To understand you need to be part of the conversation

The philosopher Rush Rhees (2006) begins his essay "Plato, language and the growth of understanding" with the following,

"The people who argued with Socrates and Plato may have thought language was just a collection of techniques, and that that was what understanding is: knowing the technique ... For them, the growth of understanding could only mean the growth of skill (efficiency, I suppose) or the multiplication of skills ... A skill would have the sort of unity that a calculus does ... Is understanding just competence?" (pg. 3)

By ending with a rhetorical question, Rhees is expressing some doubt in the idea that understanding is a measure of technical proficiency. I agree that learning how to spell can be considered to be a technical skill. Knowing how to parse a sentence is also a technical exercise. I put forward the arguable assertion that technical skills develop in a more linear fashion as one develops a more sophisticated mastery of the system under study. There are technical skills that one must develop in order to gain a command of language and literacy, but is technical mastery enough to engender comprehension? Can we reduce the understanding (or comprehension) of a Shakespearean sonnet to a mere technical exercise?  To a point, I will answer "yes". One can be trained to identify the structural features of the form, to summarise its content, and to express literal comprehension of salient details. Can we consider these acts understanding, though? To truly understand the sonnet (what it means and seeks to express) one needs to appreciate and participate in the tradition of sonnets. In Wittgensteinian terms, one would need to be brought into the language-game of sonnets. Rhees (2006) would add,

"If you understand anything in language, you must understand what the dialogue is, and you must see how understanding grows as the dialogue grows ... For language is discourse, is speaking. It is telling people things and trying to follow them. And that is what you try to understand ... You understand when it adds to your understanding of the discussion. Or of what the discussion is about." (pg. 7)

Here "understanding" requires that one knows of, is a part of and cares about the discussion, whether it is "the rights and wrongs of capital punishment; the chances of success of a particular business venture - and so on." (pg. 7). In particular, "you might know the technique - you might know how to use the expressions but would not understand it (or them) unless you could know how it was connected with the [discussion]." (pg. 6 - 7). As Ray Monk (1999) stated,

"The reason computers have no understanding of the sentences they process is not that they lack sufficient neuronal complexity, but that they are not, and cannot be, participants in the culture to which the sentences belong. A sentence does not acquire meaning through the correlation, one to one, of its words with objects in the world; it acquires meaning through the use that is made of it in the communal life of human beings."

For a similar reason, Rhees uses the word discussion in a quite specific manner. He wants his readers to imagine situations in which speakers are dynamically involved in a give-and-take exchange that moves to clarify understandings, develop pictures, and answer questions - stated directly or indirectly - that govern the current discussion. In other words, there is an ongoing discussion of, let's say, nature and love, and it so happens that the sonnet is one form and forum in which this discussion takes places amongst a community of people who have the desire to explore these questions, themes or knowledge. For these people, the bigger discussion matters and - consequently - the particular discussion, which takes places around the sonnet, also matters. The very simple diagram to the right represents this interaction between the immediate text, the actual audience and author, the implied author and audience, and the overarching discussion. What this diagram suggests is this: any text should be written for an ideal audience which includes those who are participants in the discussion. That said there is no guarantee that the real audience or the actual author will have enough knowledge of the discussion to make sense of the discourse or express sense in the discourse.

Courtesy of Dr Neil Anderson

What - then - is the point of all this? It is this ... Reading comprehension requires an appeal to both technical skills and engagement in significant conversations. There is an appeal to both "bottom up" and "top down" processing, which is represented in the diagram to the left. A reader must call upon both word knowledge and world knowledge (including experience) to make sense of any text (Anderson, 2014; Gee, 2003; Kucer, 2005; Moustafa, 1997; Pressley, 2001). Therefore, in selecting reading materials, the teacher must consider both the technical complexity of the text (vocabulary, conceptual density, etc) and the suitability of the content of the text. Will the reader have the background knowledge and the curiosity required to engage deeply and meaningfully in the text in order to elicit understanding? How is the text fulfilling an expectation or goal or purpose?

In a related sense, the teacher needs to choose readings that initiate students into discussions that do and will matter. And the teacher needs to introduce the text in such a manner as to orient the emerging reader into the types of discoveries that will be explored. We must always remember that literacy is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Therefore, texts should be selected and sequenced in such a manner as to build knowledge and facilitate discussion. As suggested in a previous journal entry, a teacher can enhance reading comprehension when the reading is purposeful (e.g. exploration of a topic or thematic discussion) and pursued across multiple readings in different genres (Gambrell, Malloy & Mazzoni, 2011; Cairney, 2010):

  1. Teach reading for authentic, meaning-making purposes (for pleasure, to be informed, to perform a task, etc): provide diverse reading opportunities that initiate students into a range of reading practices, including the imaginative, aesthetic, interpretative, informative, critical and functional.
  2. Use multiple texts that build on prior knowledge, link concepts, and expand vocabulary: reading material should be selected that can add to the knowledge that students are encountering in and out of the classroom. In this case, reading engagement should be purposeful and related to inquiry and discovery (e.g. explore a topic - like bullying - by integrating concepts explored in fiction, brochures, art and more).

Rhees uses the simple concepts of discussion, conversation and discourse. Their simplicity is deceptive. Choosing reading materials that elicit rich discussions for students is important if one is to engage learners purposefully and strategically.



Anderson, N. (2014). Holding in the Bottom While Sustaining the Top: A Balanced Approach for L2 Reading Instruction. Reading Horizons. Retrieved July 17, 2014, from

Cairney, T. (2010). Developing comprehension: learning to make meaning. E:lit E:update, 013, 1–8.

Gambrell, L. B., Malloy, J. A., & Mazzoni, S. A. (2011). Evidence-based best practices in comprehensive literacy instruction. In L. M. Morrow & L. B. Gambrell (Eds.), Best practices in literacy instruction (4th ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Gee, J. P. (2003). Opportunity to Learn: A language-based perspective on assessment. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 10(1), 27–46. doi:10.1080/09695940301696

Kucer, S. (2005). Dimensions of literacy: a conceptual base for teaching reading and writing in school settings (2nd ed.). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Monk, R. (1999). Wittgenstein's Forgotten Lesson. In Propsect Magazine. 29 July 1999. Retrieved from on 22 November 2013.

Moustafa, M. (1997). Beyond traditional phonics: research discoveries and reading instruction. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Pressley, M. (2001). Comprehension Instruction: What Makes Sense Now, What Might Make Sense Soon. Reading Online. Retrieved April 14, 2014, from

Rhees, R. (2006). Wittgenstein and the possibility of discourse. (2nd Edition). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.