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Posted at 02:00 AM ET, 04/13/2011

How to do things with words

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This post was written by Michael Ben-Chaim, a teacher at Eagle Hill School in Massachusetts, and by Michael Riendeau, the assistant headmaster at the school. They are both fellows of the Eagle Hill School Institute and regular contributors to LearningDiversity.org .

By Michael Ben-Chaim and Michael Riendeau

Nearly every week we can read yet another report pointing to the failure of our public schools in effectively teaching reading comprehension. And every time, researchers and policy makers point the finger at the ineffectiveness with which teachers implement scientifically-based practices. The unavoidable conclusion, it seems, is that teachers simply fail to faithfully align classroom practice with the received theory of reading comprehension. As teachers, we believe that the relationship between research and practice in education should be more reciprocal. It’s about time, then, that we question what the received scientific view on reading comprehension recommends to allegedly errant teachers.

Among the most widely accepted and cited studies isReading for Understanding ” (2002), convened by the RAND corporation and conducted by a group of leading researchers from several universities under the directorship of Harvard professor Catherine Snow. So what does the RAND Reading Study Group (RRSG) consider to be the authoritative theory of reading comprehension?

Reading, at its core, is a twofold “process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language.” By “extracting” meaning, the reader obtains linguistic data from the text by means of cognitive processes such as grapho-phonetic decoding, accessing lexical knowledge, and recognizing syntactical structures. By “constructing” meaning, the reader integrates the assembled data into “a mental representation” (1) of the text as a whole.

Interestingly, the RRSG theory of reading comprehension is predominantly cognitive rather than cultural. It depicts the text as an encoded representation of a specific situation. The reader renders the text meaningful by decoding it into a mental representation of that situation.

Reading, then, is like virtual witnessing. Consider, for example, the sentence “the cat is on the mat” and three photos: a cat on a mat, a cat on a tree, and a mouse on a mat. The theory predicts that the skilled reader will identify the sentence with the first photo rather than the other photos. The prediction, undoubtedly, is correct. But is meaning predominantly picturing?

Common English dictionaries associate “meaning” with the goal, intent, functional value, or useful quality of something. “A meaningful job,” for instance, is commonly understood to provide, beyond decent income, an opportunity for personal growth and nourishing social relationships. Making and having meaning, then, transcend cognition and involve a commitment to values and the pursuit of ideals.

These moral qualities are essential to human life, yet they seem to be completely redundant in the case of the aforementioned reader of “the cat is on the mat.”

Indeed, the omission of value, purpose, and emotion from the core of the RRSG theory is not a coincidence. The theory has its roots in cognitive science and artificial intelligence and, in one version or another, is the dominant approach to the problem of object-recognition in the burgeoning field of robotics. We wonder whether the RAND Reading Group would consider IBM’s Big Blue or Watson—in contrast to the child who finds the story she reads important or entertaining—the appropriate model for reading comprehension!

Could it be that teachers who are allegedly so obstinately unfaithful to the received theory of reading comprehension do in fact apply it in their classrooms, but fail to achieve adequate outcomes because the theory fails to explain reading as a meaningful human activity? Setting out to answer this intriguing question, we decided to leave “the cat on the mat” behind and test-drive the theory with a selection of texts familiar to American readers. Consider, for example, “The Frogs and the Ox,” one of Aesop’s Fables:

“Oh Father,” said a little Frog to the big one sitting by the side of a pool, “I have seen such a terrible monster! It was big as a mountain, with horns on its head, and a long tail, and it had hoofs divided in two.”

“Tush, child, tush,” said the old Frog, “that was only Farmer White’s Ox. It isn’t so big either; he may be a little bit taller than I, but I could easily make myself quite as broad; just you see.” So he blew himself out, and blew himself out, and blew himself out.” Was he as big as that?” he asked. “Oh, much bigger than that,” said the young Frog. Again the old one blew himself out and asked the young one if the Ox was as big as that. “Bigger, Father, bigger,” was the reply.

So the Frog took a deep breath, and blew and blew and blew, and swelled and swelled. And then he said, “I’m sure the Ox is not as big as this.” But at that moment he burst.

Adhering to the RRSG theory, the faithful teacher might first engage her elementary school students in an oral reading of the fable, stopping to remediate decoding difficulties and to clarify vocabulary questions (e.g., “What’s an ox?”). Next, and crucially, she would instruct students to get the meaning of the text by constructing a mental representation of the frogs, the ox, and maybe even Farmer White’s parcel. As is often recommended by reading comprehension researchers, she might ask students to visualize the scene and events as part of creating the mental representation of the text, she might and provide them with construction paper and crayons for this purpose. One of her more ambitious students might then include a detailed illustration of the shape of the frog before and after it “burst” into pieces.

How absurd! Rather than enhancing the reader’s imagination and critical thinking, the most authoritative theory of reading comprehension misleads her into performing a futile cognitive exercise. It’s as if the teacher asks, “What did you see?” and her students respond, “How an unfortunate frog ends its own life.”

To be fair to the RRSG, we acknowledge that this is not the intended outcome of their pedagogical recommendations. Our illustration nevertheless shows how far the received theory strays from what a theory of reading comprehension should do: namely, instruct students to read the text creatively by transforming it into a model for exploring ideas such as self-deception, hubris, or the unintended negative consequences of well-intended parenting.

What, then, is the basic flaw in the RRSG theory? The answer, in a nutshell, is that it doesn’t address texts adequately as media of communication between purposeful, goal-oriented actors. Even when a text describes an objective situation—which obviously is not the intention of “The Frogs and the Ox”—the description is purposeful and aims to accomplish a valuable end.

We may use words like little pictures, but when we communicate we creatively transform them into actions that we consider important. The meaning of a message, then, is its use by the interacting parties and is therefore always much more than a mental representation. When we treat words or statements as mere representations, we fail to communicate.

Imagine yourself, for instance, accompanying a little child to a beach on a hot summer day and being told by the lifeguard, “Today the waves are unusually high.” Assuming that the lifeguard is doing her job, you comprehend her statement as a warning addressed especially to your young companion and behave accordingly. The meaning of the statement, then, is an integral part of your social interactions. If meaning were confined to the cognitive process of representation, communication would fail.

The RRSG theory doesn’t, then, merely hinder students from doing better at reading comprehension as indicated by standardized assessments such as ACT and SAT. A theory that fails to enhance communication undermines education, because education is a special form of communication dedicated to the transmission of learning.

More specifically, it cripples students’ ability to benefit from those who have communicated in writing their intellectual achievements in science, scholarship, and art. When students are guided to identify meaning with the mental representation of value-neutral and emotion-free facts, they inevitably strip the works they read of their moral, intellectual, and aesthetic values. Yet it is precisely in virtue of such values that these works are regarded as cultural achievements worthy of our attention in the first place!

Consider Martin Luther King’s 1967 “I Have a Dream” speech as an example of a canonical text with which most American school children have multiple encounters as part of the curriculum. It is not hard to imagine (or recall, if you are an English teacher) a classroom situation in which students are asked to make sense of King’s words, then, guided by the received theory of reading comprehension, squirm in their seats a bit, unsure of what the seemingly straightforward phrase “I have a dream” might mean. They may respond simply, “He had a dream” or, following the English teachers’ dictum never to define a term using that term, they might substitute “hope” or “vision.”

Then, reading the entire speech, they are likely to learn that King dreamed of peaceful racial relationships at a time when African Americans were systematically oppressed. Such a response is, of course, not wrong—and this is often the feedback that it will elicit from the teacher—yet students who offer it have made little of King’s words. The words remain his rather than theirs, conveying facts about his dream rather than becoming resources useful to them. These readers have missed yet another opportunity to make sense of the history of their nation and of their own lives in relation to it.

A more creative and resourceful reading of King’s anaphora might go something like this: In a speech that begins with reference to the “shameful condition” of American society and the warning that “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of…the Negro’s legitimate discontent,” King’s dream may suggest a hopeful vision coupled to a darker prophecy and a threatening message. A creative reader of “I have a dream” might aptly call to mind Langston Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred,” highlighting the poem’s almost menacing final question, “Or does it explode?” Doing so would support an interpretation of “dream” that includes a warning tone in King’s speech, a suggestion not only that a hopeful future might be possible and should be our collective ambition, but also that it might be dangerous to allow such a future to slip away, to be deferred. This reading, then, intertwines American political history with the history of literature in a way that renders the reader herself an active participant in their making.

Far from aiming to offer the only correct interpretation of King’s words, our example demonstrates that creativity, diversity, and agency are inherent qualities of reading. In fact, cultivating these qualities is an integral aspect of the approach to reading comprehension we recommend.

Readers, we propose, ought to associate the meaning of the text with its use. The texts students typically read in school, more specifically, ought to be used for the purpose of exploring ideas. Reading for this purpose is necessarily a creative endeavor because it entails transforming the text into a model of inquiry into certain aspects of the reader’s life experiences.

Moreover, because readers’ life experiences vary, they are likely to imagine different ways of transforming the text into a model of inquiry. In other words, because they use the text in diverse ways, its meaning varies accordingly. The RRSG theory, by contrast, inhibits intellectual creativity and diversity because it associates the text’s meaning with the reader’s mental representation of an objective situation, of value-neutral and emotion-free facts that are indifferent to readers’ cultural identities, values, and concerns as individual persons.

Moreover, the problem of meaning in today’s schools is not merely that of making sense of this or that text. What is at stake is nothing less than how students relate themselves to cultural achievements that have shaped the world in which they live and the society in which they gradually mature. The RRSG theory fails to enhance this relationship.

It is not surprising, then, that so many students associate achievements in the arts, humanities, and science with classroom assignments that they are unlikely to elect to revisit in their free time during their school years or after they graduate. When students experience reading as an activity that erodes their creativity and belittles their capacity to solve problems, it is not surprising that so many schools fail to rise above academic mediocrity.

The solution to the problem of reading comprehension, then, binds the meaning of texts with the meaning of education. This connection brings us back to the beginning of our discussion. As teachers, we believe that the relationship between research and practice in education should be drastically redrawn. In professional fields such as medicine and law, it has long been recognized that practice is adequately informed by theory only when research is guided by an understanding of problems in the real world.

Unfortunately, a reciprocal relationship between research and practice has not yet reached the field of education. The vast majority of school teachers don’t participate in theoretical studies, and therefore when they follow the theoretician’s guidelines they often do so uncritically.

Conversely, education researchers in universities and other research institutes are often insufficiently familiar with how children learn at school, and therefore simply do not have an adequate understanding of the problems their research should solve. This state of affairs is quite simply absurd. We should all know better…we should all read better!

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