In this post, we step away from our previous few topics and come back to a question that we believe is a crucial one for anyone interested in the study of literature in schools: how does meaning arise?
Not an easy question to answer, but in the light of recent curriculum reform in English, debates about styles and methods of teaching, and even about what kinds of texts ought to be read (see for example the recent debate about YA fiction) we think it’s a topic well worth considering!
A model that we find attractive is Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional theory (Rosenblatt 1970, 1978), which has influenced the teaching of literature in both the USA and the UK. Rosenblatt’s theory is a reader-response theory that stresses the active role of the reader in the process of meaning-making but also acknowledges the importance the text itself. Meaning arises from a coming-together of text and reader, which evokes a literary experience and subsequently an interpretation.
We can’t do Rosenblatt’s theory justice in a post of this length so we would encourage you to find out more by reading her work yourself, but we think some of the following key ideas from transactional theory raise some important points for the classroom teacher.
- Readers’ transactions are influenced by a whole range of background knowledge that they bring to a reading experience with them (e.g. memories, past experiences, age, and so on). Even readers from a similar background may therefore interpret texts in slightly nuanced ways
- A reader’s stance can influence an interpretation. Rosenblatt defines this as the attitude or the focus taken towards reading and suggests that this may be predominantly efferent (geared towards finding information) or predominantly aesthetic (geared towards a more emotional and felt experience). Stance in turn can be influenced by the situation and circumstances of reading, and by the approach taken by the teacher.
- Reading is not a linear activity but a recursive one; interpretations and meanings can never be fixed but are dynamic. Re-readings and discussions with others are an integral part of how we arrive at a satisfactory sense of meaning (and even that is never final!)
- Readers make choices about what they consider is important. Rosenblatt calls this selective attention; of course, this may also be prompted by the text itself or by teacher mediation – see our post on attention in the classroom.
- Teacher-led and learnt interpretations may lead to knowledge about texts and should never be a substitute for students being taught how to do literary analysis.
- Although they don’t deny the importance of additional background knowledge and contextual information, pedagogies based on a transactional theory of literature ask for careful consideration of where and how this information is introduced, and what its use is: for example, is lots of detail about Victorian England and biographical information on Dickens introduced at the beginning of Oliver Twist, before a student has had a chance to draw on her own mental archive, likely to be beneficial? Or, does this privilege certain responses to texts? We’ve discussed some of the implications of what we have termed ‘prefiguring’ in previous posts.
In our own work we have drawn on a similar reader-response model that views reading through a cognitive linguistic lens and which we think offers a more nuanced way of thinking about the process.
This framework is Text World Theory (Gavins 2007; Werth 1999), a discourse grammar that has commonly been used as a framework for analysing texts. It proposes three conceptual layers to the reading experience.
- The discourse-world: the context in which reading takes place, which includes the situation of reading, and background information and knowledge brought to the event by the reader.
- Text worlds: these build up the fictional world in terms of time, location, characters and are developed through instances of actions and events. Text-worlds are constructed on the basis of textual cues and fleshed out by a reader’s relevant background knowledge.
- World-switches: these occur when the text diverts a reader’s attention elsewhere, e.g. in terms of shifts in time, place or different points of view.
For example, at the beginning of David Walliams’ novel Awful Auntie, a reader has to do quite a bit of work to create a rich fictional space:
The little girl realised that she was lying in her own bed. Her bedroom was just one of countless in this vast country house. To her right side stood her wardrobe, on her left sat a tiny dressing table, framed by a tall window.
The reader will typically construct a text-world that is situated in the past and contains a character “little girl,” located in a specific space (“in her own bed”) in a larger context, the “vast country house”. The phrases “to her right” and “on her left,” also position the reader to assume a similar vantage point to the girl at the centre of the narrative. In addition, “her wardrobe,” “a tiny dressing table,” and “a tall window” all provide specific details of the objects in the room. These act as triggers for activating background knowledge to build the fictional world. Typically, that knowledge may relate to the nature of a bedroom and its furniture, and specifically to what a young girl’s room might look like. The passage further draws on a reader’s knowledge of what a “country house” might be (perhaps secluded, set in grounds, grand, old-fashioned), and so on. Clearly although for many readers, the ‘picture’ built up will be similar to some degree, there will also be subtle and not-so-subtle differences!
Writers can, of course, aim to manipulate readers and initiate interpretative effects and these are often as a result of different ways in which readers are drawn to build text-worlds. Additionally, although the Walliams extract didn’t contain any world-switches, texts may shift rapidly in terms of time or space, and/or explore the events through multiple points of view to generate complex fictional worlds.
A strong appeal of Text World Theory is its insistence on reading as a dynamic process: text-worlds can be updated, revised or radically altered as a reader works her way through a text. It also emphasises the negotiated nature of reading; interpretation can never be seen as simply a transmission of ideas or the outlining of preconceived, inflexible interpretations; reading simply doesn’t work like that and the reader’s role in the construction of meaning is always central.
We’ve used and discussed Text World Theory in some of the work we’ve done with teachers, who in turn have found the framework useful for opening up discussion about the nature of literary reading with their students. Our open-access article in English in Education in 2015 shows how one teacher used Text World Theory with Year 7 group when exploring the Italo Calvino story ‘The man who shouted Teresa’ with her students. In this instance, Text World Theory democratised the classroom by encouraging students to reflect on their role in the process of reading, whilst still allowing them to maintain a strong focus on the language and assimilating relevant contextual information that built on rather than obscured their own personal knowledge. In other words, students were engaged in literary criticism and metacognition.
We’d be interested in your thoughts on these ideas. We believe that notions of authority, interpretation and knowledge are important, as is the question of just how teachers introduce literature in ways that are engaging, draw on and legitimise young readers’ schematic knowledge, and encourage an aesthetic literary experience. We’re also interested in how teaching approaches should best introduce additional contextual information, and what might happen if the dominant approach to reading in the classroom is transmissive and teacher-led. And, is there potential (and even a need) for students to learn about how they read as well as provide interpretations of texts themselves? If so, what might this look like in the classroom?
To find out more about transactional theory, see Rosenblatt (1970, 1978, 2005). The best way to learn about Text World Theory is to read Gavins (2007), which is both comprehensive and very accessible. In addition to our paper linked above, you can also see examples of Text World Theory in an educational context in Giovanelli (2014, 2016, 2017).
In addition, you could have a look at this website, run by Professor Joanna Gavins (the world’s leading expert on Text World Theory) at the University of Sheffield. This page for teachers includes lesson ideas, links to resources and details of workshops we have run with Professor Gavins and Ian Cushing (who is currently conducting doctoral research exploring Text World Theory and poetry teaching in schools) in October 2016, April 2017 and June 2017. We hope to run an advanced workshop for teachers in Sheffield at some point in 2018: watch this space…
Gavins, J. (2007). Text World Theory: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Giovanelli, M. (2014) Teaching Grammar, Structure and Meaning: Exploring Theory and Practice for Post-16 English Language Teachers. London: Routledge.
Giovanelli, M. (2016) ‘Text World Theory as cognitive grammatics: A pedagogical application in the secondary classroom’ in J. Gavins and E. Lahey (eds) World-Building: Discourse in the Mind. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 109-126.
Giovanelli, M. (2017) ‘Readers building fictional worlds: Visual representations, poetry and cognition’, Literacy, 51(1), 26-35. doi: 10.1111/lit.12091.
Giovanelli, M., and Mason, J. (2015) ‘‘Well I don’t feel that’: Schemas, worlds and authentic reading in the classroom’, English in Education, 49:1, 41-55.
Rosenblatt, L. (1970) Literature as Exploration. London: Heinemann.
Rosenblatt, L. (1978) The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Rosenblatt, L. (2005) Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Werth, P. (1999) Text Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse. London: Longman.