Narrative Competence and Executive Functioning in Young Children with Varying Degrees of Bilingualism

Danielle L Mead

Advisor: Adam Winsler, PhD, Department of Psychology

Committee Members: Susanne Denham, Lois Groth

The Hub, VIP #3
July 22, 2015, 12:00 PM to 09:00 AM


Narratives are verbal accounts of an event—fictional or real—that follow a temporal sequence of clauses (Justice, Bowles, Pence, & Gosse, 2010; McCabe, 1997; Schick & Melzi, 2010). Narratives represent an interaction of linguistic, cognitive, and socio-cultural abilities, and are a culturally universal mode for expression and understanding experience. Researchers have emphasized the cognitive demands placed on an individual when creating a cohesive narrative, requiring the narrator to monitor the story’s organization while presenting the causal and temporal sequence of events; however, there are few studies to explicitly test relations between narrative complexity and executive functioning. In bilingual samples, advantages in executive functioning have been established, and more recently, narratives are being used in lieu of or in addition to standardized assessments of expressive vocabulary because narratives are considered ecologically valid and culturally unbiased measures of language complexity (Bedore, Peña, Gillam, & Ho, 2010; Fiestas & Peña, 2004). Thus, the current study examines the narrative structure and complexity of stories during a storytelling task and relates that to several direct measures of executive functioning. Additionally, degree of bilingualism was tested as a moderator to see if the relation between narrative complexity and executive functioning varies by the bilingualism status of the child. Several measures of narrative complexity were coded to sensitively detect individual differences among the narratives produced in English and/or Spanish in (N = 79) 5- to 7-year-old children, consisting of English/Spanish bilinguals, dual language learners not yet fully proficient in a second language, and monolingual (English) children. Exploratory factor analyses (EFAs) yielded underlying constructs of narrative complexity and executive functioning; thus, a series of structural equation models were run to explore the relation between comprehensive measurements of narrative complexity and executive functioning. In addition, SEM models were run to determine how degree of bilingualism may vary the relation between narrative complexity and executive functioning. Results indicated that age significantly predicted English narrative complexity (i.e., older children produced more complex narratives, and gender and receptive vocabulary predicted Spanish narrative complexity (i.e., girls and children with stronger Spanish receptive vocabulary scores produced more complex narratives). There was a positive association between overall narrative complexity and executive functioning, but this correlation was only marginally significant when controlling for age. Also, when narrative was separated into micro- and macro-levels of analyses, only the macro-level was significantly correlated with executive functioning. When only examining the narratives of the bilingual children, the association between narrative complexity and executive functioning was not found, however, for the Spanish narratives, and there was no moderating effect of the relation between the two based on first language. Several moderators were tested across all children (i.e., age, language group, degree of bilingualism), but no moderating effects were identified.