Ten ideas that changed my teaching: #2 The reader writes the text
There was a time I thought of “reading” as little more than decoding printed words and sentences: “The large dog suddenly bit the young girl!” Simple words, but you probably had a picture in your head of a particular kind of dog in a particular setting, something your brain created from your lived experiences.
The ability to read and write print texts was synonymous with literacy and being literate. I grew up in a household with a set of encyclopedias and other than the odd filmstrip or film in school, all of my learning was consumed through print. Such a limited view of reading and literacy and learning is not enough today.
When I started teaching English Language Arts almost 30 years ago, I spent many classes lecturing, working my way through novels and other literature explaining to students the symbolism, the imagery, the meanings within the texts. We learned about the author. We studied plot structure for short stories and rhyming patterns and metre for poetry. Having been schooled with spelling tests and grammar while having few opportunities for authentic writing, one thing I never did was teach spelling or grammar in isolation from reading or writing for a specific purpose.
I tasked my students with writing objective-voice essays that referenced the text and its structures to support their thesis. They were not allowed to use “I.” The reader was someone who figured out the text.
After a few years of teaching the same texts, I was sometimes surprised how even on a fifth (or more) reading, a new interpretation emerged, a new insight I had never thought of before. How did I miss that? Where did this come from? It was the same text after all, wasn’t it? If the words on the page didn’t change, what did?
Why is my understanding and interpretation of a text not exactly like yours?
At a book club many years ago, I sat with six other adult readers whose responses ranged from “really enjoyed the book” to “I couldn’t stand the author’s tone. Did not like it at all.” Discussion during the evening helped us to clarify our readings of the text — “our” text. I went home with a new appreciation of how readers create their own meaning, because of and in spite of what they’ve read. As adults, we were mostly able to explain our unique readings of the text, which came from connections we made to our experiences and even the physical spaces where the book was read.
Now think about school. Have you ever read a question during a test, particularly a multiple choice question and thought, “It depends…” Does the teacher mean X, Y or Z? What does she want here? Where is the opportunity for a student to say, “I thought it/you meant…?”
Teachers create assignments and tests assuming they will be read and understood as intended, as if reading is a neutral act of decoding denotative words. Particularly on tests, there is no way to socially confer or ask the teacher-author the intent. You’re supposed to know what was intended. Listen to student discussions after a test and you’re bound to hear someone say, “Oh, I though it meant…”
The purpose for reading also matters. Reading a text for school is very different than reading a text, even the same text, for personal interest or pleasure.
What do typical school behaviours say about our definition of reading? How do these definitions meet with what we’ve learned about how to define reading?
What do we mean by “reading”?
Here’s a brief, simplified and non-exhaustive history of evolving reading theory, which corresponds to my own evolution of what it means to read. I say “evolving” because dominant past models are still contained in the present and are still part of what it means to read. We add ideas and adapt. Depending on context and situation, some models are more dominant than others.
Transmission: AUTHOR →text →reader
The author is “god” and transmits a message to the reader through the “word” of the text, usually written. Reading is the act of decoding what the author intended.
Translation: author (R.I.P.) TEXT←?reader
The author is dead and we need to figure out what the text says. Meaning resides in the text whose code needs to be translated.
Transaction: author ← →text← → reader
Okay, so the author sorta matters and wrote out of a context and purpose wanting to communicate an idea. The reader also comes with their own agenda and works to negotiate meaning.
There is also recognition that one text is understood from one’s background and experience with other texts. Meaning can start before a new text is read and continue after. This idea is called intertextuality where the meaning of one text may be shaped by others. It’s what makes allusions and metaphors work — if you know the other texts. This is behind the argument that students should know particular texts. It’s hard to fully appreciate and understand Western literature and art without knowing the stories in the Old and New Testament. The literary canon feeds on itself. The more you know, the more connections you can make to learn more.
The lines between author, text and reader become blurred. The reader must interpret their own interpretation. How did I get that meaning? Knowledge of how particular texts work, knowledge of authors and their context and purpose for writing, knowledge of the reader’s own experiences, purpose for reading and emotional reactions to a text, all help to construct meaning.
This isn’t a case where, “This is what I think it means, so that’s what it means.” The reader must interpret their own interpretation. The reader “writes” the text and as “author” of their text, should be able to explain its construction. This requires a deeper understanding of how authors use language and structure, form and genre.
As we are social creatures, we ask each other, what was the meaning you got? Socially, we construct agreed upon meanings, meanings and understandings that can change as the people and their experiences change. Do we classify Pluto a planet or not? It depends. Hello, social constructivism.
Meaning is also socially situated. That means finding meaning may start with, “It depends.” This isn’t indecisiveness, it’s acknowledgement that texts can have multiple meanings.
As we are broadening meaning here, we also need to broaden what a “text” is. A text becomes anything we “read”: an image, a smile or frown, a physical gesture, spoken word, a performance and much more.
Reading is an intentional act of constructing and negotiating meaning.
“Why did you look at me that way?”
“Well, I meant…”
“But you SAID…”
The “show your work” for math questions is one way for readers to show their understanding and how they arrived at it. Yet it too relies on the teacher’s constructed meaning of the steps shown. Having marked too many tests to count, I know I’ve had my “answer” to a question expand after reading a variety of student responses. I’ve seen how my questions were read differently. In conversation with students after marking, I got a clearer sense of how they came up with their response. Reading is not a neutral act.
Connectivism: beyond author, single reader and the text
In connectivism, a learning theory suitable for the digital age, knowledge also exists outside an individual, within the digital network and within others. Meaning exists within the chaos around us. Our task is to make sense of the patterns and to make connections.
Applied to reading, learning and knowledge are created in a diversity of opinion like in my book club. Meaning shifts depending on the lens and context.
See here how some of the earlier reading theories are still in the evolving DNA of reading?
Reading the World
Without a reader, a text has no meaning. A text gets created in the act of reading. Yes, I know that a tree falling in a forest makes a sound, but only when I am in a forest and hear a tree falling down, will I be creating connections and meaning to say, “Whoa, a tree just fell down!” If I don’t see it happening or have never heard such before, I may hear the sound and not know what it is. My knowledge and experience is required to make meaning, to create the text, in this case, the sound and image of the falling tree. “Saw it in a movie once” counts as experience.
For Paulo Freire in Literacy: Reading the Word and the World, to know words, you need to know something about the world. And what you know or don’t know about the world becomes “intertwined” and “interconnected,” the relationship between text and context necessary to create meaning.
Reading is social and situated.
A child growing up in a refugee camp, a foster home, or a middle class suburban home, whether male, female, LGBTQ, will all have a different reading and understanding of the world. The binary images of a male or female on a bathroom door may evoke different meaning for a transgender person. Two individuals in a refugee camp will also have a different understanding of the world, though they may have shared similar experiences. A suburban youth who watches a documentary about a child in a refugee camp will gain a new understanding and may also read their own personal world differently after.
Texts can have multiple meanings, not only to the same reader, but to multiple readers. The intent of the author, the intent of the reader, the context, the language, techniques and structures of the text impact meaning. Laws, for example, are written in an attempt to prevent more than one meaning, nonetheless, interpretation is left up to the courts, the arguments of lawyers, the rulings of judges, and interpretations vary.
In the mid 1990s, The New London Group gave us the term multiliteracies helping us to see linguistic diversity and multimodal ways to use language and represent ideas, particularly in an age of digital technologies. In 2007, James Paul Gee gave us What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy, which was super helpful for me as a father of four sons who played excessive hours of video games. Instead of thinking my sons should be reading novels (which they did lots of), I sat down and saw the complex literacies involved in many games, literacies I was — and still am — illiterate in.
Given the impact of context, purpose and reader background experience in creating meaning, I’ve come to think of the reader as the writer. The reader not only reads themselves into the text, each reader comes with and goes away with a unique path to understanding whether their understanding is the same or different.
A given text becomes a new text when the reader engages with it and creates meaning. A “re-reading” of a text with a new context or purpose or lens, creates a new text and a possible new meaning. A discussion with others of one text creates a new discussion text, which is not read as the same text by the authors creating it. Critical thinking and self-reflection are super important in understanding and explaining how one’s meaning (the text) was created.
The reader as creator. The reader writes the text as they read. The reader/writer creates a text only they can create.
How did all this change my teaching?
This idea that the reader writes the text is a reading lens, which I used to fundamentally alter my teaching practice.
I taught students the evolution of reading theory and why it matters. Someone may speak words or write words or post an image and others take offence where no offence may have been intended. Who is responsible? The reader or writer or reader/writer?
I had to release the fear that if students couldn’t read certain kinds of texts (privileged “school” texts), they “wouldn’t make it.” I still made sure I taught them explicitly how to read and write for the provincial ELA exam, a specific text with a specific purpose and audience.
I shifted from tell me what the answer is or what does the text say, to show how you created your understanding. I asked, What if you read the text another way?
I stopped giving traditional tests in favour of having students create texts to demonstrate their learning.
I encouraged students to read and write many different kinds of texts. I used many different kinds of texts for students to read and encouraged intentional reading, being clear about the positions, biases and lenses they used as they read.
By viewing text as any form, genre and modality used to create meaning, I worked to stopped privileging certain kinds of texts. I know I’m way better at some kinds of texts than others, so this also meant that I was encouraging my students to create and read texts that I was not necessarily very proficient at (ex. video games).
I asked students to explore multiple meanings of texts. It is the reader’s task to analyze and explain how they created “their” text and this requires an understanding of how structures and techniques are typically used for a variety of forms and genre, ever more challenging as creators experiment by breaking conventions.
I asked students to use metacognition, to think about their thinking, to interpret their interpretations, to become aware of their reading/writing process. What was I thinking? How did I come up with this meaning and understanding? Who else saw it this way?
What we think reading is matters
You are what you read. And you read yourself into texts. How do you read your world?
In this age of post-truth and “fake” news, what we mean by reading and how we make, construct, create, and negotiate meaning matters a great deal. Some readers of the world seem to wholeheartedly engage in their reading/writing of the world. Conspiracy theorists and deniers of public and well-documented tragedies present their constructed texts that they want us to read using a transmission model: the truth is told, accept it. It is hard to fathom, given the abundance of other texts: images, video and testimonies of survivors. Conspiracists create their own meaning and refuse other readings.
It is a problem when authors write texts (remember I also mean speak and represent with images here) for others and want their texts to be read using a transmission model. Fundamentalists of all types fit in here.
Multiple meanings and uncertainty can lead to a sense of despair, resignation, an anything-is-truth stance or a fundamentalism of “facts,” where certainty and meaning are clear and only need to be accepted.
Where two or more people gather and create like or similar meanings, there is a “truth” that forms. The Internet has allowed people from diverse backgrounds around the world to find like-minded people.
While taking a stance that the reader creates the text, that does not make it truth or Truth. In conversation, we create a new text as we share our understandings. We may reinforce our texts (beliefs) or evolve new ones. Interactions with many texts and diverse viewpoints is critical for developing reading skills.
This makes teaching students how to read texts today challenging. We have to be well read in many forms, genre and modalities to discuss comments such as there are “two sides of climate change,” never mind examining how cognitive biases impact our making of meaning.
Teaching multimedia (film, photography, graphic design) this year, I’m thankful for my broadened understanding of reading and literacy. I continue to work hard to develop critical thinkers and readers. It is hard work. Really hard. How do texts confirm dominant stories that privilege certain groups? Which version(s) of history do we accept? How do we read against a text to challenge an idea? How we we take on different lenses as we read a text to see how our interpretation changes? How and when do we accept multiple meanings? Are these multiple meanings equally “valid” or “true?” How do we make sense of percentages and statistics when reading that 82% of a prison population belongs to a particular cultural group while representing only 10 % of a population? Which questions are teachers not allowed to ask in schools?
I started this post by saying that viewing reading of print texts as being the definition of literacy is too narrow.
When it comes to computer languages, other than some tweaking of CSS, HTML, JS or Arduino files, I can barely read or write and consider myself mostly illiterate. Can I call myself literate, a reader and writer, if I can’t read or write computer code, a language used to power and operate most everything I touch and rely on in my daily life?
In this case, I’m neither reader nor writer. I’ve got some work to do if I want to be fully literate in the digital age.
Comments welcome. Just remember that the text you read isn’t the one that I wrote.