Summary/Reflection on “Sharing time”: Children’s narrative styles and differential access to literacy

By Aytaged Zeleke

In this short article, I want to share a summary and a reflection on an old but particularly useful article in the area of literacy aimed at studying discourse strategies in sharing turns/time used by a teacher and students who were ethnically mixed. The article was published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal called Language and Society in 1981 by Sarah Michaels (1981). The article is titled “Sharing time”: Children’s narrative styles and differential access to literacy.


Purpose: Michaels’ study (1981) titled “Sharing time”: Children’s narrative styles and differential access to literacy was aimed at studying discourse strategies in sharing turns/time used by a teacher and students who were ethnically mixed. The aims of this descriptive study were to examine the different narrative styles students used during the sharing time and to understand how the teacher’s comments and questions helped the students to structure and focus their narrative discourse.

Method: This is an ethnographic study in which observations of 50 sharing time/turn-taking sessions were audio and videotaped for detailed linguistic analysis and interpretations. The participants of the study were half black and white first-grade urban school students who gave their narrative accounts for the entire school year. In addition to using participant observation, retrospective interviews were employed.

Results: The findings of the study showed that children from varied backgrounds use varied narrative strategies and prosodic conventions when they narrate their stories. The effectiveness of instruction and practice in literate discourse styles depends on whether or not the teacher’s own discourse style and expectations match with the children’s.

It was also found that the black and white children had identifiable intonation and discourse style differences. Another finding was that the teacher and the children who used a topic-centered style in their narrative account were successfully collaborating, and the teacher was effective in helping the students build and elaborate their stories through her questions and comments.

On the other hand, the teacher had difficulty to clearly understand the topic and anticipate where the story was going when black children narrated stories. In these turns, the teacher’s questions or comments were thematically incorrect, disruptive of the children’s flow of ideas, and in some cases, the black children’s talks were cut short.

The study concluded that children’s literacy skills development may be affected positively or negatively by what is happening during the sharing time.


Paradoxically, this ethnographic study, as it is pointed out at the beginning of the article, seemed to have the interest to prove an initial hypothesis which indicated that cooperation between students and their teacher could be effective in some cases while it might not be so in other cases as a result of what is happening in sharing time/turn when students narrate stories. Furthermore, the paper started from a prior understanding that those students who collaborated with their teacher successfully get more discourse strategy practice than others whose collaboration was not successful (Michael, 1981, pp, 425).

Again, towards the end of the article, the author stated that one of the purposes of the study was hypothesis generation concerning the use of discourse styles by the different ethnic or subgroups that participated in the study (Michaels, 1981, pp, 441). Starting research with a hypothesis is a typical characteristic of a quantitative method, which aims at proving or testing a hypothesis and making generalizations. To this end, the hypothesis constructed at the end of this ethnography study might have been biased or influenced by the predetermined earlier hypothesis and impression presented at the beginning of the article. In fact, the hypothesis presented at the beginning and at the end of the article was the same. Would that not look like a replication study, as if it is aiming at generalization?

Similarly, the researcher claimed that her data is representative (Michaels, 1981, pp, 425). This statement, however, lacks clarity since it does not specifically describe how many is a representative sample from the 50 sharing sessions. Moreover, it is dubious to justify the need to worry about representativeness numerically in an ethnographic study where the reliability of the data is checked by its confirmability and dependability and where validity of the data is determined by its credibility, ecological validity, and transferability (Bryman, 2008).

Generally, the method used to gather the data was commendable. Participant observation helped the researcher to immerse herself in the classroom sharing time activities to record rich data. It also helped to observe authentic interaction as it appears naturally. In addition to the participant observation, the use of a retrospective interview could be considered as a way of triangulating the data (Bryan, 2008). On the other hand, the presence of the participant-observer might have directly or indirectly inhibited the real research participants from doing something natural.

The relevance of the article to what I do

The results of this study are relevant for my instructional and future research ambitions. With regard to instruction, the study made me retrospectively reflect on my teaching practices. I am now questioning to what degree my follow-up questions and comments for students’ oral presentations and written papers have effectively met their intentions. The article has also made me conscious about students’ learning strategies and preferences and to be aware that my teaching strategies, preferences, and expectations may hinder or enhance students’ learning.

What is more, the study has inspired me not only to read related research articles but also to conduct an empirical study. One of the related research areas that I may embark on is how does turn-taking or sharing time structured by teachers in students’ narratives affect students’ learning from different races not only black and white Americans but also Asians, Africans, and Arabs.


  • Bryman, A. (2008), Social research methods, (3rd ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Michaels, S. (1981). “Sharing time”: Children’s narrative styles and differential access to literacy | Language in Society, Volume 10, Issue 3, December 1981, pp. 423 – 442
Written by Aytaged Zeleke for February 2021
Aytaged Sisay Zeleke is an ESL instructor at Delaware Technical Community College, U.S. He has M.A in TEFL and M.Phil in Comparative and International Education.

Leave a comment

TEFLnet : TEFL Articles : Teaching : Summary/Reflection on “Sharing time”: Children’s narrative styles and differential access to literacy