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Reading and other interpretive processes are fundamentally social and driven by social purposes. Moreover, those purposes cover a wide range of literate activities (Alderson, 2000). The reader’s purpose helps define what kind of information is relevant, defines the reader’s motivation and stance toward the material, and ultimately determines what information will be discarded and what information will be kept in focus (Pressley, 2000).

In other words, reading may be exhaustive and comprehensive or selective and focused, depending on the reader’s purpose. For instance, if the purpose of reading a narrative is merely to extract specific facts, there is no need to recover the plot. Thus, depending on the agenda that governs his or her experience of the text, one and the same reader might come away from the same text with very different information. Moreover, the purpose set by the reader cannot be separated from the social practices within which reading takes place: it is precisely the social context that determines what purposes for reading are appropriate and effective.

The social context and purpose for reading not only affects students’ perception of the perceived task demands and processing effort (Lorch, Lorch, & Klusewitz, 1993), but it also has a direct affect on reading behavior, strategy use, and metacognitive awareness (Narvaez, van den Broek, & Ruiz, 1999). For instance, Narvaez et al. (1999) found that students who were told that the purpose for reading was to study text reread and evaluated the material more often than students who were asked to read for the purposes of entertainment. Students who were told to read for the purpose of study were also more likely to vocalize gaps in their prior knowledge and understanding than were students who were asked to read for the purposes of entertainment. Thus, having a purpose for reading affects how a text is strategically processed.

While the above research is illuminating, it is somewhat artificial, given that the purpose for reading was given to the students. In other situations, personal interest may guide the purpose for reading and consequently influence how a text is processed. One aspect of the reader’s purpose, therefore, is purpose-driven interest, which has been shown to promote recall of focused sections of the text (Cox & Guthrie, 2001; Wang & Guthrie, 2004). Since research has shown that intrinsic reader interest leads to higher levels of reading comprehension (van den Broek, Lorch, Linderholm, & Gustafson, 2001; Wade, Buxton, & Kelly, 1999), manipulating reader purpose will significantly alter what aspects of text content will be remembered.

Another aspect of the reader’s purpose is its effect in defining the reader’s standards of coherence (Schraw & Dennison, 1994; van den Broek, Risden, & Husebye-Hartman, 1995), that is, the degree of effort the reader is willing to expend to integrate what is read into a coherent mental representation. Readers who choose to have a high level of coherence will engage in a whole series of interpretive efforts that guarantee a richer representation of the text, while readers who accept a lower standard of coherence will often construct incomplete and partial representations. Thus, depending on the purpose, readers will process texts differently (Bråten & Samuelstuen, 2004) and will employ different reading strategies (van den Broek et al., 2001).

The role of reading in assessment is an interesting case in point, since assessment, like any other reading practice, is an institutionalized social practice that defines specific purposes for reading as most relevant to the reader, and thereby sends a clear message about the nature and significance of the activities being assessed. For instance, it is not unusual for a reading assessment to do little to focus the reading task: students’ only reason to read a reading passage may be their desire to answer as many questions as possible correctly in the time provided for the test. Yet answering multiple-choice questions is a very specialized purpose for reading and one that has little in common with the kinds of reading people normally perform (Rupp, Ferne, & Hyeran, 2006). To the extent that testing is encapsulated and isolated from other occasions and the normal social agendas that occasion the practice of reading and writing, it may have an alienating effect, and to some extent at least, may encourage instruction to ignore the social contexts and purposes in which literacy skills are intended to be deployed. Specific social agendas define the purpose for reading and writing, and these purposes, in turn, determine what mix of skills will be required to perform successfully.

If anything, recent technological changes, and the growing importance of online reading, have multiplied the kinds of contexts and purposes for which reading takes place (Castells, 1996; Kirsch, Braun, Yamamoto, & Sum, 2007; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004). For instance, the Internet has opened the door to new forms of social communication including e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, chat rooms, discussion boards, special interest forums, wikis, and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, more and more people are using electronic media as a source of social networking (Jones & Fox, 2009) and these forms of online social networking activities will grow in the future. For instance, Lenhart (2009) reports that there is a fourfold increase in the percentage of adult online users who have a profile on a social networking site since 2005. Since the receptive act of reading is intrinsically social, calling upon the social model both to condition the reader’s purposes in reading and to enable the reader to determine the writer’s communicative intent, any model of literacy must give an accounting of the social practices within which literacy acts take place and must consider what kinds of readers will be produced by the social practices of school.

Alderson, J. C. (2000). Assessing reading. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Bråten, I., & Samuelstuen, M. S. (2004). Does the influence of reading purpose on reports of strategic text processing depend on students' topic knowledge? Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 324-336.

Castells, M. (1996). The rise of network society. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Cox, K. E., & Guthrie, J. T. (2001). Motivational and cognitive contributions to students' amount of reading. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26, 116-131.

Jones, S., & Fox, S. (2009). Generations online in 2009. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2009/PIP_Generations_2009.pdf

Kirsch, I., Braun, H., Yamamoto, K., & Sum, A. (2007). American's perfect storm: Three forces changing our nation's future (ETS Publication No. PIC-STORM). Princeton, NJ: ETS.

Lenhart, A. (2009). Adults and social network websites. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/~/mediaFiles/Reports/2009/PIP_Adult_social_networking_data_memo_FINAL.pdf.pdf

Lorch, R. F., Jr., Lorch, E. P., & Klusewitz, M. A. (1993). College students' conditional knowledge about reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 239-252.

Narvaez, D., van den Broek, P., & Ruiz, A. B. (1999). The influence of reading purpose on inference generation and comprehension in reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(3), 488-496.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2004). Learning for the 21st century: A report and mile guide for 21st century skills. Washington, DC: Author.

Pressley, M. (2000). What should comprehension instruction be the instruction of? In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (vol. 3, pp. 545-561). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Rupp, A., Ferne, T., & Hyeran, C. (2006). How assessing reading comprehension with multiple-choice questions shapes the construct: A cognitive processing perspective. Language Testing, 23, 441-474.

Schraw, G., & Dennison, R. S. (1994). The effect of reader purpose on interest and recall. Journal of Reading Behavior, 26, 1-17.

van den Broek, P., Lorch, R. F., Linderholm, T., & Gustafson, M. (2001). The effects of readers' goals on inference generation and memory for texts. Memory & Cognition, 29, 1081-1087.

van den Broek, P., Risden, K., & Husebye-Hartman, E. (1995). The role of readers' standards for coherence in the generation of inferences during reading. In R. F. Lorch & E. J. O'Brian (Eds.), Sources of coherence in reading (pp. 295-320). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wade, S. E., Buxton, W. M., & Kelly, M. (1999). Using think-alouds to examine reader-text interest. Reading Research Quarterly, 34(2), 194-216.

Wang, J. H., & Guthrie, J. T. (2004). Modeling the effecs of intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motiation, amound of reading, and past reading achievement on text comprehension between U.S. and Chinese students. Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 162-186.

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