Rethinking Comprehension: Some Thoughts

Some excerpts from:

Serafini, F. (2012). Rethinking Reading Comprehension: Definitions, Instructional Practices, and Assessment (pp. 189-202). In E. Williams (Ed.), Critical Issues in Literacy Pedagogy: Notes from the Trenches. Illinois State University Press.

It may be useful to reconsider the term comprehension (as noun), referring to comprehension as a commodity that is individually acquired, or some amount of knowledge that is literally taken away from every successful reading event. Instead, it may be more appropriate to use the term comprehending (as verb), to suggest reading is a process, a recursive cycle of generating meanings that changes each time readers transact with a text across particular contexts. This shift from comprehension as a noun to comprehending as a verb would also require comprehension assessment to take place during the act of reading and discussing a text, rather than simply measuring how much of a pre-determined amount of meanings a reader accumulated and could represent after reading a text.

Research from a socio-cultural perspective focuses on the types of meanings that readers construct, how these meanings are affected by the social context and reading practices that readers are located within and the purposes of constructing particular responses (Gee, 1992; John-Steiner et al., 1994; Weaver, 1994). Readers construct readings (plural), not as originators of meaning, but as human subjects positioned through social, political and historical practices that remain the location of a constant struggle over power. Every classroom is a site for the production of meaning, and every interpretive community has some alignment with a particular literary tradition or perspective (Fish, 1980). The shift from a cognitive to a socio-cultural perspective assumes that cognition is constructed by the social context, not just embedded within the social context (Lewis, 2000).
An expanded definition of reading comprehension should address the process of generating viable interpretations in transaction with texts, and one’s ability to construct understandings from multiple perspectives; including the author’s intentions, textual references, personal experiences and socio-cultural contexts in which one reads. In addition, reading comprehension should be viewed as an orchestration of the following four processes: (1) navigating textual elements, including written language, design features, and visual images and other multimodal elements, (2) generating meanings in transaction with texts, (3) articulating one’s ideas and meanings within a community of readers, and (4) interrogating the meanings constructed in a recursive, socially grounded process.

The following are some assertions based on a socio-cultural perspective on reading:

1. there is no unmediated access to texts, there are only particular readings that are privileged over others, no God’s Eye View or transcendent authority is available as an objective reading to compare other readings with.

2. texts are social artifacts, created by authors and read by readers that are embedded in particular social contexts and practices.

3. meaning is always socially constructed.

4. meaning is always historically embedded in local and particular contexts.

5. meaning is always political, working towards particular interests.

6. each reading has particular cultural capital, some readings are more privileged than others in the context of the classroom.

Based on these assertions, meanings constructed during the act of reading are socially embedded, temporary, partial and plural (Corcoran, Hayhoe, & Pradl, 1994). There is not an objective truth about a text, but many truths, each with its own authority and its own warrants for viability aligned with particular literary theories and perspectives. The meanings constructed by readers at any one point in time are plural and open for reconsideration at another time when transacting with the text.

Students are constructed as readers of particular types by the reading practices available to them and by the discourses which locate and situate reading practices and readers. As we expand our definition of comprehension to include the socio-cultural, political and historical aspects of reading, we are better positioned to reconsider the instructional approaches and assessment frameworks that would best support readers in their development. Teaching readers to simply employ particular cognitive strategies without consideration of the social and cultural contexts in which they read is myopic, if not theoretically antiquated.


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