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by | May 6, 2020

An Exploration of Narrative Literacy


In literacy we used to believe it was simple: Can you read? Can you write? We’ve since learned our error. And yet, this oversimplification ‘myth’ remains when it comes to narrative: all one needs to read a story is working knowledge of the alphabet.

If literacy is a verb, what are we doing as we read stories? What is done to our minds, bodies, and identities in the narrative experience?

We are doing the literacies of narrative. But until we know and recognize this, we are at the mercy of narrative’s powerful mechanisms for persuasion. A metacognitive awareness of the literacies involved in the narrative experience will give participants the ability to willingly offer or deny assent in response to a narrative’s rhetoric. Only then can we begin to answer Wayne Booth’s question: “What should we let them do to us as we read them?” (182).

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In English Literature and Rhetoric education, our assumptions are evident not only in what we teach, but also what we don’t: strategies for making meaning of the narrative experience. Some may object and offer reading comprehension pedagogy as contrary evidence, but I believe such does not escape the bounds of Cazden et al.’s description of ‘mere literacy,’ that which “remains centered on language only, and usually on a singular national form of language at that, which is conceived as a stable system based on rules” (64). Literacy scholars have demonstrated the idea of literacy is more complex than this.

Jacqueline Jones Royster believes literacy can be defined as “a sociocognitive ability… to gain access to information and to use this information variously to articulate lives and experiences and also to identify, think through, refine, and solve problems” (45). As such, literacy reaches far beyond the bounds of what some call the “mere literacy” of reading and writing (Cazden et al. 64).

Carmen Kynard argues “Literacy is something that people do, rather than something that they have or do not have” (32). This leads us to ask:
What are we doing as we read stories? What are we allowing to be done to our minds, bodies, and identities as we read?

I argue we are doing the literacies of narrative. But until we recognize and understand this, we are powerless to choose how we read stories, as well as how they write us. A metacognitive awareness of the literacies involved in the narrative experience will give participants the ability to willingly offer or deny assent in response to a narrative’s rhetoric.

While much has been written about linguistic, social, cultural, sexual, textual, and religious literacies, little (if any) work specifically explores narrative engagement through the lens of literacy. I propose transportation, judgment, and identification as three key literacies of the narrative experience, or the interpretative act stories present.



A Complicated

The field of literacy studies is far too vast for me to summarize here. For our purposes, we believe one necessary element of literacy is Dell Hymes’s “communicative competence,” which Royster describes as “the process and the performance of communication… tied to the knowledge and understanding that an individual brings to the language event and also to her actual abilities to perform during the language act itself” (47). Deborah Brandt even goes so far as to claim “spreading communicative competence – the skills and knowledge necessary to engage intelligently with the sounds and signs of fellow human beings – must be the most urgent goal in language education” (509).
If we view literacy to be an intellectual ability employed (i.e. ‘done’) by all people every day, with communicative success dependent upon an individual’s relevant skills in contextual language use, we have one definition. Scribner makes a compelling argument that “literacy has neither a static not a universal essence” (8), so we will aim instead for something useful as we consider the literacies audiences employ while interacting with narratives.

Narrative + Literacy

The connections between literacy and narrative are not quickly apparent. However, I think these parallels become clear if we break down Royster’s aforementioned definition and compare it to narrative.
“Sociocognitive ability” – narratives are always situated in culture and require cognitive function for comprehension. Jonathan Gottschall argues “the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story” (56).
“Gain access to information” – narratives provide a way of knowing that surpasses concise description. As Booth puts it, “any literal statement of message loses the special kind of knowing that stories offer” (186).
“Articulate lives and experiences” – by our definition, narratives describe characters and events across time and place (Bilandzic and Busselle 16).
“Identify, refine, think through, and solve problems” – narratives are known for their creation and resolution of conflict, depicting characters taking these very actions with varied success. They also serve as unique answers, since there are “many kinds of questions that only narrative can provide a full answer to” (Booth 187).
Gottschall’s research summarizes it best: “Story… teaches us facts about the world; influences our moral logic; and marks us with fears, hopes, and anxieties that alter our behavior” (148).



Experience Engagement and more in 

Narrative’s definition is contested even among narratologists, so it should come as no surprise that the term takes on a variety of meanings across its use in cognitive, psychological, anthropological, rhetorical, and business studies. One helpful formula might be “Narrative meaning + semiotic encoding = narrative text,” though this fails to clarify “the type of meaning that a semiotic artifact must suggest to the mind in order to be accepted as a narrative text” (Ryan 314). For simplicity’s sake, I find James Phelan and Peter Rabinowitz’s rhetorical definition of narrative helpful:

“Narrative is somebody telling somebody else, on some occasion, and for some purposes, that something happened to someone or something.” – pg. 3 of “Narrative as Rhetoric” in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates

Additionally, I wish to add Bilandzic and Busselle’s two components: “a series of events that are causally related,” and, if we take “human” to mean “personified,” the presentation of “the inner world of protagonists and their human consciousness” (16). As such, a narrative requires at least an author, audience, purpose, and character’s experiences of a sequence of events across time and space.

By narrative experience we denote experiences with a narrative in a broad sense that contain the perception of content and form, and interpretation of the text.
(Bilandzic and Busselle 11)

Narrative experience is the highest umbrella in our tier of terms. There are a lot of different ways scholars have tried to name the various effects of narrative on its participants. I have placed some of them below with the definitions and hierarchies assigned by Helen Bilandric and Rick Busselle in their chapter-long attempt to clarify terminological concepts and uses. Where their definitions were ill fit, I substituted the views of other scholars. 

Core Narrative Experience

“Concepts that directly and explicitly describe the experiences that one has when reading or watching a narrative” 13

Narrative Engagement

“perceiving a story in an immediate, emotionally and cognitively intense fashion” (11)


“transportation refers to a more general absorption in the story world in which media consumers lose touch with their own surroundings and they feel that they are inside the narrative” (Cohen and Tal-Or 139)

Story world Absorption

“an experiential state… characterized by a reader’s focused attention on the story world presented in the text, as a consequence of which readers become less aware of their surroundings and themselves and lose track of time” (Kuijpers et al. 34). 

Partial Overlap with Core Narrative Experience

“Sensations that share some, but not all properties of the core narrative experience” (14)


“the process of taking on a character’s identity and situational perspective” (19)


“when the challenge of the task (the action opportunity) matches individual skills (action capabilities); this state of equilibrium is an optimal balance between task challenge and skill… roughly resonant to media, narrative or genre literacy” (17)


“when users locate themselves in the mental model created for the virtual space and accept it as… that which is relevant for on-going perception” (18) 

Correlates of Core Narrative Experience

“Phenomena that are usually strongly correlated with narrative engagement, but rather than focusing on the experience, they represent some sort of judgment about the media text” (14)


“viewer evaluations of a portrayal’s correspondence to the actual world, plausibility within the confines of a specific world, or internal consistency such that events and characters’ behaviors make sense given situations, traits or motivations” (20)


“audiences’ judgments that a story is ‘moving,’ ‘fun,’ ‘suspenseful,’ and leaves ‘a lasting impression’… an outcome of an engaging narrative” (21)

True Difference

“resembles them [core narrative experiences] only on the surface and in fact represents an phenomenon that is qualitatively different and independent from narrative” (14)


“how a person’s own relevancies are activated” because “a topic is relevant for a person, because it concerns an aspect of one’s real life and identity” (22)


 Putting It All Together


There are things we “do” during the narrative experience. Elements of narrative engagement include identification, transportation, and judgment. Identification lies near the heart of contemporary rhetorical theory thanks to Kenneth Burke, but literacy scholarship has yet to acknowledge “studies of how people understand such [popular media] texts show that identification is an important component of how audience members make sense of the story” (Cohen and Tal-Or 135). Indeed, “identification with characters seems to be at the heart of the narrative experience” as participants “merge one’s own identity as a reader with that of a protagonist” (137, 133). The process of identification is perhaps the most common and powerful literacy used across the world today in the narrative experience. 

Transportation as a Literacy

The extent to which we choose to and allow ourselves to be transported will have a powerful impact on our emotions in particular, as “the textual features most likely to produce transportations are vivid descriptions of emotional situations” (Dixon and Bortolussi 212). Since “emotional responses require a cognitive interpretation of the situation apparent,” transportation fulfills the sociocognitive aspect of a literacy (211).

Additionally, narrative requires the active participation of audience members to “flesh out” lacking details. Gottschall says that “writers are merely drawing, not painting. […] Our minds supply most of the information in the scene – most of the color, shading, and texture” (5). This often increases narrative engagement as participants cowrite the story. However, should a participant lack the communicative competence to do so, the transportation effect may prove weaker. If we consider the experiential elements implicit in the knowledge, skills, and understanding of communicative competence, we can see why “metaphors must make contact with the knowledge and experience of the reader” in order to “be fully understood and appreciated” (Dixon and Bortolussi 213). If “a vivid metaphorical description does not provide the imagery details in the text, but rather cues the reader to perform elaborative inferences to generate that detail,” the reader must have the relevant skills for uniting language and their experience to create such detail (212). 

Judgment as a Literacy

James Phelan argues that “readers make three main types of narrative judgment, each of which has the potential to overlap with or affect the other two: interpretive judgments about the nature of actions or other elements of the narrative, ethical judgments about the moral value of characters and actions, and aesthetic judgments about the artistic quality of the narrative and of its parts.” (Phelan 9). It is beyond my current scope to prove or deny these categories, so I must assume they are sufficient as a starting summary. Whatever judgments are made during the narrative experience, it is worth noting “the interpreter’s dialogue with the text is on the one hand determined by traditions, shared with others; on the other hand, it is uniquely determined by the interpreter’s personality and experience” (Altes 45). As such, it is always a sociocognitive exercise, regardless of whether it begins with story worlds or linguistics.

Though we have repudiated ‘mere literacy’ as a rightly discarded relic of the past, we have not excluded the alphabetic from literacy considerations at all, even as we acknowledge narratives can be more than textual (oral, visual, etc.). Of particular relevance to the linguistic facet of narrative literacy is Richard Walsh’s argument: “The emotional power of narrative lies in its ability to draw out and particularize the affective charge of words (or images), but that charge is first generated in semiotic rather than narrative terms. Emotional response should be understood not as an effect of illusion, but as a corollary of the fundamental processes of textual comprehension. It is inherent in one of the most basic tasks of interpreting a text, which is the naturalization of its language—the evaluative placing of its language—in terms of the discursive contexts available to any given reader” (157).


Here, textual comprehension goes far beyond basic reading comprehension. It is the ability to appropriately match textual meanings to their corresponding emotions.

Such interpretation is a highly contextual act, involving a complex web of literacies. Cohen and Tal-Or found that “though characters and their actions exist within the text, they are judged based on value systems that viewers and readers bring with them from their social lives” (148). Even if this isn’t always the case, we must acknowledge “identification is an internal, psychological, process… affected by social context” (148). It is hard to predict with which characters any given reader may identify, and consequently, difficult to know what judgments any reader may make of a text. Gottschall argues that “story homogenizes us; it makes us one” (138). If story indeed “binds a community together,” if it can “take pluribus and make unum,” we need to understand the literacies we use in judging narratives so that we are better able to shape what unity we become (124).


Once we are aware of the things we do during the narrative experience, they can become things we allow to be “done” to us. In a discussion on primary and secondary Discourses, James Gee writes meta-knowledge can come from “seeing how the Discourses you have already got relate to those you are attempting to acquire, and how the ones you are trying to acquire relate to self and society. Meta-knowledge is liberation and power, because it leads to the ability to manipulate, to analyze, to resist while advancing” (532). I believe it is clear there are a number of literacies at play in narrative engagement, but we lack the meta-cognitive awareness to best understand and harness them.


In all of the literacy definitions we have cited, enacting and being acted upon by some form of communication has played a part. The enactments we are unaware of are ones in which we cannot exercise choice. Narrative is a rhetorical medium that gives its author persuasive power: “If the storyteller is skilled, he simply invades us and takes over” (Gottschall 4). This is due to a number of literacies at play in any narrative engagement. Understanding how we engage in the narrative experience gives us the power to choose, understand, and articulate responses. We become literate doers of narrative.

There is ample theory and research to warrant further investigation of the literacies involved in the narrative experience, which we must pursue if we wish to have for ourselves and share with others an awareness of these literacies.

Related Projects


Course Portfolio

Research Project
Narrative in First-Year Composition Instruction

Book Review
The Coddling of the American Mind


Works Cited

Altes, Liesbeth Korthals. Ethos and Narrative Interpretation: The Negotiation of Values in Fiction. U of Nebraska P, 2014. Frontiers of Narrative.

Bilandzic, Helena, and Rick Busselle. “Beyond Metaphors and Traditions: Exploring the Conceptual Boundaries of Narrative Engagement.” Narrative Absorption, edited by Frank Hakemulder et al., vol. 27, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2017, pp. 11–28. Linguistic Approaches to Literature.

Booth, Wayne C. Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Brandt, Deborah, et al. “Symposium: What Will We Have Made of Literacy?” College Composition and Communication, Edited by Thomas P Miller, vol. 69, no. 3, Feb. 2018, pp. 494–533.

Cazden, Courtney, et al. (The New London Group). “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 66, no. 1, 1996, pp. 60–92.

Cohen, Jonathan, and Nurit Tal-Or. “Antecedents of Identification: Character, Text, and Audiences.” Narrative Absorption, edited by Frank Hakemulder et al., vol. 27, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2017, pp. 133–153. Linguistic Approaches to Literature.

Dixon, Peter, and Marisa Bortolussi. “Elaboration, Emotion, and Transportation: Implications for Conceptual Analysis and Textual Features.” Narrative Absorption, edited by Frank Hakemulder et al., vol. 27, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2017, pp. 199–216. Linguistic Approaches to Literature.

Hakemulder, Frank, et al., editors. Narrative Absorption. Vol. 27, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2017.

Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction and What Is Literacy?” Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Ellen Cushman et al., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001, pp. 525–544.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Kuijpers, Moniek, et al. “Towards a New Understanding of Absorbing Reading Experiences.” Narrative Absorption, edited by Frank Hakemulder et al., vol. 27, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2017, pp. 29–48. Linguistic Approaches to Literature.

Kynard, Carmen. Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacies Studies. State U of New York P. Kindle Edition.

Phelan, James. Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative. The Ohio State U P, 2007. Theory and Interpretation of Narrative.

Phelan, James, and Peter J. Rabinowitz. “Narrative as Rhetoric.” Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates, edited by James Phelan et al., The Ohio State U P, 2012, pp. 3–8. Theory and Interpretation of Narrative.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Narrativity and Its Modes as Culture-Transcending Analytical Categories.” Japan Forum, vol. 21, no. 3, 2009, pp. 307–323., doi:10.1080/09555801003773711.

Scribner, Sylvia. “Literacy in Three Metaphors.” American Journal of Education, vol. 93, no. 1, 1984, pp. 6–21. The Development of Literacy in the American Schools, JSTOR, doi:10.1086/443783.

Walsh, Richard. The Rhetoric of Fictionality: Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction. The Ohio State U P, 2007. Theory and Interpretation of Narrative.

Works Cited for Narrative Literacies Project PDF