Characteristics of Experienced Readers and Writers (page 4)
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."
Interaction and Negotiation by Experienced Readers and Writers
When readers and writers go back to go forward, they are often attempting to respond to the text from a different perspective. In reading, this may mean trying to see the text through the author's eyes. In writing, this may involve trying to distance ourselves enough from our written words to encounter them as the readers may. Frank Smith (1988) notes that learning to read like a writer is a crucial step in learning to write like a writer:
To read like a writer we engage vicariously with what the author is writing. We anticipate what the author is writing, so that the author is in effect writing on our behalf, not simply showing how something is done but doing it with us. . . . Bit by bit . . . the learner learns through reading like a writer to like a writer.
Just as readers project themselves into the role of the writer, writers also project themselves into the roles of readers. Smith goes on to say that the author becomes an "unwitting collaborator" with the reader. Perl (1990) would disagree with the term unwitting. She argues that experienced writers knowingly and deliberately attempt to take their readers' points of view in order to imagine what the reader might need to know for their words to communicate in a way that is clear and compelling. In other words, readers and writers interact and negotiate with their perceived counterpart in order to make meaning. Martin Nystrand (1986) calls the relationship between readers and writers a condition of reciprocity. The word reciprocity suggests how both parties depend on each other's understanding to ensure a meaningful interaction. The problem comes when there is a mismatch between the reader's and writer's expectations and understandings. For example, even an experienced reader like Tim can become "very impatient" with a text that doesn't meet his expectations and will abandon the collaboration if he can't adequately "make a movie" out of the writer's descriptions. Kim van der Elst, a 10th grader at Villa Park High School, has experienced the mismatch between what she meant to say and what her reader interpreted. She writes, "I usually write in one great metaphor that only I can really decipher. I guess it's because I am writing for myself and I don't think much about how someone else might interpret it. But then when I think I've written something wonderful, no one really understands it."
A Strategic Approach
When Tim visualizes the text he is reading, making "a movie in his head," or when he gets "stuck" and tells himself to go back and figure out the problem, he is being strategic. Tim's ability to visualize is probably so developmentally advanced that he can apply this strategy without consciously willing himself to do so (Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991); in the case of getting stuck, however, he deliberately accesses his capacity to monitor his comprehension and sends himself a message that there is a problem to be solved. In general, readers and writers purposefully select strategies to "orchestrate higher order thinking" (Tompkins, 1997, p. 143). According to Paris, Wasik, and Turner (1991), "Strategic readers are not characterized by the volume of tactics that they use but rather by the selection of appropriate strategies that fit the particular text, purpose and occasion". Similarly, Flower and Hayes (1981a) liken the use of strategies within the writing process to having "a writer's tool kit", which the writer can access, unconstrained by any fixed order, to solve the problem of constructing a text.
The use of cognitive strategies is a crucial factor in the construction of meaning in both reading and writing. In general, both readers and writers plan and goal-set, tap prior knowledge, ask questions, predict, visualize, organize, formulate meaning, monitor, revise meaning, and evaluate (Flower & Hayes, 1981a; Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991; Tompkins, 1997). Block and Pressley (2002) indicate that there is a "plethora of research establishing the efficacy" of strategies instruction and emphasize the importance of providing modeling, scaffolding, guided practice, and independent use of strategies so that students can learn to internalize and self-regulate their cognitive and metacognitive processes.
Automatic Use of Skills, Allowing a Focus on Appropriate Strategies
Experienced readers and writers like Tim and Cris can attend to the higher-level cognitive demands of their respective composing processes because they are not bogged down with consciously executing the information-processing skills required to decode (translate the words on the page into mental or oral speech) or transcribe (put ideas into visible language). These skills are highly automated, allowing fluent reading and writing with minimal interference. This is not the case with young or inexperienced readers, who are often so focused on understanding individual words in print that they cannot attend to the overall meaning of the sentence or paragraph. Similarly, novice or poor writers must focus primarily on very low-level goals, such as correctly spelling a word or generating and transcribing their thoughts one sentence at a time, and thus cannot maintain a coherent sense of what they want to say.
Researchers agree that the degree to which the skills and subskills of reading and writing are automated affects the fluency with which language is processed. This fluency, in turn, influences the reader's or writer's ability to make meaning (Flower & Hayes, 1981a; La Berge & Samuels, 1974; Scardamalia, 1981; Stanovich, 1991). The more slowly readers and writers decode and transcribe, and the more their attention is directed toward the surface features of language, the less able they are to create coherent meaning (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985).
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