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?