In the study, three-and four-year-old children were shown a book that contained only pictures and were asked to tell the story to a puppet. None of the children had seen the book before the study. The children were not prompted in any way and were free to say as much or as little about each page as they wished.
"Children were told the puppet had never heard the story before, and so this made it a fun thing for children to do. They really enjoyed telling the story to the puppet," explained O'Neill, a professor of developmental psychology.
"Having children tell the story on their own, without any adult prompting, also allowed us to better see what they were able to accomplish on their own and to get a more sensitive measure of their storytelling ability," she said.
O'Neill looked at several aspects of children's storytelling ability. Some aspects captured grammatical complexity, such as children's use of relative clauses or the length of their sentences. Other aspects involved more perspective-taking on the part of the child.
"In the story, a child brings his pet frog to a restaurant and lots of funny things happen as the frog begins to jump around and cause all sorts of mayhem," O'Neill said.
"This made it possible to see how well children were able to talk about the feelings or thoughts of the characters in the story and how well children were able to talk about the different actions of the various characters and switch clearly from talking about one character to another," she said.
Two years later, the children were brought back to the laboratory and were given a number of tests of academic achievement that included a test of mathematical achievement. What O'Neill found was that those children who scored highly on the mathematics test had also scored highly on certain measures of their storytelling ability two years earlier.
"It was only certain aspects of storytelling that were related to later mathematical ability. Most strongly predictive of children's mathematical performance was their ability to relate all the different events in the story, to shift clearly from the actions of one character to another, and to adopt the perspective of different characters and talk about what they were feeling or thinking," explained O'Neill.
This study suggests that building strong storytelling skills early in the preschool years may be helpful in preparing children for learning mathematics when they enter school.
"Almost all children experience the world of storytelling before they begin their journey into the world of mathematical thinking, and there's an intriguing possibility that providing children with experience with storytelling may later enhance their ability to tackle problems in the mathematical arena," said O'Neill.
"It is also a nice finding, I think, because storytelling is something every parent can easily do and foster with their children, without the need to buy any fancy toys or materials," said O'Neill.
Given these findings, O'Neill is continuing in further studies, also funded by Science and Engineering Research Canada, to explore more precisely what aspects of storytelling are linked to aspects of mathematical ability.
"There is a lot more to know about how these two domains of thinking are related. Both storytelling and mathematics involve many different abilities and we are trying to determine what the overlapping abilities are that might explain why being better at certain types of storytelling skills might help when tackling certain kinds of mathematical problems," O'Neill said.