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

We are concerned here with strategies for reading between the lines—that is, interpreting a text in the light not only of the words it contains but for the meaning that choice of words has in light of the larger social situation and context in which the text was written and delivered to an audience.This includes the kind of close reading literature specialists are trained to do, but it also includes a variety of patterns of contextual interpretation, such as satire, sarcasm, innuendo, and other forms of indirect communication where the words provide hints about the intended interpretation rather than directly communicating it.

Most people develop some ability to read between the lines as part of ordinary social communication; but specific strategies such as considering the purpose and audience, considering alternate interpretations, and paying close attention to the implications of details, all work together to create much higher levels of interpretive skill. This kind of interpretation critically requires an understanding of perspective and an ability to consider multiple perspectives, and to recognize how differences in perspective may lead to different choices in how a text is phrased, which in turn may reflect bias or other elements of the writer's point of view.

The strategies and skills involved in reading between the lines correspond to Reading Standard 6 from the Common Core State Standards. This skill presupposes some degree of skill at handling style and tone in vocabulary, which is addressed in Reading Standard 4, though most of the skill addressed in that standard is focused at the verbal level. Note that the ability to read between the lines draws upon the set of skills that in the Common Core State Standards are referred to as Close Reading, which involve close coordination of verbal-level, discourse-level, and conceptual skills to develop a rich interpretation fully justified from the structure of the text.

The hypothesized development of skill at reading between the lines is presented in Development Table 4.

Literature Note - Reading Between the Lines

Development Table 4. Hypotheses about Development of Skill at Reading Between the Lines

Can distinguish literal from nonliteral meanings of words and disambiguate the intended meaning from context.
Can guess the meaning of new metaphors and metonymies that follow established patterns such as “anger is fire.”
Can produce a wide variety of conventional nonliteral uses of language, including conventional metaphors and metonymies, appropriately in context.
(fundamental literacies)
Can distinguish literal and nonliteral meaning well enough to recognize that both can be present and can interact to determine the actual meaning an expression has in context; thus can recognize puns and distinguish literal meanings (“It’s hot in here”) from indirectly conveyed meanings (“It’s hot in here” --> “Please open the window”).
Has mastered the fundamental metalinguistic vocabulary needed to discuss nonliteral meaning, including terms such as metonymy, metaphor, personification, sarcasm, simile, understatement.
Can apply disambiguation strategies based on recognizing potential nonliteral meanings and evaluating their fit with the purpose and context of the text.
Can produce original puns, similes, or metaphors and use them appropriately in a larger context (e.g., paragraph) to develop and present ideas.
(text-based literacy)
Can distinguish literal from indirect or implied meaning at the level of a whole text, and can therefore infer when a text is not intended to be taken literally.
Has mastered the metalinguistic vocabulary needed to discuss multiple layers of meaning in a text, such as allusion, caricature, euphemism, hyperbole, irony, parody and satire.
Can apply interpretive strategies that detect such modes as irony and satire by detecting incongruities that do not make sense if one assumes a literal interpretation.
Can produce texts based on extended conceits (i.e., an allegory, an extended system of metaphors, or similar forms of analogical reasoning), or texts that illustrate such modes as irony and satire.
(across perspectives)
Can recognize multiple layers of meaning in a text and interpret details in light of the whole.
Can apply analytic and interpretive strategies that build up multiple layers of meaning by attending to figures of speech, unusual lexical and stylistic choices that license indirect implications, as well as other nuances of meaning, and other details of the text that can be used to license inferences about how it should be received.
Can produce literary texts that make sophisticated use of figures of speech to develop multiple layers of meaning (symbolism, allusion, etc.).
(discourse communities)
Can recognize when a text instantiates a particular genre or draws upon a particular discourse, and interpret it in line with the conventions of that genre
Can apply analytic and interpretive strategies that depend upon linking details and structural elements of a text to motifs and themes developed in other literary works.
Can produce literary texts that exploit the conventional elements of literary genres (themes, motifs, characteristic plot patterns, etc.) to layer on additional elements of meaning.

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