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Your brain on narrative: evolution and the story rope

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“Our brains are hard-wired for story” is one common argument for why narrative is useful in journalism, in writing, in life. The phrase has always made me uncomfortable, because while humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, we aren’t yet very good at figuring out exactly what’s happening inside our noggins. (Which is why I like it that narrative guru Jack Hart references the concept cautiously in latest book.)

But we don’t have to speculate about the evolution of the brain to understand the central nature of stories in our lives. We have evidence in the form of newspaper analyses and data-driven research suggesting that stories and narrative are vital components in how we understand our world.

Bosworth's story rope

This point smacked me upside the head once again when I started volunteering with the first-grade reading program at my son’s public school. I went for a group training session last week, and the reading specialist, Barbara Bosworth, began to talk to us about phrasing, smoothness, fluency, automaticity and various gauges of reading skill – what we should focus on, and what we should let slide for now. She talked about the Read Naturally program, Carbo Recorded Books and the challenges of short vowels, long vowels, digraphs and graphemes.

I’ve read a little about literacy, but it was dizzying to consider the mechanics of teaching kids the right skills in the right order to best help them get going. I was feeling a little bug-eyed. And then she pulled out a twined skein of puffy yarn studded with little lapel pins.

“This,” she said, “is a story rope.” Top to bottom, there was a gingerbread man, a little cottage, a cowboy boot, three stars and a sun.

Learning how to think about stories

The school uses story ropes to encourage and gauge reading comprehension. The gingerbread man, she explained, reminds kids to identify the characters in the story. The house is a marker for setting. The cowboy boot signifies the problem that will inevitably kick in. The three stars encourage kids to look for components of the problem and how the plot unfolds in the beginning, middle and end. The sun represents the solution to the problem.

What’s more, the ability to account for these elements – to effectively recognize the key components of stories and recount them – is, in part, how teachers evaluate children’s reading ability. All kinds of story maps are in use with early learners.

What surprised me was not so much that a reading instructor would know the components of storytelling, but that these concepts were used for training kids how to absorb information from the beginning of their time in the classroom. Character, setting, conflict and resolution are the very elements that my son is being taught to recognize as he learns how to perceive ideas in texts and to think critically about new information.

My mind wandering to rosaries and Inca quipu, I asked Bosworth about the history of the story rope. She didn’t really know where it had originated but first saw it used by a colleague about 15 years ago as a special education teacher. She had this to say about it:

My guess is that the components are adapted from graphic organizers, which have a strong research base for reading comprehension. (With graphic organizers, students could see pertinent information visually and without so much verbal content. Therefore, students are better able to see relationships/connections and make inferences with higher level thought.)

Bosworth said she didn’t know how many other schools might be using story ropes but that graphic organizers are common. She’s now allowed to let students use the ropes during reading assessments, to serve as reminders of what elements to look for in understanding a story.

It seems intuitive that when parents tell stories and read to their children, they’re not just entertaining them but also giving them tools to interpret the universe. It is any wonder that adults would look for and respond to these same elements when they’re trying to understand their world through news and books? It’s not just an evolutionary impulse or some inherited capacity (though it could well be both). Stories are how children learn and are taught, year after year, formally or informally, to make sense from words and to understand the world.


  1. posted November 4, 2011 at 8:28 pm | permalink

    Great post Andrea. I really like the story rope! And the last paragraph is just brilliant. Thank you so much.

  2. posted November 8, 2011 at 12:02 pm | permalink

    It’s tempting to suppose that the anecdote beginning, “I went for a group training session last week…” is actually a story you made up to help explain your point more clearly.

  3. Andrea Pitzer
    posted November 14, 2011 at 3:53 pm | permalink


    Tempting it may be, but if I had done that, it wouldn’t be nonfiction, would it? In truth, the entire post came out of that training session–it hadn’t occurred to me to write about “wired for story” before seeing the story rope.


  4. Jeremy Burton
    posted November 14, 2011 at 8:52 pm | permalink

    Thought-provoking post, but I think I’m missing something: How does the story rope work exactly? Like, as the kids are reading, the teachers pull out the rope and point to the symbols? Do the students hold onto it as they read? How is it explained to the kids? Why a rope versus something drawn out on paper or the blackboard?

  5. Andrea Pitzer
    posted November 15, 2011 at 12:58 am | permalink

    The way I saw it used, Jeremy, was that the kids were shown a story rope and told about each element. A day or two later, the teacher used a big posterboard on an easel, with a vertical row of stickers down the left-hand side that matched each pin on the story rope. After asking the class to supply a description for each element, she wrote that description on the posterboard next to the relevant image.

    Then, they broke into groups of 5 or 6 and worked with an adult to read a story together. Each student got a piece of paper that had the stickers (for character, setting etc.) down the left-hand side. They had to fill in who was in the story where it took place, what was the conflict/problem etc.

    So basically, they were learning how to break a story down into its components and identify what was happening and what change was taking place across the narrative.

    The story rope itself comes in again when they’re tested for reading comprehension. They have to be able to read a story and tell someone what happened in it. Their ability to identify the key elements of narrative is considered an indicator of reading mastery. The story rope is allowed on the table during testing and can serve as a reminder for kids of what they need to include in order to understand and retell the story.

    But there’s no need for it to be a story rope specifically. Other programs use story charts or maps. The story rope was just my first encounter with these elementary-school story visualizations. And I’m no expert, but I wonder if the chance to handle something more engagingly tactile and three-dimensional than a piece of paper helps kids focus.


  6. Jeremy Burton
    posted November 15, 2011 at 1:19 am | permalink

    Thanks for the reply, Andrea. That clears up my questions perfectly. The whole thing is quite brilliant, really. I don’t remember anything like that when I was learning to read, but I barely remember some things from yesterday. Anyway, again, thanks for being so responsive.

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