Characteristics of Experienced Readers and Writers (page 2)
Active Engagement in Constructing Meaning from and with Texts
Jeff Wilhelm (1997) notes that "Once students have learned how to read, and move through middle school, reading is still regarded as a passive act of receiving someone else's meaning" —and often of proving that you "get it" by correctly answering the questions at the end of the text. This is perhaps why the General English students in Janet Allen's (1995) high school class—students identified and labeled as non–college bound—neither saw it as their responsibility nor felt they had the tools to interact with the author and the text to construct their own meaning. Instead, as Allen observes, they waited for reading to happen to them. For example, Janet quotes a student named Jennifer: "I thought if I just learned all the sounds and the syllables and stuff, I'd be able to read. And then I would open the book and it didn't happen". This is not unlike the beginning writer who sits, brows furrowed, in front of a blank sheet of paper waiting for inspiration to strike, or who is too focused on getting it right to get anything down. Reading and writing don't just happen. Experienced readers and writers are active, not passive; productive, not receptive. They interact with language, making movies their heads, like Tim, or shaping and twisting language like so much clay, as Cris does, to produce the form they want. Robert Scholes (1985) points out that, first, we need to "perceive reading not simply as a consumptive but as a productive activity, the making of meaning in which one is guided by the text one reads"; second, "we need to perceive writing as an activity that is also sustained and guided by prior texts" . Whether we are in the role of reader or writer, we make sense—either of or with print—and to make sense we activate our prior knowledge of the topic and the genre, our personal experiences, our reader/writer-based expectations as well as our culturally based expectations, and our contextual frames of reference (Tierney & Shanahan, 1991).
Tierney and Pearson (1983) have proposed that reading and writing are both acts of composing. These researchers make a case for reading not as a sequential series of stages but as a set of simultaneous processes that parallel what experienced writers do when they compose: processes that include planning, drafting, aligning, revising, and monitoring. Especially compelling is Tierney and Pearson's notion that readers create "drafts" of readings, refinements of meaning that evolve as the person continues reading or rereads, in much the same way as writers produce a first and second draft of a text. Experienced readers and writers know that ideas and interpretations grow over time as one pauses, reviews, rethinks, and revises. Inexperienced readers and writers often "get `bogged down' in their desire to achieve a perfect text or `fit' on their first draft". Tierney and Pearson's constructivist view of reading and their consideration of reading and writing as "essentially similar processes of meaning construction" have been echoed by other researchers and have received widespread acceptance within the education community.
The Recursive Process: Going Back in Order to Go Forward
Experienced readers and writers go back in order to go forward. That is, the process is recursive. One of the problems that inexperienced readers have is that they think good readers get it right the first time. Therefore, they plunge in and often proceed on "automatic pilot" as if on a race to the finish line, "oblivious" to what they don't understand (Duffy & Roehler, 1987). This may explain why Jan Horn, an instructor of reading at Irvine Valley College in Irvine, California, reports that her students will read straight down a column of text, reading right through print clearly set apart in a shaded sidebar as if it were a continuation of the unshaded column, with only the faintest glimmer that something is amiss. In contrast, experienced readers like Tim, who "hate to not understand things," will go back and work for as long as it takes "to figure out the problem."
Cris, our writer, also goes back, but for a different reason. She is "mulling and stewing" over what she has written. Sondra Perl (1990) notes that few writers she has observed write for long periods of time without going back to reread some or all of what they have previously composed. As she explains, "recursiveness in writing implies that there is a forward moving action that exists by virtue of a backward moving action". In other words, writers reconnect with the ideas they have already articulated in order to generate new ideas. Not only do readers and writers go back to bits of text in order to keep the process moving forward; they may also go back to clarify and refine their thinking. This is one of the reasons why Cris goes "over and over and over" her emerging text. In going back, we often discover new meaning and are prompted to reconstruct our mental or written draft. For example, Natalie Wilson, a ninth grader at Villa Park High School in Villa Park, California, writes, "There are many times when I started out to write something but discovered something along the way that made me go back and change the majority of what I wrote as well as change the direction of what I planned on writing. I love when this happens because it is like a `breakthrough' to understand what you are really writing."
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