Friday 7 November 2008

Research Bulletin by Joan Peskin: Expertise in Reading

The development of expertise in reading poetry seems to be little different from the development of expertise in other domains. It involves incremental increases in knowledge that result from extended effects of time spent in deliberate practice (Ericsson, 2006). This allows experts to recognize meaningful patterns and thereby extract a level of meaning that a relative novice is not yet able to do. For instance, in a study in which experts (PhD students in English) were compared with novices (undergraduates and advanced high-school students), who thought aloud as they read "On a drop of dew" by Andrew Marvell, one of the experts used such patterns which then directed what she noticed in the text (Peskin, 1998). Noting that the poem (presented without the poet’s name) had “words like Manna, so it’s going to have a religious meaning," she contextualized the poem as “Metaphysical” and commented, "I’m seeing an imaginary transparency (over the poem) which has Donne’s name at the bottom with notes in the margin" (p. 243). This expert’s deep structure of knowledge provided a frame of reference that directed her attention.

Studies on expertise also look at how experts use ways of thinking that relative novices do not use. In this way, any systematic changes in the patterns of interpretation and the operations underlying the reading of poetic texts can be examined. For instance, the English PhD students in the above-mentioned study often looked for the meaning of a poem at the locus of the binary oppositions, the juxtapositions or dialectic. At least one theorist has argued that symmetry of the oppositional kind (e.g., darkness and light, creation and destruction) is the very basis of aesthetics in literature (Turner, 1991), and the expert readers allocated extra time to thinking about these contrasts. For instance, when reading difficult lines in a poem, an expert thought aloud:
One of the things that comes right away is the definite sense of polarity, of inside, outside, where elements are first established as something distinct and then at some point dissolve into each other (p. 248).
A relative novice, however, reading the same lines, observes the binary oppositions but rejects them as too confusing:
So you've got sort of an equation, or you've got a scale there, but it doesn't give me any sense of clarity. The one word seems to negate the other somehow, and it just jumbles everything for me. I don't like lines like these. They just jumble things (p. 248).
Not aware of the significance of the binary oppositions in constructing meaning in literary texts, this novice then ignores these lines. Interestingly, novices well understand the concept of binary opposites for oppositions are a basic tool of human cognition and a natural way of seeing the world (Egan, 1997). In children’s folktales, for instance, there are good and bad characters, brave and cowardly ones, and giants and dwarfs. Children also appear to have an implicit understanding of abstract binary concepts such as security and fear in Hansel and Gretel, and obedience and disobedience in Peter Rabbit. Yet, although oppositions are a signal to expert readers that they might be important in symbolic interpretation, relative novices do not have this explicit awareness as they try to make meaning.

More experienced readers of poetry not only demonstrate superior knowledge of interpretive patterns and methods, but research suggests that when given poems to read they enjoy them more. Compared to undergraduates, the PhD students found the poems they were given more pleasing as a whole, and they also more-frequently commented on their delight in specific images. Similarly, in a study of students reading poetry at school, I found that students in Grade 12 not only demonstrated superior interpretive strategies to those of students in Grade 8, which was to be expected, but they also enjoyed the poems more, and experienced a greater emotional response than the less experienced Eighth-graders (Peskin, in press). When reading poetic texts, students appear to enjoy what they feel they understand. It seems that more experience and deeper knowledge brings greater reading pleasure. There is every reason to think that the same principle would hold for reading prose fiction.

Kieran Egan (1997). The Educated Mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

K. Anders Ericsson (2006). The influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance. In K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P. J. Feltovich, & R. R. Hoffman (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (pp. 683 -704). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Joan Peskin (1998). Constructing meaning when reading poetry: An Expert-Novice study. Cognition and Instruction, 16, 235-263.

Joan Peskin (in press). The development of poetic literacy through the school years. Discourse Processes.

Mark Turner (1991). Reading minds: The study of English in the age of cognitive science. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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