I’m working on a number of book projects right now and one of them has gotten me to thinking about the amazingly rich and complex process of reading. I love the subject of reading for the same reasons I love the subject of special education – reading is philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience wrapped up in one very interesting package.
Take, for example, this fact: for the act of reading to occur, there must be a text and there must be a reader. At first glance this statement seems ridiculously obvious, but it’s important to lay it out there, for the idea that the text and reader exist in a relationship is an idea central to understanding the reading process. To help me understand this relationship, I look to the theory of reading as a transactional process.
The idea that reading is a transactional process was first put forth by Louise Rosenblatt, a one-time roommate of Margaret Meade’s, an inductee to the International Reading Association’s Hall of Fame, and a centenarian who introduced her theory in the 1930s then continued to develop and refine it well into the late 20th century. Rosenblatt proposed that reading is a dynamic act, involving the reader and the text continuously acting upon one another in a series of transactions. These transactions occur on a continuum (Rosenblatt, 2005)[i]. On one end is reading for pleasure (aesthetic), an act that consists of such things as readers enjoying the sound of the words as they are orally or silently read, mental images unfolding as paragraphs unfold, emotional experiences arising as the story is read and information is provided. On the other end of the transactional continuum is reading for meaning (efferent), or the act of acquiring information. Efferent reading is akin to close reading, the type of reading stressed in the Common Core, which expects readers to “read text analytically through close scrutiny of central ideas, text structure, and writer’s craft” (Pennel, p.251)[ii].
No one can deny that when we read, text is central to our construction of meaning. Some believe that if a particular text is read analytically (closely) enough, a single, uniform meaning can discovered, even when the text is read by multiple readers from wildly divergent backgrounds (Pennel, 2015)[iii]. But for Louise Rosenblatt, no two people can ever find exactly the same meaning in a piece of text, for each reader brings a unique set of beliefs, context, and knowledge to each act of reading (Rosenblatt, 2005)[iv].
I point out reading’s transactional nature because I believe it is something that should be pointed out to students. Students must understand that text acts on them, and conversely that they can bring “something” to the text, such as awareness and intent.
For robust transactional reading to take place, two things must be in place. First, the reader must be able to fluently read the material before him. Once the problem of fluency is solved, the reader’s mind has space to construct meaning. But more than space is needed. The reader must also have mental tools to explore that space, tools which can illuminate, connect, predict, synthesize, and summarize the words being read. These tools are the strategies that readers use as they engage in transactional reading.
That proficient readers use strategies to bring meaning to the text is an important point to make to students. Simply stated, proficient readers use strategies to help them comprehend the meaning of whatever they read, be it The Diary of a Young Girl or The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Although you may not know it, you are using strategies as you read this sentence, this paragraph, and this blog. Proficient readers use strategies such as rereading, visualizing, predicting, and questioning all the time. Many, however, are unaware that they are using them.
Another aspect of strategy use, one that is especially exciting to me, is the idea that we readers can monitor our thought process, guide our thinking, and intentionally employ thinking strategies to solve our reading problems. Let me give you an example. Take for minute the idea that Brad isn’t weezly, prone to union dues, or access to school-based learning communities. Then consider hoodie and regulax.
When you read the previous two sentences, was your first thought, “Wait! What?” Were you confused by the nonsensical syntax? Did you go back and re-read that sentence, trying to figure out if the sentences were mistakes or if they had some kind of meaning? If you did, you are a proficient reader who is monitoring your understanding and employing strategies to try and fix up perceived problems. Proficient readers recognize when their text is making sense and when it isn’t because they monitor their understanding as they read (Pearson, et.al. 1992)[v]. Once they know they are having a problem, they employ a strategy (such as re-reading or visualizing) to try and correct their confusion. This cycle of comprehension monitoring, strategy application, and re-monitoring of comprehension is known as metacognition. Metacognition, a term I came to know and love (yes, I’m word nerd) when I was being trained in the big ideas of reading in the early 2000s, has been largely usurped by the term “close reading,” which is most frequently associated with the Common Core State Standards. There are fundamental differences between the two terms, but I’ll leave that for another time.
When you are a proficient reader, you are metacognitive. You, dear blog reader, are able to discern when you don’t know or are when you are confused, and you know that images and connections and questions should be flowing into your head as you read. Equally important, because you are a metacognitive reader, you know that when you don’t know and/or when images and questions are not flowing into your head, you have the power to fix these reading problems by deliberately employing a strategy, such as accessing prior knowledge, re-reading the text to find words that might answer a question, or thinking about what the text means in relationship to a heading presented previously in the chapter.
All of this transactional reading and metacognition are inseparably intertwined. Readers read for varying purposes, writers write for varying purposes, and readers and writers intersect at the text, be it an informational web page or a page in a sci-fi adventure novel. Additionally, at this place of intersection (the text), the attitude, beliefs, and knowledge of the reader interacts with the structure and underlying purpose of the text, which in turn was written by a writer who brought his own set of attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge to the writing. I find this all to quite amazing! When we reflect on how thoughts arise, how text is written, and how thoughts and text interact, we begin to see how richly complex and dynamic our human thought processes are.
[i] Rosenblatt, L. (2005). Making meaning from texts, Lousie Rosenblatt, selected essays. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
[ii] Pennel, C. (2015) In the age of analytic reading: Understanding readers’ engagement with text. Reading Teacher, 68(4), 251-260.
[iv] Rosenblatt, L. (2005). Making meaning from texts, Lousie Rosenblatt, selected essays. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.