Comparison of Preschool Children's Story Retelling
Following One Versus Three Exposures to an Unfamiliar Story

Molly M. Caton, Linda K. Crowe*, & Sherry J. Haar*


This study examined differences in 10 preschool children’s story retellings following one or three readings of an unfamiliar story. The 10 children were divided into two groups of five children (Group A and Group B), with a combined mean age of 4.27 years. The children listened to a familiar adult read an unfamiliar story, then retold the story under one of two conditions. Group A heard the story one time, then immediately retold their versions to an unfamiliar, naïve listener. Group B heard the story over three consecutive days and retold their versions on the fourth day to a familiar, naïve listener. The children’s retellings were transcribed and examined for total number of words spoken, average number of words per utterance, and number of target story details mentioned. The results showed a clear advantage for Group A, with only one exposure but immediate retell of the story. Group A produced significantly more total words, greater number of words per utterance, and greater number of target details. 


            Literacy experiences for young children help them develop comprehension skills, vocabulary knowledge, and oral language abilities. Early encounters with stories and print also provide children a framework for expressing themselves to others. The linguistic community arranges speech encounters so that the young aspirant speaker can make his or her communicative intentions clear (Pappas, 1984). Young children are expected to develop communication skills appropriate to varying social contexts, and literacy experiences contribute to preschoolers’ pragmatic communication development (Kaderavek & Sulzby, 2000). Some contend that literacy experiences build a foundation for developing social communication abilities. Therefore, many preschool classrooms include story time as an integral part of the daily routine, with story reading and associated activities varying considerably across classrooms.

Importance of Literacy Development

Kaderavek and Sulzby (2000) state one of the central goals of school instruction is to promote literacy skills in young children. Literacy skills are important in helping children perceive the relationship between oral and written language. Sulzby (1985) describes this transition from oral to written language as emergent reading. First, stories are read to children, next they begin to orally talk about the stories, and then children retell their personal versions of stories based on the pictures. As this development continues, children realize that the printed words actually tell the story. When this transition to literate language comprehension occurs, children’s retellings begin to include repetition of some or all of the text, with attention to print emerging, as well.

            Early childhood educators place great importance on literacy development (Kaderavek & Sulzby, 2000). Literacy activities within the school environment include reading storybooks, drawing pictures, participating in dramatic play, orally retelling stories, and using props to reenact a story. Pappas (1984) contends that literacy can only be learned by adults reading real books to children and by giving the children a chance to “read” or “reenact” the books on their own. Reading aloud to children may be the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for later success in reading (Scarborough & Dobrich, 1994).

Differences in Preschool Story Time 

            Studies have demonstrated that young children learn vocabulary, syntactical constructions, the use of decontextualized language, and discourse structures after repeated storybook reading (Kaderavek & Sulzby, 2000). However, the typical preschool classroom usually provides only one exposure to a storybook. Previous research has indicated that one exposure is not enough to master the vocabulary, complex syntax, and narrative details in a story. Redundancy is the key to establishing literacy skills (Bellon & Ogeltree, 2000). Kindergartners expand their receptive vocabularies when they listen to stories at least twice and hear unfamiliar words repeated in the stories (Robbins & Ehri, 1994). 

Repeated story time in which young children hear the same book read over and over, facilitates story comprehension at deeper levels of meaning and encourages questioning about the ideas expressed in the story (Dowhower, 1989). With multiple exposures to a storybook, children ask fewer questions centered around the book’s pictures and instead begin to ask questions about the meaning of words and the story details (Kaderavek & Sulzby, 2000). 

Research Purpose and Questions

            Current research suggest that a repeated exposure to a story is critical to comprehension, and facilitates a child's ability to retell the story (Kaderavek & Sulzby, 2000). because many preschool classrooms provide only one exposure to a new book, the purpose of this investigation was to compare differences in children's story retellings with one or three exposures of an unfamiliar story. The study focused upon examining the length of the retells and the details children recalled about the stories. The questions for this investigation were as follows:

1.   Are there differences in the length of preschool children's narrative story retellings following one versus three exposures to an unfamiliar story?

2.   Are there differences in the number of story details present in preschool children's narrative story retellings following one versus three exposures to an unfamiliar story?



Participants were 10 preschool-aged children from a Mid-western city. All attended an early childhood laboratory school located on a local university campus. The 10 children were in two groups (Group A and Group B) of 5 children each. The participants in Group A consisted of four males and one female, with an age range of 3.4 to 5.5 years (M = 4.34 years). Group A participants were selected from a pool of 10 children who participated in an earlier study. The participants in Group B consisted of three males and two females, with an age range of 3.7 to 4.8 years (M = 4.2 years). The five children in Group B were selected from a pool of 18 children who were part of a larger investigation. 

All the children were typically developing and had normal language skills. To ensure typical language ability, two formal language measures (one of expressive and one of receptive vocabulary) were administered. The measures were the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III, PPVT-III (Dunn & Dunn, 1997) and the Expressive One-Word Picture Vocabulary Test-2000 Edition, EOWPVT (Brownell, 2000). Both groups of children had similar mean ages and similar mean receptive and expressive vocabulary scores (see Table 1 for participant characteristics). The five children in Group A had mean scores of 117.4 on the PPVT-III (range = 107 to 123) and 104.2 on the EOWPVT (range = 92 to 119). The five children in Group B had mean scores of 117.6 on the PPVT-III (range = 109 to 129) and 108.8 on the EOWPVT (range = 93 to 120).

Table 1. Participant Characteristics







  Group A  

































Group B
































Note. Age report in years; PPVT = Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III (Dunn & Dunn, 1997); EOWPVT = Expressive one-Word Picture Vocabulary Test (brownell, 2000).

Materials and Equipment

            Materials for this investigation included the book, Shoes From Grandpa (Fox, 1989), and a Sony Digital 8 video camcorder. The book was selected based on teacher report that it was unfamiliar to the children (i.e., the story had not been used in the preschool classroom). The book also had illustrations and characters recognizable to preschoolers (i.e., realistic characters and actions), repetitive wording, and a number of story details to recall (i.e., clothing items and people). There were six clothing items the participant could recall: shoes, socks, coat, scarf, hat, and mittens. There were eight people the participant could recall: Jessie, Grandpa, Grandma, Dad, Brother, Sister, Aunt, and Uncle.

Design and Procedure

            This was an independent samples treatment comparison study. Two groups (A and B) of five children listened to the same story, one or three times. Then each child individually retold the story to a naïve listener.

In Group A participants were assigned to dyads of one female and one male. A familiar teacher read the book Shoes From Grandpa only one time to each dyad. The teacher was told to read the book and limit interactions with the children, but if children asked questions, they were answered. After the two participants of the dyad heard the story, they immediately retold the story individually to a naïve listener. 

In Group B, participants sat in a large group (i.e., 15-20 children) around the classroom teacher. The teacher read the book Shoes From Grandpa to the entire group. The teacher was given the same instructions as the Group A teacher, that was to read the book and limit interactions with the children, but to answer any questions the children asked during the reading. The teacher read this story to the participants at the same time over three consecutive days. On the fourth day during the story time, instead of listening to the book, each participant retold the story individually to a second classroom teacher, a familiar listener.

In both groups (A and B), the listener used minimal verbal prompts to elicit the participant’s retelling of the story. Prompts included utterances such as, “Tell me about the story you just heard,”  “Tell me about the story you have been hearing in circle time the past couple of days,” and “Is there anything else you remember about the story?”  All retellings were video recorded in their entirety.

Data Analysis

            The video recorded retellings from the participants were transcribed verbatim for analysis. All the children’s relevant, story-related utterances were coded for the following: (a) total number of words spoken, (b) average number of words per utterance, (c) number of people mentioned, and (d) number of clothing items mentioned. Transcriptions were adjusted so that repetitions or false starts (ex: She, she, she got…) and fillers (ex: Um, um, the…) were deleted in the count of total number of words spoken. It should also be noted that if the participant mentioned a story character three times during retelling, it was counted as only one person mentioned. For each clothing item, one of similar meaning (such as boot instead of shoe) was recorded as one clothing item mentioned. Frequency counts for all dependent measures were tabulated for data analysis. Nonparametric and descriptive statistics were used to analyze the data.


            Mean frequencies and Mann-Whitney U statistics for the dependent variables are summarized in Table 2. Group A (immediate retell after one reading) performed better on all of the four measures compared to Group B (delayed retell after three readings). The total number of words per narrative ranged from 40-102 (M = 60.6) for Group A and ranged from 9-45 (M = 23.8) for Group B. The average number of words per utterance ranged from 3.75-6.80 (M = 5.42) for Group A and ranged from 1.80-4.09 (M = 2.65) for Group B. The total number of characters mentioned ranged from 0-3 (M = 1.20) for Group A and ranged from 0-1 (M = 0.2) for Group B. For Group A the mean number of clothing items mentioned was 2.2 (range = 0-4), and Group B mean was 1.0 (range = 0-3).

A Mann-Whitney U test statistic was applied to identify significant differences between groups in retellings under the two conditions. Group A produced significantly more words per retelling (U = 21.5; p <.023), greater number of words per utterance (U = 24.0; p < .006), and total number of people mentioned (U = 20.5; p < .038). Although Group A also mentioned more clothing items, there was not a significant difference between the two groups for this measure. 

Table 2. Statistical Findings

Study Variable

  GA Ms  
n = 5

  GB Ms  
n  = 5

  Mann-Whitney U  

Total # words




Words Per Utterance     




Total # People




Total # clothing Items




Note. GA = Group A; GB = Group B; n = number of participants; *p<.05, one-tailed; **p<.01, one-tailed.


The purpose of this investigation was to determine whether there were differences in children’s story retelling in two different conditions, immediate retell after one exposure (Group A) and delayed retell after three exposures (Group B). For each of the measures examined, it was hypothesized that the children who heard the story three times (Group B) would produce a greater number of words, have a higher average number of words per utterance, and would reference a greater number of targeted details (i.e., clothing items and people in the book). These hypotheses were not confirmed, as Group A performed significantly better than Group B for three of the four measures. The results indicate that the children who listened to the story one time and retold immediately performed better on all the measures compared to the children who listened to the story once over three consecutive days and retold in the delayed context. 

            It was anticipated that the children who had three exposures to the book, Group B, would produce more informative stories. Instead, the children who had one exposure, Group A, produced more informative stories than children in Group B. The researchers concluded that the children who had one exposure told better stories due to memory factors. The immediate retell condition relied on short-term memory. In contrast the children who had three exposures and a 24-hour delay before retelling, were relying on long-term memory stores. 

In addition to memory limitations, other potential factors may have influenced the current findings. One, is that the story reading conditions were different, with Group A children hearing the story in a small group and Group B listening to the story in a large group setting. Because the group sizes were different, the children in the dyads were physically closer to the book than the children in the large group setting. Children in Group A also were slightly older than children in Group B, with the oldest child in Group A at least 6 months older than the oldest child in Group B. Despite efforts to control for age, age effects may have impacted the overall findings. Research consistently reports that children’s narratives change as a function of age (Applebee, 1978; Kaderavek & Sulzby, 2000).

Previous research has shown that the repetition of recurrent topics and themes allow children time to explore a topic until they feel they have some control over required forms, functions, and processes (Labbo, 1996). Despite their impoverished retellings, the children in Group B (repeated reading) may have actually comprehended the meaning of the story better than their retellings indicated. The children in Group B were observed to be reading aloud with the teacher during the second and third readings of the book. However, when the children began their retellings without the book or a memory aid present, they were unable to verbalize the details or story line they had expressed as the teacher read the preceding day.

Past research also has demonstrated that repeated storybook reading interventions in conjunction with thematic units (e.g., related props and activities) promote language and literacy in children (Bellon & Ogletree, 2000). Studies in storybook reading emphasize the importance of props, such as the book, in aiding young children’s story recall (Kaderavek & Sulzby, 2000). The children in the current study who retold in the delayed context may have benefited from some type of prop, such as the book, which was not available. 

Another factor impacting the current results includes the lack of interaction between the adult and children during reading. Interaction was limited to control for variability across adult readings. However, research suggests that children must be encouraged to be partners in the literature event; be invited to talk about what they know, think, feel, and to ask questions (Hoffman & Lilja, 1988). Repeated reading and adult expansions on the child’s utterances facilitates oral and written language use (Bellon & Ogletree, 2000). The language used by the adult outside the written text as adult and child expand upon the meaning illustrated in the pictures and text makes a significant difference in children’s use of oral language and their early reading behaviors (Hoffman & Lilja, 1988). 


Although group data showed a significant advantage for Group A, individual differences also were observed. For example, Child 4 in Group A produced no real story, nor did he reference any of the targeted story details. This participant’s utterances included statements such as, “I don’t know what it is,” and “I don’t remember nuffin about it.”  The other four children in Group A referenced at least one person and two clothing items. 

General observations were made for all the children in Group B. There were only two children, Participants 8 and 10, who referenced any targeted story details. Child 10 was the only participant in Group B to reference any of the people. In summary, it was observed all five children in Group B produced statements indicating their difficulty retelling. Common across Group B participants were utterances such as, “I don’t know. No, I don’t remember the words.”  It should also be noted that all five children in Group B produced notably more false starts and fillers (ex: Um, um, um…) compared to the five children in Group A. 

Research has documented that when faced with the task of retelling an entire story, many young children are not successful due to the memory demands of the task (Morrow, 1985). The current study supports this contention, particularly when long-term recall was expected, as with the Group B children. However, at least one child in Group A, Participant 4, also experienced notable difficulty in retelling.

Future Investigation

            Although there are other studies examining children’s retelling based on one versus repeated exposures to a book, this was the first study to examine the importance of immediate versus delayed retell. Further work is needed to fully understand the role that memory plays in immediate versus delayed retelling. 

            One limitation is the sample size of this study. The sample size consisted of 10 participants, therefore the implications of this study are limited to this present sample. Future studies should have a larger sample size. 

            Considerations for future studies include examining immediate versus delayed retellings after repeated exposures to a storybook. Using the storybook as a prop, the children could view the book during the retellings, thus reducing the memory load and potentially enhancing recall. Despite limitations, this investigation adds to the research examining factors that facilitate preschool children’s literacy and language production during storybook reading. 


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Sulzby, E. (1985). Children’s emergent reading of favorite storybooks: A developmental study. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 458-481.

Author Note

Molly Caton, Undergraduate Student in Communication Sciences and Disorders, Kansas State University. Linda K. Crowe, *Faculty Co-Author, Communication Sciences and Disorders, Kansas State University, Sherry J. Haar, *Faculty Co-Author, Apparel, Textiles, and Interior Design, Kansas State University 

This research was supported in part by a Kansas State University Small Research Grant. Correspondence concerning this research should be addressed to Linda K. Crowe, Kansas State University, School of Family Studies and Human Services, 317 Justin Hall, Manhattan, Kansas, 66506-1403, phone (785) 532-1485, e-mail lcrowe@ksu.edu.


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