Narrative thinking: Cognitive tool or trap? A study of students' cognitive operations when writing narratives for three different purposes

Date of Completion

January 1998


Education, Language and Literature|Education, Secondary|Psychology, Cognitive|Language, Rhetoric and Composition|Education, Curriculum and Instruction




In the English curricula of secondary schools, students are asked to read and find profound meanings in a literary canon consisting almost exclusively of narratives. Yet, when it is time to write, secondary students are largely denied the opportunity to use their narrative powers. Behind this paradox is an untested assumption regarding narrative: that narrative is a limited form of thought, a cognitive trap. Scholars including Scholes, Moffett, Elbow, and Bruner have urged teachers to give students more opportunities to use narrative as a tool for thinking. But should teachers follow such advice? What is the nature of students' thinking when they write narratives? This study explores those questions by investigating the nature of students' cognitive operations as they write narratives for three separate purposes: to report, to explore, and to create. Data were obtained by recording the think-aloud protocols of 18 high school seniors as they wrote narratives for each of the three purposes. This study employed both qualitative and quantitative procedures to develop an understanding of the nature of students' cognitive processes as they wrote narratives. The results suggest the following: (1) that students orchestrate a complex array of cognitive operations as they write narratives; (2) that the cognitive operations of planning, hypothesizing while planning, translating story schemata into text, questioning, recalling, and linking showed statistically significant differences across changes in the purpose of the writing assignment; (3) that the cognitive operations of hypothesizing while translating story schemata into text, monitoring, evaluating, and reading showed no statistically significant effects across changes in purpose; (4) that students writing imaginative narratives used a greater number and richer array of cognitive operations than when writing narratives to report and explore. This study suggests that teachers need to view narrative not as a static product, but as a dynamic tool for thought. ^