Bridging the gap between past and present
: narrative nonfiction in the primary history classroom

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Narrative is seen as fundamental to human thought (Turner, 1996), yet in the Key Stage 2 classroom (pupils aged 7-11 years), expository texts are commonly used to support learning in content-based subjects, such as history (Medwell et al., 2017). If narrative is so essential, it might be harnessed as a powerful tool to support learning. This research compares the impact of narrative nonfiction (NNF) and expository text (ET) on the development and retention of conceptual understanding relating to World War One (WWI). NNF texts combine factual information with narrative devices. Given they present accurate information, embedded in a narrative structure that is thought to mirror the cognitive structures individuals use to make sense of the world around them (Bruner, 1985), NNF texts might support learning. This familiar structure can facilitate the reader’s construction of a strong situation model (van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983), which in turn might support both the development and retention of conceptual understanding of the information presented in the text. A comparative experiment was conducted in which participants (78 children, aged 9-10-years-old) were placed into one of two conditions: in one, information about WWI was conveyed primarily through NNF texts, and in the other, through ETs. Participants completed written pre-, post- and delayed post-assessments to assess development and retention of conceptual understanding. Participants also discussed questions about the texts, which were recorded and transcribed for later coding and analysis. Specific areas of a conceptual understanding of history were observed to develop differently across conditions: generally, participants in the NNF condition showed greater chronological and causal thinking skills. During discussions, those in the NNF condition made a significantly greater number of inferences, whilst those in the ET condition made significantly more incorrect statements. In addition, participants in the NNF condition retained significantly more conceptual understanding at the delayed post-assessments than those in the ET condition, suggesting that NNF texts enhanced retention of information. Overall, these findings suggest that narrative texts have the potential to be powerful learning tools, supporting specific areas of conceptual development. A new model for reading is proposed, highlighting distinctions between narrative and expository reading processes, particularly in terms of the situation models constructed in relation to these different text types. This research has implications for how texts are selected and utilised to support learning in the primary, history classroom.
Date of Award1 Feb 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJill Hohenstein (Supervisor) & Aisha Khan-Evans (Supervisor)

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