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Into, Through, but Not Beyond

Text-Dependent Reading Instruction

Text-Dependent Reading

English-language arts teachers and reading experts certainly agree that pre-teaching a reading selection is an essential component of good reading instruction. To help students get into a text, teachers may need to pre-teach some vocabulary, establish a context for the reading, explain the genre, and introduce the author to facilitate optimal  comprehension. Additionally, teachers need to assist students in reading “between the lines” to ensure that students understand the reading as the author intended. Help through the text can include teaching vocabulary, pointing out literary devices, explaining literary references, and interpreting difficult passages. The close reading strategy is one of many means to this end.

However, at the beyond stage many English-language arts teachers and reading experts will part ways. Constructivists will argue that unless the reading is made personally relevant through various instructional means such as KWLs, dialectical journals, and reflective writing responses, the reading is essentially meaning-less. Comprehension is defined as meaning-making. Some reader-response theorists and practitioners would go so far as to minimize the role of the author and text in the reading process.

A brief example may be helpful. In a freshman English-language arts course, a constructivist teacher limits the through instruction to get to the meat of the instruction, that is, the beyond activities, with this discussion prompt: “When Shakespeare says, “To be, or not to be: that is the question” he argues that finding meaning in one’s existence should be the driving force behind all decision-making. It is only in the process of questioning one’s very own existence can one rise above the pedantic necessities of life and be self-actualized as true human being.” Students then complete “Agree or Disagree” quick writes to be followed by heterogeneously mixed groups (by reading ability, learning style, multiple intelligences, etc.) to share and process the responses. Risk-taking teachers might even bring up the “Is suicide ever a morally justified option?” angle. The culminating project would involve creating individual epitaphs on the purpose of life etched into artsy clay tombstones, which may or may not (individual student choice) be displayed at Open House.

Others would disagree with this approach. Some of those buying into the New Criticism or Formalism theories, would treat only the text as sancrosanct. The context of

Text Dependent Theories

the writing, the reader, and even the author are irrelevant to what the text says in and of itself. Most English-language arts teachers would not go that far. These non-constructivist, literature-based English-language arts teachers would focus (not limit) the reading experience to what the author says and means in the context of his or her own writing. Personal relevance is deemed to be superfluous or, at least secondary to understanding what and the character means and why the character says it. Thus, the personal connection to reader is minimized. Group discussion and writing responses would focus on the text and not the application beyond the confines of the text. This latter approach would be akin to that advocated by the writers of the Common Core State Standards.

In the same freshman course described above, a non-constructivist, literature-based  teacher begins the into activities with a brief class discussion regarding the historical, linguistic, and literary contexts. Next, the teacher and her students work through the three components of text: 1. Key Ideas and Details 2. Craft and Structure and 3. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. For example, they might analyze Shakespeare’s word choice (the infinitive “to + the base form of the verb” as a repetitive and ongoing action that can express a generalization), ask for a summary of events that led up to this soliloquy, and interpret Hamlet’s words in light of the plot, predict how this crisis of thought may affect the next or ultimate plot event(s), etc. Students then add the “To be…” quotable quote to their character development charts as evidence that Hamlet serves as a dynamic character. Students finally compose a response-to-literature essay to this prompt: “If Shakespeare ended the play Hamlet at this point, would Prince Hamlet truly be considered a tragic character? Cite textual evidence from Acts I, II, and III to justify your point of view.”

Clearly, both lessons would be engaging and promote critical thinking. The constructivist approach is using the text to teach content. The non-constructivist, literature-based  approach is to teach the text as the author intended. However, the constructivist approach focuses on the beyond application of the text. The non-constructivist focuses on the through approach and minimizes the beyond. This is not to say that the non-constructivist, literature-based approach would not bring in outside source material or compare different texts to enhance comprehension.

My view is that English-language arts teachers have moved more toward the non-constructivist approach over the last dozen or so years, especially since the advent of the Common Core. As an MA reading specialist, I tend to believe that letting the literature speak its own voice to students (via author and text) will accomplish the ends of content and process acquisition better than imposing content on the text. The constructivist approach is essentially isogesis­-reading something into the text that is not there. The non-constructivist, literature-based approach is accountable to the rules of exegesis-how to properly derive meaning out of the text itself. And I personally think that Shakespeare would prefer his readers to follow the latter approach.


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