Updated: Nov 23, 2020
The effect of identity on text interpretation and why acknowledging identity is key to supporting young readers.
Have you ever gone back to a book you hated and found that you now absolutely love it? Or the other way around? Obviously, it isn't the text that has changed, but the person! If you've ever experienced this, you have experienced the power of identity and its effect on reading.
How we respond to a book is so very personal. We bring all of our individual experiences, our collective social and cultural knowledge, as well as our personalities to reading. How we interpret a book may be completely different from everyone else. It will even be different at different stages in your life. And, yet, traditional teaching of reading comprehension focuses on 'correct' interpretations of texts. Whilst there is a place for this, it should not be the sole focus of how we support young readers.
In the final blog post of this series on reading and identity, I examine the effect of identity on how we interpret texts and why it is crucial to acknowledge identity to support young readers. I will discuss the adult's role when supporting a child to become a reader, including: creating a reading culture, the importance of book talk, text choice and agency in reading. If you haven't read parts one or two of this series, I would suggest starting with those or this may not make quite as much sense as it should!
Leigh Hall’s 2010 study showed that effective reading strategy instruction alone is not enough to support children to be readers. How we identify as a reader is key. The type of reader that learners self-identify as and are identified as by others, directly affects how they approach reading tasks. In their 2001 study, Johnson et al. actually proposed that there is a direct link between the literate identities that children adopt and their teachers’ beliefs about knowledge - their epistemologies.
Models of knowing and models of literacy
Knowing teachers’ epistemologies - their beliefs about knowledge and how it works - is key in trying to understanding the success of learners in their classroom. Epistemologies affect the things that teachers focus on when teaching reading comprehension, how they respond to children and how they organise instruction. To understand how we might discover these epistemologies, I’m going to use the work of Brian Street (2003) on literacy models and the study by Johnston et al. on what they term 'models of knowing' that they observed in classrooms. These models may provide criteria that we might examine when trying to determine a teacher's beliefs about how reading should be taught.
Street proposed two models of literacy: the traditional autonomous model and his own ideological model. The autonomous model views reading as a set of skills to be taught discretely, which, once learned, will result in huge life improvements for the illiterate regardless of social or cultural context. Street’s ideological model is more culturally sensitive. The ideological model also teaches discrete reading skills but with regard to the experiences, both social and cultural, of the learners. It is more learner-centric and considers the experiences that individuals bring to their interpretation of texts. Simply put, do the teachers and learners believe that literacy is something to be ‘given’ or built together? Do they believe that reading a discrete set of skills which can be applied regardless of the learner’s experience or background? The autonomous model, traditionally applied in schools, would agree with the latter. Identity is a key distinction here between the models: it is crucial to the ideological model and absent from the autonomous model. If we acknowledge that identity is paramount to how we learn, then surely we must acknowledge its role in how we read?
Why do the teachers' beliefs matter?
If a teacher subscribes to the ideological model of literacy, then they will be acknowledging learners as individuals whose interpretations of texts will be influenced by their existing identities. This necessitates a structure within their classrooms of ‘constructed knowing’ (learning viewed as a social act, where teachers facilitate and support learners’ independent thinking) rather than ‘received knowing’ (teachers imparting knowledge to passive learners).
The truth is not as clear cut as teachers subscribing to one model over another and quite often teachers will move between the two depending on the type of learning activity taking place. However, for the sake of simplifying this blog post, we will look further at the 'constructed knowing' model which links to a key learning theory. Lev Vygotsky's theory of social constructivism proposes that we learn through dialogue and social interaction where meaning is co-constructed. Chris Watkins simply put it as “creating knowledge with others” and learners are pushed to work just beyond their ability in order to achieve what they could not do alone with the help of what Vygotsky termed a “more knowledgeable other”. This could be a teacher or a peer who “scaffolds” the learning.
The models of knowing from the Johnston et al. study fit neatly with the models of literacy proposed by Street: the autonomous model of literacy views reading as imparted skills, dismissive of identity and aligns well with the ‘received knowing’ model, whereas the ideological model has identity at its heart and aligns with the ‘constructed knowing’ model. Therefore, we can gain an insight into teachers’ ideologies by looking at the types of interactions between teachers and learners.
In the study by Johnston et al., ‘constructed knowing’ classrooms demonstrated lots of teacher-pupil discussion, whereas ‘received knowing’ classrooms demonstrated lots of IRE interactions: teacher initiates (I) by asking a question, learner responds (R), teacher evaluates (E) that response. Most of those IRE interactions in the study were typically evaluating whether a learner was correct or not. You may be familiar with this type of questioning from your own school days! The teacher asks a question with a right or wrong answer, a child provides an answer and is told they are right or, if they are wrong, the teacher moving to another child to seek the correct answer. Teacher-pupil discussion will be more open ended, with the teacher asking more follow-up questions which invite justification or explanation from the learner, such as 'Why do you think that?' or 'How do you know that?' and often giving opportunities for others to build on what has been said, for example, by inviting others to agree or disagree.
It was found that learners in the ‘constructed knowing’ classrooms had more agency and authority over their learning, which was typically absent in the ‘received knowing’ classrooms. If we subscribe to social constructivist learning theory, we know that we cannot just impart knowledge and skills. They must be sought after by learners through interaction. Learners must be full participants in their own learning. So learner agency is vital to learning but it is also at the core of what it means to be a reader as defined in my previous blog posts: a reader is someone who chooses to read for themselves for pleasure.
Types of talk
Learning is a joint venture between teacher and learner. Success is only partially within the control of the teacher, who must provide the appropriate scaffolding and structure, and partially in control of the learner, who must actively participate. Teacher-pupil discussions, such as those in the 'constructed knowing' classrooms, are effective interactions which support learning, with the teacher encouraging the learner to vocalise their thinking through skillful questioning. The teacher, therefore, must provide opportunities for meaningful talk. What does meaningful talk look like?
Douglas Barnes distinguished between presentational talk, which demonstrates what we already know to an audience, and exploratory talk, which is not intended for an audience but for us to try out ideas and organise thoughts. Presentational talk will be confident and we see this when children give the right answers or demonstrate a skill they have already learned. Exploratory talk will be hesitant and disjointed as children work out what it is that they think and want to say. The Vygotskian view is that we only establish what we think once we talk about it and frame it in relation to our world. Learning is a social act; therefore, exploratory talk is essential to learning. Barnes also stresses the importance of learners asking questions in this process rather than just passively responding to questions posed to them. Teacher interactions with learners should open lines of inquiry which encourage further questions and deliberation rather than just seek out information and ‘right’ answers. Skillful teachers will be adept at scaffolding a child’s exploratory talk through questioning.
When it comes to reading comprehension, exploratory talk is essential to support learners in arriving at an interpretation and allowing them to figure out what they think about a text.
Reading comprehension is complicated. The current model adopted by the Department for Education in the UK, is the called the Simple View of Reading (SVR): reading is decoding (deciphering the marks on the page into words) plus comprehension (the ability to interpret the words). According to the SVR, you can achieve both independently, but you won’t be able to read until you can do both simultaneously. Lots of people misinterpret the comprehension part to mean reading comprehension, but it is actually just word comprehension. However, we can probably agree that comprehension, whether of a word or a text, is interpretation.
The SVR does not acknowledge social or cultural context. Yet, the act of interpreting a text - the comprehension of the text as a whole, not just as individual words - will be different for every individual because they must link what they read with what they already know and have experience of.
What each child makes of the text will be dependent on their experience of the world
Tennent, W., 2015, p17-18.
Alongside our individual experiences, there are rules and conventions that societies have accumulated in order to support our reading: do we read left to right or right to left? Is this a poem or a letter or a story? The texts will be structured by the rules and conventions of those text types.
No individual’s interpretation of a text, therefore, is solely their own but it is also a product of learned conventions and experiences. Reading will also then further shape our identities because of the shared cultural experiences we gain from being part of a reader community. Through discussions of texts and building meaning with other readers, through observations of other readers’ behaviours, children will continually refine their own reading identity.
Text choice matters
This has huge implications for the texts that adults - teachers or parents - choose for children. I’ve written before about how important it is for teachers and parents to know themselves as readers and how we communicate our reading identities to children through our behaviours. In sharing our identities and text choices, we also need to be wary that we don’t tip over into imposing them without regard for children’s own backgrounds and interests. As Tennent has shown, the type of text and the experiences that children bring to it will impact on how they interpret it and how well they engage with it.
Reading is a social act
When we share a text together with children, we are providing opportunities for exploratory talk and co-construction of meaning. We can model our own thinking to give children insight into our reading identities and scaffold their thinking through thoughtful and timely questioning to help them arrive at a satisfactory interpretation. Discussion and guidance supports children to decide what they think about a text and place it in their growing mental library. As Aidan Chambers points out in his wonderful book, 'Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk', sharing books gives us a shared cultural identity and adds to our sense of unity. If done well, it is a highly enjoyable experience and fosters enthusiasm for reading for pleasure.
Chambers advocates using ‘booktalk’ when sharing books. Rather than ask specific questions about the text, which in schools are often designed to check comprehension and usually modelled on the types of written test questions found in statutory reading tests, booktalk is more open and is based on sharing three key elements: enthusiasms, puzzles and patterns. Children should be invited to talk openly about things they liked and didn’t like, things that puzzled them or made them wonder and, finally, any patterns or connections that they noticed to things they already know. This might be a connection to the real world or to another story or between parts of the story. These 'sharings' can be done in any order and wander back and forth from each of the elements as children share their own ideas or build on the ideas of others. This is different from the more formal questioning we often see in school settings which seeks to arrive at a specific answer and ‘correct’ interpretation of a text. It is more in line with the ideological model of literacy which acknowledges the individual’s interpretation based on their own experience and as the group combines and builds on each others’ thoughts, allows for a co-constructed interpretation.
As guiding adults in the lives of young readers, we have to exercise a careful balance between guidance and control and then a gradual exchange of that control so that they become the independent readers that hope for. According to Aidan Chambers, when a very young child picks up a book and looks through it, whether they can functionally read or not, that independent choice is the first successful step to becoming a reader. We can promote this at home and in school by creating a reading culture. Through providing children with a text rich environment, sharing books and booktalk, we offer them the best opportunity we can to identify as a reader and, in doing so, develop a lifelong love of books and reading.
This has been a very brief overview of an extremely fascinating and complex subject. There were many areas that I only touched on lightly or missed out altogether but I hope it has given you an insight into the importance of reading and identity. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please do get in touch either in the comments or by contacting me through my website home page.
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