This article will foreground collaborative narrative as a
cultural tool for meaningmaking and learning in an attempt to conceptualise it
as a crucial cultural artefact in institutional early childhood settings. This
will be done by studying how collaborate narrative is established, used and
negotiated. In this kind of early childhood education setting, there are
certain distinguishing features. For example, children are brought together in
a context where typically several children are present, and where teachers will
try to include more than one child in an activity. Another feature of such a
setting is that some teachers will have knowledge about narrative as a speech
genre for meaningmaking, identity and language learning. Consequently they
will try to bring about narrative ways of speaking in both planned activities
such as circle time, book reading activities etc., in talking during everyday
routines, as well as in less pedagogically planned activities, such as meeting
the parents and children in the morning and afternoons. In the present
article, qualitative data that comes from previous studies where children's
narratives have been collected and provoked in ethnographic and participatory
approaches will serve as examples.
The genre of narrative may be defined in increasingly detailed ways, but the
basic constituents of this cultural artefact, as we will use the term in this
text, is that it is an account of events that are related by time and human (or
humanlike) actions. This means that a narrative as a minimum requires, first,
one (though typically several) actor(s), second, actions (events taking
place), which as such, third, take time (i.e., are organised temporally). It is
vital to a narrative how the events/actions are woven together (related).
Knowledge about narrative genre will be evident, for example, in the teller
using expressions such as '…and then…' or more developed ways of weaving the
events into a story by saying '…since…', '…which resulted in…', or
'…affected…'. In order to produce a coherent narrative, it is also common to
refer to previous events. This article will show how children learn to narrate
by participating in narrative collaboration. Using narrative as a linguistic
tool with very young children will demand that the adults are the weavers, to
continue our metaphor. Children, when belonging to speech communities which
allow and encourage their participation, will however contribute topics and
themes, even from very young ages.
The empirical context of the present article is Norwegian. Norwegian society
has largely been an egalitarian society, where childcenteredness has a long
tradition. Such conditions have been considered beneficial in what has been
understood as a Nordic holistic approach to early childhood education and care.
In such cultural contexts, children, rich in initiatives for play and talk, are
assumed to be allowed and to be able to influence the kindergarten program, as
shown, for example, in Odegaard (2007, 2012).
Everyday kindergarten practice in Norway will include both
planned activities and less pedagogically planned time for activities of
children's choice and spontaneity. In the planned activities, the teacher will
direct the themes. It will often be verbal talk and bodily instructions or
performance, sometimes including introducing visual or material artefacts.
Children might be invited to explore or to perform accordingly. On the other
hand, children can be seen as agents, contributing to the shaping of the
curriculum by bringing in unplanned suggestions and utterances picked up
elsewhere or by talking about themes of their own interest that has not been
planned for by the teachers. In this manner, children are coconstructing not
only the activities but also themselves as agents of meaningmaking and
learning. From a teacher perspective, it is often the preplanned activities
that are at the forefront of their attention when talking about the curriculum.
However, if taking a holistic approach to early childhood education, what
happens in less pedagogically planned activities such as outdoor play,
mealtimes and other daily routines, also shapes the kindergarten curriculum.
Hence, collaborative narratives can be planned for, stimulated in everyday
situations, as well as occur spontaneously in settings where such speech genres
are practiced and supported. In the next section, we will elaborate on
narrative as a linguistic artefact for meaningmaking and learning.
A sociocultural perspective on meaning-making and
In this article, collaborate narratives are explored as rich cultural artefacts
emerging from collaborative activities. In such activities, participants'
(i.e., children's and teachers') utterances and perspectives could be more or
less coordinated. Still, in talking together in an institutional setting, the
participants meet each other in a cultural moment and context (i.e., the
activity is situated in time and space).
Taking a sociocultural perspective on human learning, there are several
distinguishing features of interest to the present discussion. We will use some
of these notions in introducing a version of this perspective that we will then
use to analyse and discuss empirical data from preschool settings. The
particular artefact we will focus our discussion on is narrative, or more
specifically, collaborative narrative, what is sometimes referred to as
conarratives (Ochs & Capps, 2001; Odegaard, 2007).
One of the many important contributions by Vygotsky to
educational psychology, as Daniels (2005) emphasizes, is that he introduced
cultural tools in his account of human psychological functioning. What is
referred to in sociocultural theory as cultural tools include physical ones
(e.g., a hammer, saw, calculator) as well as intellectual ones (e.g., speech,
models). Physical tools are also referred to as artefacts. However,
recognizing the difficulty of making such a distinction in many cases (for
example, writing is an intellectual tool as well as a material one), we will
use cultural tools and artefacts as synonymous concepts in this text. Artefacts
are important to human meaningmaking and learning for several reasons. First,
they are important means through which we transmit insights over generations
and therefore to the child's understanding, socialization, and enculturation.
Second, cultural tools mediate the individual's (and the group's) engagement
with the world and its phenomena. Our perception and experience are 'informed'
or shaped by our cultural tools. We learn to experience and understand our
world in terms of the tools of our culture (Luria, 1976). Third, cultural tools
are the keys to the development of what Vygotsky (1987) referred to as 'higher
mental functions', such as voluntary remembering and narrative. Tools that a
culture values are institutionalized in educational settings, such as
kindergarten/preschool and school. In these settings, the child will encounter
and be supported in familiarizing him or herself with such tools. In fact,
this is one of the important functions of these societal institutions.
In the terms of Wertsch (1998), there is always an "irreducible tension between
agent [e.g., a child] and cultural tool inherent in mediated action" (p. 131).
This realization has several important consequences for our understanding of
children's meaningmaking and learning. This tension means that the tool or
artefact cannot simply be internalized by the learner in readymade form. Some
'moulding work' is required by the learner. This process of gradually taking
over and being able to use a tool or artefact is referred to in sociocultural
theory as appropriation (Rogoff, 1995; Wertsch, 1998). That is, the learner
has to shape the tool in use and learn to adapt how he or she uses the tool for
various purposes (communicative, remembering etc.). Appropriating cultural
tools is also an important feature of the child's cognitive shaping
(socialization), including learning to communicate and remember what is
culturally valued knowledge and insights. Still, since appropriation is not a
passive internalization, the child may put the tool to unexpected and novel
use. For educational purposes, this implies that it may be necessary to
negotiate with the child how the tool should be used in the frame of current
particular educational activity. Hence, two or more children who are introduced
to a cultural tool such as the narrative format will not use this tool in
identical ways, telling the same story. Using tools is always a creative
activity shaped by the child's perception of situational needs, expectations,
personal experiences, interests etc. This also has an important methodological
implication for research; we cannot simply map the tools of a setting, but must
also study these in use (Wertsch, 1998). What cultural tools (artefacts) are
children introduced to and supported in appropriating in early childhood
education and how do they put these to use in carrying out various activities
(playing, planning activities etc.), are important questions for practitioners
working in, as well as for researchers studying, early childhood education
settings. The present article aims at contributing to this important field of
knowledge where the interests of educational practice and research
Narrative as a cultural tool (linguistic artefact)
Etymologically, the term 'artefact' is from Latin: arte,
from ars, meaning 'art' and factum from the verb facere, 'to make'. The concept
can have several meanings. In this article it is synonymous with cultural
tools and can be seen as objectifications of human needs and intentions as
"already invested with cognitive and affective content" (Wartofsky, 1979, p.
205f., in Hedegaard, 2012, p. 9). This quote emphasizes that the content is, at
least in part, already 'inscribed' in the design of the tool. This reasoning is
similar to Bakhtin's notion of the word not belonging to a single person, but
rather carrying with it the voices of earlier users. Per Linell uses Bakhtin's
philosophy of language as a framework for understanding how individuals without
verbal language communicate multimodally with implements such as a Bliss Board
(a board where semiotic signs, the letters of the alphabet and numbers offer an
alternative way for communication; where a selection for pointing is offered to
a child without the need to use verbal language) (Linell, 2009). This goes
beyond the idea that there is a dualism between verbal language and movement,
signs and marking. This example emphasizes that it would be artificial and
inappropriate to make a distinction between the physical, material artefacts on
one side and artefacts as signs, language, models and narrative genres on the
other, as we have already hinted at.
Narrative as a linguistic artefact and its relationship to cultural aspects of
learning and meaningmaking have, over the years, been discussed in the
educational field of early years settings. Both cultural psychology (Bruner,
1990; Bruner & Watson, 1983) and language learning in terms of literacy
(Aukrust, 2006; McCabe & Peterson, 1991) are areas of knowledge that have
emphasized narrative as an important tool. While cultural psychology
encompasses meaningmaking as identity, language learning focuses on narrative
as a language genre preparing the child for reading and learning of complex
texts in higher grades. Early literacy seems to be related to having more
knowledge about the genre and text structure and the use of this knowledge when
reading (Aukrust, 2006). Both these traditions draw on Vygotsky, even if he, as
pointed out by Wertsch, did not deal in any detailed way with narrative as such
Drawing on Bakhtin's dialogism (Bakhtin, 1986), children's learning and
narrative meaningmaking are seen as tied to locally constructed patterns and
discourses of everyday life as well as being historically shaped. Children
make use of the linguistic artefacts made available to them in culturally
shaped manners. John Dore uses the concept "reenvoicement" to conceptualize
children picking up words, lines and sayings made available for them in
everyday talk as imitations (Dore, 1989). This concept is used also to include
imitation of bits of performances and music in the study of very young
children's narrative meaningmaking in kindergarten (Odegaard, 2007). It is
that media productions targeting children give shape to children's creative
meaningmaking. Narrative is one genre among many in which children can engage
in the use of cultural tools for (re)formulating and creating new meaning. As
also pointed out by Castanheira et al. (2007), children's engagement in
narratives is not about taking up a fixed identity in some absolute form, but
one shaped by what they choose and resist, how they have interpreted
potentials, in other words an ongoing meaningmaking process (see also Tiri
Bergesen Schei's article about Knowledge Production and Discourses in
kindergarten, in this special issue).
These processes are socioculturally contextualised. To contextualise means to
weave things together, for example, give form to the events of the story, to
refer to other stories and texts (intertextuality). Collaboratively narrate,
that is communicatively shape a linguistic artefact, implies such 'weaving
work' and is thus an important feature both in the appropriation of this speech
genre, the skill of narrating and using it as a cultural mould for
meaningmaking (Pramling & Odegaard, 2011).
For illustrative purposes, two examples are chosen from a
larger set of data consisting of 160 narratives that are told by children (aged
2—5) and their teachers, collected between 2003 and 2010. 142 narratives were
transcribed from video recordings and 18 were written down by the participant
researcher. The first example was written while the study was explorative,
while the second was written in close collaboration with teachers working in
their practice with further investigating and the developing a selfreflexive
Example 1: Introducing and negotiating the topic of the narrative
The background (context) of the first illustration is that a group of nine
children and their teachers had been on an excursion in the local neighbourhood
of the kindergarten. The kindergarten is situated in a subur ban
Norwegian area consisting of high and low rise housing, local schools,
kindergartens, a church, a shopping centre, industry and a huge sports park
connected to a wooded area with paths and green open spaces. Children attending
this kindergarten would come from working and middleclass families, having
Norwegian as well as other languages as their first language. The example is
taken from a mealtime, a short time after arriving back at the kindergarten
from the excursion. All nine children are sitting around a table. The
narrative developed spontaneously, there was no task or spoken expectations
of narrative conversation tied to the observation. There was, however, a
culture for narrative practices in this group. After excursions, there would
often be talk about events from the trip. It should also be noted that teachers
in Norway are well aware of the ideologies in the Norwegian Framework plan
where children's participation is emphasized. The narrative is a transcript
from a videotape.
Teacher A: Amanda, would you tell us what we saw on the trip today? What did we
Amanda (2 years old) lifts her hands up to her head, waits a while and then she
utters some sounds (hard to discern).
Teacher A: Raises eyebrows and puts her head on one side, but nods
Almost at once she said to another child, Alex: What did we see today, on the
Alex (2 years old) replies: Poo.
Teacher B: We saw poo, and then we saw the tractor.
Teacher B: Lots.
Alex: Lots of big poo.
Teacher B: Yes, I think it was the horse, which had walked
there and made poo.
Amanda: Horse poo.
Teacher A: The horse had made poo.
Alex: I want more juice.
Teacher B pours: You were very thirsty.
Teacher A: And then we saw a lot of leaves, many kind of
leaves (pointing to the ones they have brought to a table close by).
In this example, teacher A takes the initiative to talk. She
addresses one particular child, Amanda. Her choice could be random, or her
reason could be that Amanda seldom talks. By addressing her, she facilitates
the inclusion of more children in the activity and the elaboration of the
event. Her question is open, "what did we see?" During a trip many things
happen, in a variety of locations, so by asking such an open question she
opens the floor, on this occasion, to Amanda to decide what to talk about.
Amanda answers this invitation by lifting her hands up to her head and utters
some sounds. The teacher continues the interaction by raising her eyebrows and
putting her head on one side, showing her attention by nodding slowly. The
researcher could not understand Amanda's utterance in spite of studying the
video clip several times. This might indicate that the teacher could not
discern it either. Instead she turns her attention to another child, Alex,
repeating her initial question. Alex replies: "Poo". Teacher B continues the
conversation by repeating and thus confirming, "We saw poo". She then
immediately suggests a new event: "we saw the tractor". This might indicate
that she did not find it appropriate to talk about poo at the table. She does
not explicitly say so; neither does she cut him off. Instead she suggests
another more appropriate topic for developing the collaborative narrative. Alex
continues. He extends the narrative by saying: "Lots". He might be referring to
the poo again, meaning that he could remember lots of poo. Teacher B now seems
to accept the children's choice of topic for the conversation. She confirms
this event and Alex extends the narrative even further by stating: "Lots of big
poo". The subtle redirectional talk of the teacher did not lead to the
children changing their attention.
Teacher B takes up Alex's suggestion by further expanding the narrative: "Yes,
I think it was the horse, which had walked there and made poo". Amanda also
confirms this event "Horse poo" and then Teacher A also confirms "The horse had
made poo". Teacher A suggests a new topic; "we saw a lot of leaves, many kinds
of leaves" and she points to the leaves that they have collected and brought
back for studying. By introducing a new topic, she negotiates what is worth
talking about. Her teacher agenda comes forward. In spite of her open
initiating question, that leaves the floor open for children's perspectives
and experiences, she reveals a teacher agenda in this last topic
We can see that two teachers and two children participate in the collaboration
and negotiation of the shaping of a narrative against the background of a
recent event the group had experienced together. The everyday context shapes
the condition for collaborative talking; a process of spontaneous
collaborative remembering and meaningmaking. We can see that Alex was quite
persistent in bringing up the horse poo, while teacher B suggests an additional
event, remembering the tractor. However, the children do not redirect their
focus of attention along this alternative narrative line. Consequently, teacher
B instead follows up and confirms Alex's contribution. Amanda participates by
reenvoicement (Dore 1989), that is, by repeating Alex's suggestion. In what
could seem like a process open for children's suggestions of what is worth
talking about, teacher A reveals that she has an agenda of learning a specific
topic; the variations of leaves found on their excursion. Both horse poo and
leaves belong to the knowledge of nature and as a topic had the potential of
elaborations, however not developed.
Example 2: Reconnecting through artefact to previous experiences and further
The background (context) of the next example is that a group of teachers were
later challenged to work on conarrative as an artefact for extended
collaborative dialogue, as an attempt to establish extended dialogues making
meaning of shared experiences. Photos were used as an additional artefact; a
trigger to elicit collaborative con
E. Eriksen Odegaard, N. Pramling versations. The teachers had taken photos that
constituted a collection from kindergarten excursions of what the children had
spontaneously been giving attention to while walking around in the local
neighbourhood. Since horse poo was a theme worth talking about, as established
in the first example (above), a photo of horse poo was also included in the
following activity used as the next example, from a situation where teacher C
is working with this task. In a setting where children could choose activities,
teacher C sat down at the table with a collection of photos. Julie approaches
teacher C and was asked to have a look at the photos. Julie sits down beside
her and they study the photos together.
Julie (3 years old) sees the photo of horse poo and starts talking: Oh, I have
Teacher C: Oh, have you?
Julie: Yes, they can trot.
Teacher C: Oh yes they can, how was it for you to trot then?
Julie: Horsepower into the body.
Teacher C: Oh, then it certainly went quickly. Have you seen the horse poo
Julie: Into the pee and out in the bum. Teacher D passes the table and
connects: I remember my mother, she ran out with the shovel and picked up horse
poo and arranged them round the rose bushes.
Teacher C: Yes, I also remember such events from my childhood. It was a good
idea. Turning to Julie again: I guess the horse had to eat a little
Julie: Yes, grass.
Teacher C: Yes, horses eat grass and I know that they like water. And do you
know what; I once read in a book that horses can go for a long time without
drinking any water.
Julie: Do you remember the horse smile?
Teacher C: Yes, when we went to the woods! Yes, I remember it very well, it was
funny. Then we laughed.
Julie: Yes, I can name many domestic animals, wild animals and sea
Teacher C: Yes. You could name were many different animals. The horse then,
what kind of animal is it?
Julie: Domestic animal.
By including a photo of horse poo, an artefact is provided for attending to
what the children had been interested and engaged in on a previous occasion.
Hence, the physical artefact in a sense structures her awareness and
remembering. The child, Julie, picks out this particular photo and starts
talking about a theme connected to it, horses. The child is able to give
relevant and comprehensible contributions to an evolving narrative through
relating to and recounting her experience of riding. She also knows that they
can trot. While the brief conversation between the two teachers, on using
horse poo for nurturing plants, does not evidently, in the data, make sense to,
or interest, the child, she knows that horses must eat in order to poo and that
they eat grass. In this way, the conversation between the child and the
teacher(s) and the artefact of the photo triggers and supports her sharing her
experiences and showing some of her knowledge of horses. Building on the
children's interest and engaging in conversations, conarrating, about these is
important not only for the child's sensemaking but also for socialising
children into becoming agents in their own learning, that is,
metacommunicating that their experiences are worth the attention of others
This article has thematised children learning to narrate
through participating in narrative collaboration in kindergarten communities
where teachers support, encourage and elicit collaborative narratives. Using
narrative as a linguistic tool with very young children will demand that the
adults are 'the weavers'. Teacher practice that opens for children's
participation will allow children to set the agenda for what they consider
worth talking about. To learn and make meaning will always imply the use of
cultural tools, if taking a sociocultural perspective (Vygotsky, 1978). Using
of a tool implies a long familiarisation process, as our examples from a
Norwegian kindergarten context have shown. The issue of what a collaborative
story should be about comes up for negotiation between children and teachers.
On the one hand, teachers subsequently follow the children's attention in
further providing for the development of their telling and meaningmaking. On
the other hand, they have their own agenda connected to learning goals that are
revealed, but come up in somewhat subtle ways. While not developed far in these
two brief examples, it can be seen how engaging in a collaborative story based
on what the children have paid attention to during an excursion provides a
platform for not only supporting their remembering and meaningmaking of what
they experience but also for introducing topics in the field of knowledge of
nature (basic science). The further development of such skills on narrative
grounds as well as where a narrative genre comes into conflict with a more
scientific genre, what Bruner (1990) refers to as paradigmatic, is important
to pursue in further research on children and collaborative narrative.
Teachers' skills and professional development put demands on their developing
collaborative narratives with very young children. They will appropriate and
use tools more or less knowledgeably for different purposes in various
practices. What communicative practices learners gain access to and are invited
to take part in will be pivotal for the competences they develop. The present
article has addressed children's appropriation of a widespread and powerful
cultural tool, the narrative genre and its use in a kindergarten