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Literature’s lasting impression: what makes shared reading of novels powerful?

John Gordon

The twelve-month research project Literature’s Lasting Impression⃰ investigates a defining convention of classroom literary study, shared novel reading. Most people remember ‘reading round the class’, an approach used for decades with little account of its efficacy or of recent research on classroom talk for learning. Typically, discussion develops as classes share a book read together, students elaborating responses collectively under their teacher’s guidance. What features of shared novel reading stimulate deep response?

As community and online book groups thrive, literary study in education is in crisis. Erratic GCSE English results, shifting assessment frameworks and low confidence of teachers working with literature raise a second question: how do teachers in primary, secondary and higher education guide shared novel reading to improve students’ literary response?

The project’s findings are organised around four strands of research:

  1. a) a survey of adults about what they remember of their most formative and engaging experiences of reading novels in school, so we can understand the lasting impact of this form of literary study and how it can provoke deep response;
  2. b) interviews with students and book group members currently engaged in this form of study, identifying experiences of shared novel reading conducive to rich and stimulating communal experiences of texts;
  3. c) observations of teaching and book group discussions, transcribed by Conversation Analysis to identify the distinctive features of shared novel reading, and documenting effective approaches across different phases in institutional and informal settings;
  4. d) interviews with teachers to understand the rationale for their practice.

Research into reading often focuses on individuals and their capacity to comprehend texts. While understanding this is important for the teacher of literature, so is an appreciation of how responses to novels are elaborated collectively – the interplay and culmination of many individual responses across a classroom. In this study Conversation Analysis of recorded classroom interaction affords close attention to these facets of pedagogy, while survey and interview data inform interpretation of transcripts and accommodate perspectives that reveal the impact of this very distinctive reading activity over time. The project’s findings can inform strategies for teaching and learning in the classroom. What moves can a teacher make in guiding discussion of a novel? What is the nature of student response, or likely range of responses, to each prompt from the teacher?

Further project findings

Working with transcript data arising from observations of teaching, Dr Gordon coined the term Pedagogic Literary Narration to conceptualise teaching around shared narrative prose in classrooms, conventionalised where teachers and students read a novel aloud over a series of lessons. This core literary-pedagogic activity is a form of narration without existing theorisation. Pedagogic Literary Narration explicates the activity to develop teaching and its evaluation.

Research data also suggested the importance of quotations in literary study, typically where teachers or students quote the novel for study. In particular, Dr Gordon examined the use of spoken quotation, finding that existing theories of quotation use are oriented to print and do not fully account for spoken quotation in teaching and learning. He investigated this distinctive pedagogical practice in literary study and highlights its centrality to students’ experience of shared reading, of reflecting on reading, and to literary study as holistic life education.

Both Pedagogic Literary Narration and the associated theorisation of spoken quotations can inform teacher education and development in the pedagogy of literary study.


Literature’s Lasting Impression in the news:

Twitter: @sharednovelread

⃰ conducted as a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship

Presentation details: Reading comprehension and engagement – Tuesday 5th September 2017, 13.40   FUL-112