January 4th, 2013
The Common Core State Standards (“The Standards”) for Reading at Grades 6-12 uses eighteen terms to categorize the texts to be included in a reading curriculum: fiction, non-fiction, literary, foundational, seminal, historical, informational, fantasy, religious, novel, short story, document, memoir, biography, poetry, drama, script, and “works of public advocacy.” The Standards offers these categories in no organized way, as they are not meant to restrict a curriculum’s focus, but to assure it is designed with a broad view of the variety of reading a student should gain proficiency with. On the other hand, the Standards offers no rationale for a belief that our cognition processes our interaction with texts that fall under any one of these categories in any significantly distinct way.
I could speculate on reasons to support some of these categories. Readers of non-fiction, for instance, might need to use any one of a variety of skills they would not use in fiction, from something as simple as using an index to the complex critical tracking of the author’s use of evidence, the former being a simple task to master with practice, the latter being a more complicated developmental feat. Historical documents, religious stories, and foundational literature might require learning vocabulary and grammatical conventions, but also the more cognitively advanced pursuit of historical and cultural contexts. Poetry has standard forms that must be understood for full appreciation, yet the complex ability to engage aesthetically remains a challenge to even advanced readers. I could go on in this way to specify skills we practice and knowledge we use, but always in the back of my mind would be the nagging question The Standards has opened the door to, but neglected:
Is there a way to classify cognitively distinct reading engagements that experienced readers practice?
Accurate cognitive models for reading are essential to effective teaching of reading for two very important reasons: First, reading curricula must address an accurate representation of the varieties of cognitive routines practiced by those who successfully demonstrate an appreciation and facility for reading. Second, teachers must have a precise understanding of just what it is they are trying to teach their students.
A review of literature, informed by some of the most recent insights into the nature of cognition and by more intuitive observations that have contributed to the past half-century of modern education theory, has led me to a categorization of cognitive models of reading with the aim of representing the needs of a reading curriculum. No one model can be said to describe any one reading experience in any absolute or exclusive manner. Rather, it seems a variety of models are nearly always at work. However, each does present its own distinct challenges and can be a source of enthusiasm or frustration for the reader, so understanding the distinctions in the cognitive engagements we have with text is vital to anticipating, assessing, and addressing the needs of reading students.
The models fall logically into three categories. The first, I call “cognitive practice,” as these models are particularly industrious without directly contributing to significant expansion or development of schema. The second set of models, “schema expansion,” involves models that collect information and/or experience. The third set of models, “schema organization,” describes reading experiences that result in new or larger understandings or realizations that are not dictated by the text.
Under the category of cognitive practice, I’ve identified three different models: self-assertion, fitness display, and intellectual exercise.
Reading for “self-assertion,” we practice cognitive routines that we’ve already learned. This model reinforces a positive association with reading but on its own does little to expand on our knowledge or experience.
At the South Bronx public junior high where I cut my teeth as a teacher, there were few self-motivated readers. Three girls, though, who whipped out romance novels every moment the activity lulled, fascinated me. They would go through several a week, shuffling them to each other across the aisle. I puzzled over the value of such reading. Their engagement with titles like Defiant Mistress, Island Flame, and Brave the Wild Wind produced nothing academically rewarding that I could sense, but, hell, they were reading!
Self-assertion need not be formulaic or genre, though; and it does not need to appeal to such a compelling passion as sexuality. In reading Lewis Carroll’s delightful nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky,” we are thrilled with emotive energy as it projects an exciting triumph, but does not give much definition. Though the poem may enlighten an interested reader about possibilities for expression, the emotive assertion it inspires us to does not, by its own virtue, enrich our knowledge or experience.
So much of what we enjoy reading has us cognitively running through an assertion routine from comic and series books to political discourse and most texts that inspire. In Literature as Exploration, Louise M. Rosenblatt tells us the essence of literature is fresh insight, not stock emotional responses, requiring a flexibility of mind that is discriminating, not automatic. However, besides its use in creating positive associations in less experienced readers, the self-assertion model can be essential in the case Rosenblatt identifies, where reading leads to the release of drives repressed by our culture. It may also be an ideal model, then, for the practice of readers who find self-assertion particularly difficult or who are going through a period in life that is disabling to their ego.
In high school, I carried Slaughterhouse-Five with me everywhere- even after I’d finished reading it. The book meant so much to me; I wanted to be identified with it. I wanted teachers to admire that I knew enough to be enthused about Vonnegut. I wanted other students to ask me about it so I could enjoy telling them about the book. I went on to read through each book Vonnegut had yet published, and I would proudly announce that reading feat at every opportunity.
Many creatures use a fitness display to attract mates and to gain the attention of parents over other siblings. In Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys, Smith and Wilhelm include an example of a student who carries complex adult books to class and reads them there as a show to emphasize the difference between his identity and that of his classmates. In How Pleasure Works, Paul Bloom observes that humans add “signaling” to the fitness display repertoire in that we consume or display for appearance, done similarly for positive attention.
Using the example of a child stacking blocks, Bloom observes that humans are the only creatures to take pleasure in an inward skill display. As self-absorbed teenagers, many of us read to impress or give definition to ourselves, and as we mature away from egocentricity, this may mutate into more of a responsibility to ourselves, one that we conscientiously maintain as adults. Students may experience the benefits of practicing this model if teachers encourage them to feel accomplished in the reading feats they have attained, and if teachers encourage them to explain the connection between themselves and their literary choices.
Jane Austen’s Emma presents a perplexing array of characters, interwoven desires, and possible outcomes, producing a reading challenge that restricts its use usually to college or the senior year of high school. In Why We Read Fiction, Lisa Zunshine has popularized the model of reading that has the reader stimulated by the intellectual exercise required to “mind-read,” or to create and hold a “Theory of Mind,” that is, a concept of the viewpoint of a character. This challenge is further complicated by our ability to manage particularly complex “levels of intentionality.” When we read a sentence such as “I know you think she wants him,” we are required to keep track of three layers of intentional states relative to each other: what I know, what you think, and who she wants. Zunshine celebrates her enjoyment of tracking theory of mind through levels of intentionality, as she states in her book’s final comments:
I can say that I personally read fiction because it offers a pleasurable and intensive workout for my Theory of Mind. And, if you have indeed read this study of mine from cover to cover and followed attentively its arguments about Clarissa, Lolita, Arséne Lupin, and Mrs. Dalloway, I suspect that this is why you read fiction, too.
At the same time, Zunshine informs that studies suggest that, when stories involve mind-reading above the fourth level of intentionality, our cognitions have marked difficulties processing. And, of course, the cognitive capabilities of students can vary widely. For instance, a recent study has found episodic memory, the type of memory Zunshine identifies as particularly taxed by mind-reading, to be significantly stronger in females. The implications of such concepts are dizzying. Might, then, writing like the examples Zunshine studies, tend to be more difficult to process for certain readers depending on their cognitive make-up? Is it fair, then, to compare a particular student of a particular cognitive make-up against a mean that is weighted with a number of students who are capable of more? Of course, such an inquiry would bring us past any differences in gender and on into issues related to cognition-enhancing drugs and more dramatic developments in the science of mind-enhancement that are just around the corner, leading us to question the fairness of traditional approaches to assessment.
Zunshine’s claim that readers do enjoy the exercise of mind-reading and tracking levels of intentionality makes perfect sense, but it is vital to understand how variable is the point at which the exercise becomes a tedious chore. Smith and Wilhelm find a sense of competence is an essential element in generating a student’s success. There is a level of difficulty beyond which it is unreasonable to expect engagement with a text that calls for intellectual exercise, let alone the enjoyment Zunshine describes.
I have split the second set of reading models, “schema expansion,” into two groups. The first group collects knowledge, concepts, and experiences as a byproduct of passive reading for entertainment or casual interest, and the second group actively seeks out that schema.
Maybe it is due to the extreme breadth of possibilities it reveals, but The Guinness Book of World’s Records is, for I think a specific period in every child’s life, an utterly fascinating source of raw data, however trivial. Smith and Wilhelm tell us that efferent reading that delivers small bites of information provides regular feedback, something they see as crucial to placing reading within reasonable reach of the male adolescents they studied. A cognitive reading model for passive schema collection needs not be limited to reference works, though. Plenty of novels are popular because of the rich trove of information they provide, from the details of private life in an historical novel to the technical aspects of crime investigation included in a detective novel. A reading teacher may, then, find a novel rich in technical information a well-measured step forward for a student who seems stuck on reference books and magazines.
We draw straightforward information about our world from texts in more complex ways, also. Rosenblatt observes literature informs the student of “…some approach to life, some image of people working out a common fate or some assertion that certain kinds of experiences, certain modes of feeling, are valuable.” A book, then, about something we have a keen interest in can provide the regular feedback Smith and Wilhelm describe without even being particularly technical. Defiant Mistress comes to mind.
Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., is a memoir capable of turning a reader into a sailor of some experience. Thanks to recent insights into the nature of mirror neurons, we know the experiences we collect when we read any type of literature can be, to our brains, in many ways as real as actual experience. Bloom informs us: “…the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish them from real ones.” Though our emotional response to reading can be muted, the emotions are true, not an affectation. Our advanced cognitive ability to both respond with pleasure to experience and to experience the imaginative just as we do the real leads to the resulting “lucky accident” of our deriving real pleasure from the simulated experience stories provide.
This passive schema expansion of experience can be productive in a way comparable to real experience. Dreams are understood by researchers to be a training ground, a safe practice for activity that poses threats in real life. Reading for experiential pleasure can take the form of similar safe practice, from reading a survival manual to reading the popular genres of horror and true crime.
Bloom uses an example of the pleasure we get from “bedtricks,” the literary device whereby characters mistakenly sleep in the wrong bed or confuse the gender of lovers. Closely related to safe practice, we gain security with the more crucial issues of our lives like loving and sexual devotion in the tug between what is real and what is mistaken.
In his essay, “Cognitive Science and the History of Reading,” Andrew Elfenbein offers a distinction useful in understanding the different challenges posed in data or concept collection: cohort activation v. coherence-based retrieval. A reading that merely requires “cohort activation”- an automated cognitive shelving of the information with its proper cognitive association- as one receives it, requires less of an effort than does a reading that requires “coherence-based retrieval.” Coherence-based retrieval becomes necessary when a text’s meaning is inaccessible to the reader due to the reader’s lack of sufficient understanding. Coherence-based retrieval requires the reader to go “offline” from the reading process and make a purposeful effort to complete the connection by reflection, re-reading, research, etc….
In A Mind at a Time, Mel Levine categorizes “higher language,” as language that is more inferential, implying more than it states, language that is dense, abstract, ambiguous, opinionated, symbolic, technical, philosophical or political, as a special challenge to young readers. These practical difficulties might all be classified as challenges for coherence-based retrieval. Levine suggests unplugging the television to help adolescents muscle-up on their capabilities for receiving language, because TV makes it possible to circumvent language reception through the additional information provided by the visual image.
Rosenblatt identifies another interaction I would describe as passive schema expansion in her description of a reader’s fondness for observing the artist-author at work: “Pleasure arises from discovering the kind of structure that the artist is creating, from seeing things fall into a pattern.” Bloom discusses the pleasure we get from realizing the virtuosity and intelligence of the writer: “There is the thrill of being in the hands of someone who controls the story, someone who persuades and entrances and misdirects, someone who is (in this domain, at least,) smarter than we are.” In monitoring artists and their ideas, we are collecting both experience (as we enjoy the artists’ talents and personality,) and understanding (as we learn more of the possibilities of expression.) When our students are talking about and admiring authors and their craft, we can commend them on achieving competence with this reading model.
As sophisticated as modern high school students can be in some areas, it is easy to forget that they are still teenagers, just beginning to collect the knowledge and experience that will help them mature into adulthood. We are wise to acknowledge how much pleasure a student can find in simply passively gathering information and experience that builds a more completely defined internal cognitive understanding of the world.
After finishing reading Call of the Wild with a class of Bronx 7th graders, I was approached by a student with wide eyes and a bit of a smile. Carelessly, he asked, “Do you know of any more dog books?” I asked him to be more specific and he told me, “I dunno. I just really like dog books, and they’re sled dogs, like this.” Luckily for me, there was White Fang, so I didn’t have to get into suggesting how maybe the actual sled dog wasn’t the most vital component of the genre he was trying to identify. In Releasing the Imagination, Maxine Greene describes how “engagement with literature feeds into interrogation” and, when we approach a work of art as an expression rather than a mere representation, we are causing our own personal search for meaning to be urged onward.
Reading with the purpose to expand what we know is achieved through a self-concept, a dramatic advance from the cognitive models of passive schema expansion I’ve offered. A textbook is an example of material for referential reading for active schema expansion; but so is Richard Wright’s Native Son, when students lift the book, judging its weight, the thinness of its pages, understanding they are undertaking a substantial challenge. They delve into its social crises, understanding the import of the author’s craft, seeking the important ideas and experiences they suspect to be available on the road ahead.
When the pursuit of experience is aesthetic, as in the example Rosenblatt provides of the “harsh image of frustration in Ethan Frome,” the reader’s aesthetic response deeply references the reader’s inward observation of self and, in doing so, builds the reader’s identity as a reader.
But as readers develop a capability for seeking out their own ideas and experiences, they become more capable of narrow, self-reinforcing reading choices or interpretations. As Bloom warns: “By distorting experience, beliefs…garner support for themselves, which is one reason why it is so hard to change our minds about anything.”
So, how do we assure our experiences are coherent?
Greene’s tool for finding coherence is imagination. “…Imagination is what, above all, makes empathy possible…permits us to give credence to alternative realities. It allows us to break with the taken for granted, to set aside familiar distinctions and definitions.” She observes that once we see our givens as contingencies, we create the choice of alternative approaches. In this way, a curriculum that includes lesson planning to encourage a vigorous imagination can be seen to be cognitively preparing readers for their independent pursuit of knowledge and experience through reading.
The last model I offer focuses on when we read to bring about a more sophisticated organization of our schema, not dictated by the text. New or larger understandings come about when we use the text to work through problems; to establish a more secure sense of our place and of the place of others in our society; and to create our own new concepts.
To my generation of boys in my mid-Seventies small town, Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield uttered many of our dark fears. He suffered for them and came out on the other end of the book a survivor. Reading Catcher was therapeutic, then, for me. Rosenblatt observes that literature enables us to objectify our problems. Bloom explores the benefits of fiction in real-life problem solving, instilling morality, alleviating loneliness, helping us to learn how to win friends, and providing safe practice for particular challenges such as mate attraction.
Reading can also help us better define our “place” in our world. Rosenblatt tells us literature provides an order for the disorganized new information adolescents are taking in from their life experience. Rather, it provides a variety of orders. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is no screed. Though it visits a variety of social contrasts, one would be hard-pressed to claim it idealizes any group or identity. Greene tells us the role of arts in the curriculum is to help us gain multiple perspectives. Rosenblatt says, “Reason should arise in a matrix of feeling,” with sympathies well represented and critiqued; and that, in this way, literature helps assimilate readers into the cultural pattern as it increases sensitivity to others.
These ideas show us how reading can help us secure a self-concept through a greater understanding of the external. In The Arts and the Creation of Mind, Elliot W. Eisner sees an internal awareness bringing about self-concept, as he says, “The arts help us discover the contours of our emotional selves.” Active aesthetic experience reveals the part of ourselves that responds and gives us insight as to why we respond.
Once we have a self-concept, we need to coordinate it with those of others. In their study, “Functional Brain Imaging and the Problem of Other Minds,” Dan Lloyd, et al, refer to this process as “standpoint mapping.” They use the marvelous example of Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert looking at a rainbow from different views and each seeing it located over a different spot in the landscape. By switching spots, they gain a higher understanding. The authors refer to story-telling as “dynamic standpoint mapping,” as it introduces deliberately abstracted characterizations in order to gain a greater understanding and to better locate our social-concept- or what Oatley refers to as “Theories [rather than ‘Theory’] of Mind.” In this model, reading serves as a tool for testing and advancing social concepts we rely on.
The authors go on to show how dynamic standpoint mapping through narrative “enables communities to resolve fundamental distinctions between objective and subjective… Through stories, individuals coordinate their worlds…,” sorting what is singular from what is shared; personal from interpersonal; what is understood from what needs explanation. This is in line with Oatley’s “Social-Improvement Hypothesis” that has our reading turning each of us into better social actors.
Empathy is key to reading that improves social function. On one level, the reader implicitly identifies with The Great Gatsby’s narrator, Nick Carraway. In “How Is It Possible To Have Empathy? Four Models,” Fritz Breithaupt explains the reader empathizes with the passive agent since, as passive observer, we share this structural position. Breithaupt asserts, “There would probably not be narrative fiction without empathy, that is, a ‘slipping into the shoes’ of the characters of the narration.” This is achieved by an implied, empathizing reader that the reader observes. The reader’s empathy activates only selectively at key points where both reader and narration desire the same object. He informs:
The approximation of the other can be seen as an infinite process. In fact, contemporary Continental philosophy utilizes Kant’s analysis of the sublime as a paradoxical approximation of empathy for the other.
Finding our place and the place of others in our world, then, may be seen as a model that, once achieved, we pursue all our lives.
Let’s revisit Elfenbein’s model of coherence-based retrieval, where the reader stops reading and goes “offline” to fill a gap in understanding they’ve encountered while reading. If we imagine a gap in understanding that is not intended by the author, but also not a result of the reader’s inadequacy, but rather a gap created by the imagination or critical insight of the reader; and then, if we imagine the connecting bit, or solution, being created wholly of the reader’s impetus and perhaps outside the understanding of even the author; we can transform Elfenbein’s model into the last category of models that falls under schema organization, that is, reading that results in our creation of our own concepts. The reader’s creative output from this model can be either: critical, as in when a reader takes apart an author’s idea, scrutinizes it, and emerges with a new version of the idea that is disproved, improved, or simply approved; aesthetic, as when a reader draws a deeply-felt, subjective response; or imaginative, as when a reader puts down the book and imagines possible outcomes or fantasizes about an interaction with the characters.
Elfenbein conducts a fascinating analysis of the cognitive preferences of reviewers of a selection of poems by Browning. He discusses one reviewer’s standard of “transportation,” a preference for online processes that carry the poetry reader smoothly through the aesthetic experience, mainly utilizing cohort activation. Another reviewer, though, faults Browning’s neglect of details sufficient to allow the reader to produce emotional sympathies, which, perhaps, for that reviewer, is experience sought to make a more difficult reading effort worthwhile. Still another reviewer is let down by Browning’s lack of “Coleridgean organic unity,” which, as Kim Knight, scholar with the University of California’s Transliteracies Project, observes in her research report on Elfenbein’s analysis seems to indicate the reviewer is unwilling to give Browning license to tax the reader’s working memory. The last reviewer uses strategies, such as overlooking portions of the text and offline processes to respond emotionally, to get around the more difficult aspects of reading the poetry, focusing on targeted aspects to arrive at a favorable review; recalling Levine’s tool of “accommodation,” where he suggests allowing a student to temporarily circumvent a particularly difficult cognitive task, but requiring compensation in additional work.
Elfenbein’s analysis opens a window to the primary difficulty of managing varying cognitive reading models for even the most highly intelligent readers, and so teachers have only to benefit by being aware of this construct and making their students metacognitively aware of it. As Smith and Wilhelm assert, students need to understand “the specific procedures that are required to complete particular tasks in particular contexts and…[ways to] name and employ their understandings.”
The teacher has a crucial decision to make in each case where a student has yet to demonstrate a capability for reading well under a particular cognitive model. The teacher must decide whether to focus the student on the task of practicing the model, or, inversely, to treat the model as a rut to avoid. Providing positive associations with reading can be a method to attempt to overcome the difficulty of trying to teach reading to students who were not nurtured to read for enjoyment and who see it as a chore. On the other hand, learning requires a serious challenge. Teachers who neglect driving their students towards difficult goals may be revealing an irresponsible lack of confidence- in their students or themselves.
Smith and Wilhelm advocate the need to provide a “flow experience” that operates through the right synergy between a student’s experience of challenge and feeling of competence, which supports a teacher who exigently monitors that balance. At the same time, in a society that keeps coming up with more and more distractions from reading, the reading teacher who is satisfied simply by the level of competence Smith and Wilhelm’s formulas have the student naturally “flow” toward may find student performance in a steady downward arc.
I suspect the answer resides in the creative ingenuity of each teacher. This creativity relies on the teacher’s ability to mirror what students are up against as accurately as possible, which is why I have focused on these cognitive models.
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 Smith and Wilhelm, Reading… 38.
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