Developing communication and language with young bilingual learners in China


The importance of listening and speaking in the acquisition of language has long been reported (Friedberg, 1994). The role of storytelling is considered an effective means of developing listening, vocabulary and speaking (MacGrath Speaker et al., 2004), especially when young children are learning English as a second language (Kirsch, 2012). There are few studies, however, into emergent bilingualism in Chinese and English. Hu and Commeyras (2008) reported that storytelling in Chinese and English, alongside extended activities, resulted in improvements in literacy in Chinese and English.

Observation by the authors indicate that young Chinese learners of English display delayed development of speaking. A deliberate attempt to address this challenge comprised a structured book-based programme, termed ‘story talk’. This study explores the impact of story talk on a cohort of 303 pupils on communication and language (CL) within the Early Years Foundation Stage framework. An effect size of 0.8 was recorded, indicating a high level of impact of story talk on pupil CL. Implications of these findings for bilingual education in China are presented.

Keywords English language, communication, speaking, bilingual, nursery, China


The importance of storytelling experiences in supporting language acquisition is well documented (Friedberg, 1994). Studies confirm that developing vocabulary and syntactic complexity is more advanced in pupils exposed to stories (McGrath Speaker et al. 2004). Listening and engaging with a story demands creative and predictive thinking which enhances language. It is associated with improved listening skills, vocabulary and capacity to manage narrative (McGrath Speaker, 2004) and a bridge to emergent literacy (Soundy, 1993). Friedberg (1994) argued that active story telling leads to a fluency in expressive language when assisted by the creative predictive, whilst there are also reported improvements on grammar when utilised in a holistic manner (Cherry-Cruz, 2001). Thus, the correlation between storytelling and language acquisition in young learners appears unequivocal.

Storytelling is also reported to assist in second language learners (Kirsch, 2012; Huffaker, 2005; Sneddon, 2008; Morgan & Rinvonulcri, 1983; Pesola, 1991). The impact of storytelling is linked with improved syntactical ability, language fluency and cultural understanding (Dyson, 1997; Ehlers et al., 2006; Kirsch, 1996; Anderson and Chung, 2011; Bell 1998; Tsou, Wang, and Tzeng 2006; Wilson 1997). These findings concur with those previous reported by Blank and Sheldon (1971), Morrow (1986) and Pellegrini and Galda (1982) who reported that role-play and the retelling of stories contributes to increased syntactic complexity. However, it is argued that the relationship of storytelling on second language learners is not fully researched (Kirsch, 2012). Paivio (1986) holds that the simultaneous use of language and visuals leads to dual coding that can facilitate retention and recall, supporting claims of storytelling assisting in vocabulary gain. The studies above suggest that storytelling supports language development in young second language learners.

Classroom talk has an impact and influence on language acquisition and development (Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Scott, 2009). Mercer & Littleton (2007) reported the impact of skilful dialogic approaches across five countries, echoing earlier findings by Alexander (2000).. Talk and listening are integral to language development and literacy, indeed can be considered the foundation of verbal and emotional intelligence (Fischer, 2007). Moreover, Cormack et al., (1998) demonstrated a national level impact of a focus on raising standards in listening and speaking. This reflects the sociolcultural learning theories as developed in the work of Vygotsky (1962) and Bruner (1985).

Research of second language learning in pre-school children has yielded varying results. Coyle & Mora (2018) argue for a ‘critical period’ at which pre-school children acquire a second language more effectively; this is linked to brain plasticity (Lenneberg, 1967). On the other hand, Múnoz, (2006) argues instead that social, psychological and pedagogical factors are more relevant than age (Curtain, 2003; Rixon, 2013). Coyle and Mora (2018) do recognise the importance of specific conditions for language to be acquired effectively in bilingual nurseries, alongside the previously referenced critical period. Effective learning and teaching models comprise immersion or exposure to a second language for part of the school day and involve diversity in pedagogical approach and experience of teachers. Unsworth et al. (2015) reported the importance of native language teachers in supporting acquisition of second language, although Cameron (2003) postulated that it is the actions of the teacher rather than their native language which has impact on young second language learners.

Predictable and interactive exchanges of language are reported as being relevant in bilingual nurseries (Artigal, 2003); for instance the use of Total physical response (TPR) (Asher, 1969) and simplified language and routines (Krashen, 1982; Kersten & Rohde, 2013; Llinares, 2007). Young learners may acquire lexical knowledge through a three-step process (Rohde & Tiefenthal, 2000); although greater exposure to words is necessary for second language learners (Leśniewska & Pichette, 2016; Coyle & Gómez Gracia, 2014) achieved either incidentally or through ‘bridging with first language’ (Collins, 2010; Weitz et al, 2010). Importantly for this exploration dramatized stories are recognised as supporting second language acquisition, especially those which include h repetition (Goshn, 2013; Collins, 2010; Chlapana & Tafa, 2014; Albaladejo, et al., 2018; Leśniewska & Pichette, 2016; Hillyard, 2015). Masoumi-Moghaddam (2018) reported the benefits of dramatized story telling on second language learners of English. This renders the landscape equivocal, although use of language and sequencing of learning opportunities appear strongly correlated.

Emergent literacy relates to acquiring language through informal modes of instruction (Justice & Kaderavek, 2002). Hu & Commeyras (2008) explored the impact of storytelling on emergent language and literacy in Chinese and English and concluded that it resulted in improvements in both languages. Biliteracy occurs for some children who acquire literate competencies in two languages simultaneously (Dworin, 1998), although studies in emergent biliteracy are not widespread; e.g. Hu & Commeyras (2008) reported only nine articles available on emergent bilingualism in Chinese and English, with only four deemed relevant (Buckwalter & Gloria Lo, 2002; Gottardo, Siegel, Yan, & Wade-Woolley, 2001; Townsend & Fu, 1998; Wan, 2000), and these are relatively narrow studies. This work all indicates that children can acquire two languages in a biliterate manner. In recent years, more research has focused on emergent biliteracy (Bauer, 2000; Bauer & Montero, 2001; Buckwalter & Gloria Lo, 2002). The importance of immersion in English acquisition is reported by Hu & Commeyras (2008) and others (Chamot & Stewner-Manzanares, 1985; Richards & Rodgers, 1986).

Compelling evidence presented in the studies cited above suggests that story telling supports language acquisition, including that of young second language learners. Moreover, predictive and interactive exchanges are reported as being important for young bilingual learners. This article seeks to explore the impact of a story telling strategy on CL in English for 303 Chinese children (3-6 years old) in a bilingual nursery in Shanghai, China. A story telling strategy was selected based on the reported impact on second language learners and bilingual nursery students in other contexts.

Research design and methodology

The authors observed that young Chinese pupils learning English displayed slower rates of development of speaking relative to reading and writing. Consequently, an attempt was made to deliberately address CL. This involved a small team of teachers, working with a researcher from Durham University, developed a ‘story talk’ programme. Story talk is a structured story telling approach to promote listening and speaking. It comprises repetition of interactive practices linked to the content of a specific book for around 20 minutes on two or three occasions a week over a sustained period of approximately 6 weeks. The language, vocabulary and syntax associated with the book was revisited and physical movements associated with the content learned. As student understanding and use of language associated with the book developed, additional content was introduced in order to extend linguistic development. During child-initiated learning, the environment and interactions of adults promoted application of the language associated with the selected book.

This study comprised an analysis of CL for a comparative group of young learners in a bilingual nursery in Shanghai, China. The sample within the study involved 303 students from two age groups: (i) 3 to 4 years old, and (ii) 5 to 6 years old. The control group comprised 142 pupils that experienced teacher-led learning opportunities in literacy that included listening to stories and engaging in questioning and associated activities through circle time and continuous provision. The structure and implementation was determined by the teacher and varied between classrooms. The treatment cohort of 161 students comprised story talk activities being undertaken three times each week. The approach involved pupils engaging with a book-based activity that linked core vocabulary to physical movements and song, both maintained and revisited frequently over a sustained period of approximately six weeks. The vocabulary and associated movement and song were integrated into child-initiated learning through the period of study. Pupils were exposed to six episodes of story talk across the academic year (approximately nine months).

Measures in the study comprised moderated assessment of CL in English. Baseline data collected in the first weeks of the academic year for both sample groups served as the pre-test conditions. End of academic year attainment in CL for both cohorts served as post-test conditions. The EYFS development matters document formed the basis of judgments on CL ensuring comparability across the control and treatment group groups. Students in the bilingual nursery operate at levels of CL in English below expected levels for children of the same age in England.


Teacher assessment of CL drew on a range of evidence sources; e.g. observation of students during teacher and child-initiated learning, 1:1 provocations between adults and children and specific activities devised to evaluate pupil development. Student performance against criteria outlined in the development matter document from the EYFS, UK, were used as a reference to assist teachers making judgment against a four-point scale:

  1. Below age-related expectations
  2. Working within age-related expectation; i.e. fulfilling aspects of the criteria for CL
  3. Meeting age-related expectations
  4. Exceeding age-related expectations

Teacher assessment was moderated between teachers within the nursery, in collaboration with teachers from other nurseries within the same education group and through an independent consultant with expertise in assessment against development matters within the EFYS framework. Whilst rigorous moderation can improve reliability of measures of student CL, it is recognised that there will be some aspect of variation in using teacher assessment.

Furthermore, it is recognised that there exist limitations in the methodology of comparing teacher assessment of CL between cohorts from two differing year groups. Therefore, the sample of 3-4 years old and 5-6 years old students in both the control and treatment cohort were analysed at three levels of control:

  • Strongly controlled for baseline data and student age (equivalent baseline score and same month of birth)
  • Moderately controlled for baseline data and student age (equivalent baseline score but within three month bands for age)
  • Uncontrolled between the control and treatment cohorts

The effect size of story talk was greatest for strongly controlled (1), conditions and decreased as control was reduced; 0.9 for moderately controlled and 0.8. This report refers to only the uncontrolled conditions.

There was little variation between the control and treatment cohorts at baseline assessment for CL in English using the four-point sale. This indicates that the control and treatment group are comparable.

The mean indicates negligible variance between the control and treatment group, whilst the median suggests no variation. This indicates that overall attainment of children for CL was comparable. This is supported by an effect size that indicates limited variation between the cohorts. For both the control and treatment groups of pupils, at baseline the majority of pupils display attainment in CL that is below age related expectations (66.9-70.4%), which may be anticipated, with a significant minority working within age related expectations (16.9 – 239%). Few students in either cohort were judged to be meeting or exceeding age-related expectations (9.1 –12.7%).

End of academic year CL attainment displays increased student performance. However, the treatment cohort displayed higher levels of attainment.

Results indicated higher levels of attainment for the treatment cohort. This is supported by an effect size of 0.8 indicating high levels of impact. Both mean and median are elevated for the treatment cohort; 2.2 – 3.0 and 2 – 3 respectively. Observations of attainment data for CL suggest there is a large difference in the proportion of students below age related expectations; 40% of pupils in the control cohort and 6.8%. Likewise, a proportionally large difference was also observed in the proportion of pupils exceeding age-related expectations; 17.1% for the control and 31.3% for the treatment cohorts. Finally, a higher proportion of pupils were reported as meeting age-related expectations in the treatment (40.4%) relative to the control group (23.6%). The data obtained indicates that students in the treatment group demonstrated higher levels of CL relative to those in the control group.


Discusion of the findings in the present study will focus on the impact of story talk on CL in young bilingual learners in Shanghai, China. The data obtained in the study indicates that end of year attainment in CL was higher in the treatment cohort relative to the control group. This indicates that story talk may have been an important factor in elevating the development of CL in young Chinese students learning English. These findings are aligned to that of other work in this area and may be attributable to repetitive use of storytelling coupled interactive student learning experiences over a sustained period (McGrath Speaker, 2004; Coyle and Mora, 2018; Hu and Commeyras, 2008; Kirsch, 2012; Anderson and Chung, 2011). Interestingly, relatively fewer students were judged to be below age-related expectations in the cohort that experienced story talk, indicating that the active storytelling approach enhanced access to learning compared to the traditional approach used in the control group. This observation aligns with the findings of a range of researchers that report that storytelling leads to improved syntactical ability, language fluency and cultural understanding (Dyson, 1997; Ehlers et al., 2006; Kirsch, 1996; Anderson and Chung, 2011; Bell 1998; Tsou, Wang, and Tzeng 2006; Wilson 1997). Perhaps story talk enhanced access to learning of CL in English, hence the observed higher levels of student performance, especially the many fewer proportion of pupils judged below age-related expectations. Furthermore, the relative greater proportion of pupils meeting or exceeding age-related expectations in the treatment cohort indicates that story talk resulted in a effective grasp of core language requirements, but also allowed more pupils to extend their development, perhaps through the holistic approach to embedding language during child-initiated learning and through extending language associated with the specific book used for story talk.

The limitations of the study are recognised; for instance, (i) errors in measurement of CL, (ii) variation in story talk experience between classes and (iii) the sample comprising pupils in a single nursery. Therefore, further work will seek to extend the study both longitudinally and across multiple settings.

Importantly, this study adds to the relatively under-researched field of bilingual education in China (Hu and Commeyras, 2008). The findings indicate that story talk may have potential to support Chinese pupil learning English acquire CL skills.


In conclusion, this study has provided evidence that indicates that CL is enhanced for young Chinese pupils learning English through the application of story talk; a storytelling structured and active approach to promoting speaking and listening. This is consistent with other finding for interactive storytelling (McGrath Speaker, 2004; Coyle and Mora, 2018; Hu and Commeyras, 2008; Kirsch, 2012; Anderson and Chung, 2011) but also adds to the relatively slim body of research in the context of bilingual emergent language for Chinese and English (Hu and Commeyras, 2008).

It is proposed that based on the findings in this report a longitudinal study is undertaken to evaluate the impact of story talk with older Chinese pupils learning English in a bilingual context. Application of story talk in other nurseries will also strengthen the existing evidence within the field of study. Together these findings will help inform pedagogy and practice across nurseries in Shanghai and beyond.


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