Cognitive Strategies That Underlie the Reading and Writing Process (page 2)
Researchers agree that reading and writing are both complex acts of critical thinking. For example, La Berge and Samuels (1974) note that reading is probably one of the most complex skills in the repertoire of the average adult. Flower and Hayes (1981b) identify writing as "among the most complex of all human mental activities". Underlying these mental activities are powerful cognitive strategies that are fundamental to the construction of meaning. This is the core of the reading/writing connection. Experienced readers and writers select and implement appropriate strategies and monitor and regulate their use in order to construct and refine meaning. Let's look at the strategies that underlie the reading and writing process.Reading and writing are not sequential stage processes in which meaning making progresses in a relatively predictable order. Remember that experienced readers and writers go back in order to go forward and that they have the knowledge and motivation to access their tool kit of cognitive strategies when the need arises without being constrained by any fixed order.
Planning and Goal Setting
Readers and writers begin to plan even before they tap prior knowledge regarding the task they are about to undertake. In fact, tapping prior knowledge occurs as a result of planning. Readers and writers develop two types of plans—procedural plans and substantive plans (Flower & Hayes, 1981a; Tierney & Pearson, 1983). Procedural plans are content-free plans regarding how to accomplish a task. These "how-to" plans provide a continuing structure for the composing process. For example, plans for generating ideas through brainstorming and outlining fall into this category. Substantive plans are content-based plans that focus more directly on the specific topic at hand. The following learning log reflection from one of my students, Frank Ashby, illustrates how he used a procedural plan to determine how he was going to go about meeting the requirements of the prompt and a substantive plan to explore the themes of unrequited love and isolation in two works of literature:
- In writing my comparison/contrast paper about Tennyson's Mariana and Dickens' Miss Havisham, I first got out the prompt, studied it, and then wrote out what I was going to do. Then, I looked in a book of quotations and found a quote from Shakespeare about how one sorrow could lead to another that applied to both characters. In my opening paragraph, I also used the image of a snake and talked about how both women were "bitten by the serpent of unrequited love." I resolved to refer to both the image and the quote whenever it could help to explain the similarities between both women—as long as it wasn't too often or contrived.
Both procedural and substantive plans help a reader or writer to set goals. According to Flower and Hayes (1981a), the most important aspect of goals is that they are created by the learner. Whereas many plans are stored in and retrieved from long-term memory, goals are generated and revised by the reader or writer as part as the composing process. Both planning and goal setting establish a purpose for reading or writing as well as enabling the learner to determine priorities. Experienced readers and writers not only plan and goal-set more extensively than inexperienced readers and writers but also are more flexible about modifying their plans and goals and more apt to elaborate on and revise them as the text evolves (Faigley, Cherry, Jolliffe, & Skinner, 1985; Flower & Hayes, 1981a).
Tapping Prior Knowledge
The construction of meaning in both reading and writing "never occurs in a vacuum" (Tierney & Pearson, 1998, p. 88). Readers and writers tap prior knowledge; that is, they draw upon long-term memory to access a vast storehouse of background information. Knowledge is usually a resource; however it can be a limiting factor when there is little information to mobilize (Flower & Hayes, 1980). The reader/writer searches his or her existing schemata to make sense of information from or for a text. According to Tompkins (1997), "Schemata are like mental file cabinets, and new information is organized with prior knowledge in the filing system". One might have a personal experiences file cabinet, a cultural expectations file cabinet, a knowledge of topic file cabinet, a knowledge of genre file cabinet, and so forth. As the reader or writer composes, new information is added to these cabinets (i.e., schemata).
Asking Questions and Making Predictions
As the reader reads or the writer writes, she or he is constructing what Judith Langer (1989) calls an envisionment—a "personal text-world embodying all she or he understands, assumes, or imagines up to that point". In other words, an envisionment is the text you are creating in your mind as you read or write. It will continue to change and deepen as you continue to make meaning. In the early stages of reading or writing, Langer describes the learner as adopting a "stance" toward the text that she calls "being out and stepping into an envisionment". The reader or writer at this point may have a somewhat distant relationship with the text and may be trying to become more familiar with it. For example, Toni Lee, a ninth grader at Villa Park High School, observes that it's hard to get into a book at first because "it's like meeting a new friend. You don't really know much about him or her which makes it difficult to feel close to the person." As the reader or writer begins to tap prior knowledge, he or she will naturally start to ask questions and make predictions. The questions readers and writers generate about the topic, genre, author or audience, purpose, and so forth will help them to find a focus and to direct their attention while composing. The predictions readers and writers make about what will happen next foster their forward momentum and become a focal point for confirming or revising meaning. Experienced readers and writers continue to ask questions and make predictions throughout the reading/writing process.
Constructing the Gist
The initial envisionment that a reader or writer creates is, in essence, a first draft. In other words, he or she is constructing the gist of the text. An early step in creating a "personal text-world" (Langer, 1989, p. 2) is to visualize it. In studying the students in his middle school classroom, Jeff Wilhelm (1997) noted that his engaged readers mentally anticipated entering the story world even before curling up with a good book. For example, Wilhelm's student Ron said, "When I get ready to read I always think about what kind of story it is, you know, and what I'll have to do to get into it. I kind of imagine myself inside the story, even before I start reading and what it's going to be like in there". In a sense, then, experienced readers may begin to construct their envisionment by visualizing the act of entering the story world itself. Writers also conjure up a vision of what they want to create; but this perception, which Sondra Perl (1990) calls the "felt sense," is perhaps more kinesthetic than spatial. According to Perl, the felt sense is "anchored in the writer's body", and it is from the felt sense that the writer summons the images, words, ideas, and feelings that will be transformed into written words. Perl's description brings to mind Cris's musing: "How do I transform my thoughts into writing? Hmm. . . . I grasp on to one thing, a symbol, a moment, a color, a feeling. I feel and think with the camera eye." Christina Chang, a ninth grader at Villa Park High School, captures the power of tapping the felt sense when she remarks, "When writing something I really care about I feel as if I am exploding inside with emotion. Ideas come rushing out so fast I cannot even catch up with my writing."
Once inside the text world, readers and writers begin to create mental and/or linguistic images of the text landscape. Like Tim, many students describe the process of visualization with a movie-making metaphor, noting that they can use slow motion or flashback as well as fast-forward, "especially if it's really exciting" (Wilhelm, 1997, p. 63). Students also personalize what they are reading or writing about by making connections—drawing on their own real-world experiences to make meaning and enrich what they are constructing. For instance, Michelle Gajewski, an eleventh grader at Los Amigos High School in Garden Grove, California, reflects, "When a light goes on and something in a book touches my life it's scary in a way. But, then again, it's also nice because it can bring up old memories but help me see them with a new insight that is refreshing." As the reader or writer constructs the gist of this first draft, he or she will also identify main ideas and organize information, sequencing and prioritizing the events or ideas into main and supporting details; into beginning, middle, and end; from most to least important; or in some other structural format. In essence, the reader or the writer will be adding to his or her mental filing cabinets—that is, expanding his or her schemata.
As students move from being outside a text to stepping into a text, they will use personal experiences and knowledge as well as their perceptions of the text they have read or written thus far to "push their envisionments along" —in other words, to formulate meaning. Langer calls this next stance "being in and moving through an envisionment." Scholes (1985) notes that readers constantly shift from reading to interpretation and that writers construct certain texts to force this shift. This shift from reading to forming preliminary interpretations is activated when the reader senses that the text has levels of meaning and that to move beyond what is literally happening to what might be inferred at a deeper or more symbolic level of meaning, one must actively develop one's own conception of the text's significance. To illustrate, he comments that "we may read a parable for the story but we must interpret it for the meaning". When writers move from a summary of events to a discussion of meaning or theme, they are also shifting to interpretation. The preliminary interpretations readers and writers construct often evolve as the student continues to move through the envisionment and revisits the text to revise meaning.
Tierney and Pearson (1983) believe that adopting an alignment "can have an overriding influence on the composer's ability to achieve coherence". They define alignment as the reader's/writer's stance toward the author or audience and the degree to which the reader or writer adopts and immerses himself or herself in a variety of roles during the construction of meaning. They explain:
A writer's stance toward her readers might be intimate, challenging or quite neutral. And, within the context of these collaborations she might share what she wants to say through characters or as an observer of events. Likewise, a reader can adopt a stance toward the writer which is sympathetic, critical or passive. And, within the context of these collaborations, he can immerse himself in the text as an eyewitness, participant or character.
Michelle Gajewski writes of her experience as a reader, "When I begin to feel a kinship for a character, I find that I begin to feel their emotions and begin to think the way they do." Michelle's classmate at Los Amigos High School, Qui Thinh, aligns herself even more closely. She notes, "There are times when a book speaks of me. I don't feel like I am there with the character; I am the character. Sometimes I get too emotional and it's not exactly the character I'm crying over but I am reminded of experiences I have had."
The alignment or perspective we assume shapes the images we visualize, the connections we make, the ideas and information we identify and organize, and the meaning we formulate. "Just as a filmmaker can adopt and vary the angle from which a scene is depicted in order to maximize the richness of a filmgoer's experience," Tierney and Pearson argue, "so too can a reader and writer adopt and vary the angle from which language meanings are negotiated".
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