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Abstract

Personal narrative is decontextualized speech where individuals recount stories of personal experiences about past, future, or habitual events. Previous research suggests that the quality and quantity of narrative speech parents use with children relates to their later academic outcomes (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Rowe, 2012; Demir et al., 2015). This dissertation proposes that narrative’s importance in early parent-child conversations may also result from its ability to promote higher-order thinking (HOT), relational language where two representations are linked together, through inferences, comparisons, abstractions, and hierarchies (e.g. Richland & Simms, 2015). In this dissertation, usage of HOT in narrative and non-narrative contexts is examined in a longitudinal dataset of 64 children and their primary caregiver(s). Families were visited every 4 months from 14-58 months, and 90-minute spontaneous parent-child interactions were recorded. Speech from over one million utterances was coded for personal narrative and HOT. At 38- and 50-months, HOT use was also examined in pretend, language during imaginary episodes of interaction (e.g. Rowe, 2012). The key findings are: (1) Parents and children use more HOT in narrative compared to non-narrative speech, for parents from 14-58 months and for children after 38 months. (2) Although narrative and pretend share many theoretical similarities, parents and children do not generally use more HOT in pretend compared to narrative or other speech. Features of narrative speech that might explain its relationship to HOT include: (1) narrative’s story-driven nature, (2) its relative saliency, (3) its ability to promote metacognition, and (4) its status as decontextualized, requiring speakers to more precisely indicate relationships between representations. Theoretically, these findings enhance our understanding of the nature of narrative and higher-order thinking. Practically, these findings can be leveraged in interventions with parents that seek to improve the quality of children’s early language environments.

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