Understanding narrative voice through classroom literature discussion

Submitted by: John Gordon
Abstract: This paper examines literature teaching to develop students’ understanding of narrative voice in novels. The paper attends closely to the apparent duality of this pedagogy, alternating between a) immersive reading of the novel aloud and b) discussion framing students’ critical orientation to narrative voice. The key research question addressed by examining transcript data is:

how do teachers guide students’ understanding of narrative voice when reading novels in class?

Transcripts shared here represent literature discussion in two secondary classrooms. The paper takes an ethnomethodological perspective, making a micro-analysis of interaction to identify subtle but significant facets of talk that support students’ learning around literature. Data derives from a completed research project in the United Kingdom investigating shared novel reading in both formal and informal settings. The study generated transcripts representing literature discussion in six secondary schools, two primary classrooms, university seminars and reading groups.

Research methods adapted Conversation Analysis (Sidnell and Stivers, 2013) for literary study, to account for the introduction of the text to discussion and its influence on the pattern of talk. In particular, this paper draws on the concept of heteroglossia (Bakhtin, 1986) to theorise the entry of the text’s narrative voice to conversation. The text’s introduction to talk is conceived as part of a dialogic chain partially determined by the teacher but also shaped by student contributions.

Results of analysis suggest that literary pedagogy for discussion of narrative voice is defined by teachers’ versatile switching between immersive and selective performative reading aloud and declarative, overtly distanced critical orientation. Both are significant for developing students’ intermental and intramental understanding of narrative voice. Teachers skilfully combine the two to realise the text’s narrative voice as a presence in the public forum of the classroom, affording cognitive and affective student responses concurrently, likely to support their argumentation in writing or speech.

Keywords: Reading, literature discussion, narrative voice, Conversation Analysis

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Sidnell, J. and Stivers, T. (eds) (2013) The handbook of Conversation Analysis. London: Blackwell.