In the Age of Analytic Reading: Understanding Readers’ Engagement with Text by Colleen Pennell

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Publication information: Pennell, C. (2014) In the age of analytic reading: Understanding readers’ engagement with text. The Reading Teacher. Vol 68 (4) pp 251-260.
In the Age of Analytic Reading: Understanding Readers’ Engagement with Text


Colleen Pennell
Colleen Pennell is an Assistant Professor at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, USA; email
This article describes a discussion based reading intervention where students relied upon dialogic discourse, the fluid nature of the text, and their own experiential knowledge as mediators for text interpretation.

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) unfold throughout school districts across the country, students in grade three and above are expected to read text analytically through close scrutiny of central ideas, text structure, and writing craft. Commonly referred to as close reading, this practice originated from New Criticism (Bressler, 2007), which suggests meaning is discovered by the reader through careful analysis of what is directly stated in the text and thus is not created by the reader through personal connections and interactions. From this perspective, instruction will guide students to engage in multiple, slow, and careful readings wherein their affective responses to text are pushed to the periphery. By negating such factors as emotion or experiential knowledge, it is believed that students will more readily extract the objective meaning deemed implicit in the literary work (Coleman & Pimentel, 2012). Ultimately, the single meaning discovered through close reading is meant to be uniform and even between readers.

Indeed, the prevailing stance toward the CCSS is that students’ personal connections to text are not pivotal to constructing meaning and should be limited (Coleman, 2011; Coleman & Pimentel, 2012; Shanahan, 2012). However, some scholars (Beers & Probst, 2013) propose close reading can and should include a reader’s personal interactions as they are a necessary building block to comprehension “The most rigorous reading is to find what those words on that page mean in our own lives” (p. 42). Aligned with Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading (1978; 2004), this epistemology suggests the emotional, or aesthetic, nature of reading is part and parcel of a fully realized interpretation.

Rosenblatt (1978; 2004) placed importance on the aesthetic, or the lived-through, emotional experiences that happen during reading and placed this orientation toward text on one end of a continuum. She also described reading as an efferent act, where one reads to acquire information, and placed this orientation toward text on the opposite side of the continuum. However, neither efferent nor aesthetic acts of reading are mutually exclusive; readers produce both, and most acts of reading lie in the middle. Rosenblatt distinguished her beliefs from New Criticism by arguing that textual interpretation is socially situated as readers transact with the text by relying upon their unique biographical experiences which mediate the construction of meaning: “The same text takes on different meanings in transactions with different readers or even with same reader in different contexts or times” (2004, p. 1384). However, Rosenblatt did not state that every reader’s interpretation is logically justified, yet like the New Critics, she honored the role of the text as central to meaning construction. Ultimately, she viewed reading as both an affective and cognitive act in which the lived experiences of the reader cannot be severed from textual interpretation.

Despite the various propositions of literary theory and divergent epistemologies of literacy scholars, there remains a burgeoning emphasis on teaching students to become close, analytic readers. However, teachers must remain cognizant that close reading is one outcome of the CCSS and additional instructional methods might better cultivate the aesthetic aspects of literacy. For instance, in the Speaking and Listening standards, students are expected to establish agreed-upon rules for group discussion, apply practices of exploratory talk (Mercer, 2000), and engage in topical discussions pertaining to their grade level. There are various ways to address these standards but one alternative that promotes critical thinking, argumentation skills, and aesthetic awareness is the discipline of philosophy.

For example, consider the book, Willow’s Whispers (Button and Howells, 2010), where philosophical issues about language, identity, and the nature of shyness are ripe for exploring. Engaging young children in discussion around these issues (e.g. ‘Does Willow choose to be shy or was she born that way?’) not only facilitates social awareness but can even advance reading comprehension, especially for readers who struggle (Murphy, Wilkinson, Soter, Hennessey, & Alexander, 2009).

Recently, a small group of third-grade readers who struggled with text comprehension participated in a study that employed a discussion based reading intervention rooted in philosophical inquiry. In the following article, I detail the design of the intervention and explicate relevant elements that uniquely contributed to meaning making. In doing so, I hope to convey that in the age of analytic reading, entryways to text and moreover, the meanings that students construct are not always so cut and dried.

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