Children with specific language impairment: an investigation of their narratives and memory Academic Article uri icon


  • Narratives have been used by a number of researchers to investigate the language of children with specific language impairment (SLI). While a number of explanations for SLI have been proposed, there is now mounting evidence that children with SLI have limited memory resources. Phonological memory has been the focus of the research on memory with this population. However, the use of narrative tasks to investigate memory limitations in SLI has not previously been undertaken.The aims of the research were to investigate the narrative and memory abilities of 6-year-old children with SLI and the association between narrative skills and memory.Two studies were conducted. In Study 1 the performance of the children with SLI was compared with that of their peers with typical language development (AM), and to that of a younger group (LM) matched on expressive language (about 2 years younger). Children were asked to recall ('story recall') and show comprehension of a narrative they had been told, and also to tell a story based on a series of pictures ('story generation'), to recall their story and to answer comprehension questions about it. In Study 2 the children with SLI from Study 1 and the AM children from Study 1 were tested on four working memory tasks: word and digit span, the Recalling Sentences task from the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals--Third Edition, and a dual-processing task. An inhibition task and an attention task were also included. It was predicted that children with SLI would perform more poorly than the AM group on measures of narrative telling, but comparably with the LM group. It was also predicted that the SLI group would perform more poorly than the AM group on both literal and inferencing comprehension questions but comparably with the LM group. The third prediction was that there would be significant associations between children's performance on the narrative tasks and the tasks measuring working memory.In Study 1 the children with SLI performed more like the younger group on recall of a narrative they had heard, but more like their peers when asked to generate and recall their own narrative based on a series of pictures. The children with SLI had difficulty with inferencing questions. In Study 2 the impaired group performed significantly worse on measures of memory, showing a lower working memory capacity. The children with SLI made more errors on the attention task, but no group differences were found on the inhibition task. In comparing results from Studies 1 and 2, significant correlations were found between performance on the narrative tasks and memory tasks, but the contribution of memory to the narrative task scores differed for the two stories. The Recalling Sentences memory task was found to be the best overall measure for predicting variance on story comprehension and recall.In support of previous research, the children with SLI showed problems with inferencing, linking directly observed or stated information to likely outcomes. They also showed a limited working memory capacity, and they were more likely to make errors in attention. A main finding was that the narrative abilities of the 6-year-old children were linked to their verbal working memory. The information the SLI group heard was harder to access than information they had been able to generate themselves based on a series of pictures. The findings suggest that children with SLI are likely to be at a disadvantage in classroom situations, particularly for information presented aurally and if the information is complex. The use of pictorial aids may help them encode the information. They would also benefit from having information broken into manageable units.

publication date

  • January 2008