Synthesizing theories of reading and rhetoric

Reading Ken Goodman’s On Reading I felt like I was in a dialogue with the author, sometimes an argument. And this, I think, proves the main thrust of his theory—that the act of reading is the act of making sense. It is not often that I am so actively aware that I am thinking as I read but there was so much in Goodman’s work with which I agreed and then, so much with which I disagreed that his notion of reading as “transacting” with a text was obvious. There is also a clear-cut division between where I agree with Goodman and where I disagree. Where I agree, his statements already line up with what I already think about reading and those points had the added bonus of being buttressed by Goodman’s own observations of child readers. Where I disagree, I again use my own knowledge and Goodman fails to provide evidence to refute what I know. Once again, his theory is proven in my own reading of his book.
 
What I want to do with this journal entry is try to bring together Goodman’s theory of reading, Killingsworth’s theory of appeals in rhetoric, and my own thinking about plain language writing. 
 
Goodman says readers construct their own meaning using their own values, understandings and experiences and I think Killingsworth and plain language writers would agree. Killingsworth argues that writers appeal to values shared by both the writer and the audience and take into consideration their audience’s experiences and understanding of the world as they craft their appeals. Plain language writers do likewise but take the added step of researching their audiences to be able to take their values, experiences and understandings into account as they write. Plain language writers often use knowledge already possessed by the target audience as a jumping off point from which new information can be introduced. Likewise, Killingsworth says that good writers do the same through the crafting of appeals.
 
Goodman argues that reading is the counterpart to listening. Again, I think Killingsworth would agree, as he makes no distinction between the written appeal and the oral appeal. The same rules apply. Plain language writers would also agree since we advocate for the use of everyday speech in written communication and for familiar sentence structure. Plain language writers have long advocated for a conversational tone in writing.
 
However, Goodman repeatedly states that written language is learned the same way that oral language is learned. I can sort of see where he is going with this. His examples from real teachers in real classrooms show that children of all ages appear to be competent, independent readers and writers who use written language to gain meaning or to express meaning.  But their classrooms are set up in a particular way and their teachers behave in a particular way. I would like to know what happens to these children after they leave school. Are they all as literate as they need to be, as Goodman is fond of saying? Or do they fall in line with the rest of the American population of which a good portion is not as literate as they need to be?
 
I don’t want to dwell on how it is people learn to read because my focus is on communicating with people regardless of their literacy level. So my second quarrel with Goodman is his assertion that societies and individuals become as literate as they need to be. After reading his entire book, I found no evidence to back up this statement.  Various literacy surveys (a new one is being announced at PLAIN 2013) show that many people are NOT as literate as they need to be. If everyone were naturally as literate as they needed to be, my work would be unnecessary. But people are compelled to go to court yet fail to do so; people need to take medications yet fail to read dosage instructions correctly; people throw important letters in the trash because they can’t understand them or don’t realize their importance. So no, Mr. Goodman, people everywhere are NOT literate more or less in proportion to their need and opportunity to be literate. This point is important because literacy is one of the things a writer must take into account when writing to a target audience. They must write with that literacy level in mind in order to appeal to the audience. If a writer does not take literacy into account when writing, they may as well be writing nonsense. For Goodman, himself says, “the ability to make sense of what we read is always limited by how much we already know about what we are reading.” It goes back to why familiar words and sentence structure are important in writing; they help the reader to predict what is coming next.
 
Further, if societies were as literate as they need to be, why would Henry Milner feel the need to write Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work. Obviously Milner feels there is room for improvement. In fact, he says so. His research shows that it is literacy that increases civic participation, not knowledge the system of government. “Within formal schooling, the acquisition of sophisticated reading comprehension skill is suggested to have more lasting impact on civic literacy than the content of civic literacy courses.” In other words, it is people’s ability to read and understand what they are reading that determines whether they are more likely to participate in society as citizens. And, Milner goes on to say, the more citizens participate in society, the better society becomes and meeting the needs of the citizens. But this takes work. Sweden, Milner argues, has a higher proportion of civic literacy than does Canada or the United States because it actively promotes literacy among its adults. So, contrary to societies and individuals being as literate as they need to be, as Goodman says, societies would do well to actively promote literacy as a lifelong learning endeavour.
 
Gramsci, too, would argue that societies and individuals are not as literate as they need to be for he instructed publisher specifically on how to write periodicals for “the common reader.” It is clear that Gramsci believed that there was a way to communicate complex ideas to non-specialized audiences that would improve their understanding. He did not assume that these non-specialized audiences, the common reader, would naturally come to understand such notions if they needed to.
 
I do think that I agree more than disagree with Ken Goodman. Further, I think his theory lines up quite nicely with Killingsworth’s theory of appeals and my experience as a plain language writer. Here are the points on which, I think, we all agree:

  • reading is more about meaning than it is about words and letters
  • readers actively search for meaning in a text through a process of prediction, confirmation, disconfirmation, and correction
  • familiar words, familiar sentence structure, and familiar contexts facilitate reading
  • readers use what they already know (their schema) to make meaning of text
  • reading is the written language counterpart of listening
  • readers remember what they understand, NOT what they read
  • reading is a deliberate act, people choose to read and they choose not to read

 
Each of these bullets focus on the reader—what the reader does, what the reader knows. Is it any wonder that Killingsworth and plain language writers focus on the audience? Reading is entirely dependent on the reader! If the reader is the one making sense of the text, then it makes sense to frame one’s writing based on what the reader wants or needs to know rather than on what the author wants to say.

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