A Little More Text, A Little Less Self

by Robert Pondiscio
December 19th, 2011

When studying a story or an essay, is it possible to be too concerned with what the author is saying? In an opinion piece in Education Week, Maja Wilson and Thomas Newkirk complain the publisher’s criteria for Common Core State Standards are overly “text dependent,” discouraging students from bringing their own knowledge and opinions to bear on their reading.

Wilson, a former high school English teacher, and Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor applaud the guidelines’ “focus on deep sustained reading—and rereading.” However they pronounce themselves “distressed” by the insistence that students should focus on the “text itself.”

“There is a distrust of reader response in this view; while the personal connections and judgments of the reader may enter in later, they should do so only after students demonstrate ‘a clear understanding of what they read.’ Publishers are enjoined to pose ‘text-dependent questions [that] can only be answered by careful scrutiny of the text … and do not require information or evidence from outside the text or texts.’ In case there is any question about how much focus on the text is enough, ‘80 to 90 percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis; accordingly, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”

Consider me undistressed. If this means less reliance on the creaky crutch that is “reader response” in ELA classrooms, then I’m very nearly overjoyed.

The very worst that can be said about an over-reliance on text-dependent questions is that it’s an overdue market correction. As any teacher can tell you, it’s quite easy to glom on to an inconsequential moment in a text and produce reams of empty “text-to-self” meandering using the text as nothing more than a jumping off point for a personal narrative. The skill, common to most state standards, of “producing a personal response to literature” does little to demonstrate a student’s ability to read with clarity, depth and comprehension.

Indeed, educator, author and occasional Core Knowledge Blog contributor Katharine Beals points out in a response to the piece that Wilson and Newkirk have it precisely backwards: research from cognitive science suggests that making external associations during reading can actually worsen comprehension. She cites a paper by Courtenay Frazier Norbury and Dorothy Bishop which found that “poor readers drew inferences that were distorted by associations from their personal lives. For example, when asked, in reference to a scene at the seashore with a clock on a pier, ‘Where is the clock?’ many children replied, ‘In her bedroom.’”

“Norbury and Bishop propose that these errors may arise when the child fails to suppress stereotypical information about clock locations based on his/her own experience. As Norbury and Bishop explain it: ‘As we listen to a story, we are constantly making associations beween what we hear and our experiences in the world. When we hear “clock,” representations of different clocks may be activated, including alarm clocks. If the irrelevant representation is not quickly suppressed, individuals may not take in the information presented in the story about the clock being on the pier. They would therefore not update the mental representation of the story to include references to the seaside which would in turn lead to further comprehension errors.’

Struggling readers in particular would benefit from a lot more text and a lot less self. As Beals explains, “Text-to-self connections, in other words, may be the default reading mode (emphasis mine) and not something that needs to be taught. What needs to be taught instead, at least where poor readers are concerned, is how not to make text-to-self connections.”

Wilson and Newkirk illustrate their concern about over-reliance on text by describing their preferred way of teaching Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

“Before assigning the essay, we would have students log their media use for a day (texts, emails, video games, TV, reading, surfing the Internet) and share this 24-hour profile with classmates. We might ask students to free-write and perhaps debate the question: “What advantages or disadvantages do you see in this pattern of media use?” This ‘gateway’ activity would prepare students to think about Carr’s argument. As they read, they’d be mentally comparing their own position with Carr’s. Surely, we want them to understand Carr’s argument, but we’d help them do that by making use of their experiences and opinions.”

It’s critical to understand that this approach to teaching Carr’s essay would not be verboten under CCSS publishing guidelines, which have nothing whatsoever to say about teaching methods. In fact, there’s much to recommend Wilson and Newkirk’s approach. But the test of whether the students understand Carr’s line of argument has nothing to do with the “gateway” activity, which serves mostly as an engaging hook to draw students into Carr’s thesis. Students cannot be said to have understood the piece—or any piece—of writing without the ability to show internal evidence.

Thus if publishers are “enjoined to pose text-dependent questions [that] can only be answered by careful scrutiny of the text” that is at heart not a teaching question–it’s an assessment question that probes whether or not the student understands the text.

All those connections—to our own experience, to other works of literature, make the study of literature thrilling and rewarding. But for those connections to be deep and meaningful requires more than just the superficial, paper-thin connections that too often pass for “personal response.”

What often gets lost in our rush to engage young readers and make their reading personally relevant is the simple fact that text has communicative value. When someone commits words to print, they mean to communicate facts, ideas, imagery or opinions. They should expect, if they’ve done their job well, to be understood. Might the reader have a response? Let’s hope so. But unless they have understood the author’s words and intent clearly, any response they make is less than satisfying and may not be particularly relevant as a “response.”

The bottom line: Demonstrating comprehension based on what a text says is not a problem. It’s a baseline skill for any literate human being.


  1. I suspect Beals is right–that making text-to-self connections may be the default reading mode. And yes, such connections can be distracting indeed.

    As you say, text has communicative value. What’s more, if it’s any good, it goes a little beyond what you expect it to say. There’s a reason why the author chose to commit it to paper and to get it published–namely, that it hasn’t already been said in the same way. So, to make a true connection to it, one must first take it in for what it is.

    Take, for instance, Chesterton’s delightful essay “The Fallacy of Success.” You can read it breezily and think to yourself, “yes, I agree, the whole success craze is absurd. Success means nothing in itself.” And indeed that is part of his point. But if you laugh in self-satisfaction and imagine, without reading further, that you know what the essay is about, then you miss the part where he comments on an article by a success-writer who alludes to Midas as an emblem of success:

    “Unfortunately, however, Midas could fail; he did. His path did not lead unerringly upward. He starved because whenever he touched a biscuit or a ham sandwich it turned to gold. That was the whole point of the story, though the writer has to suppress it delicately, writing so near to a portrait of Lord Rothschild. The old fables of mankind are, indeed, unfathomably wise; but we must not have them expurgated in the interests of Mr. Vanderbilt. We must not have King Midas represented as an example of success; he was a failure of an unusually painful kind. Also, he had the ears of an ass.”

    Here Chesterton points out that, in this instance, the success writer has twisted old wisdom into folly–he has misunderstood the Midas myth and used it for his own purposes. This observation should startle us, for we all know the expression “the Midas touch” and may associate it with success, neglecting the details of the myth. Instead of laughing along with Chesterton, the reader may realize that he or she has taken part in the folly that Chesterton criticizes.

    After reading the essay through, carefully, and thinking about it, it might be time for a connection of some sort. But it most likely will not be exactly the one that came to mind at the outset. Something has happened in the meantime. The object of laughter turns out to be, at least in part, ourselves.

    Enough of that. Thanks, Robert, for this fine piece.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — December 19, 2011 @ 8:17 pm

  2. And thank you, Diana (and I say this earnestly, without irony) for your excellent and well informed response!

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 19, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

  3. Bravo, Robert. I haven’t read the essay that prompted this defense of a market correction. I hope your blog gets many links, and message prevails. You mention an important point that resonated from my old life as an English professor, and I think it’s a key point:

    “All those connections—to our own experience, to other works of literature, make the study of literature thrilling and rewarding. But for those connections to be deep and meaningful requires more than just the superficial, paper-thin connections that too often pass for “personal response.”

    Yes! The reader has to understand what the writer is saying before she can apply it to her own life. I spent many decades of my pre-Core Knowledge life preaching that sermon.

    But I also had to recognize that the most perceptive commentators on the nature of stories and poems including Plato, Horace, Sidney, Dr. Johnson, right up to Freud and Proust and beyond, all recognized that the power of literature was its power to evoke the deeply personal in each reader. Each story or poem deeply understood is an allegory of some part of one’s experience, and extends that experience. That defines its universality.

    Children take to the story of the three little pigs, not because they care about pigs but because they instinctively allegorize the story to themselves – the three little kids.

    When Shakespeare told his beloved (Sonnet 55) that he/she would live longer than the gilded monuments of princes it was because he/she would “live in this, and dwell in lover’s eyes.” That is, lovers of the distant future would apply this old poem to themselves. True!

    Proust was eloquent on the subject. So for that matter was Dr. Johnson. And Freud said memorably that “His Majesty the Ego, is the hero alike of every daydream and of every story.”

    But all these worthies would agree with you that first one has to understand what the author meant. If we can bring students to that point, the rest will take care of itself – assuming we are talking about good literature and good essays.

    Comment by E D Hirsch — December 20, 2011 @ 12:43 am

  4. On the issue of how to teach CCSS, it’s in the ENTASC standards and the definitions of what constitutes effective teaching and the accreditation standards.

    Some of the reading progressions are also outlined offshore as if keeping it off domestic servers changes anything once it is incorporated by reference.

    Language is the tool of thought and apparently our students’ thoughts are to be kept within defined pathways if they have to occur at all.

    I promise to be less cryptic in 2012 but it is simply not true that teachers will have much freedom in how they teach CCSS. Plus I think I left out the new leadership criteria for principals and supers.

    Quite Machiavellian in obscuring all the pieces.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — December 20, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

  5. Teaching “Of Mice and Men” to a class of struggling ninth grade ELA learners, those brought through the TC system respond with “I had friend once…” and continue on so far from Steinbeck’s story that it feels as if the text is inconsequential. An effort to return the reader to the text results in an accusation of “having no respect” for the student’s personal narrative. As a teacher whose work involves struggling readers, I frequently observe that text is nothing more than an excuse to discuss one’s own social predicament, rather than a means to a greater understanding of human nature. The “TC model” is creating handicapped readers who can’t think beyond their own classroom rug.

    Comment by Lynn Dorr — December 20, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

  6. I agree, Lynn. I’ve made myself deeply unpopular with former colleagues for saying more or less exactly what you did. Yes, I want students to be engaged. Yes I hope that they will find literature relevant. But engagement and relevance are ways in to a text. They are not the same as understanding a text.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 20, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

  7. Suskind’s book, A Hope in the Unseen has been mentioned several times in the comments on this blog. This was actually a problem that was highlighted by Suskind as particularly affecting kids from inner city systems, too often the autobiographic poetry/rap is the only type of writing that they are skilled at when they leave school, so they are profoundly unprepared for the expository requirements of most degree programs.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 21, 2011 @ 4:45 am

  8. And then there are always (somewhere out there) history books, which, if they can, take the reader outside of himself and herself for a brief visit to the rest of mankind and the rest of the world and their past. And even that can be relevant in some strange way, even if it isn’t seen as literature by the literature-only folks.

    Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — December 21, 2011 @ 9:11 am

  9. I teach science rather than literature, and I find that the personal narrative focused crowd is very similar to the discovery science focused crowd – both promote easier forms of teaching. Pushing my middle schoolers to fully understand fundamental concepts in science is a lot more work for me than setting up discovery labs (and yes, I do labs regularly with the 6 classes that I teach daily). I can imagine that guiding (dragging?) students towards understanding a work of literature is a lot harder than asking them to write a personal narrative. Some want to weasel their way out of this difficult job by claiming that the work does not engage or the material is not relevant, etc., but really the problem is timeless – learning at a deep level in any subject is hard and there will always be some people who can’t or won’t do it; and likewise, teaching any subject at a deep level is hard and some teachers can’t or won’t do it.

    Comment by Geena — December 21, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

  10. I believe both of the arguments need ring true, yet there needs to be a blend of both. I feel in the classroom when instruction takes place, “text-to-self” activities and thinking needs to occur. This allows students to really put themselves in the story or text and comprehend the richness the author is communicating. However, on an assessment, the text needs to be fully addressed. The assessment piece is ensuring that the student can comprehend what the TEXT says, not what they are inferring necessarily. I believe there is a time and a place for both and the objective needs to be thought through prior to implementing either strategy.

    Comment by Jenny Jackaway — January 28, 2012 @ 9:57 pm

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