Cognitive Strategies That Underlie the Reading and Writing Process (page 4)
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".
Experienced readers and writers are able not only to select and implement appropriate cognitive strategies but also to monitor and regulate their use. The monitor has been called an executive function, a "third eye," and a strategist (Flower & Hayes, 1981a; Langer, 1986; Tierney & Pearson, 1983). In both reading and writing, the monitor, which is a metacognitive process, directs the reader's or writer's cognitive process as he or she strives to make meaning. In essence, it keeps track of the ongoing composing process and decides what activities should be engaged in and for how long. The monitor may send the reader or writer a signal confirming that he or she is on the right track and should proceed full steam ahead, or may raise a red flag when understanding or communication has broken down and the composer needs to apply fix-up strategies and clarify meaning. Experienced readers and writers are keenly attuned to their monitors. Tim is well aware when he gets "stuck" and immediately goes back as many pages as necessary to "figure out the problem." Cris instinctively knows if what she has "knocked out" is good stuff—if "the guts are out on the page." When her monitor approves, Cris is filled with pride like a "knobby-kneed little kid." Younger and less experienced readers and writers often have difficulty operationalizing their monitors, because they often are so focused on lower-level tasks that they don't have the resources or attention to monitor and regulate their process; they lack awareness of how to monitor their own cognitive activities; and/or they may fail to take action when the monitor does tell them they need to revise (Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991; Tompkins, 1997). Because monitoring is a "critical step in self-regulation" (Block & Pressley, 2002), it is not enough to teach students cognitive strategies. They must acquire the ability to use their monitors independently to determine when to use a strategy, which one to access, why, and for how long.
Revising Meaning: Reconstructing the Draft
Although the monitor sends readers and writers a variety of messages throughout the composing process, what often activates the monitor is a sense that there is a breakdown in the construction of meaning. This recognition will usually cause the reader or writer to stop and backtrack, to return to reread bits of text in order to revise meaning and reconstruct the draft. Less experienced readers and writers tend to plunge in and proceed from start to finish in a linear fashion; in contrast, experienced readers and writers "revise their understanding recursively" (Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991, p. 614). Tim comments that he only fully understands the "journey" he has just finished when he goes back and rereads the beginning of the text. His motivation for backtracking is not to repair a faulty understanding but to enhance his overall envisionment. Strategic readers and writers may also make several passes through the text to seek validation for their interpretations (Langer, 1986; Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991). Although ample research documents that experienced readers and writers go back in order to go forward as they move through an envisionment, studies of readers' think-alouds and writers' protocols also indicate that the "revision cycles" of individual readers and writers differ markedly (Tierney & Pearson, 1983). Some writers, like Cris, "mull and stew" during prewriting; then "knock out" a draft without thinking; then finally, painstakingly and repeatedly, revise the draft. Eleventh-grader Qui Thinh's writing process is similar to Cris's:
- If I just dive in, I often write things that are irrelevant to the topic. Therefore, I plan ahead before I write. It's much easier if you plan but that doesn't mean you won't encounter problems along the way. I often get an idea and get fascinated and write like a mad dog. But then, I can also sit staring at my computer screen for the longest time just looking at the empty page. Then, surprisingly, something strikes me and I'll write like mad again.
Writing would be easier if people thought of it like drawing. We start with a sketch, then color it, and afterwards put on the final touches to make it stand out.
Other writers who have very strong monitors mentally revise a draft even before putting pen to paper and, consequently, write very slowly. Still others progress in segments, writing and revising a chunk of text at a time.
Many inexperienced readers think the sign of a good reader is to read rapidly straight through a text with maximum recall (Schallert & Tierney, 1982); in fact, however, experienced readers pause, backtrack, reflect, and revise their initial "drafts" of texts just like writers do. Here again, the revision cycles of readers are widely divergent. Some readers may pause in midsentence, proceed page by page, or proceed chapter by chapter, clarifying and revising meaning as they go. Others, like Keri Kemble, a UCI teaching credential candidate, consciously read in drafts:
My reading process seems to me like going clamming. You go to the beach and, first of all, get to walk quickly over sand furthest away from the shore. As you reach the shoreline, you scan the surface of the sand to look for any slight bumps or bubbles. This is like my first read-through. I pick up the book and zoom through, enjoying the ride and the surface aspects of the story. Then it's time to start looking carefully for some clue, some little treasure. You bend closer to the sand, to see the telltale signs more clearly. When you catch those bubbles, or if you're lucky, the little hairs of the clam are waving like a flag in the receding water, you run over and dig quickly. This is exactly like when you stumble upon something in the text that gives you a starting point to explore a deeper theme. When you find the clue in the sand, you have to dig in order to get the clam. What's exciting about the process itself is that you never know whether the clam will be buried deep in the sand or near the surface, whether it will be so small that you should leave it there, or whether it will be a whopper! It's the same with the reading process. Both cause you to get a little uncomfortable before you reap the rewards.
What's intriguing about Keri's clamming analogy is the idea of analyzing text closely and digging deeper—something that experienced readers and writers do: Readers dig deeper in the text to discover the pearls, often creating meaning beyond that suggested by the text (Wilhelm, 1997). Writers may reach into themselves, back into the felt sense, to move the text to a deeper level of complexity.
During the many cycles of revision, readers and writers may analyze and revise not only for content but also for style. The latter process involves taking a closer look at the author's or the writer's own craft to analyze how the nuances of language impact meaning.
Reflecting and Relating
As readers and writers begin to crystallize their envisionment of the meaning of a text, they are likely to ask the question So what? Langer (1986) calls this stance "stepping back and rethinking what one knows". In essence, the reader/writer who has been immersed in the text world steps back to ponder not just What does it mean? but What does it mean to me? When students make connections while constructing the gist, they are using their personal experiences and background knowledge to enrich their understanding of the text and make their own personal meaning. Wilhelm (1997) points out as one of his "key findings" that if students cannot do this—if they cannot bring "personally lived experience to literature"—then "the reverse operation, bringing literature back to life", will not take place. In this stance, which is more likely to occur in the latter stages of the meaning-making process, readers "use their envisionments to reflect on and sometimes enrich their real world" (Langer, 1989, p. 14). In other words, they reflect upon the significance of their growing understandings to their own lives. These metacognitive learning logs from ninth graders at Century High School in Santa Ana, California, in response to reading and writing about Amy Tan's "The Moon Lady" from The Joy Luck Club, demonstrate the important messages students elicited from the story, internalized, and applied to their own lives:
- Stand your own ground. Don't let anybody intimidate you. If you feel lonely or confused, talk to someone. Let your feelings out. Don't keep them bottled up.
- I don't want to feel lost anymore even though I am. I didn't get to know my father. So, I will try to make it up with my stepfather. I will from now on enjoy my family.
- I can tell you that it's good to believe in your culture's way; but you should also believe in yourself and your own ideals. If you keep your desires hidden away and don't talk about them, no one will really know you as a person.
Ultimately, this type of stepping back, taking stock, and rethinking what one knows can help students to "gain heightened awareness of their personal identities and to formulate guidelines for personal ways of living" (Wilhelm, 1997, p. 70).
Evaluating means "stepping out and objectifying the experience" (Langer, 1989) of reading or writing. In this stance, readers and writers distance themselves from the envisionment they have been constructing. They review the mental or written text they have developed, ask questions about their purpose, and evaluate or assess the quality of their experience with the text and the meaning they have made.
When students evaluate either the process or the product of their reading or writing, or both, they do so against a set of criteria—internal or external—of what it means to read or write well. Judging how well one's reading or writing measures up to norms is an act of criticism. According to Scholes (1985), when we read (and, by analogy, when we write) we produce text within text. That is, we are constructing an initial understanding of the gist. When we interpret, we produce text upon text. We look closely, engage in a dialogue with the text, dig deeper, and formulate and revise our meaning, often adding new layers of meaning to our initial envisionment. When we criticize, we produce text against text. In other words, we exercise what Scholes calls "taste," which is never "a truly personal thing but a carefully inculcated norm". In the act of producing text against text, we turn, once again, to the monitor. The monitor may confirm that the reader's or writer's journey is complete and worthwhile; send the learner back into the text to redraft; or, occasionally, prompt the reader or writer to label the experience and/or the artifact as unsatisfactory but not worth revisiting.
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