Conversing with the Text

Updated: Feb 6, 2019

Reading is a form of receptive language. As such, most people approach reading as a one-way process. This is understandable, but unfortunate. Under normal circumstances, a healthy human brain interprets the words in the text and makes meaning. It seems to be a linear process: text in/meaning out.

But what if the text makes no sense? I’m not speaking of decoding the words. That’s an elementary strategy. Let’s assume that the reader can understand each word individually. But when taken as a whole, the text is not understood. The author’s intended effect is not achieved. It is not knowable upon initial exposure and the reader is left confused.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons that humans read is the comforting fact that a text (such as a good story or novel) is ultimately knowable. Within the text the author has most likely embedded the clues and answers needed to unravel its mysteries. Since a good story is less uncertain and unpredictable than the real world, the act of reading provides some degree of comfort. Even careless readers who may have missed the subtler textual details, or those who do not draw comfort from reading, should have the raw material necessary to construct meaning.

Young readers, however, need help and explicit instruction to make meaning and suss-out a text’s mysteries. The first step is for the reader to acknowledge that reading is not a one-way process. There is a better way to conceptualize reading that involves some give-and-take. Re-conceptualizing the process will yield immediate benefits to emergent readers.

Consider this: A proficient reader does not simply give up in the face of confusion or plow through the text without understanding. The reader’s responsibility is to acknowledge the confusion and choose a strategy to overcome the obstacle. This is what is known as grit (not giving up in the face of adversity) and agency (self-sufficiency). Both grit and agency are part of what is known as growth mindset, a state of mind that enables youngsters to solve their own problems, such as making meaning while reading.

One such strategy that allows a reader to construct meaning via text is annotation. Annotation is simply making notes while reading. One can write directly in the margins or on sticky notes. Readers should initially mark places of confusion or passages that beg questions such as Why is the character doing that?

Through the process of annotation, by simply encouraging the reader to ask the text a question, the supposed one-way exchange becomes a dialogue. Here’s the big takeaway: Interacting with a text should be a conversation as opposed to a one-way process.

A dialogue? This is the conceptual shift I mentioned earlier. Inexperienced readers who make this shift will gift themselves with agency.

For the uninitiated, there are two entities involved in the exchange here: the living human reader and the inanimate text. The students will be surprised to learn that one can “speak to” and potentially receive a “response” from a text. And that is the thrust of this particular activity.

Ask readers to stop and think about the source of their confusion. A common issue with students is that they don’t know that they don’t know, and therefore they can’t know what they don’t know, which, although developmentally on-target, can be hugely frustrating for teachers.

It’s like asking poor spellers to go back and check their spelling to make corrections. They can’t. It’s a recipe for failure. If they knew how to spell the word correctly, they most likely would have. Poor spellers can’t identify mistakes as they don’t know the rules of spelling to begin with.

Hence the importance of dialoguing or conversing with the text. It will take a great effort on the teacher’s part to isolate the source of confusion and to assist the student in putting it into words.

Let’s say that the reader is confused by a character’s actions. An appropriate and helpful question to ask would be, “Why is the character acting this way?”

Now that the reader has stopped and thought about the confusion, it is time to annotate the text. This is where the reader’s thoughts become visible and the dialogue begins.

The reader makes a note directly in the text or on a sticky note and places it near the confusing passage. Now we have the beginnings of an exchange. Sixth graders are notorious for stopping there. “See, Mr. Pickles! I made a note,” they proudly say, beaming. Then they read on and forget the fact that they had a question to begin with.

“Do people mostly ignore you when you ask them a question?” I ask. “No,” they respond. “Then why shouldn’t you expect a response from the text?” I reply.

Heads explode. The paradigm has shifted.

It is important to note that for this to be a conversation the reader needs to extract a response from the text, being that the text is inanimate and can’t literally respond.

Now we read on to find the answer to the reader’s question. It may not be answered immediately or, in some cases, at all, and the reader must be given explicit instruction in how to solve the initial problem. Teachers should prompt students to return to their annotations after every few pages or at the end of a chapter.

In the case of characterization, for example, students may need to make an inference. Let’s say that a character lied to his parents about his whereabouts, and readers ask why he was dishonest. Perhaps later in the chapter, it is revealed that the parents are strict and their punishments severe. [JH1] After finishing the chapter, the students may safely infer that the character lied to avoid getting in trouble. The students should then stop and make a note. The text has “responded” and the initial confusion has been cleared. The question has been answered and a dialogue has begun.

Of course, there is a ton of groundwork and preparation to be done in laying the foundation for an understanding of characterization and inferences, but take heart—a wealth of new activities will be suggested by the students’ questions and subsequent realizations.

What was once a one-way process has evolved into a two-way exchange. The reader has asked a question and the text has responded. The reader’s success has transformed the act of reading into what I call an engagement loop. This is the give-and-take. Readers who have positive reading experiences become agents of their own learning. They are more engaged with text. They are also more likely to soldier on with grit and determination instead of giving up having had success.

Previously confused readers are now engaging with the text in a whole new way. They’ve found success in breaking through cycles of confusion, and this motivates them to push through further confusion. It is essential that reading teachers prompt their students to reflect on their successes, and whatever “worked” becomes a new strategy to add to their readers’ tool kits.

The looping process continues throughout. With each new page, section, or chapter, the student must be prompted to stop, think, and make a note about the sources of confusion. Perhaps the text will respond and further reinforce the concept that readers can conversations with text.

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