer (total possible thirteen points). A percentage score was derived.


The intervention occurred in each class daily for six weeks (30-minute sessions). The students in all three groups had the same amount of instructional time. During instruction time, the classroom teachers either corrected papers or were outside of the class.

Integrated story-grammar instruction. Group A received story-grammar instruction that integrated the students' personal experiences. The students were taught how to recall and reflect upon one type of personal experience per week: favorite places, important people, life problems, strategies to resolve problems, and different emotions. After each student orally told the researcher about his/her experience, the student drew a picture and wrote a sentence to represent the personal experience. Next, students were taught the story-grammar element that was parallel to their personal experiences (one per week). Then the students listened to an unfamiliar story and identified the story-grammar element from the story. Finally, the students independently drew pictures and wrote sentences about the story-grammar element from each story. After the students learned all five of the elements separately, they were taught how to integrate all of the parts into a story map.

Basic story-grammar instruction. Group B received basic story-grammar instruction. The students were immediately introduced to each of the five story-grammar elements (one per week). Then, after the students orally demonstrated their knowledge of the story part, they listened to the same unfamiliar story as Group A. The students then identified the specific story-grammar element from the story, and independently drew and wrote sentences about the story part. After the students learned all five of the elements separately, they were taught how to integrate all of the parts into a story map.

Comparison group. Group C did not receive any story-grammar instruction. Instead, this group received the same daily reading comprehension instruction that the classroom teacher would have provided (as reported by that teacher). As the researcher read a story, the students were continually asked to predict what event was going to happen next. At the end of the story, the students stated whether they liked or disliked the book and gave their reasons why. After they verbalized their opinions, the students drew pictures and wrote sentences about their favorite part of the story.

Design and Data Analysis

A comparison-group design was used to assess the efficacy of the two approaches to story-grammar instruction. In order to minimize the disruption to students, they received instruction in their intact classes. A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to evaluate the equivalence of the groups at pretest. The ANOVA revealed no significant differences between the groups (F (2, 36)= 2.108, p =.136). In order to control for teacher variance, the researcher implemented the instruction for all three groups. A maintenance test was not administered to Group C because school ended one month after they completed their posttests.

A separate one-way analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was conducted for each of the three measures and for the total score. The independent variable was the treatment condition. The dependent variable was the mean posttest score on each measure, and the covariate was the mean pretest score on the same measure. Post-hoc follow-up tests were conducted to evaluate the pairwise differences among the adjusted mean posttest scores. The Holm's sequential Bonferroni procedure was used to control for Type 1 errors across the three pairwise comparisons.


Table 4 shows the adjusted mean scores for the pretest and the posttest for all three groups and the maintenance tests for Groups A and B. See issue's website <>

* Retelling score. The ANCOVA revealed significant differences between the groups, F (2,36)= 3.53, p= .04. Follow-up tests indicated a significant difference in the adjusted means between Group A and Group C.

* Story retention score. There were no significant differences between the groups, F (2,36)=1.548, p=.227.

* Story-grammar score. The ANCOVA revealed significant differences, F (2,36)=4.04, p=.026. Follow-up tests indicated a significant difference in the adjusted means between Group A and Group C and between Group B and Group C.

* Total scores. The ANCOVA revealed significant differences between the groups, F (2,36)=5.58, p=.008. Follow-up tests indicated a significant difference in the adjusted means between Group A and Group C and between Group B and Group C. Additionally, a paired samples t-test indicated there was no significant difference between mean total posttest and mean maintenance test scores for Groups A and B.

* Individual student scores. Fifteen students in Group A (94%), nine students in Group B (90%), and seven students in Group C (54%) improved total scores after intervention. Additionally, the six students with LD in Groups A and B (100%) increased their reading comprehension scores compared to three students with LD in Group C (75%).


The results of the study support the use of story-grammar instruction as a method to improve the ability of first-grade students with and without LD to retell and identify story elements in narrative text. There were significant differences between both experimental groups and the comparison group on the story-grammar measure and total scores. Subjects in the integrated story-grammar condition performed better than the other groups on all measures except the story retention measure. There was not a significant difference among the students' performance on the story retention measure. It appears that the prediction technique used with the comparison group helped to increase these students' ability to retain literal information from a story. However, this is considered a less-complex comprehension task because the focus is on minor details rather than on important ideas (Gurney et al., 1990).

The two approaches of story-grammar instruction were effective in improving the overall reading comprehension for all but two of the students in the experimental groups. The increase in overall performance was also noted for all of the students with disabilities in these two groups. The students who showed improvement were also able to maintain their performance following a summer break. The scores of almost half of the comparison group either remained constant or decreased from pretest to posttest.

The results of this study support the findings of previous studies in story-grammar instruction. In their study with five upper-elementary students with LD, Idol and Croll (1987) reported that four of the students showed net gains from baseline to maintenance in daily reading comprehension lessons, and three students made gains in story retelling. There were several limitations to the study. First, the students did not read the stories by themselves. This was done to eliminate the variance that might be introduced by individual students' decoding skills. Second, the students with LD and reading difficulties were frequently pulled out of the classroom for special education and/or Title 1 services. This might have affected the integrity of instruction that they received. Finally, the use of intact classes resulted in an uneven distribution of students with disabilities in each group.

All of the students, including the comparison group, seemed to enjoy the intervention. The students were eager to listen to stories and anticipated which story would be read next. However, since the subjects were young, the concept of setting was difficult for them to grasp. Thus, the researcher had to frequently model how to distinguish the setting in the text and modify her language. There was a noted difference in attentiveness between the two experimental groups and the comparison group as they listened to the stories. This difference may be due to the fact that the experimental groups were told to listen "with a purpose" of searching out the highlighted story-grammar element of the week. The students in the comparison group were not given any prior instructions and this may account for their passive attitudes.

Future research on story-grammar instruction should examine how explicitly teaching structures in narrative text can improve students' ability to tell original stories and independently write complete stories. A memorable comment that came from one of the students with LD in the experimental group was, "Why didn't anyone tell me this before?" Reading to students (especially those with LD) is very important for their developing reading comprehension. However, explicitly teaching story grammar can help to demystify stories. In this way, students can attend to and derive meaning from the entire story instead of focusing on a few minor details.


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Gurney, D., Gersten, R., Dimino, J.A., & Carnine, D. (1990). Story Grammar: Effective literature instruction for learning disabled high school students. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23, 335-342.

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Idol, L. & Croll, V. (1987). Story-mapping training as a means of improving reading comprehension. Learning Disability Quarterly, 10, 214-229.

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Mandler, J.M., & Johnson, N.S. (1977). Remembrance of things parsed: Story structure and recall. Cognitive Psychology, 9, 111-151.

Short, E.J., & Ryan, E.B. (1984). Metacognitive differences between skilled and less skilled readers: Remediating deficits through story grammar and attribution training. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 225-235.

Singer, H., & Donlan, D. (1982). Active comprehension: Problem-solving schema with question generation for comprehension of short stories. Reading Research Quarterly, 17, 166-185.

Stein, N.L, & Trabasso, T. (1982). What's in a story? An approach to comprehension and instruction. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 213-267). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Swanson, H.L. (1999). Reading Research for Students with LD: A meta-analysis of intervention outcomes. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 32(6), 504-532.

Thorndyke, P.W. (1977). Cognitive structures in comprehension and memory of narrative discourse. Cognitive Psychology, 9, 77-110.

Yvonne Nguyen Bui is a doctoral candidate in the Special Education Department and a graduate research assistant at the Center for Research on Learning. Previously, she was a first-grade teacher in an inner-city school in San Francisco, CA.
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Author:Bui, Yvonne Nguyen
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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