STORY INTERPRETATION AND LANGUAGE LEARNING
G. Suvarna Lakshmi, M.A., M.Phil., PGDTE
Comprehension of stories is generally observed with the help of the inferences and interpretations the readers/ listeners make from them. Children of primary level cannot be expected to interpret the story in the same way as adult learners do. It is generally presumed that their cognitive maturity imposes limitations on their interpretative abilities and their comprehension is confined to the textual meaning. The present study focuses on two items; one how the comprehension ability of primary level language learners resulting in interpretation be observed and the second, the techniques that a teacher could adopt to improve their comprehension that would facilitate their language learning, as the input is comprehensible one.
Four different stories were chosen from children's storybooks and four different levels of learners were selected as subjects for this study. The stories were narrated (not read) with new vocabulary. Changing the conclusion of a very familiar story, deleting an event leading to resolution, giving conclusions to the story and relating the characters to the episodes in the story were the tasks given to the learners. The learners were asked to retell the story the next day.
The responses from the learners gave evidences to say that every learner is an interpreter, however his or her interpretative ability changes from age group to age group. Implications for the classroom teaching with using stories as texts with different tasks are drawn from the responses of the learners.
This paper tries to argue that the skill of interpretation of stories can contribute to language learning. Four stories were used as texts with four different levels of students of four different groups. The learners of these four groups participated in the action progress of the stories through different tasks. Implications to language teaching classrooms were provided from the study. The main finding of the study is that the young learners are capable of interpreting stories, and their interpretative ability can promote their language learning.
The argument is presented in three parts. Part-I deals with the features that contribute to construct a meaning of a story while Part-II discusses the methodology and the findings of the study. The concluding Part-III will detail the inputs to the language classroom.
2. FEATURES OF A STORY
Story is one genre of text with which everybody is familiar from early childhood. Though a story consists of fictitious characters, these characters are often life-like, or an imitation of life in some sense. So, they make the listener feel at ease while listening. The comprehension of the story, as it progresses, becomes easier with the actions of the characters. As the listener tends to get involved by associating himself/herself with the actions of the characters, the story is comprehended with ease.
Children start listening to stories when their parents or grandparents try to divert their attention from the activity they are urged to do. (For example, making the children have their food, or when they ask for things which are not meant for playing.)
Two most important features of a story, which make it a comprehensible genre especially for children, are: the involvement of the narrator with tone modulations and dramatization.
3. INVOLVEMENT IN THE STORY AND COMPREHENSIBILITY
Children involve themselves with a lot of enthusiasm if the storyteller dramatizes it with an appropriate intonation. The more the child gets involved the better the comprehension. This is the stage when the children first come to terms with the genre - story. This leads to the second feature -interest. As the children know that there would be characters, action, and progress of the action by the characters, they need not be especially motivated to listen to a story, which originates from the interest they have in it. Thus the features of the story themselves ensure that the story is the most comprehensible genre of text. In other words, the comprehensibility of the text is ensured. If comprehension is taken care of, then the child should be able to remember the story, since comprehension and memory are interrelated.
4. THE FUNCTION OF STORY COMPREHENSIBILITY
A major advantage of story comprehensibility is related to language learning and teaching. The shift from structural teaching approaches to more communicative, humanistic and learner-centered approaches in language teaching gives more space for stories in a language classroom. As stories belong to an easy comprehensible genre, and the major requirement for language learning is comprehensible input in the target language, stories are widely used in language learning and teaching materials. Graesser, Golding and Long (1996) say that a narrative plays a critical role in several skills associated with cognitive development. Langer (1990) in particular points out that literature is not properly utilized in the classroom focussing on the cognitive development of the child/ learner.
5. COMPREHENSION AND THE SCHEMA OF THE STORY
When it comes to the listeners' comprehension, the listener needs to have a schema of the story which includes story grammar leading to better comprehension. To comprehend a story, it is important for the listener to have a schema of the genre called story. The story schema consists of the notion and its thematic structure, which includes its contents. Story schema is a mental structure that helps during comprehension and recall of a story. To summarize in Prahlad's (1989:136) words, "it reorganizes, represents and retrieves the incoming information".
A story grammar describes the general structure of the story which is represented in the story schema. It is similar to the grammar of a language which describes the components and rules for the way the constituents are organized. Story grammar rules are general and applicable to any story. After a detailed study of the grammars suggested by different researchers, (e.g.: Rumelhart, Thorndike, Stein and Glenn, Mandler) it can be accepted that a story has a setting and characters. The plot of the story is constructed based on the goals aimed by the characters of the story.
7. A SIMPLE DESCRIPTION OF THE SCHEMA
McConaughy (1980, 1982), however, suggested that the schema changes in accordance with the cognitive development of the child. McConaughy defines three different types of schemas:
- Simple description schema which consists of and relations of events;
- Causal inference schema which defines causal relations of the events and episodes of a story, and
- Social inference schema that relates the experiences of the listener and happenings in the world to what is told in a story text.
8. RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SKILL IN INTERPRETATION AND COMPREHENSION
It is widely accepted that the more the reader/listener is able to infer or interpret relying on his/her background knowledge, the higher will be the comprehension. A story invites substantially more knowledge-based inferences and interpretations than any other text. It can be interpreted in the listeners' own way which can be plausible interpretations. These interpretations need not be what the author intends to say but can still be accounted as acceptable ones unless the reader goes wrong with the facts presented.
9. COMPREHENSION LEVELS OF A STORY
Before discussing the child's comprehension ability of a story and the language learnt through stories, an attempt is made to distinguish the comprehension levels of a story in terms of factual, inferential and interpretative tasks.
I would like to explain this by taking a short story of two simple sentences: "The king died. The queen died." It can be considered as a story with two events in it, the king's death and the queen's death. If a child is able to repeat the facts one after the other it can be assumed that factual comprehension of the story has taken place.
The child is trying to make meaning out of what the text says. It can be inferred from the order of presenting the facts that the queen died after the king had died. Here, the child has to connect the events of the text basing on the facts presented in the text itself.
These two sentences can also be used for interpretations. It can be interpreted that the queen might have died because of the grief caused by the king's death.
10. CONSTRUCTION OF THE MEANING OF A STORY
This is an attempt to involve the listener to construct the meaning of the text beyond what it says literally. Different listeners can make multiple interpretations from the same text and sometimes the same person encountering the same story many times can also lead to multiple interpretations. These three levels of comprehension are defined as and, then and cause relations of the events of a story by Stein (1978).
These interpretations are based on the schemas children have as a result of their constant exposure to their immediate social environment. That is the culture in which they are born and socialized.
11. THE COGNITIVE MATURITY OF CHILDREN AND STORY COMPREHENSION
The cognitive maturity of the child plays a major role in making him/her capable of transferring the acquired knowledge and applying it to the stories which they listen, i.e. the social inference schema. For example, taking the same story, the reason for the queen's death could be grief/love/social circumstances which did not let the queen live after the death of the king. A child can give the plausible reasons to queen's death from what he/she has seen in his/her daily life. But turning them into causal relations of the event of a story would be difficult for them. They receive what is given to them as facts. Consequently, when they recall the story, it turns out to be difficult to differentiate between a comprehended - recalled story and a memorized one.
12. THE MEMORY OF THE HAPPENINGS IN THE STORY AND COMPREHENSION
As mentioned previously, comprehension results in interpretation along with the memory of the happenings of the story. When children are asked to recall the story, the characters, settings and the actions of the characters tend to be common for all of them who listen it. But the then (inferences) and cause (interpretations) relations of the events change from child to child and age group -to-age group. This change can be attributed to the cognitive development of the child.
13. THE TOOL OF QUESTIONING
Although many new techniques like summarizing, developing awareness of story grammars, story mapping, character perspective discussions, character perspective charting, etc., have been proposed by eminent researchers in this field, the conventional way of enhancing and assessing the learners' comprehension of a text is predominantly the tool of questioning which most of the language teaching materials have adopted.
At the primary levels of language learning, the pattern of questions is mostly factual. This is probably due to the assumption that the children will not be able to interpret the text. When children at primary level are able to answer the factual questions based on the text, it may not be proper to conclude that they have comprehended the story. Though such tasks reinforce the facts of the story while increasing the memory of it, the cognitive development is not taken care of. The ability of a learner to answer factual questions could be a result of memorization. According to Graesser (1981), a text, which is retained in the memory, can be retrieved after a long time, only if it is comprehended. But even rote learning gives the same output say Sanford and Garrod (1981).
14. LEVEL OF COGNITIVE MATURIY AND INTERPRETATION OF THE SOTRY
It is hypothesized that the cognitive maturity imposes limitations to interpret the story on young children i.e. the learners of primary school level. If the learners were not able to interpret the story, it would be difficult to ensure the comprehensibility of the story and the comprehension ability of the child. That is, it becomes difficult to arrive at a conclusion whether the child has memorized the text or has reproduced it after comprehending. This also gives way to yet another question related to language learning. How can language learning be facilitated/ enhanced if comprehension ability of the learner and the comprehensibility of the text are not assured?
15. A STUDY TO UNDERSTAND THE INTERPRETIVE ABILITIES OF THE LEARNERS
To analyze this problem, a study was conducted to understand the interpretive abilities of the learners and the differences in their abilities as their cognitive maturity differs. Other techniques apart from questioning were implemented to enhance the story comprehension. The language used by the learners when they were asked to recall the story was also observed.
Four fables (selected from different children's storybooks), which had inbuilt tasks, were narrated to learners of four different classes from different schools. Changing the conclusion of a very familiar story, deleting an event leading to resolution, giving conclusions to the story and relating the characters to the episodes in the story were the tasks given to the learners. The same stories with the same tasks were narrated to the learners of four different classes/levels. The following are the findings related to the way different levels of learners reacted to each of the stories and its tasks.
16. THE ANALYSIS AND THE RESULTS
Class-II: Except the motives of the characters, the learners of this level were able to recall all the events and episodes of the story. The causal events were also included but the discourse markers were avoided. When the setting and the conclusion of the familiar story were changed, the youngest learners rejected the distortions which were made to the story, as their limited story schema did not permit them to accept that the narrated story could be a different one from the one they were familiar with.
This leads to the finding that once a complete story is narrated to young learners, they comprehend it with the sequence of actions, i.e. and relations of the episodes. Memory played a major role in relation to comprehension at this level. Almost all the events of the story were accurately recalled by these learners with minute changes and deviations like avoiding the vocabulary used by the narrator and replacing words like women with girls etc. Nevertheless, they could do this successfully in their oral recall and failed to do it in written form, as they were unsure of the spellings of the words with which they were comfortable orally.
Being the youngest learner group of this study, they were able to give plausible reasons/motives behind the actions of the characters/events of the story. But either their written recall or oral recall did not consist of these details. The simple description schema of the learners helped them to recognize the story gap. This itself can be considered as their interpretive ability as they came up with questions on what lead to the concluding event. This was because unless they comprehended the story along with their story schema being activated, they would not have realized that the story did lack coherence.
Class-III: The learners of this group were able to recognize the super ordinate and the subordinate events of the story that was obvious in their recalls. Though simple description schema was what they also had used to comprehend the stories, they were able to eliminate the subordinate events and summarize the story in their recalls. Their conclusions were more in number. They were silent to the distortions and story gaps which made it apparent that they were in the process of accepting the distortions of the story. The story was presented as facts and statements. There was also an attempt to understand the new words used in the narrative. Their process of comprehension was neither obvious nor suggestive while listening to the stories; however the same could be inferred from their recalls. This was probably because the learners were not sure of their interpretations.
Class-IV: The learners were able to link the events and episodes with discourse markers. This shows that the learners had attained the language to express their ability to interpret the story. The awareness that they could interpret the story, could enhance their level of confidence of their point of view of the story being right. So, their comprehension of the relationships of the events/episodes was also explicit. That is, they activated causal inference schema to comprehend the story. They accepted the distortions and recalled the same. They were able to relate the episodes and the characters to the particular actions, which provide the causal links to the story.
Class-V: They were able to give the motives of characters, i.e. the implicit /covert events of the story were also properly inferred. The causal inference schema of these learners was used to the maximum extent as they were able to question the motives of the characters, but when the same question was posed to them they were not able to give plausible reasons. This shows that their social inference schema is in the formative stage, which let them question but not answer. Though they learnt the words previously, they could not give the meanings when asked before using them in the story, but were successful in using the other forms of the words in their recall.
The conclusions of the study are: the cognitive maturity can impose limitations on children's language ability to express their interpretations of the story, but the same cannot be said about their interpretative ability itself. If the learners are trained to express different possibilities/alternatives to the events that happen in stories, then they will have attained the language to express it along with confidence to do so. The subtlety of the differences between a verbatim recall and comprehension could be observed mostly in the oral recalls of the story. This leads us back to the basics of language learning that speech is primary. So learners are to be given space to use the language orally before they widely use the written form.
The word interpretation has to be redefined according to the levels of the learners. It has to be accepted that every learner is an interpreter but the ability varies. When the interpretation was related to providing motives behind why characters behaved in such and such a way in reaction to the contexts (time, social and cultural settings) of the story, only the adult learners who have the social inference schema will be able to interpret the story. Probably they may be spending more time to explore the deeper/inherent meanings of the text.
On the other hand, when the interpretation is related to suggesting alternative solutions from what has been given by the author, questioning the actions/behavior of the characters, rearranging the events of a story in a chronological order, or any expression based on the cognitive ability of the listener (e.g. oh! This should not have happened like this, or any sympathizing remarks,) then we realize that wider group of learners are capable of interpreting the stories. Any constructed response, as Brown and Hudson (1998) call it, can be accepted as the interpretation of the text. In fact every minute observation of the child is an interpretation reflecting the child's mental ability.
Comprehension becomes redundant when interpretation becomes the focus. All the above mentioned types of interpretations will be the outcomes only when the listener is able to probe into the actions of the characters or else he/she cannot be said to have interpreted the story. This can happen only after comprehending what is actually stated in the text.
Asking the learners to categorize the events/ actions in a story would be a highly demanding task unless they are already trained in doing it. It would also sound similar to teaching of grammar without actually teaching the usage of language. The learners, by the time they enter the school will have story schema consisting of the basic categories of stories resulting in their ability to recall the story with sequence of events. Learners' story schema set up certain expectations and so they will be able to predict the events of the story coinciding with their expectations if they are not presented in the story.
Language learning would be faster and more meaningful for the learners if the learners search for the need to express their understanding of the text. That is, the learners need to find a context to express what they know. The stories with inbuilt tasks themselves can be used as language input which enhance the cognitive ability of the learners. The more they understand, the more they need the language. This creates an environment where the learner is anxiety free which, according to language theorists Krashen (1982), Stevick (1990), helps learners acquire language better. Thus cognitive maturity and language learning are interdependent as comprehension and interpretation are.
The two major implications for language teaching from this study are:
- The tasks given by the teachers to the learners are to be cognitively demanding the attention of the learners so that the mental ability of the learners to comprehend the text at deeper levels or interpretative ability gets enhanced. They should develop/expand the existing schema of the learners leading to another important aspect; language learning.
- If the learner is able to analyze or look at the text from different perspectives, automatically the child will struggle to find words to express it. So, the teacher needs to give confidence for the learners that their point of view is right and support them with the language they need encouraging a more pluralistic perspective to stories.
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The Hare and The Tortoise
Once all the animals in the jungle got bored. They were looking for some entertainment.
Suddenly one of them, a fox, suggested that they should have a race.
"Hurray!" shouted a few in chorus, quite liking the idea of a race.
A few others, however, were lazy and tired. Among them was an old elephant. He said, "Why not have a race with only the hare and the tortoise participating in it?"
Everyone laughed at the elephant, for they knew that the hare could run fast and would surely win the race.
The tortoise did want to try, so he invited the hare for the race.
The hare laughed and said, "Oh! I shall run the race. He was confident that surely he would win the race.
The dog was to flag off the race. He barked and said, "One, two, three, go!" and the hare ran off.
The tortoise could merely walk down the road. Soon the hare was out of sight and won the race.
The Old Woman on The Moon
Deep in the forest lived a jackal, a monkey and a rabbit. They were good friends and played merrily by the river. The kind old woman who lived on the moon often watched them.
"I wonder who is the kindest of all the three", she said to herself. "I think I'll go down and see". And she changed herself into an old beggar and came down where the three friends were playing.
"King animals give me some food", she begged them. " I haven't eaten for two days". The animals felt sorry for the beggar and at once hurried away to get some food.
The monkey climbed up the tree and returned with an apple and an orange which he had stolen from the woodcutter's cottage.
The jackal caught a silver fish from the river near by. Together they made a fire and began to roast the fish.
The poor rabbit ran here and there looking for carrots and radishes, but he couldn't find any. Sadly he returned and told the old beggar that he had nothing to give.
The old beggar changed herself back into the old woman on the moon. She said," "Mr. Rabbit, you are very kind. I will take you to live with me on the moon. We'll sail in the skies and make friends with the stars.
The rabbit climbed on the lap of the old woman and together they flew into the sky.
The Farmer, His Son and The Donkey
Once a farmer wanted to sell his donkey. He, along with his son decided to go to the near by village. They started walking, towing the donkey behind them. They did not want to ride on the donkey as it might get tired and they may not get good price for it.
On their way, they heard some passers by laughing. They said, "Look at those fools, at least one of them can ride on the donkey. But they are walking". The farmer thought they are right and decided that his son should ride on the donkey.
Once again, they saw some more people on their way and they were quite angry with the son for not allowing his old father to ride on the donkey. The son immediately got off the donkey and made his father climb on just thinking that the people were right.
A little later, they saw a few old women sitting outside their houses. The women said," The old man is indeed cruel to make his son walk, while he sits comfortably on the donkey. Now the father and the son were happily riding the donkey thinking that the women were right.
This time they saw people working in the fields and they remarked, "Cruel aren't they? The poor donkey is sure to collapse." The father and the son immediately got down the donkey hearing this.
As they walked, they met another group of people. But, this time the father plugged his ears and his son's with cotton and said, "Everybody's advice is good and everybody is right. But we shall do what is right for us" and walked to the market place.
The Python and the Princess
Many hundred years ago, there was a king. He had two wives, Shobha and Rupa. Queen Rupa hated queen Shobha and turned them out of the palace. The king was afraid of her and did not speak a word. She also asked Shobha's daughter, Devi, to take the king's cows into the forest for grazing everyday. Devi had to obey and took the cows to the jungle.
One evening in the jungle, as Devi was returning home, she heard a soft voice behind her. "Devi, Devi, will you marry me?" said the voice. Devi was frightened and went home quickly. The next day, she again heard the same voice asking the same question.
Her mother said, "Listen, my child. Tell the voice, "Come to my house tomorrow. I will marry you." But mother, I don't know this person" said Devi. Her mother replied, "God will help us. I will look after that."
That day evening Devi told the voice to come the next day.
The next day morning, Shobha woke up early and opened the door to see if anyone was there. There was nobody except a python on the steps. It said, " Your daughter promised to wed me. So I came to your house".
Rupa came there and said, " As Devi has promised she should marry him." She got them married.
The next day morning, as Devi opened her door, Shobha was surprised to see…(WHAT?.)
Looking at this, queen Rupa also got her daughter married to a python. When she knocked on the door the next morning the door did not open. (WHY?)
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