The book knows best

Invoking school books as authoritative sources in parent-child epistemic negotiations during homework

A Squib by Vittoria Colla* and Letizia Caronia**

In the EM/CA community, we all know the importance of “putting our work out there”: discussing our findings and impressions with other researchers is not only a way to avoid (or at least reduce) the risks of an individualistic analysis, but also, and above all, a precious resource for progressing and improving our work. Long before the publication in a journal, in the midst of the analytic process, collective scrutiny and discussions are fundamental practices to provide the researcher with suggestions, comments, references and even beneficial doubts.

For this reason, this section of the ISCA Forum Newsletter is dedicated to “squibs”: concise articles containing preliminary, in-process analyses in an EM/CA perspective. In this section, researchers can present their work-in-progress findings to the ISCA community in order to generate discussions and collect observations, suggestions, useful references and potential publication venues.


Would you like to share your in-process analysis to have some feedback? Send us your squib! Please note that your contribution should satisfy the following requirements: 1) not exceed 2000 words (2200 for non-English data); 2) contain one or two transcripts and relative preliminary analyses; 3) illustrate a phenomenon fitting within the existing framework of EM/CA analyses.

Please email your contribution to

*Department of Education, University of Bologna. PhD Student

**Department of Education, University of Bologna. Full Professor


In this draft analysis, we would like to illustrate a recurring phenomenon in our data: epistemic negotiations between parents and children during homework. With this label, we indicate the interactional practices deployed by the participants in our corpus to manage their “rights to knowledge and, relatedly, rights to describe or evaluate states of affairs” (Raymond, Heritage, 2006: 677; see also Landmark et al. 2015; Ekberg, LeCouteur, 2015). Through the epistemic negotiations, the participants construct themselves, their interlocutors, and even the artefacts they are using or referring to, as more or less knowledgeable (K+/K-) about the matter at hand (Heritage, 2012a, 2012b). In this way, they locally negotiate the boundaries of their territories of knowledge and relative epistemic authority, thus doing “identity work” (Goffman, 1971; Heritage, Raymond, 2005; Raymond, Heritage, 2006; Heritage, 2013).

In our analysis of parent-child epistemic negotiations, we focus on how the participants orient to the objects as if they were carriers of meanings (Cooren, 2010; Caronia, Cooren, 2014; Cooren, Bencherki, 2010). Particularly, we show how parent and child exploit the book as a resource, treating it as an epistemically authoritative participant in the unfolding of the epistemic negotiation. To illustrate the point, and line with the multimodal approaches to social interaction (Goodwin, 2000), we focus on the participants’ talk, gestures, body orientations and use of objects. 

The data corpus consists of 16 hours of video-recorded homework sessions involving one mother and her child aged 6-9 years, i.e. attending the first, second or fourth grade.


In the following episode, mother and son engage in an epistemic negotiation concerning lexical choice. They both resort to the co-present and inspectable book, and multimodally bring it into being as the authoritative documentary source of information. 

“It was written here”: turning doxa into episteme by invoking the book as the authoritative source of knowledge  

F2H4 (15.13 – 15.50)

M = Mother 

F = Filippo (seven years old, second grade)

M is sitting next to F helping him with his homework, i.e. writing the summary of the book he has read.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

In this episode, M is helping F with his homework, i.e. writing the summary of the book he has read. This sequence begins when Filippo produces a candidate sentence for the summary (“the treasures they steal, they bring them into their nest”, line 1). While uttering the last word of his turn, Filippo opens the blue pen (which he is using to write the summary), thus demonstrating his readiness to write (line 2). However, M problematizes immediately (see the latching) the child’s lexical choice through an other-initiated repair (Schegloff, Jefferson, Sacks, 1977) composed of two TCUs (line 3), thus opening a negotiation about the appropriateness of word “nest”. In the first TCU, M recycles part of F’s utterance with an interrogative intonation contour and stressing the word “nest” (see the higher volume “into their nest?”, line 3); in the second TCU, she makes her repair more explicit by asking for a confirmation (“is it a nest?”). Through this repair format, M clearly indexes F’s lexical choice as the trouble-source of his turn, while giving him the opportunity to self-complete the repair, or at least rethink his lexical choice (Drew, 1981; Schegloff, Sacks, Jefferson, 1977). Thus doing, she opens the epistemic negotiation while treating F as having more epistemic rights over the lexical choice than her. Interestingly, F changes his body orientation during M’s repair turn. At the beginning, he visibly orients to the notebook: approaching it with his pen-equipped hand (line 4, fig. 1), F still demonstrates his readiness to write down his candidate answer. As M progresses with her repair turn, not only does F refrain from writing down the sentence, but he also moves away from his notebook and closer to the reading book (line 5, fig. 2). Through this change in his body orientation, F treats M’s repair as sequentially relevant, embodying the shift from the activity of writing the summary to the epistemic negotiation on the appropriateness of the lexical item. 

F answers to M’s request by nodding, thus ratifying himself as knowledgeable about the appropriateness of the word “nest” (line 6). After M’s puzzled reaction (line 7), F accounts for his lexical choice by multimodally indicating the book as the source of information (“it was-it was written here”, line 8; he points to the book, line 9, fig. 3), then he starts looking for evidence for his claim into the book (line 10). Through this multimodal orientation to the object (lines 8-10), F does several things: firstly, he amplifies the “scene of dialogue” (Cooren, 2010) beyond the dyad, as if the co-present and inspectionable book was another utterer of the word “nest” besides him. By “ventriloquizing it”, i.e. reporting its voice in interaction (Cooren, 2010; Caronia, Cooren, 2014; Cooren, Bencherki, 2010), he increases his epistemic authority (Heritage, Raymond, 2005), staging himself as the one whose rights to claim knowledge are rooted in his first-hand knowledge of what the book says. Secondly, and almost paradoxically, by attributing the word “nest” to the book, F limits his responsibility for the problematic lexical choice, ascribing it more to the object than to himself (Drew, 2006). In addition, yet at the same time, by presenting himself as merely reporting the voice of the book, F also downplays his agency in performing the dispreferred action of resisting M’s problematization, partly attributing it to the invoked object. Lastly, by referring to the vocabulary of the book to legitimate his lexical choice, F demonstrates his competence in the specific activity of “writing a summary”, in which the use of the same word as the book is acceptable (maybe even desirable). 

As soon as F completes his verbal turn (see the latching), M proposes a formulation of the lexical item likely to be used in the book (“isn’t it cavern?”, line 11). Through the design of her question, M makes a suggestion while still seeking F’s final say on it. In this way, M treats F as more entitled than her to know about the book’s vocabulary, thus reducing the threat to the child’s face (Goffman, 1955). By the very action of providing an answer to M’s question, F aligns to the K+ epistemic status (Heritage, 2012a, 2012b) attributed to him, ratifying himself as epistemically authoritative on the lexical choice. While still using the book as evidence for his knowledge claim (he leafs through it, line 12), F reaffirms his previous lexical choice, but he presents it as an additional formulation (“it is also a nest”, line 13). In this way, the child conveys that the word proposed by M is also acceptable, thus displaying an orientation to face-saving in interaction (Goffman, 1955).

M verbally accepts F’s answer and his lexical choice (“ok”, line 14), thus ratifying him, at least locally, as the epistemic authority. However, F continues looking for the word in the book, as if he still needed to prove his K+ status (line 15). In doing so, the child demonstrates to consider M’s turn (which contains no change-of-state token nor any other cue making it work beyond its mere “secondness”, Heritage, 1984; Raymond, Heritage, 2006: 692) as an unconvinced (merely compliant) agreement, rather than an authentic confirmation (see Heritage, Raymond, 2005). M joins F in the search for the word into the book (line 16), thus aligning to the child’s use of the object as the authoritative source for verifying the lexical choice. After a while, she issues a non-verbal directive inviting F to read the indicated line, probably containing the word “cavern” (line 17, fig.4). Through her directive, M selects the book as the “next speaker” and, passing her turn to the book, she makes it speak for her: the book thus emerges as another utterer of the word “cavern” besides M. The child aligns to M’s directive (line 18) and, after reading, looks at her and smiles (line 19), thus implicitly recognizing she was right about the word “cavern” being used in the book. M’s smile back at F (line 20) works as a sequence-closing reply. Nevertheless, F still defends his lexical choice by referring to the book as the utterer of the word “nest” (line 21): the child reopens the negotiation through the adversative conjunction “but”, projecting opposition with what M has just showed (i.e. use of the word “cavern” in the book). As this is now undeniable, F reaffirms the word “nest” as an additional lexical item allegedly used in the book, like he did before (line 13). Once again (see line 8), F anchors his lexical choice to the relevant evidential basis, thus preventing it from being hearable as his personal opinion: through the self-repair (“but also a- there was also written it is a nest”, line 21), the child makes explicit that the word is written on the book. In the turns at lines 22 and 23, M multimodally ends the book-supported epistemic negotiation: after closing the reading book and placing it far away from F (line 22), M ratifies F’s claim, thus protecting his face (“it’s ok”), and pushes him to get back to the activity of writing the summary (“go on just write it down”, line 23). 


The presented example illustrates the constitutive role the book is made to play by the participants in the unfolding of the epistemic negotiation. By visibly orienting to the book and explicitly referring to it as a reliable source of information, the participants demonstrate to presuppose, and concurrently (re)construct, the book as an epistemically authoritative resource. It is through such ordinary interactions that the “voice of the school” embodied by the books enters the domestic sphere, and the children are socialized to trust the books as reliable and authoritative sources of knowledge.  

Invitation for comments

Comments and feedback are extremely welcome, especially concerning:

  • Literature on epistemic and deontic negotiations and, more specifically, the use of objects and face-saving moves in these activities
  • potential further directions of the study


Caronia, L., Cooren, F. (2014) Decentering our analytical position: The dialogicity of things. Discourse & Communication, 8(1): 41 – 61. 

Cooren, F. (2010) Action and Agency in Language: Passion, Incarnation and Ventriloquism. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 

Cooren, F., Bencherki, N. (2010) How Things do Things with Words: Ventriloquism, Passion and Technology. Encyclopaideia 15 (28): 35–62.

Drew, P. (1981) Adults’ corrections of children’s mistakes: A response to Wells and Montgoaulmery, in P. French, M. MacLure (eds), Adult-Child Conversation: Studies in Structure and Process. New York: St Martin’s Press, pp. 244–267.

Drew, P. (2006) When documents speak: Documents, language and interaction, in P. Drew, G. Raymond, D. Weinberg (eds), Talk and Interaction in Social Research Methods. London: Sage, pp. 63-80.

Eckberg, K., LeCouteur, A. (2015) Clients’ resistance to therapists’ proposals: Managing epistemic and deontic status. Journal of Pragmatics, 90: 12 – 25.

Goffman, E. (1955) On facework: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction. Psychiatry: Journal for the Studies of Interpersonal Processes, 18: 213 – 231. 

Goffman, E. (1971) Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order. New York: Harper and Row. 

Goodwin, C. (2000) Action and Embodiment within Situated Human Interaction. Journal of Pragmatics 32(10): 1489 – 1522. 

Heritage, J. (1984) A change-of-state token and aspects of its sequential placement, in J. M. Atkinson, J. Heritage (eds), Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 299 – 345. 

Heritage, J. (2012a) The epistemic engine: Sequence organization and territories of knowledge. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 45: 25 – 50.

Heritage, J. (2012b) Epistemics in action: Action formation and territories of knowledge. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 45: 1 – 25. 

Heritage, J. (2013) Epistemics in conversation, in J. Sidnell, T. Stivers (eds), The Handbook of Conversation Analysis. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 283 – 306.

Heritage, J., Raymond, G. (2005) The terms of agreement: Indexing epistemic authority and subordination in talk-in-interaction. Social Psychology Quarterly, 68(1): 15 – 38. 

Landmark, A. M. D., Gulbrandsen, P., Svennevig, J. (2015) Whose decision? Negotiating epistemic and deontic rights in medical treatment decisions. Journal of Pragmatics, 78: 54 – 69. 

Raymond, G., Heritage, J. (2006) The epistemics of social of social relations: Owning grandchildren. Language in Society, 35(5): 677 – 705. 

Schegloff, E. A., Jefferson, G., Sacks, H. (1977) The preference for self-correction in the organization of repair in conversation. Language, 53(2), 361 – 382. 

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