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Lumen Scholar probes link between storytelling & literacy

Working with children in Head Start, Elon senior Lauren Deaver explores how parents and children sharing stories at home impacts reading in school.

Elon University senior Lauren Deaver with her Lumen Prize mentor, Professor Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler


Some of the boys and girls would tell stories of African safaris and trips to the beach, of “friends forever” and ballerinas. Others shared tales of a big bad wolf visiting a princess, and of tyrannosaurus rexes eating snowmen.

The stories, recounted to parents and teachers alike, were also recorded. And transcribed. And analyzed.

To Elon University senior Lauren Deaver, the patterns that emerged were both a surprise and a delight, and her work may one day be the foundation for new strategies elementary school teachers can use as they seed a love of reading among their young charges. Her undergraduate research, a project titled “What Happens Then? Stories from the Classroom and Home,” is the latest to be featured this academic year in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2012.

“Storytelling is a precursor to literacy,” she said. “You need to be able to make the connection between the words that come out of your mouth and the words that are on paper, and that they are the same thing. And different cultures use different narrative styles.”

Inspired by her experience as a babysitter in Massachusetts, over the past two years, the psychology major has recorded and transcribed several stories told between parents and their children enrolled in a Burlington, N.C., Head Start program. Stories aren’t limited to fiction, though imaginative stories were among those she asked her parents to develop with children.

Stories can be as simple as asking a child what he or she did that day, or parents recalling memories from their own youth.

Deaver’s work through the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience and Lumen Prize programs confirms previous findings while hinting at patterns rarely studied. She notes, for example, that Caucasian and African-American families sometimes employ different narrative styles. White parents often use topic-linear methods with a distinct beginning, middle and end to stories; minority parents of assorted racial make-ups, meanwhile, favor topic-associative storytelling, where narratives flow from one idea to another without one direct thread.

Although these findings have been documented elsewhere, Deaver’s work differs in the close examination of socioeconomic status and storytelling. In Head Start families of limited means, many parents – both white and black – use topic-associate storytelling. Neither form is “right” or “wrong,” Deaver said, because students learn their unique forms by listening to parents, other family members and those within their communities. Nor is it impossible for children to learn and use both forms; in fact, doing so gives them certain flexibility in their academic learning.

But Deaver noted another pattern she didn’t expect to find: conflict between parents and children in lower socioeconomic classes. If a child misspeaks or gives the wrong detail in a story, parents in lower socioeconomic strata will correct them outright rather than ask the leading questions that middle class parents may use to guide children in revising their original account. “Lower socioeconomic status parents are teaching children that you need to assert yourself,” she said.

And here is where the transition into schools can be rough for young children. Friction arises in schools when primarily white, middle class teachers are less able to recognize or connect with students whose storytelling is of a different style, and combined with a more assertive approach in handling disagreement, Deaver explains that literacy and writing development can slow.

“Because schools adapt middle class narrative styles,” she said, “sometimes it can be difficult for a child to understand what is being asked of them.”

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements.

Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

The name for the Lumen Prize comes from Elon’s historic motto, “Numen Lumen,” Latin words for “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”

“She is truly an intellectual. She is excited by scholarly reading and loves talking about ideas,” said Professor Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, Deaver’s Lumen Prize mentor, in a recent letter of recommendation. “Her eyes light up when I throw out a new concept or angle for her research. She is one of the very best student writers I’ve come across in a decade – quite possibly the very best.

“Lauren has a unique ability for an undergraduate, in that she can integrate information from many different sources with seeming ease. Her literature review spanned at least five different areas of scholarly research, and she deftly moved from one academic area to the next in our exploration of language and literacy development.”

In addition to her work with young children, Deaver is a black belt in American Kenpo Karate, and the Elon College Fellow serves as president of Elon Martial Arts. She also volunteers at the Open Door Clinic, a community medical provider for those of limited financial means.

Medicine is Deaver’s ultimate calling. Growing up in central Pennsylvania and later the Boston suburbs, Deaver said that she and her younger sister learned the importance of giving back to others, and the idea of practicing adolescent psychiatry tugs at her heart.

“I like the idea of underserved areas, and I like rural areas,” she explains. “They need more help. I don’t want to be a doctor where there are already lots of doctors. I want to be somewhere I can make a real difference in a community.”

Eric Townsend,
2/9/2012 11:12 AM