Saturday, 23 November 2019

How do we find out what a book means?

Language is symbolic just as symbols in paintings are. We have invented 'signs' (specific sounds and shapes on a page) to indicate meanings. But we build up those meanings through shared activities. The meaning is in our history of how we shared activities.

Every time you read a poem to yourself, you interpret it in your mind. Every time you read a poem out loud, you interpret it with your voice and your face and people listening hear that and interpret that expression in their minds.

The word on the page is connected to print and paper. It's separated from our bodies. When we read words out loud, or move to the words, we reconnect the written word to the body as it is in speech. We connect meaning to our whole person: poetry, song, story-telling. Reconnect.

Every time you freeze frame a scene from a book, improvise, act out, perform a play, you make movements and sounds which embody meaning. These reconnect words, phrases, sequences, language with our whole being. To move is to make a bridge between print and thought.

Comprehension exercises teach us that 'getting the meaning' from a page is like taking eggs out of an egg-box until it's empty. But when we read and ask our own questions, the box is never empty. We can go on finding new meanings and changed meanings.

Put another way, the meaning is not the egg. It's what we do with the egg: scrambled, poached and then eaten and tasted and used by our bodies. Meaning is not in the page, it's how we interact with what we think is on the page. Meaning is interaction and transaction.

If meaning is interaction and transaction, we should think of ways which foster interaction and transaction: talk, performance, debate, discussion, 'I wonder why...', 'I wonder if...', 'do you have questions to ask?', 'how does that feel?', 'What does that remind you of?'


'Billy has a blue hat'

What colour was his hat?



'It was raining'

Why was he wearing the hat?

'Because he supports Chelsea.


But it's not wrong. It's one meaning amongst several.

This is an inference exercise. But who decides 'what is inferred'? What would be the point of literature if there was only ever one inference? Why did the king's horses and king's men try to put Humpty together again? Is there only one answer to that question?

Literature is full of things that aren't definite. 'Hamlet' opens with 'Who's there?' At that moment we don't know who's there. That's the point. There is no answer to the question 'Who's there?' We might think of possibilities but we're going to wait and see.

On some stage sets, we don't even know where 'there' is. The meaning of the space will be made through the words and actions of the people on it.

The reason why the word 'inferred' was adopted by the National Curriculum was in order to restrict it to right and wrong answers which can be marked. Our inferring and interpreting of literature is not as narrow and restrictive is that, otherwise there'd be no point in reading.

Interpretation - 'getting meaning from texts using our knowledge, experience and awareness of the world and other texts'.

Instead of teaching ‘inference’ - as if there is only one meaning, we should be teaching ‘interpretation’: how we find and make different possible meanings.