Tuesday 11 December 2018

What does it mean to read and understand a text? The 'reader-response' processes.

I think to get a handle on that question we have to go into the processes, (the ‘mind-games’ if you like) that we go through as we read, and after we have read.

One way to talk about this is to call it ‘comprehension’ and devise a set of right/wrong answer type questions which ‘prove’ that we have understood a text. These often revolve round ‘retrieval’, ‘inference’, getting the ‘chronology’ or ‘sequencing’ right and so on.

The problem with this model is precisely that there are only right/wrong answers. It treats a text as if it is an egg-box full of eggs and ‘comprehension’ is a matter of lifting out the eggs that are there. This is a model that refuses or rejects the idea that we ‘interpret’ what we read. What follows is a different model. It suggest that we take what we believe to be there (using our memories and methods of thought) reflect on it and come to conclusions or  ‘provisional’ conclusions. 

The exam-type comprehension question also refuses or rejects the extent to which in the real world the way we read is ‘social’.  We read, we talk, we read, we talk, we may write about what we read, we may share what we write, we talk some more, we read some more...and so on. Our understanding of a text, groups of texts or all reading is created and forged in social circumstances. 

So, I’m posing two alternatives to ‘comprehension’ as it’s usually understood: 
a) interpretation (not ‘right/wrong’) and 
b) social - through our interactions with each other.

As a contribution (not a final answer) to this,  here is a set of processes our minds go through where we are on our own or with others as we read books. If we want to help children get an enjoyable way of reading, I suggest that at various times we need to encourage and help them develop any or all of these approaches. 

Please note, these categories are not single stand-alone categories, they overlap, and they emphasise slightly different things. They are suggestions and they are for you to adapt and play with and add to. 

Further - if this looks familiar it’s because in another place I have a very similar ‘matrix’ which was designed from a slightly different angle: a matrix for teachers to analyse their pupils’ responses. 

I have drawn this up partly for our students doing the MA in Children's Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London who were interested in a matrix of response, rather than the one I have already done which is the matrix of how to analyse pupils' responses!

So here it is: 

1. Experiential-relational:

When we read, we relate aspects of our own lives (and/or to the lives of people we know) to what we read. We relate what is in the text with something that has happened to me or to someone I know. One useful trigger question for this is simply to ask: ‘Is there anything you’ve just read which reminds you of something that has happened to you, or someone you know? - Can you say why? or how?’ This taps into how we feel about moments in any text without asking the direct question, ‘what did you feel about that?’ 

2. Intertextual-relational: 

This is where we relate what is in the text to another text. One useful trigger for this question is: ‘Is there anything you’ve just read which reminds you of something you’ve read, seen on TV, online, at the cinema, a song, a play, a show? - Why? How?’ Again, this will tap into how we feel about a moment simply by tapping into another moment from another text that we feel is similar - for any reason. 

3. Intratextual-relational:

This is where we relate one part of the text to another part. One useful trigger for this question arises out of a moment in a piece of literature where we ask: ‘But how do we know that?’ And we answer that by using something or anything that came before?’(I have a nickname for this which younger children enjoy: I call it ‘harvesting’ - that is, collecting up information or feelings from other parts of the text.) We harvest all the time as we read. We harvest at the same time as we predict! 

4. Interrogative:

This is where we ask questions of a text and we voice puzzles and we are tentative about something. One trigger question for this is, ‘Is there anything here we don’t understand or are puzzled by?’ This can be followed up by, ‘Is there anyone here who thinks they can answer that?’ And ‘Does anyone have any ideas about how we can go about finding an answer to that?’ 

In one sense a text is a set of puzzles or we might say that the moment we start to read we are asking questions. One way to tap into this is to encourage pupils to write questions as a story or poem unfolds. Then, we might gather up these questions and see if or how we can answer them. This is a way of treating literature as a process of investigation and we as readers play the game with the writer. The writer creates situations that are inconclusive, mysterious, puzzling, intriguing and we ask the questions that the writer poses. Or we might come up with ones that the writer didn’t even know they had poses. Or we might want to ask the writer a question. (Very likely) Or we might want to ask questions ‘surrounding’ a text eg are there other texts like this one? What did people think at this time  (the 19th century say) about magic?Or was everyone a Christian in Tudor times? etc. 

5. Semantic-significant:

This is where we have thoughts or make comments directly about what something in the text means. There are of course many traditional ways of asking questions about this. In an environment in which we are not ‘telling’ pupils what a text means and/or that there is only one meaning, this can be speculative and provisional before anyone reaches conclusions. 

6. Structural:

This is where we indicate we are thinking about or making a comment about how a part or whole of the piece has been put together, 'constructed'. These might be thoughts about, say, why a book is in chapters, or why something happens in ’threes’ in a fairy story. 

Hiding behind this question is the crucial one of ‘form’ or ‘story syntax’ and the like. That is, every time we read, we are reading something that follows or uses or plays with a literary form that already exists. We have names for  many of these: the ‘detective novel’, the ‘rom-com’, the ‘sonnet’ and so on. In terms of literary response, we will be more or less aware of these forms and these in part intermingle with our response processes. They do this through our expectations of how the ‘grammar’ or ‘syntax’ of the story or poem unfolds. Once we have read a few books which tell stories in a certain way, we start to guess what will happen, and indeed how it happens. Any book that is part of a series, becomes more or less predictable. 

One feature of children’s and young people’s reading is how they learn these structures, plot-lines, motifs, forms and build them into their responses. We can tap into these with the ‘intertextual’ question above. The argument here is that reading one text is inseparable from the expectations we have based on our other readings, ie based on what we understand to be the ‘form’ of other books. 

7. Selective analogising:

This where we make an analogy (or a comparison) between one part of the text and something from anywhere else (e.g. from our own experience, from another text, from something else inside the text). When we do this ‘analogising’ there will be an implied 'set' or 'series' being constructed by the reader around a motif or theme or feeling. 

This process of analogising is extremely important even though it is often masked by seemingly trivial comments like, ‘I remember a time when I was sad...’ 

The importance lies in the fact that the pupil at this point is involved in a process of creating an unstated abstraction. It is halfway (or more) towards abstract thought. Perhaps, it becomes fully abstract when the pupil(s) give that ‘set’ a name: eg ‘Sadness’ or ‘Emotions’ or some such. 

I believe that it is through this process of analogising that texts give us wisdom. I cannot emphasize its importance enough. 

8. Speculative:

This is where we make speculations about what might happen, what could have happened. This is any kind of thought or comment in the category of ‘I wonder...’ or ‘What if...’ We do this all the time as we read and we can collect these as we read. 

9. Reflective:

This is  where we make interpretative statements often headed by 'I think...’ ie more committed than ‘speculative’. It’s a considered reflection.  They are more a response to the question we might ask of ourselves like, ‘so what do we think of that moment/character/scene/landscape/cityscape etc?’ 

10. Narratological:

This is where we have thoughts or make comments about how the story or poem has been told e.g. about narrators, methods of unfolding a story, what is held back, what is revealed (the mechanism of ‘reveal-conceal’) , how we know what someone in the story or poem thinks, how we think or describe the fact that we go forwards and backwards in time in a story. (This is a whole subject in itself: 'Narratology'). It may include an awareness of how stories have episodes, or sudden 'turns' or 'red herrings', flashbacks, flash forwards etc.

11. Evaluative

This is where we make value judgements (in our minds or in talk with others) about aspects of a text as a  whole. These can be comments about ‘significance’, ‘what the author is getting at...’, or ‘why someone in the text said ‘x’’. Or even, what the ‘message’ is or ‘what this is about’ or what this story ‘is trying to say’. They may well also be moral judgements about fair/unfair; good/bad etc. Evaluative, in other words, can be these moments during a story or after where we make value-judgements. 

12.. Eureka moments:

 This is where we announce that we have suddenly 'got it' - an experience that many of us have when we think we know ‘who’s done it’ or ‘why someone has done it’. 

13. Effects:

This is where we sense that an 'effect' has been created in us (or in others we have observed) because of the way something has been written. “This made me sad”. ‘This made me jump..’ ‘This made me sad...’ Response journals, or post-it notes on poem-posters and the like can ‘grab’ these very well. This can be a way of tracing what has been called the ‘affect’- firstly how we are ‘affected’ by a text (did it make me sad? happy? afraid? tense? full of hope? full of dread? why?) or looking to see what aspects of the text seemed to create that way in which I was affected?


 This is where we make a comment which is in essence another story. This is not trivial. As with ‘analogising’ (above) it will almost certainly involve the making of a 'set' or a 'series' ie something has been selected from the original text in order to trigger off the new one. This is an implied generalisation or abstraction. From a teaching point of view, this is one way ‘in’ to enabling pupils to begin to articulate abstract ideas about a text. 

15. Descriptive: 

This is where we recount aspects of the text. We might do this in our day-dreaming as we read, after we have read, or in talk with others later. This may well be more significant than it first appears because (as teachers)  we can ask, why was this moment selected for the recount? (ie ‘Why do you think you’ve described that bit of the story?’) Again, this may well be part of ‘analogising’ and/or ‘storying’. 

16. Grammatical: 

This is where we find our attention drawn to the structure of sentences - syntax, or how individual words are used grammatically. There are of course many right/wrong ways of asking questions about this. We might begin by asking questions about this by asking pupils to explore and investigate along the lines of eg finding similar or contrasting ways in which sentences are constructed...and asking why would that be? What is achieved by doing that? An author like Dickens varies his sentence structures enormously: one moment very long, many clause sentences: the next, rapid-fire, short sharp repetitive structures. 

One way to ‘discover’ this is through reading or performing out loud. 

There are ways of drawing attention to the word-classes (nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs). Again, ideally this can be investigative first and be provisional: why do we think a writer has used this or that word-class? Ideally, there won’t be one answer to the question! 

Traditional grammar tends to use ways of describing eg sentence types as the main or sole way of doing something eg ‘commands’. In fact, if we use a word like ‘command’ or ‘the future’ or many other of these terms, we can see when we look at real texts that we have many different ways of eg commanding, or expressing ‘the future’. 

If we ask of eg someone bossy in a text, ‘how do we know he’s bossy?’ we may well find that it’s because he has been created as using a variety of ways of commanding people, not just the one. In other words grammar makes ‘sense’ in many ways. It’s the tools we use to convey meaning and we have many different tools to do similar things, as with creating a character who is bossy, who might deliver orders ‘Do this!’ or use another grammar and say, ‘I want you all to...’ Or, ‘All children must...’ They are all ‘bossy’ ways of going on,using different aspects of grammar. 

We might find that the  way into grammar is via different and differing ‘clusters’ of intention and meaning.

17. Prosodic: 

This is where we notice or we draw attention to the sound of parts of the whole of a piece ie the 'music' of it. I have outlined in my book ‘What is Poetry? (Walker) how you can invite pupils to determine this themselves by using what I call ‘secret strings’ ie finding links between parts of poems whether linked by sound or by meaning. These secret strings  are the links between repeated sounds of letters, words, rhythms or the repeated or patterned way in which writers use images (similar or contrasted)...or indeed any links we might find or make. If we think it or say it and can 
prove it, it’s a link! Much of this is on the edge of our consciousness as we read because writers try to conceal it. Writers try to make links that are there but affect us without words in the text saying that that is what they want to do. This is a crucial part of how literature is as much about feeling as it is about ideas. A key way in which writers create feeling is through ‘secret strings’...repeated sounds, images, and motifs. 

These links are in fact different and differing kinds of ‘cohesion’. Sometimes these are grammatical - as with first using someone’s name and then using a pronoun (‘Michael’ and then ‘he’), or they might be at the level of sound or image. 

(Note in passing: You can argue that what defines literature is that it is a specialised form of cohesion! )

18. Effect of interactions: 

This is where we notice or we draw attention to how people interact ie how people (any character) treats another, how they 'relate' and what is the outcome of how they relate. In my experience, this is more valuable than simply trying to describe ‘character’. If we think of scenes or moments in literature, they end. We can think of these as ‘outcomes’. A writer like Enid Blyton traditionally tells her readers what this outcome is: ‘That served her right.’ It is one of the marked difference between writing for young readers and older ones that these ‘outcomes’ are often more marked in books for younger readers. Even so, all texts leave ‘gaps’ in which these outcomes or effects of the outcomes are there for us to wonder about and speculate about. We ‘dive in’ to these ‘gaps’ and come to conclusions or mini-conclusions.

19. Imaginative-re-interpretive:

This is where we move to another artistic medium (film, photography, drawing, painting, model-making, pottery, dance, music, drama, making power-points, sound-tracks, etc)  in order to interpret what we have been reading or viewing....this may well involve more 'generalising' or 'abstract thought' than first appears, because it involves us in  'selecting' something from the original text and creating some kind of 'set' or 'series' with this as and when we create something new. If pupils are asked 'why' this can be teased out.

(Passing note: this  used to be thought of as one of the highest-status activities on the block. When we visit great mansions and stately homes, the ceilings and walls are often covered with paintings and murals of re-interpretations of classical literature. At some point in our idea of ‘education’ we downgraded ‘re-interpretation’ as some kind of ‘artsy’ thing that is ‘kinda nice for those that want to do it’ rather than a profound way in which we can explore the ideas and feelings in a moment of a text or the whole text.)

20. Emotional flow - or the ‘affect’ : 

These are the thoughts and comments which show how our feelings towards the protagonists change. Some people have invented 'flow maps' where you can draw up a kind of graph or chart, with the key moments in the plot along the bottom axis, and emotional states on the vertical axis...then you can label the line on the graph. This might be a graph say in which I felt more or less hostile to someone, or I was more or less amused by this or that chapter. You can create graphs where you have several lines, with each line representing a different emotion: fear, humour, tension, mystery. Then as the story proceeds, you make your line go up or down across the graph. 

This is one of the key dynamics of a text. This is what writers spend hours trying to create. Writers are interested in trying to win a reader’s sympathy for one character, the dislike of another. They may well want to play tricks and first win the sympathy and then ‘disappoint’ by making that character behave ‘badly’. There are many variations to this ‘flow’ that the reader experiences and that the reader makes meanings, and comes to conclusions and value-judgements about whether things are right or wrong, fair or unfair, good or bad, nice or nasty, and so on. 

But it’s not just about ‘character’. It’s about the sensation of the moment or scene we are watching

When we set up ‘charts’ we describe this flow. And from these charts we can go back into the text to find why or how we think the writer helped create this. Or we might ask of ourselves, why did I feel that annoyance with that character at that moment? What is it about me that thinks that kind of behaviour is arrogant etc. 

Once again, there is an interaction between what we think is in the text and what it is about me that came to have that feeling?

We might ask of ourselves or discuss, which was the most important ‘moment’ when our emotions or feelings were flowing?

21. 'Author intention':

This might come partly under the category of 'speculative' - above - ie what the author could have written, might not have written, might have written in another way, or ultimately why do we think the author wrote it this way. 

Or it might be part of 'effect' ie how has the author created an effect. Word of warning: if this is separated from 'how it affected me' or 'how it affected someone else', this is of course speculation. 

The routine of a good deal of 'criticism' is to assume precisely the opposite ie because there is a certain literary feature - e.g. alliteration using a 'hard' sound, that it has a specific 'effect' - e.g. being insistent or heavy - and that the author intended these, which may or may not be the case. A huge amount of school-based criticism comes from this dubious premise: a specific literary feature has a specific effect. This can easily become formulaic and if it doesn’t overlap in any way with the pupils’ or readers’ experience then it’s just gobbledegook learned for exams. 

We might encourage speculation about author-intention by simply asking pupils, would you like to ask the author any questions? Then we might ask one pupil to be that author and the rest of us interview the ‘author’. Whenever the pupil can’t answer the question, we might ask ourselves how can we find out more in order to answer it? A book? The internet? 

22. Contextual:

Every piece of literature comes from a time and place. The person reading or spectating it will not be in exactly the same time and place as the author. Many responses and critical ideas and thoughts go on because of this 'gap'. Students may well know or speculate about the gap, or the context ('They didn't used to do that sort of thing in those days') and of course, may ask questions and/or we offer them information or they are encouraged to research the context(s). 

Between us we have very different awarenesses of contexts of a piece of writing. Give me an ancient Chinese text and I know very little. Give me a text written about London last year, I have a lot. Even so, for all of us there is always some context we know, some we think we know and we bring this contextual knowledge to a text. 

We can of course find out much more and traditionally, texts by eg Shakespeare, have a whole apparatus of ‘context’ around them that students are given. There are varying degrees to which this affects our response processes. Some of it may be so academic or distant that it has little. Some may be very directly affecting. 

I have found in ideal situations the most affecting contextual knowledge starts out by coming from the pupils’ first questions about a text or about an author. They are those puzzles and queries which hang in the air around a text. 

We can draw these out, encourage the process of asking the questions and do what we can to set up the means of finding out. ‘Is Roald Dahl still alive?’ etc.

23. Representational or symbolic:

This is  where we have thoughts or make comments about what we think something 'represents'. This might be about 'character' where we say that a person 'represents' the class or type he or she comes from...'she’s a typical x kind of person'. It might be about parts of the landscape or the nature of the landscape - as it represents a particular kind of challenge to the protagonist. It could be a feature in the landscape/cityscape ie a particular kind of tree or building. It could be a single object that represents something more than itself - a torn piece of paper. And so on.

People often say to me that ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ is a ‘bit like life’ - you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you have to go through it. That’s a representational thought and comment. 

24. Extra-textual:

These are thoughts or comments that have apparently nothing to do with what's in the text and are about what's going on in the classroom or they are about pupils' interactions. Often these are as they seem to be but just occasionally they may well relate to how the pupils are interpreting e.g. a personal comment about 'You always say things like that...' may well be an indirect comment about this text and others.

25: Causational:

These are the thoughts or moments when we say or think that something happened or someone thought ‘x’ because... Anytime we say to ourselves...’Oh. that’s why she...’ These moments of realisation of cause (or imagined cause) are crucial to how and why we read. Part (as very important part) of the human mind hunts for explanations and reasons. We are drawn to wanting to know people’s motives and the outcomes of those motives. This is at the heart of fiction and narratives of many kinds - perhaps of life too. We ask ourselves questions like, ‘why did he do that?’ all the time. 

So, just as important as the conclusion in this matter (‘that’s why he did it’) is the speculation about ‘why he did it’. 

In terms of teaching, I think it’s vital to not state a reason before the pupils’ own speculations. It’s crucial to leave the ‘why’ speculations hanging in the air for as long as possible before finding out and coming to some kind of conclusion as to why. Speculation is reading! 

26. What else? 

What other processes - stand-alone or overlapping with any of the above, would you put into this matrix of response? 

27. There is a long reading-list which informs all of the above. I will provide that in the next blog!