If you have been taking part in our mini-CPD series, you will know that this week in our webinar Better Think Alouds we were focussing on thinking-aloud as a metacognitive strategy. First, we introduced some practical examples of think-aloud to demonstrate how readers cumulatively build an understanding of a complex text. We developed this to consider the points of connection and differences between Metacognitive theories and Reader-response criticism. The common ground is an interest in how readers make sense of texts. The key difference is the importance accorded to the emotions. In Reader-response theory, the emotions are central to personal meaning and to acquiring understanding. An emotional response is not as a ‘nice to have’ add-on. that is inferior to a purely intellectual or cognitive response, but an essential part of a fully integrated reading process.
Literature as Exploration
In her seminal book, Literature as Exploration, first published in 1933, transactional theorist, Louise Rosenblatt argued that literature provides the opportunity to ‘think rationally within an emotionally colored context.’ (1995 p217) For Rosenblatt, ‘Understanding implies the full impact of the sensuous, emotional, as well as the intellectual force of the world.’. For engaged readers, it is the human experience in literature that is valued most highly rather than the formal elements of style and structure.
Rosenblatt’s pedagogy is one that we would recognise today as reflective practice. Readers begin by freely exploring their affective responses, which are then shared and discussed so that different interpretations are made visible and considered. Teachers guide readers to examine the basis for their responses. The readers return to the text equipped with their refined ideas. Further discussion increases awareness of the textual features and the writer’s craft in shaping interpretation. There may at this point be revisions to the original interpretation. And through this exploratory encounter, the sensitive and knowledgable teacher helps the apprentice reader master the tools which they use independently to deepen future responses. An appreciation of stylistics might strengthen and intensify response, but it is not the totality of the literary experience. This approach brushes alongside metacognitive strategies in the joint goal of making the reader aware of their processes so they can reflect, take charge and increase their independence.
The pressure to comprehend can be counterproductive
In an interesting research article, Eva-Wood (2004) argues that when reading poetry an emphasis on the cognitive aspects of reading can be counter-productive. Leaping too quickly to try and understand the compressed, allusive and often strange language of poetry can lead to confusion, and even disaffection. Reading this article I was put in mind of a poetry lesson in school – I was probably about thirteen. Our English teacher had written the poem on the board This is the first stanza of that poem:
[anyone lived in a pretty how town]
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his didE E Cummings
After we had read the poem (quietly to ourselves) he asked a series of questions prompting us to explain what the poem meant: Who is ‘anyone’? Why is ‘with up so many floating bells down’ bracketed? What does ‘he sang his didn’t he danced his did’ mean?
What did it mean? I recall feeling quite befuddled by the strange constructions and stupid that I couldn’t locate the understanding that the teacher was reaching for. After lots of hesitant mumbling, the class was led into the ‘safer’ territory of listing the ‘facts’ of literature. The poem is written in Dactylic tetrameters. It is written in nine quatrains. The only punctuation is the use of parentheses and the apostrophes of contraction and possession. Well, that didn’t get us very far. There was no space in this lesson to admit to confusion much less explore other feelings that were evoked by the language and stylistic choices.
How is a feel-aloud distinct from a think-aloud?
Returning to our Better Think-Alouds webinar, the question that we explored is whether explicit strategies designed to elicit affective responses can help readers sidestep cognitive pressures. Eva-Wood’s proposition is that the think-aloud strategy can be extended to a think-and-feel-aloud. Working with two groups of students, she introduced one to a think-aloud protocol and the other to a think-and-feel-aloud protocol and then analysed their responses. From her data, she arrived at the following conclusions. Students taught to think and feel aloud were more thoughtful in their responses than those just taught to think-aloud. Interestingly, although this group drew on feelings they did not consistently refer to their personal emotions.
However, they did appear to step into the speakers’ experiences more fluidly and effortlessly in their protocols and therefore seemed more engaged with experiencing the text rather than simply coming up with the right interpretation.Eva-Wood, A.L. (2004) p189
She goes on to illustrate the students’ extended and elaborated responses. Those taught to think-and-feel aloud were more likely to expand their interpretations beyond the literal. This is what Rosenblatt and others called an aesthetic reading and it contrasts with the efferent reading (like the Cummings lesson outlined above). Rosenblatt writes in the preface to the 5th edition of her book ‘Traditional teaching – and testing – methods often confuse the student by implicitly fostering a nonliterary, efferent approach when the actual purpose is presumably an aesthetic reading.’ (p15)
Comparing transmission and transaction beliefs
Relevant to this discussion is the distinction made by Schraw and Bruning (1996) between transmission and transaction beliefs. Transmission beliefs hold that the meaning is held by the author and the role of the reader is to uncover that meaning (think about all those author’s intentions questions we are primed to ask). Transaction beliefs hold that the reader engages with the text to construct their own meaning. The transmission model is reconstructive. Whereas the transaction model accepts that a text can mean different things to different readers, is constructive. In a later study, Shraw (2000) analysed and compared the contributions made to the holistic interpretation of narrative text by those holding transmission and transaction beliefs. He concluded:
Those with strong transaction beliefs generate more responses and construct more sophisticated holisitc interpretations, regardless of their transmission beliefs.
Transaction beliefs appear to facilitate higher level meaning construction more than transmission beliefs.Shraw (2000) p103
Teaching readers to feel-aloud
So what are the implications for applying this understanding to practice? Eva-Wood (2008) proposes four feeling-based strategies that readers can be taught to use which complement thinking-aloud.
- Responding to key words and phrases
- Visualising and using the senses
- Relating the text to personal experiences
- Identifying with the speaker
In our webinar, we applied the four strategies by posing four questions about the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers. They are reproduced here with some anonymised responses that were written using the webinar chat facility.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul-
And sings the tune – without the words –
And never stops at all.Emily Dickinson
Prompt 1 Are there any words or phrases that provoked an emotional response?
Words and phrases picked out most frequently were ‘sings the tune‘, ‘perches‘, ‘hope‘ and ‘soul’. One participant wrote ‘The first two lines make tears spring to my eyes but I am not entirely sure why – I have a very emotional reaction to it!’
With 500 people in the webinar room, it wasn’t possible to have an extended exchange. However, in the classroom we could list these words, rereading them, look at the frequency of the occurrence of specific words, consider the associations we have with these words thus exploring the emotional connection for individuals. This is a good first step towards constructing an understanding of the poem.
Prompt 2 Do you have any mental images? Did you experience or imagine any sensations?
Here are just a few of the responses: ‘some kind of bird, singing in the morning‘; ‘An image of a white dove about to fly a metaphor for hope‘; ‘visualise a bird looking‘; ‘feels fragile, like it’s about to fly away forever‘; ‘can hear a joyful tune – keeps running through my head.’
These responses (and the many others not listed) provide rich opportunities for digging deeper, they represent nuanced emotional responses far more subtle than just ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. Some feel optimistic, others wistful, maybe even pessimistic. Readers’ emphasis on different verbs was also interesting, ‘flying’, ‘singing’, ‘looking’. This too would also make for an interesting discussion. What does the reader’s verb choice suggest about their relationship to the ‘hope’ in this poem? My observation from reviewing the responses concurs with Eva-Wood that they are affective without overtly referencing personal emotion.
Prompt 3 Are you drawing on any personal memories or associations in your response to the poem?
And here are a few of the responses: ‘I felt hope when I saw a robin after the passing of my dad‘; ‘Without the words reminds me of the Bible idea of wordless prayer when too desperate to know what words to use.’; ‘‘I can hear Nightingales in a thicket that I came across with two very dear friends.’; ‘I looked at this poem with my class when reading Holes.’; ‘Mixed response as birds frighten me normally!‘ ‘Max Porter (?) book about grief.’.
Selecting some of the recurring ideas, the teacher might go on to ask, ‘I expect you have seen birds on many occasions, why do you think these particular images of birds come to mind? I wonder if these images that you have helps you think about what Emily Dickinson might have been expressing in her poem?’
Prompt 4 What impression have you formed of the speaker of this poem? What do you think they are thinking and feeling?
Here the responses show a wide range of interpretations, which I would love to have explored with the group face to face: ‘ Think they are grief-stricken’; ‘positive and strong‘; ‘I think she thinks hope is a universal attribute (‘without the words’)‘; ‘Hope is getting the speaker through something difficult.‘; ‘Someone who has lost something and is reflecting on the role and value of hope in difficulty.’; ‘She’s religious.‘; ‘ Speaker is emotionally literate.‘; ‘They are struggling with something but haven’t quite given up hope – nearly, but not quite.’
What I find striking is the openness of the responses (and there were many more). They are wide-ranging but this is not a wild guessing game. The transactional approach to reading is sometimes misrepresented as anything goes, but that’s not the case. As Rosenblatt writes:
Recongition that there can be no absolute, single ‘correct’ reading of a text has sometimes been seen as accepting any reading of a text. without positing a single, absolutely correct reading, we can still agree on criteria by which to evaluate the validity of alternative interpretations of a text. The development of such judgement becomes part of literary education.Rosenblatt, L (1995) p16
These prompts are not dissimilar to the basic questions in Aidan Chambers (1993) Tell Me framework with which many teachers are familiar: Was there anything you liked about this book? Was there anything you disliked? Was there anything that puzzled you? Were there any patterns – any connections – that you noticed? They are both concerned with eliciting a personal and affective response. You might find it interesting to explore the different qualities of response these prompts elicit from your students. Are some prompts more suited to different kinds of text?
From feeling to thinking
I am not arguing that comprehension is unimportant. The thrust of the teaching sequence is to move from the personal and the affective to an integrated holistic response which challenges the intellect and weaves close reading into the teaching so that it is not a cold, disassociated activity. At this point having explored, probed and engaged in a dialogic exchange about the readers’ responses, we might connect those rich ideas to the way the poem is written. Why might Dickinson have chosen to write the word “Hope” in quotation marks? Does the unconventional punctuation help us to understand some of the things you expressed about the speaker’s state of mind? How do the language choices strengthen the mental imagery you described? Can we sing the poem? Can you imagine a tune that would fit with the structure of the poem?
The webinar gave me much to ponder on. Not least how to ensure the online experience is a rich one for webinar participants. I would like to thank everyone who joined us on Friday. Your reflections enriched my reading of the poem.
Chambers, Aidan (1993). Tell Me: Children, reading and talking Stroud, Gloucetershire: Thimble Press
Eva-Wood, A. L. (2004) ‘Thinking and Feeling Poetry: Exploring Meanings Aloud’ Journal of Educational Psychology American Psychological Association 96:1 pp 182-191
Eva-Wood, A. L. (2004) ‘How Think-and-Feel-Aloud Instruction Influences Poetry Readers’, Discourse Processes. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 38(2), pp. 173–192.
Eva-Wood, A. L. (2008) ‘Does Feeling Come First? How poetry can help readers broaden their understanding of metacognition’ Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy Oxford, UK: International Reading Association 51:7 pp 564-576
Rosenblatt, L. (1995 5th Edit) Literature as Exploration New York: Modern Language Association
Schraw, G. and Bruning. R. (1996) ‘Readers’ Implicit Models of Reading’, Reading Research Quarterly. Oxford, UK: International Reading Association, 31(3), pp. 290–305.
Schraw, G. (2000) ‘Reader Beliefs and Meaning Construction in Narrative Text’, Journal of Educational Psychology. American Psychological Association, 92(1), pp. 96–106.