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Posted at 11:29 AM ET, 11/17/2010

Beyond the brain: Reading is a cultural activity

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Michael Ben-Chaim, a teacher at Eagle Hill School in Massachusetts, and a fellow of the Eagle Hill School Institute. He is a regular contributor to

By Michael Ben-Chaim
Reading is a cultural activity. This statement may seem obvious, and yet in recent decades an increasing number of educators have considered reading from psychological and even neurological perspectives, as if reading were a process that happens in the agent’s mind and is ultimately regulated by brain mechanisms.

By restating that reading is a cultural activity, I assume that it requires a functioning brain, but I also draw attention to the nature of reading as a self-regulated behavior carried out by the reader as a social agent in light of his or her values, concerns, and interests.

Psychological and neurological perspectives that ignore the cultural qualities of reading are likely to address non-specific and relatively trivial aspects of reading problems, and in this respect may fail to offer useful guidelines for educators. That, in turn, may mislead students by drawing their attention and effort away from the cultural aspects that are central to successful reading.

As an example, consider the notion that background information, or content, is an important component in reading comprehension. This is the "main idea" of an article by the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham (The Answer Sheet, Sept, 28, 2009).

Every reader knows that prior knowledge of the meaning of at least some words in a sentence is necessary for comprehending the sentence. Words are signs; if we don’t know what a sign stands for, the sign is no longer useful. Isn’t that trivially correct?! Similarly, it is trivially true that background knowledge about fishing is likely to enhance a reader’s comprehension of an essay about fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, the intelligent reader reflectively decides how to read the text, and may accordingly decide that the essay includes important insights into the economic and political relationships between the operators and owners of fishing boats. She may accordingly stipulate that background information on different kinds of fish mentioned in the text, which she may or may not have, is not particularly relevant to her approach as a reader of that particular essay.

The point is, the reader’s decision is a function of her interests, concerns, and values and pertains primarily to her cultural identity rather than to her neurological or psychological makeup.

Pervasive problems in reading comprehension in contemporary education pertain to the function students assign to texts in relation to their cultural identities. Consider, for example, two high school students in an American poetry class who are asked to read Billy Collins’ “Divorce”,

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

It takes a couple of minutes for the two students to realize that the two spoons refer to a married couple resting intimately in bed, that the two forks represent a marital conflict, and that the knives are the lawyers who are finally hired to settle the couple’s divorce.

One student, for who the poem confirms the conviction that poetry is a useless game with words, is now eager to put the poem aside and return to the much more serious business of managing his social affairs on Facebook. The other student reads “Divorce” as a critique of modern life in which the space of intimate relationships is transformed into a battle field. Inspired by Collins’ work, he decides to write an essay on other modern conditions whereby peace is transformed into war. For this student, then, poetry is a means of engagement with ideals, ideas, and institutions that shape our lives.

One of the principal problems of reading comprehension is that the vast majority of American young adult students pursue their education in a path illustrated by the first student rather than the second, not only in their poetry classes but in social studies, science, and math classes as well.

Practically every school in the country adopts the mission of educating young people to become thoughtful citizens of the world. In the vast majority of schools, however, students’ achievements are a far cry from this ideal.

The problem is essentially cultural, and educators ought to acknowledge and address it accordingly.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 17, 2010; 11:29 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Reading  | Tags:  guest bloggers, reading, reading strategies, teaching reading  
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The first student interprets the poem as poetry, a school subject unrelated to his life or culture. The second student interprets the poem as a statement about the world in which he lives.

It is far more likely that this represents a difference between instructivist teaching and constructivist teaching. The instructivist teacher PRESENTS the poem as poetry unrelated to the student's life. The topic is the poem.

The constructivist teacher PRESENTS the poem as something for the student to reason about in terms of his own life. The topic is the student.

The RESULT is that the instructivist taught kid immediately goes back to his life as something unconnected to school. The constructivist taught kid sees the topic as an insight into his own life that school helps illuminate.

It's not the culture of the student at work here, but the culture of the school.

Posted by: zoniedude | November 17, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse


Nothing was said about the teaching in the post. Both students came to the same understanding of what the poem meant on their own without any instructor helping them (kinda like the real world where people do not have teachers telling them what to read). Despite the type of teaching used in the classroom for this imaginary scenario, one student read the poem in an aesthetic fashion, and the other student read the poem to get what meaning she could out of it and move on.

All reading is situational and cultural in this regard. If it weren't, you would be interested or riveted in everything and anything you read. Perhaps you are fully engaged in what is written on everything but even I turn into the "Facebook student" when I read the dictionary or a ketchup packet.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 17, 2010 9:58 PM | Report abuse

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