Concept of Story

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Vironica Simmons and Annette Gebhardt

This page is a work in progress


Concept of Story




I. Introduction

II. Six stages in children's event-arrangement of stories

III. Implications

IV. Conclusions

V. References




Stories have captivated children and adults for centuries. Before they were written down, they were passed orally from one generation to the next. It is such a natural and normal part of our environment, that a person is likely to forget that stories provide the beginning and continuing means for shaping our experiences. Indeed, as Gordon Pradl stated in 1984, "... Without stories, our experiences would merely be unevaluated sensations from an undifferentiated stream of events. Stories are the repository of our collective wisdom about the world of social/cultural behavior; they are the key mediating structures for our encounters with reality.” (Pradl, G. 1984) This “mediating structure” is learned at an early age in a child’s life. According to Arthur Applebee, professor at the University of Albany, a child’s idea of a story is similar to other cognitive abilities in that it is developmental. Applebee discovers six event-arranging developmental stages in his research that shows how a child develops a concept of story. The developmental stage begins with lists of unrelated topics, he calls "heaps", and moves to a more complex stage called the "true narrative". (Pradll, 1984)

Arthur Applebee


This paper will look at each of the six stages and discuss the importance of Applebee’s conclusions about how children develop their concept of story.


The following chart shows the structure of children's stories at each stage and age. The "n" in each category indicates the number of stories written at each age.


The Structure of Children's Stories

No. Of Stories
Plot StructureAge 2 (n=30)Age 3 (n=30)Age 4 (n=30)Age 5 (n=30)Total (n=120)
Primitive Narratives773017
Unfocused chains023510
Focused chains511161648



Stages of Development

Using Vygotsky's 1962 work with understanding concept development, Applebee identified six stages in the child's development of the concept of story. The six stages identified by Applebee include: heaps, sequences, primitive narratives, unfocused chain, focused chains, and narratives.(Applebee, 1978)



Understanding concept development helped with identifying this first stage. In one experiment, Vygostsky had labeled blocks of different shapes, and colors with nonsense words and asked children to show which blocks went together. He labeled the first stage “heaps” because of the way children just reached out and “heaped” the blocks together. It is an effort to organize. According to Applebee, we use this research to relate to a child’s effort to organize a story. In the beginning stages of a child’s story development, thoughts are linked together by chance due to a child’s perception of them. The heap is a very primitive mode of organization and is not controlled. (Applebee, A. 1978) In fact, only one-sixth of children in a study conducted by Pitcher and Prelinger in 1963 were in this stage. Most were past this stage of heaps, even by the age of two.



Unlike heaps, in the sequences stage, a child begins to demonstrate bonds between attributes shared. This bond or center core of the story can take a number of different forms. In a sequence, the associations between the incidents and their center are limited to bonds of similarity rather than causality or complementarity. A story can grow longer, but it cannot develop in any new directions. The structure is too weak. An example of some forms a sequence can take can be found in Applebee's book:


"Little boy played. He cried. He's all right. He went home. He went to bed. When he wakes up you're gonna say good-night to him." --Daniel W., 2 yr 10 mon.


"A fierce poisonous snake and he ate a monster. And then he telephoned on the telephone. He went to someone's house and he ate some dog dirty. He went in someone's car and ate the seat off. Then he ate some bushes. Then he went some stairs and ate some stair meat. Then he ate himself." --Larry W., 4yr 3 mon


What a person can see in the examples are how the sequence is formed around the core of the story. In the first story by Daniel, the entire story centers around the little boy. The little boy did this, and this, etc. In the second story, Larry told a story about a snake. He lists things that the snake ate. Although Larry's story could be seen as more developmentally advanced, it only includes about 20 percent of stories written by three and four year olds. A person could see how the authors of these stories could add length, but would have difficulty changing directions.(Applebee, 1978)


Primitive Narratives

The next developmental stage begins with what Vygotsky calls "collections". This is the stage when the structure of the story begins to center around complementarity rather than similaritiy. The example that Applebee gives is of a set of silverware. It is interesting to note that Vygotsky says that this complex level of thinking, centering around complementarity, is deeply rooted in practical experience.


The difference between the sequence stage and the primitive narrative stage might be seen best looking at a situation of a bad character. Applebee states that in the sequence stage the bad character might lead to another bad character, to another bad character. Yet, in the primitive narrative stage, the bad character's action might lead to a spanking. This is because in a child's world, you are punished for bad behavior. (Applebee, 1978)


Unfocused Chain

As a chain has links, an unfocused chain in a child’s story may have items linking one thought to another but with a shifting focus. The beginning of the chain will bear little resemblance to the tail of the chain. While the story may begin with a character such as a horse, the horse is likely to be forgotten along the way and the main character may become a dog. The unfocused chain may be structured as a narrative but has no focus.


Applebee shared the example of 5 year old Thea:


“A wildcat. Then a horse came. Then they had a fight. Then the wildcat was dead. Then the horse went off. Then he met another horse. It was a lady horse. Then they lived with each other. Then another wildcat came. He was the father of the wildcats. He fired up the father horse and he was dead. Then the mother wildcat came and the father wildcat took the horse home with him. Then they eated him up. The mother was crying. Then she found another father. Then she washed the clothes. Then a donkey came along. Then the mother was afraid to go where her washing was done. The donkey married the horse. “


Thea understands the structure of a story but has not learned to focus and give the story direction. There is no cohesion to the events of her story, but there is a lot of content. Applebee states that unfocused chains are rare and only contribute to 16 per cent of the stories told by the five year olds that he evaluated. However, they are important to the development of chaining.


Focused Chain

When a child is able to create a story with a main character at the center who then goes through events that are linked, that story is called a focused chain narrative. Well known examples of this type of story include children’s books and radio serial shows and may include the phrase “the continuing adventures of…” Based on Vygotsky’s theory, the organization is not conceptual but a pseudo concept: “…before true concepts emerge, children make use of pseudoconcepts which are superficially similar but which remain perceptually rather than conceptually based.” (Applebee, 1978) The focused chain is found in over half of the stories of five year olds.


An example of a focused chain by Kip P., 4 yr 9 mo:


Davy Crockett he was walking in the woods, then he swimmed in the water to get to the other side. Then there was a boat that picked him up. Then he got to the other side. He went into the woods. He was in the place where Indians made. The Indians came and got him. Then pretty soon he got loose. The Indians let him loose.



Narratives are the last of Vygotsky’s six stages of a child’s development of concept of story. Narratives expand on the focused chain by including additional features. The center of the story is developed while a new idea or circumstance develops out of a previous idea. This propels the story forward, often ending with a climax. In narrative, everything is held together by the core which relies on abstract or concrete bonds.


Note the narrative by Tracy H., 5 yr 8 mo and her story of Johnny Hong Kong. Like the focused chain, the story is focused on a central character as events unfold. However, in the narrative, added elements spur the story and add interest, and often a theme and a moral.


There was a boy named Johnny Hong Kong and finally he grew up and went to school and after that all he ever did was sit all day and think. He hardly even went to the bathroom. And he thought every day and every thought he thought up his head got bigger and bigger. One day it got so big he had to go live up in the attic with trunks and winter clothes. So his mother bought some gold fish and let them live in his head - he swallowed them - and every time he thought, a fish would eat it up until he was even so he never thought again, and he felt much better.


This type of organization is not seen from birth to age two and is hardly noticeable from ages two to five. However, it accounts for 20 per cent of the story telling of those sampled at age five. Twenty percent is still a small percentage but is a marked change from the previous samples.




As a teacher understands the stages of story development, the teacher is better able to design instruction to meet the developmental needs of the individual student. Graesser, Golding and Long stated, “The conceptual foundation of narrative rests on event sequences and experiences that once again are familiar to individuals in a culture, so there is a rich source of world knowledge for constructing meaning.” (Graesser, Golding & Long, 1991) The child’s concept of story and the ability to place events into a sequence is paramount in reading.




Applebee stated that looking at the reactions of different age groups to similar tasks allows people to trace the developmental stages. Knowing which stage a child is in can suggest the direction of growth that can be expected with the work a child.


External Links

http://www.readingonline.org/articles/handbook/gambrell/index.html This is an article about literature-based instruction including a section about storybook reading with young children.


http://www.teachers.net/lessons/posts/681.html This site details a writer's workshop for teaching writing to the elementary level. It includes the concept of story idea and recommendations for stories to use in the classroom.


http://www.kidbibs.com/learningtips/lt22.htm This site gives tips for teaching the concept of story using recommended books. It also includes tips for parents, teachers and homeschoolers.


http://www.kolar.org/vygotsky/ This site gives information to teachers looking for more of Vygotsky's theories.


http://www.magickeys.com/books/ This site has teacher resources and books on line that children can read.




Applebee, A.N. (1978). A child's concept of story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Graesser, A., Golding, J.M., and Long, D.L. (1991) Narrative Representation and Comprehension. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P. Rosenthal & P.D. Pearson, editors, Handbook of Reading Research, volume 2, chapter 8, Longman Publishing Group, White Plains, NY.


Pradl, G. (1984). Narratology: The study of story structure. Eric Digest. Retrieved on April 15, 2007.




Commentary by Deborah Louie


I wasn't sure about the word "complementarity" in the second section. I just don't think I have ever heard this word before. Does it have it's own link? I also did not see any article references to Vygotsky besides the website. Was it difficult to find supporting evidence to these stages or other theories that might have differed from Applebee's? Or has there not been that much research in this area? I found your article easy to read, though, and informative.

Commentary by Vanessa Avis

Ladies this is a very informative page. The only thing I would think that could be included is to discuss how the concept of story could be enhanced by teacher instruction at the various stages. Is story mapping a positive instructional practice? How does language impact these developmental stages?

One proofreading error I found under your Primitive Stage... you misspelled calls.


Commentary by Kathi Crittenden


The paper was very well written and well organized. I really liked the way

the fact that we take the concept of story for granted because it is such an

integral part of our lives was addressed in the paper. It is an important and

interesting point. The explanation of how Applebee used Vygotsky's theories

and ideas was also very relevant. One thing that was particularly interesting

to me was how the terms were explained: Instead of just defining the terms

(i.e. "heaps"), an account was given of how the term got its name. The

background information really helped cement the concept of the term in my mind. The examples also provided solid, clear examples of the concept. Overall, you both did a great job.

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