In my last entry, I explored some ideas concerning what role authors play in our interpretation of text. As with many controversies in the garden of literary criticism, nothing is settled, but an exquisite tension has been created. It is this tension that mature readers need to learn to negotiate — and that we have to prepare them for.
My take on this controversy is this: it is respectful, responsible, and wise to try to get back to “the author’s intended meaning.” That means we need not only to think about what a text says, but what we thought the author intended to mean. For example, the word “plastic” has a very clear meaning these days. In my dictionary, the number one definition is “a synthetic material made from organic polymers.” However, if I’m reading a text from the 1800s, and the author uses the word plastic, I’d better try to provide a different interpretation — one more in line with the author’s intended meaning. It is polite to try to honor the author’s meaning—rather than insensitively imposing our own interpretation on a text.
Some things that can help children to develop a sense of author
- Expose children to multiple books by the same author. Research shows that 5-year-olds can recognize a Dr. Seuss at 20 yards. As children grow up, expose them to more subtle exemplars. I love “author study” by second or third grade. Having groups of children reading multiple books by the same author, and trying to find continuities (e.g., content, style, diction, structure) across the texts.
- My research had children trying to re-create a persona based only on a text. Children would try to compose biographies of the authors they imagined from the authors’ texts. I hid the names, so they had to decide if a writer was man or woman, black or white, young or old, and they had to use text information — including the author’s style — as evidence for their suppositions. It is a great assignment.
- Students need to be authors. Have them write and have the other children respond to these writings. Readers benefit from having been writers. They start to understand the limits and the power of writing. Writing, reading the writing of close up authors, responding to the writing of others, having others respond to your own writing — those all help build the concept.
- Make authors visible. Tell kids who wrote a text. Make that a question during reading lessons. Include author in your inferential questions. “The author doesn’t tell you what Red Riding Hood was thinking when she met the wolf, but what does the author want you to think she was thinking? How do you know?”
- When your curriculum starts to include text sets in social studies (e.g., multiple primary and secondary documents), focus student attention on author intentions — why would an author say this? Why would another author tell something different? What were their goals? Why would the author write something else later? As Sam Wineburg has written, source/author-centered reading is essential to historical thinking.
But as important as author-centered readings can be, they can get in the way of a reader giving a text a “close read” — that is, a read that depends upon the interpretation of the information on the page. If you believe Hemingway was a male chauvinist, then everything you read by Hemingway, including perhaps his grocery list, will scream chauvinism. Those readers who believe they already know what a text says, often impose their own bias and miss the actual message. It is a very different thing to identify an author’s ideology through a close analysis of what he or she has written, than to start with that conclusion.
Setting the author aside
- To teach students to set aside the author, it is important to provide them with one-off reading experiences — focusing on texts that are not part of a series or that students can bring specific author knowledge to the text.
- Keep your questions and discussion focused on the text itself. Don’t worry about what you think the author meant, but focus on the key ideas and details in the text, the word choices and structures that provide clues to meaning, and the value and quality of what is on the page — without regard for other information.
- Give kids lots of experiences reading scientific and mathematical texts — texts not likely to be ideologically based or persona-focused.
- Focus on rereading as an interpretive process — reading one text over and over to figure it out, rather than trying to guess what the author may have intended (in close readings, there is no author, the author has no intentions, and even if there were an author with intentions, you can never know what they may be, so focus only on the texts).
- Minimize the amount of external information provided to kids — don’t tell them what it is going to be about, don’t reveal the author, don’t review background knowledge.
- When students write do not provide generous readings. If something doesn’t make sense, reveal to them the lack of logic or sense that you are confronting and then give them opportunities to revise.
If you believe that readers have an ethical or moral responsibility to try to understand other human beings, then author-centered reading is your plate. If you believe that children have to learn to be independent readers, able to grasp the meaning of a text without reliance on external information, then close reading is needed.