Interpreting Interpretation: A Look at an Overlooked Word

Last week I was working with some eighth grade teachers who were getting ready to launch a new reading unit, and to learn a bit more about their students, I asked them how well they thought their kids were able to interpret. They paused for a moment, not sure what to say, until one teacher said that they’d mainly focused on analyzing texts, not on interpreting them.

Given the emphasis that the Common Core standards have placed on analysis, I wasn’t surprised to hear this. As I researched for Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingthe words interpret and interpretation only appear 15 times in the ELA Standards, while the words analyze and analysis show up over 150 times.

What’s interesting, too, is that if you look at where those 15 words appear, you’ll find that while students are asked to interpret words, phrases, figurative language, figures of speech and visuals (such as charts and graphs), they’re not asked to interpret whole texts. They are, however expected to analyze other writers’, artists’, and filmmakers’ interpretations of texts and real-life events, which means the authors of the standards recognize that readers can interpret more than words and phrases.

In the real world, however, all sorts of people interpret all sorts of things. Doctors interpret their patients’ symptoms. Scientists interpret data. Historians interpret the causes of conflicts. Judges interpret the law. And as the writer George Eliot said:

So why is there so little mention of interpretation in the standards and many classrooms?

The skeptic in me has wondered if it’s because the powers that be don’t really want students to think for themselves. But I also suspect there’s a feeling out there that interpretation isn’t rigorous. That is, it’s seen as a loosey-goosey, touchy-feely way of reading, where readers are allowed to think whatever they want, based on their own experiences and feelings. This, however, is not at all what Louise Rosenblatt, the originator of the Reader-Response theory of reading, intended. She did believe that readers needed to bring their thoughts, emotions and experience with them in order to transact with a text. But she saw that transaction as part of “an active, self-ordering and self-correcting process, characterized by subtle adjustments and refinements of meaning in an effort to achieve a coherent interpretation,” which took into account all of a text, not just whatever parts might have spoken personally to a reader.

That process can be seen in the journey a third-grade class I wrote about in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading took. They were reading Cynthia Rylant’s picture book The Old Woman Who Named Things, which tells the story of an old woman who’s outlived all of her friends and is so afraid of losing anyone else that she shies away from forming attachments. Instead, she names inanimate objects that she thinks will outlive her, like her house and car, and considers them as friends. At first, this arrangement seems to work, but things get complicated when a puppy keeps appearing at the old woman’s gate. And those complications only gets worse when one day the puppy doesn’t come, and that ultimately forces the old woman to reconsider the decisions she’s made in her life.

I launched the class on that process by inviting them to begin the book using a text-based Know/Wonder chart, which helped them develop a basic understanding of the who, what, when and where (though, you’ll see that not everyone knew what outlive meant.) And highlighted at the bottom, you’ll also see that questioning, they raised a question, which I knew could lead them right to the heart of the story.

To continue that process, I reframed that question as a line of inquiry to explore and invited the class to draft what Dorothy Barnhouse and I first called “maybe statements” in What Readers Really DoAs you can see below, there’s quite a range in these maybe statements, with some students clearly drawing on more of the text than others were (though everyone cited a piece of evidence).

But then comes the moment when the now fully-grown puppy stops coming to the house and the old woman feels sad:

At this point in the story, I paused to ask the students another question that would engage them in that “active, self-ordering and self-correcting process”: Why did the author make the dog stop coming to the gate? What might she want the old woman—or us—to see?

It’s worth noting that the range of thinking here has narrowed, as students started coalescing around that last idea as part of that “self-correcting process.” A few, however, stuck with their initial thinking. But then comes the ending, which in fiction can act like a final reckoning, where reading must reconcile their ideas with what did and didn’t ultimately happen. Here, the ending Rylant fashioned doesn’t include the sudden appearance of the dog’s owner, nor does the old woman suddenly remember that the dog was really hers. And this invited everyone to revisit, revise and refine their thinking one last time to achieve that “coherent interpretation.”

Note that while these three examples of the class’s final interpretation do take into account all of the text, they’re all quite different. Each reflects what the individual reader found most significant, memorable or moving through their transaction with the text. And note, too, that for these third graders, none of these were universal truths nor were they trite aphorisms, like “Try, try again.” Instead they seem to capture what Flannery O’Connor says about the meaning of fiction:

“The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of the story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

I’ll have more to say about interpretation and how I see it connected to analysis in an upcoming post. But in the meantime, how do you think about interpretation—and how do you invite students to do it?

12 thoughts on “Interpreting Interpretation: A Look at an Overlooked Word

  1. We are finishing up The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and you have me thinking about interpretation. These last three chapters of the book are pivotal. Thank you for helping me to raise the bar on this weeks’ plans.

    • Endings always seem to me like a window into the writer’s mind and purpose – and I definitely remember the ending of The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Would love to hear some of your kids’ final interpretations, if you’ve got the time. And so glad that that post was so timely!

  2. It’s a long thinking journey to get to O’Connor’s meaning of fiction, isn’t it? And, getting our students to habituate to the idea that interpretation requires opportunities to “revisit, revise and refine” is a deliberate and yet messy process, because there will be many theories as to meaning, many with equal validity. As teachers, we often want some neat “one answer” that can then become the anchor of a thesis statement or PARCC answer, for that is what teachers have come to think of as teaching. In actuality, as you and Dorothy so brilliantly posit in your books, the “answer” to the meaning of any particular book is less important than the intellectual journey there – the habits of thinking that allow us to pause, re-read, wonder, and reframe ideas. We just finished reading “Refugee”, and I was amazed at the breadth and variety of interpretative thinking my students contributed – there was no one neat answer to anything, but there was rich thinking. I have come to believe, as I prepare to exit the classroom, that teachers are afraid of this kind of rich thinking: it requires thinking on the part of students. yes, but it also asks us to be less focused on the outcome (that five paragraph essay, or a neatly filled out graphic organizer) than the process. And it’s the process that will benefit our kids the most in the long run, isn’t it? I always learn from you, Vicki – and treasure you thoughtful posts.

    • I can only imagine, Tara, the breadth & depth of thinking your kids did with “Refugee.” What a great book for sixth grades to think about! And I think you’re right about many teachers’ fears because while I don’t think it necessarily requires more work on our part, it does require different work, which to me involves preparation as much if not more so than planning. But I have to confess the phrase that stood out for me was you preparing to exit the classroom. And now, as I write this, it suddenly seems telling that you wrote the word prepare, not plan, as perhaps that’s something we also need to do for life, prepare for possibilities as much as plan for outcomes – and, of course, embrace the process. It also makes me think that we should be sure to get together before you head upstate for the summer to celebrate possibilities, plans and journeys, which are kinds of processes, too.

  3. The power of the book you chose is so important as well — it begs for the reader’s interpretation. Thank you for always putting deep thinking out there into the world for us to ponder and reflect upon. Hope all is well!
    Clare and Tammy

    • It is, indeed, Clare, “All About the Books,” as you and Tammy know so well. And also the environment we create for the readers and thinkers in the room. My hunch is your new book will have amazing things to say about both of those factors -and more! Congrats!

  4. As always, so much great thinking within your post and so much thinking caused by your post. Interpretation is so messy. Maybe the “Core writers” were such experts that they just glossed over it or maybe they are neither Louise Rosenblatt devotees or give much credence to Reader-Response theory. At any rate, this is sticking with me, ” And this invited everyone to revisit, revise and refine their thinking one last time to achieve that “coherent interpretation.” This final summative thinking is so critical because we need to continually reflect on the fact that our thinking should change – if nothing else – grow more nuanced as we read. This is time well spent as your demonstration at #CCIRA18 showed, but I can see some folks being hesitant as it is “faster” to highlight, change color, and highlight again without the conversations, the charts and the deep thinking necessary for interpretation. What a treat to see this in writing so my brain can run through it again!!!
    THANK YOU!

    • So great to see you in Denver, Fran, and what fun to share one of my all-time favorite stories with you, too! As I was writing this post and looking for something about reader-response, I came across this from a college professor: “Reader-Response criticism is not a subjective, impressionistic free-for-all, nor a legitimizing of all half-baked, arbitrary, personal comments on literary works.” Instead, it’s a messy and rigorous process, and I think it’s the messiness teachers worry about – and their ability to navigate that. But I also think it gets such short shrift because the CCS folks see it this way, too, as a half-baked free-for-all. And then there’s the fact that we live in a culture that seems to value acceleration more than depth, despite the fact that learning is almost always a slow process.

  5. Reading your posts always brings me back to the heart and soul of teaching young people to read. Understanding how to ignite the “active, self-ordering and self-correcting process” is a crucial step that links all we bring to the text and creates the rigorous work of reading that is meaningful. But perhaps not easily measured on an annual skills test. Thank you as always for lifting me and reminding me of what it means to teach reading.

  6. Pingback: Analyzing Analysis: How the Parts Contribute to the Whole | To Make a Prairie

  7. I used this process with a class of grade nine students as they were studying some short stories (and it worked beautifully). As you suggest in one of your comments (in this thread) above “Endings always seem to me like a window into the writer’s mind and purpose”. My students and I were considering endings of short stories, and interpreting what the writer may want us to understand about the ending and beyond that, the larger story. One of the stories the students had read was Roald Dahl’s ‘Lambs to the Slaughter’.
    When I asked students to pose some theories about why the author may have ended the story as he did, some of their early responses were ‘because he ran out of things to say’ or ‘because he wanted to wrap it up.’ I wanted students to go further, and they did. With some prompting, they got to saying things like ‘there may be moments that are so devastating, that you can’t hold back your anger’ (yes!) and ‘maybe we are all capable of the kind of crime Mary commits’ (beautiful!).
    Although I love where they ended up in their interpretations, I still thought about their early response (i.e., the writer had nothing more to write), and it made me wonder. And what I wonder is, were students thinking about their own reasons for ending a piece of writing? How often have they been asked to write a story, and ended it because they ran out of steam and/or ideas and/or interest? Were they thinking about their own motivations and assuming it true for other writers? Are students aware that writers make choices in attempt to say something to the reader, not because they’ve run out of things to say?
    I think I know where I need to go next.

    • Just as you copied and pasted this into an email to me (because I’d seemed to have vanished), I thought I’d copy & paste my response to you, too, as others might find it useful:

      First, my apologies for not being able to respond to your comment. I’ve been in the process of designing a new website for months now and every time I add something to the blog, the entire blog’s archives have to be exported again. I was hoping that the new site would be up before the end of the month, but alas, it hasn’t been. And your email makes me think that I can’t wait for the site to be up to work on it, as I’m aware that yours was not the only comment that wasn’t acknowledged.

      But . . . I love the ideas the kids ultimately came up with–and do suspect that they often run out of things to say, themselves. But I also wonder if they don’t fully grasp the intentionality of writers, both in choosing details throughout the piece and the care they take in considering their endings. This isn’t necessarily something that they know before or when they start writing (though some author’s like John Irving begin by writing their last line and then thinking about how to get there). And I clearly remember a story I wrote many years ago where the ending didn’t occur to me until I was at the cusp of it–and you’re making me think that it might be worthwhile at some point to share what that process was like for me.

      But I’m reminded of a 9th grade teacher who also read “Lambs to the Slaughter” with her class, using a similar process. Seeking to comprehending the ending, they thought that the wife must have been an alcoholic to have done such a thing–until they carefully went back to the text to look for clues of excessive drinking, which they couldn’t find. I’m afraid I can’t remember what that thought when that theory couldn’t hold, but that process forced them to consider possibilities that didn’t fit into a catchy phrase (like “Try, try again”) or a canned universal truth.

      So keep me posted! I love hearing where the work takes teachers!

      Vicki

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