Reading identity: experience, expertise and preference

In schools in England, class readers are typically read incrementally for a portion of each lesson, preceded by an introduction to the day’s reading and followed by a task related to the section that has been read. As a result, reading the book itself can become a lengthy process. This means that students’ experiences of reading novels in school will typically involve a heavily centralised focus on one text for an extended period of time before moving onto another unit. In this post, we consider the potential effects of studying relatively few texts in depth, and in particular how students may relate these texts to their other narrative experiences.

We all encounter narratives every day in a range of places, contexts and mediums. This might include:

  • reading for pleasure;
  • watching films or television programmes;
  • news stories;
  • stories told by friends, family, teachers, strangers or even characters;
  • reminiscing about personal experiences (what Bruner (1991) terms ‘self-narratives’);
  • studying a text.

As we move through our lives we accrue our own narrative schemas for the stories that we encounter. A narrative schema is ‘an individual’s version of a text in the mind’ (Mason 2016: 166). As these narrative schemas accumulate, they form a person’s unique mental archive: our own ‘internal personalised library, where every book, film and tale looks exactly how you remember it’ (Mason 2014: 189). Our narrative experiences shape our mental archives, and thus our reading identities; our personal preferences, tastes and expertises.

I, for example, feel that I like horror, but my conceptualisation of what horror is, is largely based on my mental archive, which includes:

  • a fair amount of Stephen King, (read quite a lot of it, especially recently);
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Dead School by Patrick McCabe (studied both as an A Level student);
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker (taught it);
  • a number of films Wes Craven’s Scream Trilogy most prominent among them (self-defined as a horror movie fan as a teenager);
  • HBO’s series The Walking Dead (watched it all, talk about it more frequently than I’d care to admit).

These are the first horror stories I think of – and thus those most prominent in my mental archive. What’s clear from this list is that, whilst there are likely lots of overlaps with the narratives shaping other people’s conceptualisations of the horror genre, the particular composition of this inventory is unique to me. Even if another person cited exactly this list of narratives, our schemas for those narratives would still be distinct: they might have missed an episode of The Walking Dead that I’ve seen five times, might have loved a King novel I hated, been scared by a film I wasn’t, and so on. We draw on our existing narrative schemas when responding to, interpreting, and often even choosing, new narratives to read, watch or listen to. If the first horror narratives I had encountered, perhaps something I had picked off the shelf in my library, had been ones I didn’t like then, based on my mental archive, I may well have determined I didn’t like ‘horror’, and avoided the genre thereafter. At the same time I probably thought of Stephen King first because I’m currently reading one of his novels, and I was probably primed to think of texts I have studied or taught because of the nature of this post: asked the same question in a year in a different setting, the version of my mental archive I call up might be quite different. In other words, our narrative experiences, new and old, are always symbiotically interacting with each other, and we consciously and unconsciously make connections between them all the time: our mental archives continually both reflect and shape our reading identities.

We think, therefore, that teachers might find it advantageous to consider the mental archives students (and themselves) carry with them into the classroom. In particular, we think this suggests that finding ways to actively engage with students as readers with individual preferences and ‘narrative histories’ may be pedagogically advantageous, for the following reasons:

Reducing the stakes

If young people don’t like a class reader, some teachers report this can make them feel that they have somehow ‘failed’ to convey how good it is (e.g. Rabinowitz & Smith 1998). It can also be difficult to comprehend how other readers can not enjoy a text we personally find engaging and transporting. However, research confirms that the texts that we find immersive and enjoyable vary from person to person (Gerrig 1993; Green & Brock 2000). Equally, not liking a text does not equate to not liking reading, or to not being able to enjoy studying and critiquing a text. In any other scenario we consider not liking a text a perfectly healthy part of a reading identity: I don’t like Virginia Woolf, not because there’s something deficient in me, my reading or my interpretive skills, I just got bored of waiting for them to get to the lighthouse.

In her study into reading groups, Hartley (2001) found that texts could be successful in terms of prompting rich and enjoyable discussion whether loved or hated by the group. In fact, she explained ‘177 titles were listed as going badly, the usual reason given being that general agreement in liking/disliking had left the group nothing to discuss’ (Hartley 2001: 64).

Literary preference is subjective, and that’s okay. Thus, creating space for young people to critically discuss, reflect upon and analyse narratives they enjoy reduces the pressure on the class reader as an object of universal appreciation.

Utilising rich resources

Simply put, it takes a lot of time and effort to read a whole text with a class, and a large part of that time is spent reading the text. Yet students are already carrying around lots of richly accreted narrative schemas within their mental archives: finding ways to utilise this resource potentially offers an economic way to expand and diversify the texts students critically engage with in their lessons. In England this seems especially pertinent with the shift towards analysis of unseen passages in examinations: drawing on a narrative schema from a student’s mental archive rather than one incrementally accreted in class could offer a more reliable way to check that they can do literary interpretation rather than learn a literary interpretation (Mason 2016).

Expansion and diversification

Many texts are very unlikely to be studied as class readers, and if these are not drawn into the classroom space by other means then young people may encounter them but never consider them critically, or as critically as they could with the support of a teacher. In previous posts we have explained that texts that we find highly transporting and immersive are the ones we are least likely to consider critically (Green & Brock 2000; post available here), that we tend to develop critical responses only after initial intuitive ones, and then we are more likely to do so if we perceive a text to be personally relevant (Gerrig & Rapp 2004; post available here). Here are just a few types of text which are unlikely to ever be studied as class readers:

  • Longer texts: class readers are almost never longer than 500 pages and most are substantially shorter;
  • Series of texts, especially texts which are not the first in the series;
  • Texts which are considered inappropriate for reasons such as ‘bad language’, violence or sexual scenes, which young people are reading nonetheless. John Green’s debut YA novel Looking for Alaska, for example, was the most banned book in lessons and school libraries in the USA last year (John Green offers his thoughts on this here);
  • Very new texts;
  • Texts that aren’t available as examination texts for formal qualifications.

Recognising expertise

Whilst a teacher is likely to have the most expertise in terms of knowledge of a particular class reader, interpretation and personal response is necessarily a dynamic and subjective process, and here students will also bring a wide variety of expertises both in terms of knowledge of genres or texts, as well as personal memories and experiences. In other words, students have the potential to claim category entitlements: ‘the idea certain categories of people, are treated as knowledgeable […] simply being a member of some category’ (Potter 1996: 133). Teachers already assume a degree of category entitlement as a natural by-product of their role, however, Peplow (2011) explains that readers can also claim a category entitlement by revealing elements of their unique mental archive. I might preface an interpretation by saying something like, ‘well I read a lot of horror and I think…’ or ‘something like that happened to me and I felt that way too…/I felt differently because…’. Such expertises are real, and feeling a legitimised sense of expertise is something that readers can find empowering (Peplow 2011).

Do you think class reader units should focus solely on the studied text or engage with students’ mental archives? Do you have ideas for how to attend to students’ reading identities in lessons? Let us know in the comments, or tweet or email us!

References

Bruner, J. (1991) ‘The narrative construction of reality’, Critical Inquiry 18(1): 1-21.

Gerrig, R.J. (1993) Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gerrig, R.J. and Rapp, D. (2004) ‘Psychological processes underlying literary impact’, Poetics Today 25(2): 265-281.

Hartley, J. (with S. Turvey) (2001) Reading Groups. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mason, J. (2014) ‘Narrative’ in P. Stockwell & S. Whiteley (eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.179-95.

Mason, J. (2016) ‘Narrative interrelation, intertextuality and teachers’ knowledge of students’ reading’ in D. Clayton & M. Giovanelli (eds.) Knowing About Language: Linguistics and the Secondary English Classroom. London: Routledge, pp.162-72.

Peplow, D. (2011) ‘“Oh, I’ve known a lot of Irish people”: Reading groups and the negotiation of literary interpretation’, Language and Literature 20(4): 295–315.

Potter, J. (1996) Representing Reality: Discourse, Rhetoric and Social Construction. London: SAGE.

Rabinowitz, P. & Smith, M. (1998) Authorizing Readers: Resistance and Respect in the Teaching of Literature. USA: Teachers College Press.

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