Best of Frank Serafini: Rethinking Comprehension

I would like teachers to focus their attention on comprehending, not comprehension. Comprehending is an action verb, connoting a process, whereas comprehension is a noun, suggesting a thing or commodity. Too often our instruction, assessments and classroom discussions focus on some amount of knowledge or attribute that can be measured or carried away from a reading event. I would like to see teachers focus on the process of making sense, not simply the residuals of reading.

To offer a definition, I see comprehending as a process of actively constructing meaning in transaction with texts in a particular social context. This definition, which was constructed through my own research and experiences, the writings of various reading and literary theorists and reading researchers, including Louise Rosenblatt, Frank Smith, David Pearson, Kathleen McCormick, Allan Luke, and Robert Scholes, will provide the foundation for the lessons contained throughout this book.

I believe that reading, namely constructing meaning with texts, is both an individual cognitive process, and a social process that derives meaning from the contexts in which it occurs. Comprehending is a sustained cognitive and social activity that involves the successful orchestration of language and thinking processes. These processes begin with the noticing or perception of textual and visual elements and ends with the construction and reconsideration of meanings. I use the plural “meanings” to suggest that the meanings constructed by readers are temporary, multiple, and open to revision.
Here are several additional assumptions on which my definition of reading comprehension is based:
·      There is no unmediated access to texts, texts are read by readers that come to the process with particular experiences, understandings, and knowledge. The book does not read itself, it must be read by someone.
·      Meanings and interpretations are always socially constructed and historically embedded in local and particular contexts. In other words, we never read in a vacuum. Readers always read some particular text, at some particular time and place, with an author and the language and history of the reader’s culture and experiences involved in the process.
·      Meanings and interpretations are always derived in political, social, historical and cultural contexts. In other words, particular interpretations or meanings work towards particular interests. Each and every time we read a text we bring our own experiences and our histories of who we are to the reading event. These socio-cultural factors affect how we read, what we read, and the meanings and interpretations we construct with texts.
·      There is no transcendent authority (objective presence) to refer to when attempting to establish the “truth” of a particular reading. We choose to acknowledge particular readings as more or less viable. Main ideas are constructed, not discovered by close examination of the text. In other words, when someone in authority, for example a test maker, decides what the main idea of a text selection, this idea is endorsed by that authority. Main ideas are created, not found.
·      Every classroom is a site for the production of meanings. Every interpretive community has some allegiance to a particular literary tradition or perspective, and each literary practice functions to close off possible readings (meanings) from other perspectives. In some classrooms, being able to find the one, correct main idea may be endorsed, whereas in another classroom, being able to defend alternative interpretations may be valued. Each classroom has its own set of rules for determining what is valued as a reader and expresses these values through the expectations set and the experiences provided and endorsed.

I believe, there is no singular, objective truth contained within a text, but many truths, each with its own authority and its own warrants for viability. Additionally, since there is no “objective” meaning of a text, comprehension is concerned with the viabilityof interpretations, how interpretations become useful, and the social negotiations of these various meanings. There are multiple meanings and interpretations that arise in transactions with texts; some viable, some not. The Reading Workshop, with its constituent readers, becomes the social milieu in which the viability of a particular interpretation is discussed, challenged and warranted. Reading comprehensions instruction should focus on understanding texts from a variety of perspectives and learning how these perspectives endorse and dismiss particular meanings and interpretations.
            In order for readers to construct meaning in transaction with texts, they must understand the codes and conventions of written language, become familiar with the vocabulary used by the author, and be able to connect the text with their own experiences and background knowledge. Jonathan Culler suggests one’s literary competence or comprehension is based on a readers’ understandings of the codes and conventions used by the author. Schema theorists believe that reading comprehension is the ability of a reader to accommodate and assimilate new information from a text into one’s existing schemas and background knowledge.
            In every reading event there are four major components or perspectives:
  • the text
  • the reader
  • the author
  • the context (both immediate and sociocultural)
Each literary theory highlights one of these components, while still maintaining the presence of the others. For example, reader response theories, as the name suggests, focus on the role of the reader in constructing meaning, their experiences, cultures and psychological makeup. Historical criticism focuses on the life and times of the author to understand how the text was created and the possible meanings available. Socio-culturally based literary theorists focus, not on the reader as an individual agent acting independently, but the culture and contexts in which the reader resides and operates. The New Critics focus on the text in and of itself. This perspective has dominated literature education for many decades. Each and every literary perspective focuses on one aspect of the reading event, trying to understand how that component plays into the meanings constructed and available, while downplaying the other components.

For me, the literal text is the point of departure in comprehending and interpreting a text, not the finish line. Reading is about appropriating or contextualizing the meanings constructed in transaction with texts into one’s own experiences or knowledge base. It is this connection between the text we encounter and the world in which we live that is the focus of many of our lessons described throughout the book. The texts is where we begin, not where we end.


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