How to analyze classroom talk: Part 3 of 4

This is the third post on methodology for analyzing classroom talk, preceded by posts on Turn-taking and Contextualization. In this post, we look at how to analyze Narratives. I begin with a discussion of what “narrative” means in everyday spoken interactions, and how that’s different from our common understanding of narratives. Then we look at how to analyze stories told in classrooms. (You might say: “But there’s not many stories told in my classroom! There’s not much opportunity…” You’d be surprised. Stories are an unavoidable part of everyday life, and those told in everyday oral interactions are very subtle, so you have to train to notice them.) This post selectively summarizes the third data analysis chapter of Prof. Betsy Rymes’ book Classroom Discourse Analysis: A Tool for Critical Reflection (2nd. ed., 2015). As this blog is also about translanguagingcode-switching, and bi/multilingualism in primary and secondary education, I conclude the post with my own thoughts linking the chapter to research on bi/multilingual classroom talk.

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Rymes, B. (2015). Analyzing contextualization resources. In Classroom discourse analysisA tool for critical reflection (2nd ed.) (pp. 153-178). New York, NY: Routledge.

What do you think when you hear the word “narrative”? Usually, you think “story,” and you think of the complete, fully-formed stories from movies, books, and TV. During the winter break, as I’m writing this, my husband’s checked out Devils and Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky from the library; we watched an episode of The Witcher last night; there’s that Disney movie Encanto in theatres… like that kind of narrative, right? NO. As I told my students in a Master of Education course called “Narrative Analysis,” the first trick to analyzing narratives in interaction is to let go of our conventional understanding of narrative as (1) complete, (2) structured, and (3) a one-way transmission from creator(s) to audience.

Here is an example of narrative data from a world-leading scholar in narrative analysis, Alexandra Georgakopoulou (De Fina & Georgakopoulou, 2012, p. 47):

  • Vassilis: It’s like when Christos and Kostas had a row, d’ you remember the story?
  • Jannis: When was that ma:n?
  • Vassilis: That time with the bill=
  • Jannis: =Oh ri:ght!
  • Vassilis: What a story, eh? Just out of the blue really (…) as they’d gone out…

This narrative is not (1) complete or (2) structured according to “opening, inciting incident, rising action, climax, resolution, and ending”… the vast majority of the story is suggested rather than said out loud (articulated in words). There’s a good reason for this. Vassilis and Jannis don’t actually need to re-tell much of the story, because they both already know the story! The “full telling” of the story may be less important than the social action that will happen as a result of mentioning the story. They have mentioned the story in just a few words, but still enough to remind each other… so they can DO something with the story. The narrative is (3) co-constructed by Vasillis and Jannis rather than transmitted from creator(s) to consumer(s) in terms of form, content, and progression. Jannis’ response, “When was that ma:n?” directly influences Vassilis’ telling by making Vassilis recap some information (“That time with the bill”), and Jannis’ interested exclamation, “Oh ri:ght!” causes Vassilis to continue telling the story. Had Jannis displayed lack of interest, the story might have ended then and there.

This is the definition of “story” that interactional sociolinguists work with: stories that take an innumerable number of unpredictable forms (from lengthy recaps to very brief allusions), co-told in interaction to achieve social goals in daily life. We now turn to the setting of the classroom, or how these play out in classrooms.

How the story is told: “Into,” “Through,” and “Beyond”

Rymes begins: “Schools are filled with stories. Once we start listening to them, our classrooms explode with both the profound differences between individuals and our universal humanity. … [Students’] stories present a possibility to connect to a teacher and a set of peers” (pp. 153-154).

When stories occur, we can analyze how the story is told, which has 3 elements: onset, during, and aftermath. How did people get into telling the story in the first place (“into” the telling)? How is the story told by teller to audience and affected by the reactions/co-tellings of the audience (“through” the telling)? Finally, what is the social aftermath of the story (“beyond” the telling)? All of these 3 elements interact with the wider social context of the story.

How the story was toldThe wider social context
Into– Is this story part of a specific event, like a show-and-tell or sharing time?
– If not, what statement, action, or incident caused the teller to launch into the story?
– What institutional or societal conditions is the story a response to?
– What agency (deliberate human action) took place in order to tell this story or to let it be heard?
Through– What is the form of the story?
– How do word choices or other aspects of language (e.g., pronouns, verbs) construct the characters in the story, their traits and relationships?
– How does the storyteller construct themselves?
– How does the audience react? How is the story co-authored?
– How do narrators present protagonists/antagonists in the story?
– How do they present characters who have agency (people whose actions shape the events of the story)?
– How do they present characters who are passive (those whose actions cannot or do not shape events)?
– Does the audience challenge these presentations?
Beyond– What happens in the interaction when the story finishes?– Are tellers aware of the effects of their narratives?
Adapted from Rymes (2015), p. 175

While stories may tend to unravel a lesson or take it off track, Rymes suggests that it is important to listen to them. She reminds us that a classroom where no one is sharing anything of themselves or their lives outside the classroom will be perceived as sterile and boring, perhaps even tense and unsafe, even by the teacher. On the other hand, this is not to say that narrative-sharing in classrooms should be a “free-for-all.” Whether there are seven or 25 or 50 people in a class, none of whom share exactly the same background or set of life experiences, it is a great opportunity to learn how to balance self-expression and consideration for others, finding our voices and learning to listen. And when students learn how to do this in class, they can take this important skill and caring disposition to other places: to other classes, to workplaces, and to other social settings.

Moreover, narratives are often not totally off-topic in classrooms. There is often an interplay between (1) the learning event, (2) the narrative, and (3) the questions/objections/remarks of the audience (p. 156). Because they get students engaged and making meaning of the lesson on their own terms, Rymes calls these events “necessary interruptions or welcome departures from lessons that can be returned to… much more fruitfully later” (p. 157). If narratives do not have to do with the lesson, they tend to occur on the “borders” of the class, as students are coming in or waiting for the bell to ring. Such narratives help build community. On p. 158, Rymes mentions a case in which a U.S. teacher told a child as they waited for the bell to ring, “Tell us about your birthday party. You were trying to tell me earlier and I couldn’t listen to you…” and the student told the teacher “the lengthiest story I had heard him tell in 2 years. Moreover, his classmates joined in, and the teacher learned more about all the students as they offered and contested each other’s feelings about birthday traditions” (p. 158).

1. Analyzing “Into.” Sometimes narratives are built into the lesson, as the teacher asks students to share experiences. For example, when teaching about “banal nationalism” in a university course on sociolinguistics, I might give a few examples such as photos or videos and ask students to share some similar examples prior to the class, then use these as a springboard for class discussion about students’ experiences of banal nationalism. Rymes urges teachers to interweave such activities into the curriculum: “see how arrangements allow student agents to tell their own stories, and notice who makes those arrangements. Is it you?” (p. 173).

However, other narratives just occur spontaneously, sometimes in casual talk on the side of activities. For example, Rymes, a former high school teacher, remembers asking a male student, “What made you leave Belmont?” (his old school) and enroll at her school. The factual answer was that he was expelled due to a gang fight, but the way he told the story elicited Rymes’ sympathy. This brings us to analyzing “Through.”

2. Analyzing “Through.” Some telling details occur in this story in terms of word choice, character alliances, and agency (who has the power to act, or not to act). This is how the student responded to his teacher’s question about why he ended up at this school.

Problematic experienceFrederico:Our neighborhood started having shit with that neighborhood down there? So I went over there to the bus so they came and hit me up. I said my neighborhood and they said fuck that so they socked me? ↑Everybody rushed me.
[General translation: Our neighborhood fights with another neighborhood. I was waiting at the bus stop and some people from the other neighborhood came and punched me. I defended my neighborhood and they all attacked me.]
ResponseThen the next day we, we and the homeboys went down
[General translation: The next day, I and my friends from my neighborhood went down to THEIR neighborhood]
Consequenceand then they got me. So that’s it.
[General translation: And in the fight that ensued the police got me, and I got kicked out of school there, and now I’m in school here.]

On pp. 160-161, Rymes analyzes this story in terms of its interesting use of verb choices and pronouns, such as “they” and “everybody” to describe the hostile, active, and attacking mob from the next neighborhood. In contrast, Frederico did not do much; he simply “went over there to the bus” and “said my neighborhood” (i.e., mentioned where he came from). When he does retaliate, he does it with a group, which shifts the personal blame off him: “We and the homeboys went down” (but not “rushed” and “socked”… though presumably there was rushing and socking on both sides).

Notably, Rymes did not challenge or mock Frederico’s story, highlighting why it is important to accept the story on his terms, especially since there was no one there to contest it, while Frederico’s friend, Manny, explained to Rymes (the teacher) why Frederico was punished when by this account he did nothing wrong: “… the next day he started it” (p. 162). As I see it, accepting this story as Frederico tells it makes him welcome at the school, and doesn’t hurt anybody else. Let me jump to the end of the chapter for a moment, when Rymes explains that “narrating an event provides the opportunity to frame those experiences in a way that seems right to the teller; they provide a chance for people to show themselves in the best possible light. … Through narrative, an agentive individual makes claim to the opportunity to state one’s case” (p. 173). I think, psychologically, all people (especially children and youth still forming their moral character) need to be indulged in this way from time to time, so they can build a good enough self-esteem to later realize when they are wrong. But if a person is never indulged, they become perpetually self-defensive and never able to see another side. Rymes writes:

When we listen through a story of violence, or dramatic emotion, or failure, we can foster our students’ agency by working with students to understand these stories on their own terms. We can also add another perspective. … Don’t let those stories sit unmoved. After narrating ends and after you’ve transcribed the discourse, show students their words and talk about their forms to give them awareness of social and interactional contexts. Students will revel in their own words—and they will be their own best critics. And as teachers we can participate in this analysis with our students. What did you mean here? … Do you think you are equally culpable? (p. 174)

It is important to see what audiences are doing during the telling, and how they appear to be re-shaping the story and perhaps the teller’s understandings. Rymes points out that when students tell stories in class, they are often aware of a “dual audience” (p. 162), teacher and peers. Of course, it is probably more than “dual” since different peers have different perspectives. Thus, storytellers try to balance the needs and preferences of these multiple audiences. When a story is told, which audience members are attentive or inattentive? If someone speaks, do they “redirect, completely undo, or fine-tune a narrative in progress” (p. 161)? In some cases, the teller may not appreciate their story being co-opted by a peer or a teacher (p. 162). On the other hand, one promising event that can occur is when a story becomes a story shared by the group—for example, it can generate other stories of the same kind, and more talk linking learning to students’ lived experiences. Reminding us that stories are co-told, Rymes points out that we need to pay just as much attention to audience reactions as to the storyteller’s craft:

Watch for co-telling as you analyze your narratives, and look for the webs of connection stories can bring out. Recognize the risks storytellers take in stepping up, that coauthors take by stepping in, and how classroom talk can create a safe place for that risk-taking and the learning that comes with it. (p. 164)

3. Analyzing “Beyond.” So what do people do with stories, anyway? On p. 166, Rymes cites various anthropologists and psychologists like Elinor Ochs, Lisa Capps, and Jerome Bruner who have theorized that storytelling to a responsive audience allows people to know themselves, others, and the world: to make sense of unfathomable and difficult life experiences in a way that humans of their age can understand. [Blogger’s note: In other words, making a work of art (no matter how great) but getting no emotionally gratifying response does not serve this purpose; it’s like how Vincent Van Gogh, Johannes Vermeer, and Zora Neale Hurston died poor and underappreciated. In contrast, much more modest works by children, youth, and adults can serve a social and emotional purpose if they are ratified and built on by others, if we get the social and emotional gratification we are seeking, to be recognized and seen as we want to be seen.] Rymes gives an example: “Through narrative, a white, middle-class twentysomething can potentially enter into the concerns of a Latino teenager; through narrative, teachers of myriad backgrounds can begin to understand how students experience reality culturally” (p. 166).

One piece of advice that arises from this putting yourself in the person’s shoes is not to forcefully correct factual inaccuracies or exaggerations of children and youth “by providing arguments against their inconsistencies” (p. 169). Sometimes, we don’t need to correct them, and even if we did, we might do so in ways that are more concerned with their socioemotional development than discipline (i.e., if we genuinely try to see things the student’s way, they can perhaps be more motivated to see things our way). We can ask, when possible, how words specific to their peer groups like “roll dog,” “homes,” “ese,” and “chucho” (p. 169) are functioning. Or, like the master teacher Paley whom Rymes cites throughout the chapter, we can see what a toy helicopter means to a small child (Paley, 1991).

So what’s the end product? The end product is “a group of children [or people of any age] who can live comfortably with themselves and one another” (Elkind, as cited in Rymes, 2015, p. 170). This is both a very modest and a very challenging goal: “When multiple viewpoints come together in a classroom, this is no small task. It would be rare to find a group of 20 individuals—of any age—who could move through the day comfortably together” (p. 170). A narrative “provides an individual the opportunity to state one’s case… told in public, [it] also brings one individual’s experiences into dialogue with others” (p. 173). Narratives help us understand the differences between (i) individual experiences, (ii) group experiences, and (iii) universal human experiences. When we mistake one of these things for another, e.g.,

  • As a woman, I see my individual experience as applicable to all women as a group, OR
  • As a man, I see my group’s (men’s) experience as universal, OR
  • As a teenager, I see a universal experience of loneliness as “only I am lonely, everyone else is having a good time”

… we have room to grow in terms of empathy, critical thinking, and ethical/moral development.

How does this apply to bi/multilingual classroom interactions?

In the classes I’ve studied, I realize that multilingual classrooms with an equal set of native speakers of each language are quite rare. They are model classes for positive, welcoming interactions—whether it’s inclusive translanguaging/code-switching or inclusive use of the language of instruction as a class lingua franca—precisely because no one group can be interactionally dominant (Matsumoto, 2018; Woodley & Brown, 2016). Harder to deal with are “split” classes that have two main groups that might essentialize one another (Duff, 2002), or classes with one first language majority and classroom minorities/singletons (the only speakers of their own languages; Allard, Apt, & Sacks, 2017). As Rymes highlights multiple times in her book, there is no such thing as a linguistically or culturally homogeneous classroom (even in not-so-ethnically diverse places when we take into account gender, class, and life experiences), and when language differences are more dramatic, turn-taking and opportunities to make one’s voice and stories heard are affected.

And if you thought language majority/minority relations were challenging, this is not nearly as challenging as relations between individuals of the same ethnicity who speak the same languages (e.g., Korean and English, Turkish and Norwegian, or Hakka, Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, but to different degrees and with different levels of standardization). Typically, whoever is more “standard” is less multilingual, and whoever is less multilingual is more “standard.” This is because those who become multilingual tend to become multilingual since they have to learn more societally dominant languages as additional languages. That is, a teenager who is ethnically Korean but grew up in Michigan doesn’t need to learn Korean necessarily, but their classmate who recently immigrated to Michigan from Korea has to build their English proficiency fast. If English is the default language, guess who can tell a better and more interactionally captivating story? If Korean resources (or stories in Korean) are listened to, the other person can divide the audience into those who understand everything, and those who only understand some things. (Which is not a bad thing per se… cultural references and slang can serve the same purposes in English.) What is needed, then, are inclusive dispositions rather than specific language policies—a willingness to grant everyone the right to speak, a willingness to try to make meaning out of whatever one can, to accept one won’t understand everything that is said, and an eagerness to help others understand what one is saying.

Ultimately, every student wants their language and literacy repertoire to be seen in asset-oriented rather than a deficit-oriented way, just like everyone wants to be seen in the stories that they tell as a good person—”to state one’s case” and “show themselves in the best possible light” (p. 173). In other words, we must start from the very root of the matter: if we can create these social positionings as teachers (in our task design, in the way we respond to what students choose to show and tell), we create space for people to express themselves in the ways that allow them to share most freely what they know, think, and feel. As I wrote earlier, the inevitable diversity in every class is a great opportunity for people of all ages to learn how to balance self-expression and consideration for others, finding our voices and learning to listen. And when students learn how to do this in class, they can take this important skill and caring disposition to other places.


Allard, E. C., Apt, S., & Sacks, I. (2019). Language policy and practice in almost-bilingual classrooms. International Multilingual Research Journal, 13(2), 73-87.

De Fina, A., & Georgakopoulou, A. (2012). Narrative as text and structure. In Analyzing narrative: Discourse and sociolinguistic perspectives (pp. 26-51). Cambridge University Press.

Duff, P. A. (2002). The discursive co‐construction of knowledge, identity, and difference: An ethnography of communication in the high school mainstream. Applied Linguistics23(3), 289-322.

Matsumoto, Y. (2018). “Because we are peers, we actually understand”: Third‐party participant assistance in English as a Lingua Franca classroom interactions. TESOL Quarterly52(4), 845-876.

Paley, V. G. (1991). The boy who would be a helicopter. Harvard University Press.

Woodley, H., & Brown, A. (2016). Balancing windows and mirrors: Translanguaging in a multilingual classroom. In O. García & T. Kleyn (Eds.), Translanguaging with multilingual students: Learning from classroom moments (pp. 83-99). Routledge.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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