Increasing one’s opportunity to engage in relevant, purposeful and meaningful reading

Nature of Reading  I  General Strategies  I  Prior Knowledge  I  Purposeful  I  With Others  I  Writing Helps Reading  I  Interactive  I  Reading @ School  I  Critical Note  I  References  I  Comments


We’d like to recognise that the following notes make regular reference to the following articles:

    • Gee, J. P. (2003). Opportunity to learn: a language-based perspective on assessment. In Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol 10, No. 1, pp 27 - 46
    • Goldman, S. (2012) Adolescent literacy: learning and understanding content. In Future Child. Vol. 22, No. 2. pp 89 - 116.

Gee consistently urges his reader to consider reading as much more than a mechanical skill acquired by an individual in a linear fashion. Reading is purposeful and involves an interface between the reader, the text, previous experiences with that type of reading, and the world, actions and/or social domain to which the text refers. 

At the outset, teachers (and parents and employers) need to appreciate the nature of reading. We must also appreciate that people read more deeply and with increased comprehension if the subject matter is familiar and if the reader understands the purpose of the reading. We must also appreciate that people benefit greatly from reading together (or reading with more advanced peers or adults). Ultimately, a great deal of reading that takes place at schools fails to take the above into account. Reading is often disconnected from the learner’s funds of knowledge, is conducted in isolation without adequate scaffolding, and is assigned by teachers without an appreciation of the many demands that the task will place on the reader. If we are to increase one’s opportunity to learn, we must be sensitive to those factors that can enhance and inhibit comprehension. 


1. We need to appreciate the full nature of reading (back to top)

  • “First and foremost, if one is going to assess students in reading, one must know what reading is and what it means for those students to have had equivalent opportunities to learn to read.” (Gee, 2003, pg 28)
  • “It should be noted that [interest and ownership in reading] in and of itself seems to be a necessary but not a sufficient for promoting the school literacy learning of diverse students ... In classrooms where teachers view ownership as the overarching goal, attention must still be paid to systemic instruction in the cognitive processes of reading and writing.” (Au, 1998, pg 310)
  • Learning to read involves mastering basic procedural reading skills that enable readers to recognize written words, pronounce them correctly, and read with reasonable fluency. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 91)
  • Even those who have mastered [these skills] are often ill-equipped to confront the comprehension challenges of content-area texts. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 93)
  • “We have to worry about what texts students have read and how they have read them, not just about how much they have read and how many books they do or do not own (though, of course, these are important matters).” (Gee, 2003, pg 30-31)
  • “Even when we want to think about a child learning to read initially, we want to think about what sorts of texts we want the child eventually to be able to read in what sorts of ways. No learner grows up able to read all sorts of texts in all ways.” (Gee, 2003, pg 28)
  • To be literate today means being able to use reading and writing to acquire knowledge, solve problems, and make decisions in academic, personal, and professional arenas. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 90)

2. We need to appreciate that certain general reading strategies can encourage comprehension habits, though they do have their limitations. (back to top)

  • One of the earliest multiple-strategy interventions, Reciprocal Teaching, teaches four strategies for processing text, both narrative and expository: clarification, questioning, summarization, and predicting. Reciprocal Teaching is a small-group intervention designed to be managed by students after it is introduced through teacher modeling. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 94)
  • Summarization, one of the strategies in Reciprocal Teaching and SAIL, actually involves using multiple strategies, especially when applied to lengthy texts and text sets. A good summary demonstrates understanding of the gist or main ideas of the text, selects only content that is important and relevant to the purpose or task for which the reading is being done, and is sufficiently detailed to preserve the flow of ideas. The challenge for readers with limited knowledge of the content of the text is that everything is unfamiliar and seems important, making it difficult to selectively include information in the summary. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 95)
  • Self-Explanation Reading Training (SERT), to help students improve comprehension. SERT teaches students to engage in five different strategies, each targeting a critical aspect of the comprehension process. The first strategy, paraphrasing, involves understanding the basic structure and meaning of the words and sentences in the text—what the text says. The second, putting it into one’s own words, makes the content more familiar. The third, elaborating and predicting, asks readers to make inferences that connect what the text says to what they already know or expect based on common sense and general reasoning heuristics. The fourth, bridging, engages readers in understanding how different concepts and ideas in the text fit together ... Finally, comprehension monitoring orients readers to thinking about what they do and do not understand and to using the other strategies to repair problems they detect (Goldman, 2012, pg. 96) 
  • Strategy-based instruction has clear limitations ... For one, coordinating multiple strategies is hard work. It requires that students engage with the texts ... A second challenge relates to the knowledge, or lack of knowledge, that readers bring to texts.... Generic strategies are difficult to apply, however, to the authentic texts educators hope students are reading—newspaper articles, historical documents, research reports, editorials ...Comprehension instruction that focuses only on generic reading strategies also falls short because comprehension itself becomes more complex and expansive as students mature and progress from grade to grade ... In fact, teachers in earlier grades may well have taught strategies such as summarization, but not in ways that enable students to use them in other contexts and for other types of content learning. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 96 - 97)

 3. We need to appreciate that one can engage in deeper reading engagement and comprehension if one is familiar with the subject matter (back to top)

  • “One's understanding of the sentence "The guard dribbled down court, held up two fingers, and passed to the open man" is different, in some sense, deeper and better, the more one knows and can recognize about the social practice (game) of basketball.” (Gee, 2003, pg 29)
  • [Strong] strategies build connections to readers’ pre-existing content knowledge and expectations regarding additional content. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 96)
  • “While you don't need to be able to enact a particular social practice (e.g., play basketball or argue before a court) to be able to understand texts from or about that social practice, you can potentially give deeper meanings to those texts if you can.” (Gee, 2003, pg 29)
  • “If one student has read texts about biology or basketball and has had the opportunity to "do" biology or basketball (see them, produce them, or simulate them, whatever the case may be) and another student has only read texts about biology, the students have not had equivalent opportunities to learn. If one student has had the opportunity to experience and understand the full range of verbal and non-verbal meaning resources in biology or basketball and another student has experienced only the verbal recourses, then, these students have not had equivalent opportunities to learn.” (Gee, 2003, pg 33)
  • “When you can spell out such information in situation-specific terms ... then the relationships of [the] information to the other hundreds of pieces of information in the booklet - [for instance] - become clear and meaningful.” (Gee, 2003, pg 42-43)
  • “Wittgenstein points out that seeing aspects requires a capacity for imagination - for example,  for relating the objects seen to other objects not currently in view.” (Minar, 2010, pg 186)
  • “For we want to ask, ‘What would be missing if you did not experience the meaning of a word?’ (PI, 214).” (Minar, 2010, pg 186)
  • “The meaning-blind person might not have the experience of an ambiguous word like ‘bank’, ‘March’, or ‘till’ taking on one meeting rather than another. He or she would not ‘feel that a word lost its meaning and became a mere sound if repeated ten times over.’ (PI, 214)” (Minar , 2010, pg 186)
  • “He or she would have to come to this; he or she lacks the thought, experience and imagination to anticipate the meaning in the way envisioned.” (Minar, 2010, pg 197)

4. We need to appreciate that purposeful reading can lead to deeper engagement (back to top)

  • “Research on school literacy learning from a social constructivist perspective assumes that students need to engage in authentic literacy activities, not activities contrived for practice.” (Au, 1998, pg 300)
  • Disciplinary content instruction—the third approach to teaching comprehension— ... embeds reading to learn in a “need to know” setting, where learning is authentic and directed toward solving some problem or answering some question in a content area that students are actively addressing. Reading becomes a tool for knowing. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 101)
  • ... to a particular person, the meaning of an object, event, or sentence is what that person can do with the object, event, or sentence (Glenberg 1997: p. 3) 
  • Successful readers must adopt an active, critical, questioning stance while reading. In so doing they not only use general reading skills but also pay close attention to discipline-specific content, reasoning, and knowledge-production processes. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 90)
  • Reading and writing in any domain … are not just ways of decoding print, they are also caught up with and in social practices. (Gee, 2003, pg 28-29)
  • By a semiotic domain I mean any set of practices that recruit one or more modalities (e.g., oral or written language, images, equations, symbols, sounds, gestures, graphs, artifacts, and so forth) to communicate distinctive types of meanings. (Gee, 2003, pg 31)
  • “When we learn a new semiotic domain in a more active way, not as passive content, three things are at stake: First, we learn to experience (see, feel, and operate on) the world in new ways. Second, ... we gain the potential to join this social group ... Third, we gain resources that prepare us for future learning and problem solving in the domain, and, perhaps, more importantly, in related domains. Three things, then, are involved in active learning: experiencing the world in new ways, forming new affiliations, and preparation for future learning (Bransford & Schwartz 1999; Gee 2000-2001).” (Gee, 2003, pg 32)
  • “In the study of knowledge and learning, a situated/sociocultural perspective takes as its unit of analysis not the person alone, but “person plus mediating device” (Brown, Collins, and Dugid 1989; Wertsch 1998). A mediating device is any object, tool, or technology that a person can use to enhance performance beyond what could be done without the object, tool, or technology.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 88)
  • Effective readers must be able to apply different knowledge, reading, and reasoning processes to different types of content, from fiction to history and science, to news accounts and user manuals. They must assess sources of information for relevance, reliability, impartiality, and completeness. And they must connect information across multiple sources. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 89)
  • In short, successful readers must not only use general reading skills but also pay close attention to discipline-specific processes. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 89)
  • Disciplinary content instruction exposes students to processes akin to practices in which disciplinary experts engage in “doing” their own work; it also helps students link content with communication. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 101)
  • Interestingly, specialists reading outside their field of expertise do not display the same complex processing strategies they use within their field of expertise, demonstrating the important role that content knowledge plays in guiding reading behavior. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 93)

5. We need to appreciate that one’s reading comprehension and practices are shaped through our reading and speaking with others  (back to top)

  • “This perspective sees language and interaction as socioculturally, dialogically-situated perspective taking.”  (Gee, 2003, pg 40)
  • “People have not had the same opportunity to learn a given social language unless they have had equivalent experiences dialogically with people who know that language.” (Gee, 2003, pg 40-41)
  • “Here, interactive, intersubjective dialogue with more advanced peers and adults appears to be crucial. In such dialogue, children come to see, from time to time, that others have taken a different perspective on what is being talked about than they themselves have.” (Gee, 2003, pg 40)
  • Teachers can use particular “language frames” that facilitate conjecturing, engaging in “what would happen if” thinking, elaborating and seeking deeper explanations, proposing claims, offering evidence for claims, and contesting the claims of others. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 105)
  • Spivey (1997) noted that, in constructivism, communication or discourse processes are compared to processes of building, and generative acts, such as those of interpreting or composing texts, tend to be emphasised. Themes in constructivist work include active engagement in the processes of meaning-making, text comprehension as a window on these processes, and the varied nature of knowledge, especially knowledge developed as a consequence of membership in a given social group.” (Au, 1998)
  • The second form of reading-to-learn instruction is based on student discussion ... Nine interventions are Book Club, Collaborative Reasoning, Instructional Conversation, Grand Conversation, Junior Great Books, Literature Circles, Paideia Seminar, Philosophy for Children, and Questioning the Author. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 98)
  • The meta-analysis found, not surprisingly, that most of the interventions increased student talk and decreased teacher talk. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 98)
  • Discussion moves students from looking for “the point” of a story to “exploring the possible” through complex and challenging literary works. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 99)
  • In Mathematics: Teachers deepened the mathematics of conversations by revoicing students’ contributions introducing math- appropriate language (for example, revoicing “I added four and four and four and four and four” as “So you multiplied four times five by adding four five times.”). (Goldman, 2012, pg. 100)

6. We need to appreciate that experience in writing in a particular way can lead to deeper reading in that particular way  (back to top)

  • “This claim amounts to arguing that producers (people who can actually engage in a social practice) potentially make better consumers (people who can read or understand texts from or about the social practice).” (Gee, 2003, pg 29)
  • “A corollary of this claim is this: writers (in the sense of people who can write texts that are recognizably part of a particular social practice) potentially make better readers (people who can understand texts from or about a given social practice).” (Gee, 2003, pg 29)
  • “Why do I say "potentially" here? On the one hand, producers are deeply enough embedded in their social practices that they can understand the texts associated with those practices quite well. On the other hand, producers are often so deeply embedded in their social practices that they take the meanings and values of the texts associated with those practices for granted in an unquestioning way. One key question for deep learning and good education, then, is how to get producer-like learning and knowledge, but in a reflective and critical way.” (Gee, 2003, pg 29-30)

7. We need to appreciate how individuals interact (interface) with texts  (back to top)

  • “After all, we never just read "in general", rather, we always read or write something in some way. We don't read or write newspapers, legal tracts, essays in literary criticism, poetry, or rap songs, and so on and so forth through a nearly endless list, in the same way. Each of these domains has its own rules and requirements.” (Gee, 2003, pg 28)
  • “Thus, a child who has read a number of texts on animals as classificatory reports and not, say, as stories or mere accumulation of interesting facts, is advantaged over a child who has not if these two children are taking a test on a passage about animals that is intended to be read in that way. The two children have not had the same opportunity to learn.” (Gee, 2003, pg 31)
  • “There is much discussion these days about how many children fail in school— especially children from poor homes—because they have not been taught phonics well or correctly in their early years. But the truth of the matter is that a great many more children fail in school because, while the can decode print, they cannot handle the progressively more complex demands school language makes on them as they move up in the grades and on to high school.” (Gee, 2003, pg 43)
  • People have not had the same opportunity to learn unless they have equivalent opportunities to "play the game" connected to the texts they are reading. (Gee, 2003, pg 44)
  • Z 201: For someone who has no knowledge of such things a diagram representing the inside of a radio receiver will be a jumble of meaningless lines. But if he is acquainted with the apparatus and its function, that drawing will be a significant picture for him. Given some solid figure (say in a picture) that means nothing to me at present - can I at will imagine it as meaningful? That’s as if I were asked: Can I imagine an object of any old shape as an appliance? But to be applied to what? One class of corporeal shapes might readily be imagine as dwellings for beasts or mean. Another class as weapons. Another as models of landscapes. Etc. Etc. So here I know how I can ascribe meaning to a meaningless shape
  • PI 243: A human being can encourage himself, give himself orders, obey, blame and punish himself; he can ask himself a question and answer it. We could even imagine human beings who spoke only in monologue; who accompanied their activities by talking to themselves.
  • Z 100: Let us imagine someone doing work that involves comparison, trial, choice. Say he is constructing an appliance out of various bits of stuff with a given set of tools. Every now and then there is the problem “Should I use this bit?” -- The bit is rejected, another is tried. Bits are tentatively put together, then dismantled; he looks for one that fits etc, etc.. I can now imagine that this while procedure is filmed. The worker perhaps also produces sound-effects like “hm” or “ha!” As it were sounds of hesitation, sudden finding, decision, satisfaction, dissatisfaction. But does not utter a single word. Those sound-effects may be included in the film. I have the film shewn me, and now I invent a soliloquy for the worker, things that fit his manner of work, its rhythm, his play of expression, his gestures and spontaneous noises; they correspond to all this. So I sometimes make him say “No, that bit is too long, perhaps another’s fit better.” -- Or “What am I to do now?” -- “Got it!” -- Or “That’s not bad” etc. If the worker can talk - would it be a falsification of what actually goes on if he were to describe that precisely and were to say e.g. “Then I thought: no, that won’t do, I must try it another way”: and so on -- although he had neither spoken during the work nor imagined these words? I want to say : May he not later give his wordless thoughts in words? And in such a fashion that we, who might see the work in progress, could accept this account? -- And all the more, if we had often watched the man working, not just once?
  • Now you can read the book if you need to to piece in missing bits of information, check on your understandings, or solve a particular problem or answer a particular question you have.” (Gee, 2003, pg 43)

8. We need to appreciate that school does not always offer relevant, comprehensive, purposeful reading  (back to top)

  • “It is, thus, fascinating that they are so often ignored in schools. In school, children are often expected to read texts with little or no knowledge about any social practices within which those texts are used. They are rarely allowed to engage in an actual social practice in ways that are recognizable to "insiders" (e.g., field biologists) as meaningful and acceptable, before and as they read texts relevant to the practice [this is, of course, not true of all schools—I have seen second graders engaged in real experiments on fast growing plants and using reading and writing as part and parcel of the social practices involved].” (Gee, 2003, pg 30)
  • without an awareness of the nature of reading;
  • without an awareness of the relevance of content;
  • without proper modelling;
  • without a clear purpose;
  • without an awareness of how the text was created; or
  • without an awareness of how to read the text (and where and why).
  • Outside of English, few subject-area teachers are aware of the need to teach subject-area reading comprehension skills, nor have they had opportunities to learn them themselves. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 89)
  • Impressive though they are in raising the literacy bar, the standards will not by themselves change the practices of content-area teachers, whose teacher preparation has, for the most part, focused on content rather than on the literacy practices of the content area. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 91)
  • Middle grades and high school teachers’ primary responsibility has been to teach the content, de-emphasizing the literacy practices central to comprehending the content and thereby increasing the struggles of students who may not have learned to read adequately in the lower grades. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 93)
  • One reason for the paucity of evidence is that effective reading-to-learn instruction has many moving parts: teaching several different instructional strategies; teaching how to use those strategies flexibly depending on task, text, and learning goals; ensuring engagement; and introducing opportunities for interacting with peers and teachers about the text. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 94)
  • Classroom discussion does not substitute for engagement with text, both reading and writing. Programs with promising results select carefully the kinds of tasks and texts they offer students and leave room for student choice. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 105)
  • Merely giving students a question to answer, some sources to consult, or some activities to do does not ensure understand- ing or critical thinking. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 105)
  • Tools [need to] include prompts, note-taking structures, and graphic organizers that help students systematize and track the information they want to communicate as well as their own thinking. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 105)
  • Although educators and researchers are familiar with how students work with the particular tools used in the various programs, they are as yet uncertain how to reduce gradually the level of support as students develop proficiency in reading to learn content. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 105)
  • Teachers need to re-envision reading and writing as tools for developing subject-matter knowledge as well as practices inherent in generating new knowledge. (Goldman, 2012, pg. 106)

 10. CRITICAL NOTE  (back to top)

Whilst James Paul Gee rightly indicates that readers read more deeply the more that he or she knows of the subject or subject matter, it is important to recognise that readers have the capacity to use complex imaginative tools to make sense of unfamiliar topics. One of the most powerful features of reading is that enables the skilled reader to access knowledge outside of experience. 

I agree strongly with Gee. I strongly agree that teachers must provide reading materials that students can use to build & enhance prior knowledge. Unfortunately, it is too often that students are asked to read “accessible” texts that may be simple but far removed from the experiences and interests of the student. 

That said, we must recognise that we must build students’ skills so that they can engage with a text in full curiosity to enter into the world that the text is attempting to convey. Even if the students is unfamiliar with - let’s say - a particular historical manner, the student can use his or her store of experiences of reading historically in order to harness a picture of this new information.

References  (back to top)

    • Au, K. H. (1998). Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research, 30 (2), 297-319.
    • Bransford, J. & Schwartz, D. (1999) Rethinking transfer: a simple proposal with multiple implications, Review of Research in Education, 24, pp. 61–100.
    • Brown, J.S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P (1989). "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning." Educational Researcher, 18(l), 32-42.
    • Chomsky, N. (1986). Knowledge of language: Its nature, origin, and use. New York: Praeger.
    • Gee, J. P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 2nd ed. London:Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
    • Gee, J. P. (1999) An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: theory and method. London: Routledge.
    • Gee, J. P. (2000–2001) Identity as an analytic lens for research in education, Review of Research in Education, 25, pp. 99–125.
    • Gee, J. P. (2001) Progressivism, critique, and socially situated minds, in: C. Dudley-Marling & C. Edelsky (Eds) The Fate of Progressive Language Policies and Practices. Urbana, IL: NCTE.
    • Gee, J. P. (2003). Opportunity to learn: a language-based perspective on assessment. In Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol 10, No. 1, pp 27 - 46
    • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J.P. Gee, E. Haertel, and L. Young (Eds). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76-108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Glenberg, A. M. (1997). What is memory for? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 20: 1–55.
    • Goldman, S. (2012) Adolescent literacy: learning and understanding content. In Future Child. Vol. 22, No. 2. pp 89 - 116.
    • Minar, E. (2010). The philosophical significance of meaning-blindness. In W. Day and V. Krebs (Eds), Seeing Wittgenstein anew. (pp. 183 - 203). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Spivey, N.N. (1997) The constructivist metaphor: reading, writing, and the making of meaning. San Diego: Academic Press.
    • Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
    • _____________  (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
    • Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.