How To Do Things With Words

This post was written by regular contributors Dr. Michael Ben-Chaim and Dr. Michael Riendeau. It was originally published at the Washington Post and has been republished at with permission from the authors.

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 is “Reading 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!

46 responses to “How To Do Things With Words”

  1. Ian Callahan says:

    There’s an awful lot going on here, and I’m not even going to attempt to do justice to all of it. So I’m going to take the easy way out and pepper you with several thoughts all at once. Please feel free to respond in kind (or not!):

    1. Another dictionary definition of meaning is simply “what is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated.” In that sense “the cat is on the mat” can be perfectly meaningful while also being a bare statement of fact.

    2. “Virtual witnessing” as the comprehensive model for reading would strip some texts of value, purpose, and emotion (among other things). That is true because such a model is only capable of working with singulars, or those words that produce phantasms, or mental pictures.

    Value, purpose, and emotion are all universals and they exist in minds as concepts, not mental pictures, and they do not fit into a mental depiction of a situation as phantasms do. (Just for fun, consider “Moisture is the essence of wetness.”)

    So “virtual witnessing” is problematic as an exclusive approach primarily because it excludes certain kinds of words. “Values and ideals” are examples of those words.

    3. Regarding the imaginary teacher and “The Frogs and the Ox”: Nothing you’ve said about the RRSG’s theory indicates otherwise, so why do you say that such a shallow reading of the text is not the intended outcome of their pedagogical recommendations?

    4. Are the meanings of these two sentences different?:

    A. Assuming that the lifeguard is doing her job, you comprehend her statement as a warning addressed especially to your young companion.

    B. Assuming that the lifeguard is doing her job, you interpret her statement as a warning addressed especially to your young companion.

    5. It seems to me that part of being a proficient reader is being able to identify those places in a text where there is ambiguity and the ways in which one is bringing one’s own experiences to bare on that ambiguity.

    Am I wrong in thinking that you propose that diverse backgrounds lead to diverse “comprehensions” of a text because points of ambiguity will more or less automatically (or subconsciously) be filled in with something related to the reader’s experiences? Doesn’t that just lead to solipsism?

    I would argue that a student is more free to explore, weigh, and investigate the meaning of a text when she is equipped with a basic understanding of it that is as free as possible from the assumptions and biases that are merely her own. Then she is free not just to occupy the parlor where she is naturally inclined to sit, but to explore the whole house, the yard, and even, if she so desires, to check out the plumbing.

    6. How would you define an absence or lack of comprehension?

  2. MPR says:

    Thanks, Ian. You make some excellent points and raise some interesting questions. One that I’m especially interested in exploring is #4–essentially, “Is there a difference between comprehending and interpreting?” From my point of view, this is a central question in reading instruction. I do think we tend, particularly in educational settings, to distinguish between comprehension and interpretation, often suggesting that comprehension is a more basic or prerequisite “skill” to be acquired prior to engaging in the more sophisticated practice of interpretation. There are several reasons that I think it’s important to reject this view. First and most importantly, I don’t see a useful distinction in kind between the process of comprehending and the process of interpreting (and to be honest, I’m even reluctant to call what we do a “process,” but that’s another conversation). Instead, it seems more accurate to understand the difference between comprehending and interpreting along an axis that we might label the “community-self” axis. Toward one end of the axis, we explore meaning that is community-oriented and consensus-seeking; toward the other end, we explore meaning that is personal (and—as you suggest in #5—perhaps even solipsistic at its extreme). We tend to call the most non-controversial (i.e., community-oriented) readings of a text “comprehension” while reserving “interpretation” for what might be called more esoteric or idiosyncratic readings. If the question were simply one of terminology (imagine the irony of saying “simply semantics” in this case!)–call it comprehension or call it interpretation–it wouldn’t seem all that important to me. The reason it is important, though, is that by approaching comprehension as a rudimentary cognitive skill that can be rehearsed discretely, we create a nearly impossible situation for teachers: help students to become proficient in a culturally-inscribed and value-laden activity (comprehension/interpretation) but do it an objective and value-free way.

    A second, less important but nevertheless interesting reason to reject a distinction between comprehension and interpretation is that the there are two significant but substantially separate bodies of work done by the comprehenders (reading researchers) and the interpreters (literary types) that could together inform educational practice. The exchanges between these groups are few and tentative at best, but it seems to me that elementary and secondary education finds itself in the gap between these camps. Bringing them together looks like a promising prospect if it can be done.

  3. Ian says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but I think you might be throwing the baby out with the bath water. One can (and I do) believe that comprehension is an ontologically distinct activity from interpretation without also believing that comprehension is a rudimentary cognitive skill that is objective and value free. I’d offer up the Trivium as a real world example of such an alternative, but that’s my conversation for another day.

    Let me clarify what I mean by comprehension and interpretation being distinct. I actually rather like the community-self axis you described. But don’t readings that fall into the community-oriented end offer a greater freedom of motion than readings that fall along the idiosyncratic end? The posture assumed by a community-oriented reading leaves one completely free to look around, scope out the scene, and then consciously decide on your next move. If that move is to an idiosyncratic reading, such a reading is richer for being able to incorporate the community reading by describing the path that’s been taken to get there.

    Of course, you can also start with an idiosyncratic reading. But the posture there is more narrowly suited to moving only in one direction. In a pedagogical context, a teacher or classmate, bringing you awareness of the community reading, may suddenly reveal to you that the valley you thought you were walking in is actually a ridge. Then, of course, the initially-idiosyncratic-reader can more easily guide his classmates along the path he’s taken and say “gee, don’t you think it all looks different from up here?” And maybe, just maybe, they set up a new camp and the old place eventually turns to dust.

    So while comprehension and interpretation may involve similar, maybe even identical, processes, the outcomes are so different, and offer so many opportunities for enriching one another as distinct entities, that it warrants believing they are ontologically different. And since this is a blog, I’ll through this in, too: Tax preparation and tax evasion also involve involve virtually indistinguishable activities.

    Finally, some fighting words regarding literary types: English departments are always at least ten years behind philosophy departments. So what’s going to happen when the editors of Social Text realize that they need to become Critical Realists if they want to stay fashionable?

  4. Michael says:

    Ian, thank you for your comments. They deserve a very thoughtful consideration, and I hope we will do that together in the form of a ‘worldly’ rather than virtual discussion. I will therefore confine myself to commenting on just one of your points, concerning the relationship between literary theory and philosophy. Assuming that the universe, including the academic world, is spherical rather than flat (or symmetrical rather than unidirectional), you may see literary theory lagging behind philosophy, and then look at the relationship once again and find a lagging behind philosophy. Recent examples for the latter state: Philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Rorty, among others, whose studies in literature and literary theory were crucial to their achievement as philosophers.

    Personally, I love to work with Michael Riendeau because we complement one another in many different ways. Michael’s professional experience centers on literary theory, mine on history and philosophy of science. Working together, we have great fun bridging over contrasts such as fiction (literature) and fact (science), story and theory, fact and value. We are very interested in finding valuable connections between ‘literary’, ‘scientific’, ‘philosophical’, ‘legal’, and other types of texts – valuable, that is, for the purpose of teaching students to read in ways that enhance their intellectual growth. Everyone is potentially a philosopher even if she or he is not and will never be a Philosopher. We both believe that reading is crucial to realizing this potential.

  5. Sean Hunley says:

    Jeffrey D. Wilhelm (You Gotta Be the Book, Reading is Seeing) is one writer who, as a practitioner, successfully developed and implemented ways of helping very reluctant readers enter into texts–to get an initial handle on them. Interestingly, his strategies involve helping kids develop what you call “mental representations” by using drawings, role play, tableaux, etc.–the sorts of activities you suggest are “absurd” and advocated by theorists disconnected from classroom practice. But once kids get what Ian might call a “lay of the land,” Wilhelm takes them on paths of what he calls “inquiry” and “imagination” in order to achieve the kind of deep literary experience you’ve described. (In my own teaching, I’ve found that those kinds of activities are helpful for the whole journey, from the first hesitant steps into the text through subsequent thematic explorations. Why did each group come up with such a different tableaux? What do the differences mean? Why did you make the decisions you did?) Thinking of some kind of textual orientation as a distinct (but not separate) phase of reading seems helpful–even unavoidable–when working with students who have a tough time getting started with a text. Maybe it’s all a spectrum–but it’s still useful to talk about the various regions of a spectrum, just as we talk about light in terms of “red” and “yellow.”

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April 2011