Scholarly article on topic 'The effect of explicit teaching of story structure on EFL learners’ use of communication strategy'

The effect of explicit teaching of story structure on EFL learners’ use of communication strategy Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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{"Communication strategy" / evaluation / "story structure" / storytelling / narration}

Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Zahra Yazdanpanah

Abstract This study examined the effect of explicit teaching of narrative macrostructures (narrative, descriptive, evaluative) on the use of communication strategies. Results indicated that the explicit instruction of narrative story structure (Labov, 1972; Polanyi, 1979, 1985) had no effect on the use of communication strategy and the type of communication strategy employed by learners. However, it helped learners to develop certain skills to meet the narrative demand of storytelling; specifically, it enriched learners’ stories regarding evaluative structure to make their stories worthy.

Academic research paper on topic "The effect of explicit teaching of story structure on EFL learners’ use of communication strategy"

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Social and Behavioral Sciences

Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 32 (2012) 391 - 398

4th International Conference of Cognitive Science (ICCS 2011)

The effect of explicit teaching of story structure on EFL learners'

use of communication strategy

Zahra Yazdanpanah*

Islamic Azad University, Larestan Branch, Larestan, Fars, Iran


This study examined the effect of explicit teaching of narrative macrostructures (narrative, descriptive, evaluative) on the use of communication strategies. Results indicated that the explicit instruction of narrative story structure (Labov, 1972; Polanyi, 1979, 1985) had no effect on the use of communication strategy and the type of communication strategy employed by learners. However, it helped learners to develop certain skills to meet the narrative demand of storytelling; specifically, it enriched learners' stories regarding evaluative structure to make their stories worthy.

© 2011 Published by Elsevier Ltd. S election and/or peer-review under responsibility of the 4th International Conference of Cognitive Science

Keywords: Communication strategy; evaluation; story structure; storytelling; narration

1. Introduction

"We have a narrative brain; stories are the essence of our experience" (Smith, 1990). The psychologist and educationalist, Bruner (1986), no doubt, is to receive credit for distinguishing between two modes of cognitive functioning: the narrative mode, and the logico-scientific mode. Narrative thought "deals to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily 'true') historical accounts" (Bruner, 1986, p. 13). Through narratives, people transfer information, construct social reality, and make sense of their past experience (Bruner, 1986; Smith, 1990; Riessman, 1993).

In a coherent storytelling, linguistic and cognitive aspects are engaged; therefore, the teller and the audience must share knowledge of time and causality, verb tense and linguistic connectives, on the one hand, and cultural and social conventions of narratives on the other (Bruner, 1990).

There are several research traditions in which narrative production has been studied. Labov (Labov and Waletzky, 1967; Labov, 1972, 1997) pioneered a new tradition for systematic study of narration based on its structures in sociolinguistic research. He presents that stories not only have a denotational or referential aspect but also work internationally and evaluatively to highlight the teller's feeling and attitude toward the narrated events (Koven, 2002). He identifies six macrostructures: a) abstract: summarizes the story to justify its importance; b) orientation: setting the scene temporally and spatially; c) complicating actions: narrative clauses to show the

* Corresponding author. Tel.: 0781 2251744; Fax: +0-000-000-0000 E-mail address:

1877-0428 © 2011 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of the 4th International Conference of Cognitive Science doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.01.059

dilemma; d) result: to sort out the events; e) evaluation: to draw attention to the interesting aspects of the story; and, f) coda: to link the past events with the present to end the narrative (Labov, 1972).

These six parts are further integrated into three major structures: "(a) narrative structure: temporal contexts or events; (b) descriptive structure: background information of characters or situations; and (c) evaluative structure: telling the audience what the narrator feels is crucial information" (Polanyi, 1979).

Storytelling is created by a shared human experience based on words and imagination which develops communication skills (Pedersen, 1995; Colon-villa, 1997). According to Craig (1996), storytelling is viewed as a means of communication. As communication, "storytelling is interactive, immediate, and very personal - a negotiation between this teller and this audience" (Craig, 1996, p. 2). Through this ongoing process of storytelling, a cycle of communication is created between the teller's responsibility for communication clearly, on the one hand; and the audience's expectation for interpretation of narrative task to meet the pragmatic conditions on the other (Berman, 1995).

In a successful narration, the affective, linguistic, cognitive, socio-cultural, and narrative dimensions are interacted. According to Liskin-Gasparro (1996), storytelling is an attempt to juggle between the narrative and linguistic demands of the task; besides, it is a means of communication and negotiation of information between teller and the audience in which they draw on their cognitive and linguistic knowledge to keep the conversational channel open; consequently, the mismatch between communicative intention and linguistic knowledge contributes to the emergence of communication strategies to meet the linguistic demand of narration (Canale, 1983; Varadi, 1992).

Whereas there is a significant body of research that work on different aspects of CSs and the teachability of them (Ellis, 1985; Paribakht, 1985; Poulisse & Schills, 1989; Dorneyi & Thurrell, 1991; Dorneyi, 1995; Littlemore, 2001, 2003), much less investigation has been done on CSs based on macrostructures of narration. The current study set out to examine the effect of explicit teaching of narrative macrostructures on communication strategies as the main manifestation of insufficient lexical and linguistic knowledge. In this regard, Liskin-Gasparro's (1996) detailed model informed by concepts set forth by Labov (1972, 1997) and Polanyi (1979, 1985) and Tarone's (1981) model served as the narrative and communication strategies framework, respectively.

2. Method

2.1. Participants

A total number of sixty female EFL learners at the intermediate level of language proficiency were selected from an English institute in Lar, a city in Fars Province, Iran. The participants were all Persian speaker in their twenties. Therefore, it can be assumed that they are homogeneous in terms of language proficiency. This level of language proficiency was chosen because of the following factors: a) learners' overall proficiency was associated with their ability to narrate and describe events in the past b) narrative ability results from cognitive development (Stein & Glenn, 1979). So learners have acquired the cognitive ability to construct stories (Lauren, 1996). Since random assignment of the learners into control and experimental group was not possible, intact groups design was employed in this study.

2.2. Instrument and procedure

The current investigation was carried out over a span of ten weeks. In order to conduct this study, the following steps were taken. First, a retired version of the Michigan test (version 2001) was used to ensure the participants' homogeneity in terms of their general language proficiency. Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics for the proficiency test. In order to check if there is any significant difference between the groups 'proficiency level, an independent t-test on the scores of the Michigan test was run. The t-observed value (tobs = 0.447) did not exceed its critical value (tcnt = 2, df = 58, a = 0.05) and it was concluded that the two groups are balanced in this regard.

Table 1. Descriptive statistics for the proficiency test

Group n Mean SD

Score control 30 44.73 9.33

Experimental 30 43.50 11.89

n, number of learners in each group; SD, standard deviation

Next some narrative tasks both for the teaching of story structure and also to identify the learners' employed communication strategies were selected. Among several different narrative tasks, the retelling both an existing story or a story that is told with reference to a series of pictures (Lalleman, 1989) could ideally serve our purpose in this study; moreover, it is the best way to avoid uncontrolled variation in the learners' narratives. Various sources were browsed and, finally, six short stories from - A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul" (Canfield & Hansen, 1994) were selected. The book is a collection of short, inspirational stories based on real events and personal experiences of some individuals. Another important characteristic of these stories was that, although they were not simplified materials, they enjoyed average difficulty level, i.e., 72.53, estimated through the Flesch readability formula (Flesch, 1948); thus, serving as appropriate reading materials for intermediate students. The titles of the selected stories were as follows: Almie Rose, Tommy's Essay, Compassion is in the Eyes, Golden Crane, Make a Wish, and Two Families.

The learners were asked to read the stories at home and to retell the stories orally in the class before other students. The retelling of each story took between 10 to 15 minutes. The learners in the control group were exposed to the same material presented to the experimental class, but they were not receiving any instruction in terms of the macrostructure of the stories they were supposed to read and retell. The last performance of the learners (Two Families story) was considered as their post-test, which was tape-recorded and transcribed for further analysis. After determining story structures in both pre-tests and post-tests of both groups, the communication strategies, employed in retelling and describing of each structure, were elicited and identified.

2.3. Teaching and assessing narrative proficiency

For a systematic teaching of story structures, Liskin-Gasparro (1996) makes some helpful suggestions which were followed throughout the treatment. She recommends asking the learners to build their stories from the bottom up: -first plotting the narrative line, then pinpointing where contextualizing details would be effective, and finally, inserting internal and external evaluative devices at appropriate point. Accordingly, the learners in the experimental class were asked to divide stories into episodes in terms of the chronological order of the events. Then they were encouraged to explore the context of the story, and describe the setting and the characters. Finally, they were instructed to use some evaluative devices (ibid., reproduced in Table 2 below) to highlight some parts of the story that they viewed as important.

Table 2. The list of proposed evaluative devices

1- Comments on action: brief comment: external

2- Comments on action: longer reflection: external

3- Reference to previous action: external

4- Ironic aside: external

5- Retarding narrative actions: gerund (progressive constructions): internal

6- Retarding narrative action: Juxtaposition of narrative and descriptive clauses: internal

7- Repetition: lexical and/or syntactic: internal

8- Contrast: internal

9- Expressive phonology: internal

10-Lexical choice: internal

Assessment of learner's narrative skill was done on the basis of Labvian (cf. Polanyi, 1979; Liskin-Gasparro, 1996, Koven, 2002). The following procedure was adopted when analyzing the transcriptions of the learners' oral presentation: First the retold stories were divided into three kinds of clauses: independent, dependent, and elliptical. These clauses were numbered. Second, these clauses were divided into story world and non-story world clauses. Third, story world clauses were divided into those that advance the story line through the presentation of a set of chronologically-recorded events (narrative structure), and those that do not advance the story line, but describe the context and characters in the story (descriptive structure). Non-story world clauses were viewed as evaluative structure as they do not advance the story line and enter into stories from outside world and their relevance is to be established by the teller and inferred by the audience. In order to make sure of the reliability of analysis, the transcriptions were analyzed by the researchers and inter-coder agreement was estimated through kappa coefficient (Hartmann, 1977). The obtained value (k = 0.929) can be considered as a satisfactory index of agreement between the raters; thus, supporting the credibility of the findings.

After teaching and assessing macrostructures, Tarone's product-oriented model (1981) given in table 3 was adopted to identify and elicit communication strategies for different parts of story structures.

Table 3. Tarone's model (1981) of communication strategy


Approximation.........use of a single target language vocabulary item or structure, which the learner knows is not

correct, but which shares enough semantic features in common with the desired item to satisfy the speaker (pipe for windpipe).

Word Coinage ......... the learner makes up a new word in order to communicate a desired concept (air ball for


Circumlocution.........the learner describes the characteristics or elements of the object or action instead of using

the appropriate target language (TL) item or structure. Borrowing

Literal translation.........the learner translates word for word from the native language

Language switch.........the learner uses the native language (NL) term without bothering to translate

Appeal for Assistance.........the learner asks for the correct term

Mime......the learners use nonverbal strategies in place of a lexical item or action


Topic Avoidance.........the learner simply tries not to talk about concepts for which the TL item or structure is not

Message abandonment......... the learner begins to talk about a concept but is unable to continue a and stops in


3. Results

Two issues are addressed by the present study. First, the effect of explicit teaching of the narrative macrostructures on EFL learners' use of CSs is discussed. Second, the type of CSs employed by learners for different parts of story structure is addressed.

In this study storytelling task was used to elicit communication strategies used by learners. As Poulisse and Schils (1989) mentioned the type of task affect the types of CSs; thus, it is difficult to make clear whether learners have lexical problems or they can not recall some parts of story. Regarding the first issue, the comparison between both group pre-tests and post-tests revealed that differences between the types of strategies employed by learners within and between each group existed. To make sure whether these differences were significant, a series of chi-square tests were performed. The results presented in table 5 indicated no significant difference existed between control and experimental groups in terms of type of CSs (see table 4 and 5).

Table 4: The frequency of communication strategies used in control & experimental pretests & posttests

Approximation Word Circumlocution Literal Appeal for Message

coinage Translation Assistance Abandonment

Control 21 2 0 25 2 3


Control 23 3 2 7 4 1


Experimental 23 0 1 17 3 1


Experimental 21 5 0 13 3 0


Table 5: The chi - square tests of communication strategies used in control & experimental pretests & posttests

Asym.Sig ( 2-sided)

Control pretest vs. Control posttest

Control pretest vs. Experimental pretest

Experimental pretest vs.

Experimental posttest

Control posttests vs. Experimental posttest


6.294 7.726

5 .140

279 172

Table 6: The frequency of communication strategies used in story structures (Descriptive, Narrative, and Evaluative)

of control group pretest & posttest

Approximation Word Coinage Circumlocution Literal Translation Appeal for Assistance

Descriptive 9 2 0 12 0

(pre test)

Narrative 8 1 0 13 2


Evaluative 0 0 0 0 1


Descriptive 14 0 1 2 0


Narrative 8 3 1 4 3


Evaluative 0 0 0 1 0


Table 7: The chi-square test of CSs used in story structures of control group pretest posttests

df X2 Asymp. Sig (2-sided)

Descriptive Vs. Narrative (pretest) 3 2.412 .491

Descriptive. Evaluative (pretest) 3 24.000 .000

Narrative Vs. Evaluative (post test) 3 7.639 .054

Descriptive Vs. Narrative (posttest) 4 8.217 .084

Descriptive Vs. Evaluative (posttest) 2 5.244 .071

Narrative vs. Evaluative (posttest) 2 3.273 .195

Table 8: The frequency of CSs used in story structures (descriptive, narrative, and evaluative) of experimental group pretests and posttests

Approximation Word coinage Circumlocution Literal Translation Appeal for Assistance

Descriptive 12 0 0 7 3


Narrative 8 0 1 9 0


Evaluative 2 0 0 0 0


Descriptive 12 0 0 7 3


Narrative 8 0 1 9 0


Evaluative 2 0 0 0 0


Table 9: The chi-square tests of CSs used in story structures of experimental group pretests and posttests

df X2 Asymp.sing (2-sided)

Descriptive. Vs. Narrative 3 4.697 .195


Descriptive Vs. Evaluative 2 1.558 .459


Narrative Vs. Evaluative 2 2.222 .329


Descriptive Vs. Narrative 3 12.665 .005


Descriptive Vs. Evaluative 3 4.499 .188


Narrative Vs. Evaluative 2 .913 .633


4. Discussion

Whereas the quantitative analysis of the data revealed that the explicit teaching of narrative structures has no effect on the use of CSs, qualitative data analysis suggests that some of the CSs such as appeal for assistances and

word coinage are employed less than other strategies. This phenomenon can probably be accounted for by the following factors. Iranian learners are not risk takers, and fear of making mistakes, being ridiculed and appearing incompetent contribute not to use appeal for assistance and word coinage. As Chen (1990) noted Iranian learners like Chinese tend to "focus on single right answer, to use something that feel certain rather than to try something new" (p.173).

The identification of avoidance strategies and its subcategories - topic avoidance and message abandonment is difficult, so their elicitation should be done under special situation In this study, topic avoidance strategy, however, was not employed since learners had to retell all of the stories. But message abandonment might be exploited to compensate learners' insufficient social, cultural, or linguistic knowledge when they did not retell a part of story events due to forgetting or not recalling story events.

Although Tarone's model (1981) was used to identify the observed CSs, other strategies like repetition, fillers, and time stalling were employed, too. By using these strategies, students attempted to hold the floor, to have the time to think, and not to appear incompetent before other students (Chen, 1990; Dornyei, 1995; Faucette, 2001). Despite learners' linguistic incompetence leading to manifestation of CSs, teaching of these story structures help learners to develop their narrative skill; specifically, partially memorized impersonal reports have been changed into worthy stories by injecting emotions and attitudes into the story (Babaii & Yazdanpanah, 2010).

In sum, in the present study, no difference between story structures, narrative/descriptive, narrative/evaluative, and descriptive/evaluative was observed.


I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Esmat Babai, Associate Professor in English Language at the University of Tarbiat Moallem as my advisor to conduct this study.


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