Home > Strategies and Skill Development > Social Reasoning Strategy Families > Reading Between the Lines > Literature Note - Reading Between the Lines

The skill we are referring to as reading between the lines encompasses more than a specific literary reading practice. This skill, important for both ordinary reading and literary analysis, depends critically on high levels of ability in pragmatically and rhetorically interpreting a text, and it is these skills, and their development, with which we are concerned. Here there is some evidence of a developmental trajectory in which literal meaning must be disentangled from pragmatic meaning and then reassembled under strategic control.

In principle, a written text can be subjected to pragmatic and rhetorical analysis much like an oral communication. Often the communicative intent of a text differs from what it says literally, and all the usual principles of pragmatics can be used to explain what inferences are licensed in context; that is, texts are fundamentally construed in social, cognitive terms (Donahue & Foster, 2004, 2005).[1] These features have led to the thesis that literacy, and the use of written texts, leads first and foremost to the development of skills to interpret what some have termed decontextualized texts—that is, texts that are relatively self-contained, interpretable with minimal outside information, and reasoned about using the kinds of rule-based, logical reasoning strategies that can naturally be applied to such texts (Goody, 1977; Goody & Watt, 1963; Greenfield, 1972; Luria, 1976; Olson, 1977, 1990; Ong & Ong, 1982). More recent literature indicates, however, that the kinds of thinking encouraged by literacy are strongly associated with particular social practices, and that literacies can be differentially associated with very different skills, depending on their use in the larger society (Gee, 1997; Heath, 1982, 1983, 1991; Reder, 1994; Scribner & Cole, 1981; Street, 1984, 1993), though it is important to recognize that literacy practices can and do have significant consequences for thought (Amsel & Byrnes, 2002; Homer, 2002; Homer & Hayward, 2008). On the other hand, the social milieu in which a written text is interpreted differs fundamentally from that of spoken communication, in that the reader and the author are typically separated in space and time, the message can be prepared over a long period of time, and it typically persists in permanent form. This allows written texts to be more structured, integrated, and detached from context than oral discourse (Chafe, 1982).

A strong case can be made from the literature that the pragmatic interpretation of texts interacts with the acquisition of literacy in modern society, such that we hypothesize three phases:
  • An initial oral communication phase, highly situated and socially embedded in situations of direct personal interaction, with little separation of literal meaning from communicative intent, and relatively little ability to handle irony or other phenomena where literal and contextual cues conflict.
  • A content-focused phase focused on the separation of form and communicative intent and characterized by the growth of interpretive processes that presume simple, standard, straightforward communicative purposes such as telling a story or presenting factual information.
  • A final phase characterized by the development of expertise in interpreting texts within specific literate contexts, and hence increasing ability to read between the lines in culturally appropriate ways.

We do not claim that the separation among phases is necessarily clear-cut and sharp, but rather, that the general course of development of expertise in text interpretation follows this track, where the growth of true pragmatic interpretation presupposes growth in metalinguistic awareness, which depends in turn on increasing clarity about the distinction between literal meaning and situational interpretation.

Evidence of the first phase and the transition to the second phase can readily be obtained for children just before and after the advent of formal schooling (around ages 5 to 8), where children’s interpretations are typically egocentric. Before age 7 or 8, children often fail to distinguish uninformative or ambiguous oral messages and react to them as if communicative success were guaranteed (Beal, 1988; Flavell, Speer, Green, & August, 1981; Robinson, Goelman, & Olson, 1983; Speer, 1984). They tend to assume that the intended meaning is clear, if they know it, even when it is not (Beal, 1987; Beal & Flavell, 1984), to fail to distinguish between literal and inferred meaning (Beal, 1990), and to stick with just one interpretation even if a text or word is ambiguous (Bonitatibus & Beal, 1996; Robinson & Robinson, 1983). Simultaneously, they tend (presumably where the speaker’s intent is not previously known to them), to place far more emphasis on literal meaning, and far less emphasis on nonverbal and contextual cues, than older children or adults (Friend & Bryant, 2000; Morton, Trehub, & Zelazo, 2003). These tendencies tend to decline as children become more metalinguistically aware (Doherty, 2000, 2004; Yuill, Kerawalla, Pearce, Luckin, & Harris, 2008)—in particular, more aware of text form and text meaning as potentially independent factors separable from situation and context (Bonitatibus, 1988; Cartwright, Hodgkiss, & Isaac, 2008; Olson & Hildyard, 1983; Robinson et al., 1983)—especially when the message is in written form (Bonitatibus & Flavell, 1985). There is in fact a strong correlation between the development of metacognitive awareness of language, such as understanding of puns and riddles that manipulate the formal and semantic properties of text, and reading comprehension (Cross & Paris, 1988; Yuill, 1996; Yuill & Oakhill, 1991).

The transition from the second to the third phase can be seen in a variety of descriptions of the difference between the reading practices of domain experts, whether in literature, history, science, or a variety of other fields, and the reading practices more typical of students and novices. In each case, novices tend to focus on literal meaning and text structure, using concepts deriving from general experience, without much consideration for what the author might be trying to accomplish by writing the text, or how a reader operating within that domain might appropriately react to it. Domain experts, on the other hand, tend to build richly contextualized representations making heavy use of pragmatic inference (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1991).

Consider literary interpretation in particular. Vipond and Hunt (1984) draw a distinction among three modes of reading: point-driven reading, information-driven reading, and story-driven reading. Point-driven reading is focused on determining the author’s point—what the author was trying to do in the literary text, and as such requires using all the elements of a pragmatic analysis, including the listener’s model of an author, cultural expectations, and context. By contrast, information-driven and story-driven reading require little analysis of the communicative situation other than the assumption that the author intended to get across information or to recount a series of events.

In later work Vipond and Hunt (Hunt, 1996; Vipond & Hunt, 1987; Vipond, Hunt, Jewitt, & Reither, 1990) recasted point-driven reading as dialogic involvement: where the experience of literary reading is part of a social milieu in which readers have continuing involvement with works they read, as points of reference, as experiences to share with other readers, and as part of a community of writers and readers. The difference in goal—and the need to construct a representation much more richly elaborated at the pragmatic level—entails that text is read more slowly when read as literature than when it is read for information (Zwaan, 1991, 1994). These and other features fall out fairly naturally if we think of literary reading as the exercise of a domain expertise (Graves, 1991, 1996; Zeits, 1994), in which details, gist content, and a variety of lexical and syntactic choices are interpreted as conscious choices made to produce specific intended effects on readers. Zeits notes that novice readers tended to respond in ways more focused on character and story line, with less emphasis on interpretive statements or on parts of the text that require attention to multiple levels of analysis to understand the author’s intent. In studies focusing specifically on better or poorer student readings of literature, better readers may display greater flexibility, that is, use of a wider variety of interpretive stances that leads them to respond more flexibly and in greater depth to different literary texts (Janssen, Braaksma, Rijlaarsdam, & van den Bergh, 2005; Langer, 1993).

In fact, Geisler (1994) argued that standard school practices in general undermine or delay the development of the kinds of expertise described in our third stage, by separating the rhetoric—the social practices embodied in reading and writing academic texts by domain experts—from the content. Far too often, Geisler argued based upon her analysis of academic expertise in philosophy, the presentation of academic material focuses on content separate from the context in which that content was generated or the social practices that condition its appropriate use. At the very least, the evidence summarized above suggests that students are not likely to achieve full competency in reading the range of materials available in our society without experience that helps them internalize the social practices within which those materials are intended to be read.

One way to view this point is to consider the richness of prior social knowledge that is needed to read texts with insight. Depth of social knowledge determines the effectiveness with which inferences can be drawn about communicative intent; and the more routes by which readers can acquire that knowledge, the more likely they are to be able to apply it effectively. Direct personal experience is of course one source of social knowledge. Literary texts, with their simulation of social experience, provide another. Apprenticeship experiences, in which students are educated by immersion in simulated social roles, provide yet a third. Successful reading comprehension depends, on the highest levels, on social inference, particularly inference about the writer’s communicative intent, and the evidence is that many adult readers have not fully mastered reading at this level. This lack of mastery is illustrated, for instance, by the significant numbers of adults who do not recognize sarcasm, irony (Ackerman, 1982; Creusere, 2000; Demorest, 1984)[2] and other forms of pragmatic insincerity in text, such as jokes, puns, and riddles.

As Bell (2007) noted, oral humor comprehension typically takes place in a richly social environment in which apprehension of humor depends critically on making the right inferences (Hay, 2001), and in which adoption of a social stance may be necessary to provoke humor-oriented responses such as groans in response to puns (Lippman & Tragesser, 2005). The development of comprehension fits the three-stage pattern we have postulated. For instance, younger children (up to third grade) appreciate and perform best at real-world riddles, where the incongruity on which the riddle is based is part of the situation being modeled, and not a feature of the language used to describe it. Similarly, only older children (sixth grade and above) begin to appreciate and perform well on absurdity riddles, where there is nothing wrong with the situation described, or the language used to describe it, but where instead pragmatic constraints on plausible interpretations are violated (Yalisove, 1978). And the same general trends obtain for humor as for other pragmatic capabilities in cases of deficit, with humor being poorly appreciated by autistic children (Emerich, Creaghead, Grether, Murray, & Grasha, 2003) and associated (in part) with many of the right-brain areas that are necessary for other types of social interpretation, though also with left-brain language areas (Coulson & Klaus, 2001), in particular with brain areas implicated in the attribution of attention (Bartolo, Benuzzi, Nocetti, Baraldi, & Nichelli, 2006; Brunet, Sarfati, Hardy-Bayle, & Decety, 2000).


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  1. ^ Note that when the interpretation of a text at the pragmatic level requires the reader to infer why the author made particular choices, reading between the lines and rhetorical analysis go hand in hand.
  2. ^ In fact, even in face-to-face situations, speakers and hearers often disagree on when an utterance is pragmatically insincere; for instance, in the referenced study speakers identified 66 specific utterances as intended to be sarcastic, and hearers identified 50 specific utterances that they perceived as sarcastic, but only 29 utterances were identified as sarcastic by both speaker and hearer.