University of Georgia
College of Education
Department of Language Education
125 Aderhold Hall
Athens, GA 30602
This paper was developed from an invited address to the
American Educational Research Association in recognition of the
Raymond B. Cattell Early Career Award for Programmatic Research.
Please do not quote without permission from the author.
In this essay I explore the notion of meaning, particularly as applied to acts of producing and reading texts. I ground my analysis in principles of activity theory and cultural semiotics, focusing on the ways in which reading takes place among readers and texts in a culturally mediated, codified experience that I characterize as the transactional zone. I build on Rosenblatt's construct of the evocation-the associations generated through engagement with a text-to argue that meaning comes through a reader's generation of new texts in response to the text being read. To account for this phenomenon, I give examples from studies illustrating the complementary designative and expressive functions of language in meaning construction; the dialogic role of composing during a reading transaction; the necessity of culturally constructed subjectivity in meaning construction; the role of intertextuality and intercontextuality in the construction of meaning; and the depths and dynamics of context in readers' engagement with texts. I conclude by locating meaning in the transactional zone in which signs become tools for extending or developing concepts and the richness of meaning coming from the potential of a reading transaction to generate new texts.
If Meaning is Constructed, What's It Made of?
In discussions of readers and texts, it is common to refer to the importance of the text's meaning to the reader. Axiomatic to the point that it has become a theoretical bromide, the idea that texts should be meaningful is rarely defined. Rather, it is assumed to be not only a property of a worthwhile reading experience but a concept that all reading theorists and practitioners understand in more or less the same way. In this paper I would like to focus on the axiom itself; that is, my goal is to interrogate what it means to mean.
Defining the term meaningful turns out to be a tricky and often circular proposition, as my previous sentence might suggest. My dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 1994-1996) defines meaningful as "full of meaning." Meaning is defined variously as "something that is meant," "the thing that is conveyed," and "a significant quality." Mean means "to serve or intend to convey, show, or indicate: SIGNIFY." The best I can gather from these everyday definitions of meaningfulness is that when something has meaning, it stands for something else.
This notion of meaning doesn't quite get at the depths of consciousness suggested by references to meaningfulness by those who write about textual meaning. Bruner (1986), for instance, says that in a meaningful reading of literature, one engages in "world making" that is
constrained by the nature of the world version with which we begin the remaking. It is not a relativistic picnic. . . . In the end, it is the transaction of meaning by human beings, human beings armed with reason and buttressed by the faith that sense can be made and remade, that makes human culture. . . .
Literature subjunctivizes, makes strange, renders the obvious less so, the unknowable less so as well, matters of value more open to reason and intuition. Literature, in this spirit, is an instrument of freedom, lightness, imagination, and yes, reason. It is our only hope against the long gray night. (pp. 158-159)
That's quite a more impressive enterprise than simply standing
for something else. In this paper I aim to propose what is involved
when readers engage with texts in such a way as to produce these
transactions and transformations. Fundamental to this process,
I argue, is the reader's constructive participation in the creation
of new texts during the process of reading. This process of text
production conceivably involves further reflection through which
the reader potentially produces further texts. The reader's construction
of these new texts is the source of meaning in reading. These
constructions, while idiosyncratic, are culturally mediated, locating
meaning not only in the reader and text but in the cultural history
that has preceded and conditioned both and in the social practices
that provide the immediate environment of reading. I will next
detail the processes I am describing and then illustrate them
with examples from studies I have conducted on the meaning-making
experiences of high school students.
Theoretical Framework for Considering Meaning
To help frame my inquiry, I will draw on the concepts and terminology of the related fields of activity theory and semiotics. In particular, I will rely on the notions of tool and sign to describe what a text is and how a reader constructs meaning out of experiences with it, and the notion of culture as both the progenitor of signs and tools and the product of sign and tool use. Culture, from this perspective, provides the basis for meaning, serving to mediate the development of what Vygotsky (1978) calls higher mental processes. Higher mental processes are paradigmatic rather than universal; that is, they represent ways of comprehending and acting on the world that are appropriated through cultural practice, and they therefore embody cultural concepts of what and how things signify. Although I treat each of them separately in the sections that follow, it is impossible for any to exist independent of the others.
I will borrow Eco's (1985) paraphrase of Peirce (1931-1958) as the basis for my understanding of the notion of sign: It is a "relation or referring back, where . . . something stands to somebody for something else in some respect or capacity" (p. 176). This sounds quite simple, yet as the abundant field of semiotics suggests is instead quite complex. What the sign, or configuration of signs-what I call a text--stands for lies at the heart of the notion of meaning, for a sign means differently to different readers. At the same time, a sign can mean nothing to a reader for whom the configuration has no codified cultural significance, in which case it is not a sign.
To give an example from a current debate: The Confederate army battle flag is now flown over the state capitol building of South Carolina, and the flag's arrangement of the St. Andrews cross and stars is also central to the design of the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi. This particular configuration, in the view of many white natives of these states, is a symbol of veneration for Confederate Civil War veterans, as South Carolina Senator Glen McConnell explained in a July 26, 1999 Nightline feature:
I see honor, courage, valor. I see the red, white and blue and the blood of sacrifice that ran through that battle and the people that carried that flag. I don't see black and white. . . . people say it's an emblem of racism, it's an emblem of hate, it's shameful and all of this. How do they think we feel when it's the emblem of our ancestors? They hurt our feelings.
This same flag was viewed quite differently by an unidentified
black South Carolinian interviewed for the Nightline program,
who said, "When I see the flag I see oppression. I see segregation.
I see slavery and all of the things that are a disadvantage to
the Afro-American people." A second black citizen echoed
these remarks, saying, "It represented the worst in America.
And most decent Americans don't want to see as a symbol the worst
in America. We want to see the best in America" (http://www.jessejacksonjr.org/issues/i07269968.html).
For the purpose of contrast, I will add some hypothetical readers of the Confederate battle flag. One would be a resident of a remote Indonesian island who has no knowledge of the flag's significance in American history. This person might not read the flag as significant at all, might assign a purely astronomical meaning to its arrangement of stars, or might see it as a possible sail for a fishing boat. Other hypothetical readers would be the meteorologist or kite flier for whom the flag flying atop the state capitol might take on at least a temporary alternative meaning, that being as evidence of which way the wind is blowing.
When considering the meaning that any individual attributes to a text, it's important to note that the text is not interpreted alone, but in terms of the context in which it appears. To some readers, the Confederate battle flag loses a degree of its emotional impact when removed from atop the capitol dome and interred behind glass in a museum. A written text too can take on different meanings depending on the context, as Fish (1980) revealed when a class of college students, upon entering a literature class and seeing a list left on the chalkboard from a previous class, assumed it must be a poem and interpreted it as such.
I've chosen the example of the Confederate battle flag because of its familiarity and clear diversion of interpretation. My purpose is not to assign a correct meaning to the flag but to illustrate the ambiguity and indeterminacy of signs to readers, if not to authors. It's notable that each of the first two real readers of the Confederate battle flag I quoted believes that he has an authoritative interpretation of the sign of the flag. At the present, however, the interpretation of the flag as a symbol of honor is the official meaning, at least as sanctioned by the governments of these three states. That one group can institute a particular meaning for the flag illustrates the way in which dominant cultures have the power to define their version of reality as reality, thus establishing their values as authoritative and sovereign. This notion that meaning can be sanctioned by those with the greatest cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1994) has implications for the ways in which I will eventually talk about the meaning of written texts.
How a sign comes to mean is a function of how a reader is enculturated to read. This is characteristic of all reading, whether of flags, configurations of stars, or words. Indeed, the idea that characters on a page constitute words to be read is something that one is enculturated to realize and act upon. One belief that I will challenge is the notion that a text has a meaning of its own-the "meaning incarnate" referred to by Bruner (1986)--independent of what readers as members of cultures bring to it. I will argue that attributing meaning to the text alone simply assigns to the text an officially sanctioned meaning, often one so deeply presumed that other interpretations inevitably are dismissed as wrong or irrelevant.
A text is a configuration of signs. As my illustration of the text of the Confederate battle flag suggests, I regard reading as an act conducted in conjunction with texts of all kinds, including of course written texts but also any configuration of signs. Much of my work has concerned the efforts of readers to make sense of written texts, particularly the kind typically thought of as literary. As part of this endeavor, I have looked at the texts that readers create to represent their response to literature, including such varied forms as talk, writing, drawing, dance, drama, and music, often in tandem. I have also studied writers as they have composed without a written stimulus, drawing on the images of the text that they construct from their experiences, imagination, and so on.
My notion of text, then, refers to any configuration of signs that provides a potential for meaning. A reader, while including those who read written texts, refers more broadly to anyone who tries to make sense of a configuration of signs. These signs would include both deliberate efforts to orchestrate signs into a text (e.g., a painting) and those that are perceived as being orchestrated into a text (e.g., constellations as read by ancient people). In this latter example, the text is presumed to have an author (a god) whose astronomical text is codified in ways that enabled ancient readers to read a meaning into it.
This point brings me to the assertion that texts, like the cultural contexts in which they are produced and read, are codified and conventional (Rabinowitz & Smith, 1997). A text is produced as part of the ongoing development of a genre-which includes both text features and social practices-and is read by a reader who is enculturated to understand text in codified and conventional ways (Bakhtin, 1981). This reliance on historically evolving conventions contributes to a text's position in an intertext; that is, the juxtaposition of texts in ways that allow for connection and continuity across readings through a relationship of codes and concepts (e.g., Bloome & Egan-Robertson, 1993; Hartman, 1992; Witte, 1992). When authors and readers invoke the same codes and thus are in tune with one another's ways of understanding text, they have achieved what Nystrand (1986) calls reciprocity. As the illustration of constellations reveals, there can be a kind of reciprocity between readers and texts that is based on a false premise about the codification of texts . This spurious reciprocity can take place with readers of written texts such as Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," a pamphlet he distributed in which he argued that British society could solve two problems at once-a proliferation of babies born to the poor and a shortage of food-if the wealthy were to eat young children born into poverty. As Booth (1974) would argue, there is widespread consensus that the ironic and satiric codes of Swift's essay should be read to supercede the argumentative codes. If a reader overlooked the ironic and satiric codes of the text, he or she would read it as a genuine endorsement of neonatophagia. (For an online version of this text, see http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/lit/drama/AModestProposal/Chap1.html.)
Furthermore, reading contexts can invoke particular conventions for reading, what Durst (1999) calls the ground rules for participating appropriately. Marshall, Smagorinsky, and Smith (1995), for instance, have found that in particular classrooms, teachers emphasize particular reading conventions and discourage others, invoking a particular speech genre (Bakhtin, 1986; Wertsch, 1991) for discussing literature. The conventions that they impose are grounded in particular traditions of understanding and talking about texts, with the conventions that accompany those traditions potentially mutable as instantiated with particular groups of participants. The conventions that teachers endorse and reinforce take on the kind of official authority that interpretations of flags can achieve; that is, they have official sanction and therefore render other ways of reading texts less authoritative and thus less likely to be adopted by novice readers or readers without the capitol to vigorously invoke other conventions that might have authority in other settings. Like an ax murderer in a logging camp, some students do not recognize the proper use of the tools at hand and can disrupt the official language of discussion by using them for different purposes. And so, in classrooms, idiosyncratic readings and uses of language, such as those used for emotional purposes, are often dismissed as irrelevant to understanding a text's meaning. Furthermore, to those who assume that canonical works are written according to an innately superior set of codes, texts produced through other conventions-such as works by some minority writers-are viewed as inferior and not worthy of serious study (see Stotsky, 1999, for an endorsement of this view; and Gates, 1988, and Lee, 2000, for a critique). If it is true that there are cultured and gendered (Cherland, 1994) ways of reading and producing texts, and that these practices are out of step with the established and authoritative ways of conceiving and considering texts in school, then school becomes a much more hospitable and rewarding experience for some groups than for others.
The next notion that I will take up is that of a tool. A tool is a means by which one acts on one's environment. In the words of Luria (1928), "instead of applying directly its natural function to the solution of a particular task, the child puts between that function and the task a certain auxiliary means . . . by the medium of which the child manages to perform the task" (p. 495; cited in Cole, 1996, p. 108; emphasis in original). Most readers will instantiate, upon hearing the word tool, such implements of handiwork as hammers and saws; and indeed, such instruments clearly illustrate the way in which a medium enables a person to carry out a task. From the perspective of activity theory, a tool includes psychological tools as well, particularly speech (Cole, 1996; Vygotsky, 1978, 1987; Wertsch, 1985, 1991) and, as I will argue from my own work, artistic media such as art, drama, and dance (O'Donnell & Smagorinsky, 1999; Smagorinsky, 1995a, 1997a, 1997b, 1999; Smagorinsky & Coppock, 1994, 1995a, 1995b; Smagorinsky & O'Donnell-Allen, 1998a, 1998b, 2000). Just as the same icon may represent different meanings to different readers, or no meaning at all to other readers, the same implement may serve as different tools to different users, or no tool at all to other users, or a different tool to the same user in different situations, depending on how (or if at all) it is conceptualized. The manner in which it is conceptualized is a function of culture, the next term that requires definition.
By culture I refer to the recurring social practices and their artifacts that give order, purpose, and continuity to social life. The notion of having a reasonably common purpose suggests that culture is teleological (Wertsch, 2000); that is, culture is motivated by movement toward a shared optimal outcome or ideal destination. This ideal embodies the mutual values of the community in question. Movement toward that ideal is enabled and constrained by recurring social practices that are facilitated by tools that produce the artifacts, including texts, that provide a reasonably shared meaning for life within the culture. As the Confederate battle flag issue illustrates, societies often consist of people of different and frequently conflicting cultures whose experiences and social practices result in cultural icons being interpreted in different ways.
People are, in this sense, products of culture. I do not use this phrase in a fatalistic way that deprives individuals within a culture of agency. Rather, I use it to describe the general social practices that become deeply engrained. At times a culture's more experienced members will instruct its novices in ways that are didactic and deliberate, such as the way in which a community of faith provides an explicit account of its beliefs about history and destiny to its youngsters and converts. At others the means of mediation are subtle to the point of becoming invisible through a process that Cole (1996) calls prolepsis. He describes this process by arguing that "the medium of culture allows people to 'project' the past into the future, thereby creating a stable interpretive frame which is then read back into the present as one of the important elements of psychological continuity" (p. 186). Wells (1986), without using the term, describes the process of prolepsis as follows:
As mature members of a human culture, parents have quite specific ideas about what sorts of behavior have meaning and so, in interpreting the baby's gestures, noises, and so on, parents assimilate them to behaviors that they themselves find meaningful. The meanings attributed are therefore cultural meanings and, in their responses, parents provide culturally appropriate feedback that has the effect of shaping the infant's behavior towards what is culturally acceptable and meaningful. (p. 35; emphasis in original)
An example of how prolepsis works comes from Rubin, Provezano,
and Luria (1974), who studied adults interacting with babies in
a nursery. Those babies wearing pink diapers were treated sweetly
and gently, while those wearing blue were bounced more robustly.
The social future of these infants was thus projected into their
current treatment, in turn making that outcome more likely. The
process of prolepsis is thus tied to what Wertsch (1985; cf. Leont'ev,
1981), has described as the motive of a setting, which implies
a purpose and sense of direction for a social group, toward which
behavior within the setting is channeled through cultural practices.
Through this process society perpetuates its practices and truisms, at times to the detriment or limitation to some groups within it. If women, for instance, are deemed the fairer sex, then society will be structured to obliterate or limit their opportunities in life's more rough-and-tumble pursuits, making access to sports, military careers, and the like unlikely. As Cole (1996) says, "when neonates enter the world they are already the objects of adult, culturally conditioned interpretation. . . . they come bathed in the concepts their community holds about babies just as surely as they come bathed in amniotic fluid" (pp. 183-4). My notion that people are products of culture, then, refers to the ways in which society embeds its assumptions in daily social practice, thus codifying the world in particular ways and suggesting the naturalness, appropriateness, and often inevitableness of conventional ways of living within it. The world thus coded typically establishes authoritative ways of reading meaning into signs that privilege one perspective over another.
For my purposes as an observer of schools, and especially English classes, prolepsis works in service of the traditional culture of school in which canonical texts make up the curriculum and the analytical written text is prized as the highest form of interpretation (Applebee, 1993). These cultural practices, facilitated by a limited tool kit of mediational means used to produce a limited set of textual forms, limits students in terms of the meaning available for them to construct. Furthermore, because the cultural practices drawn on most resemble those found in the homes of middle class students, it makes school success less likely for those whose home cultures provide them with a different tool kit, a different set of goals for learning, and different notions of what counts as an appropriate text (Cazden, 1988; Heath, 1983; Moll & Greenberg, 1990).
The Transactional Zone of Meaning Construction
I next employ these concepts from activity theory and semiotics to explore the notion of meaning in reading. One caveat to my argument is that the data base that supports it is drawn from studies of high school students reading the genre known as literature; that is, texts codified to imply rather than explicate a meaning. The limitations of my research focus might call into question the broad applicability of my conception of reading to texts designed to explicate a meaning, such as this paper. To clarify my own view of how broadly one could generalize from my argument, I would say that it ought to apply to the reading of any text for which a reader generates a new text, regardless of genre. For some readers, this might exclude literature (Wilhelm, 1996); for others, it might include the driest of technical reports.
I would like to start with the premise that meaning is constructed by readers through their engagement with the signs of a text. In making this statement I need to clarify that I am not entirely distinguishing readers from texts, an idea that I will develop throughout this essay. In one sense a human reader and a text such as a book are distinct and constituted from quite different elements. It is not, however, physical people and physical texts that I am talking about, but rather meaning as a function of what Salomon (1993) has called distributed cognitions, in which "People . . . think in conjunction or partnership with others and with the help of culturally provided tools and implements," including texts (p. xiii; emphasis in original). In this sense, as Wertsch (1991) argues, the mind "'extends beyond the skin' in at least two senses: it is often socially distributed and it is connected to the notion of mediation" (p. 14; cf. Bakhtin, 1981, 1986; Bateson, 1972; Geertz, 1973; Smagorinsky, 1995b).
Just as the mind extends beyond the confines of the skin, textual signs extend beyond the cover of the book, meeting in a space in which the two are one (cf. Faust, 2000). This intellectual space provides the arena in which cultural mediation takes place, including the act known as reading. I do not view this space as a sealed area connecting two discrete entities, but as a dynamic, permeable zone whose instrumentality is a function of culture. The work that takes place in the space I'm describing is thus a joint accomplishment, not just of readers and texts but of the cultural practices through which both have been produced. In this sense, meaning is a function of work conducted among readers and texts rather than between reader and text. By this I mean that no text and no reader comes to the experience alone, but that reading is fundamentally dialogic, a term I use in Bakhtin's (1981) sense; that is, in dialogue with cultural predecessors whose practices take place within the "great historical destinies of genres" (p. 259). In this sense readings are emplotted (Ricoeur, 1983); that is, situated in response to other readings. Wertsch (1999) has documented how text production is emplotted in terms of its hidden dialogicality among narrative texts: Each text is produced as a conversational turn in dialogue with prior and anticipated future texts. I would argue that readings are similarly emplotted, serving as what Ricoeur calls a configurational act enabling readers to bring together diverse texts into a complex whole.
The notion of reading I have briefly outlined here departs from conceptions of reading in which meaning inheres in the text itself, with the reader's role being to uncover or decipher that embedded meaning. This is not to say that texts are not inscribed with meaning, do not preclude some readings or suggest relatively narrow possibilities. I'm hoping, for instance, that readers of the text I am now writing do not conclude that it is about the mating habits of the snail darter, or more locally, about the location of textual meaning in the text itself. Indeed, it is my hope as a writer to preclude such readings by writing carefully within conventions anticipated by the readers I envision. My choice of words, codes, and conventions is designed to inscribe meaning into the text, although it is also possible that I am inscribing meanings that I am not aware of, as writers do when using masculine pronouns and other gendered terms while referring to people generally. My premise is that as a writer, I produce a texts that provides for readers a meaning potential that is realized by different readers in different ways (cf. Nystrand's  critique of Olson's  notion of the autonomous text). In addition to whatever deciphering or decoding might be required to understand what I am trying to inscribe in the text, readers bring to the experience a host of attributes and conditions that will affect how they construct a meaning from this inscription.
This decoding to which I refer takes place both with individual words and with the configuration of conventions that make up genres (Bakhtin, 1986); that is, the text as a whole is codified in ways that suggest that I am producing an argument and not a work of fiction, a distinction that should invoke a particular approach to reading by those who understand these codes and know how to adjust their reading appropriately. To return to my previous statement that readers and texts are products of culture: Argumentation is a cultural construct that is deliberately codified and conventional, requiring my text to work within those codes if it is to be recognized and read as such. Readers whose life experiences have exposed them to argumentation, or whose schooling has given them formal knowledge of argumentative conventions, will use their knowledge to inform their reading, to engage in the social practice of argumentation during their transaction with the text. This is not to say that they will agree with my argument, only to recognize that I am arguing and not producing a satire.
It's also important to note that multiple codes may coexist in the same text. Swift's "A Modest Proposal," for instance, employs the codes of argumentation but also those of irony. Readers who recognize the argumentative codes but not the ironic will see a single rather than double entendre of the essay. At times the use of double-coding is deliberately embedded so that only knowledgeable readers can see both meanings. For instance, American slaves employed multiple coding systems in spirituals, quilts, and other seemingly mundane texts for convening messages and instructions on escape tactics and routes along the Underground Railroad (Tobin & Dobard, 1999). One quilt pattern known as the "trip around the world [was] used to indicate a path around a mountain instead of over it. . . . if anyone-overseer, master, or mistress-overheard the slaves talking about taking a trip around the world, they would have dismissed it as gibberish" (p. 84). Unlike Jonathan Swift, who (I assume) assumed the ability of his readers to recognize the double entendre, the slaves designed their quilts to exclude particular readings and readers through the embedding of codes grounded in the African cultures brought to the continent by the slaves.
I would argue that the common invocation of conventions is what enables readers and texts to meet in the transactional zone. As the examples of "A Modest Proposal" and the Underground Railroad signs reveal, readers who lack enculturation to reading codes will not have access to the meaning potential that they suggest. One important point about the necessity of a transactional zone is that the meaning potential of a text can be read quite differently by people who read codes according to the same set of conventions. Take, for instance, the illustration of the Confederate battle flag and the different readings provided by the black and white South Carolinians interviewed. I would argue that all are meeting the text in the transactional zone because they are recognizing the same sets of codes; all see the flag as a symbol of the Confederate cause in the Civil War. The fact that some see this cause as glorious and others as shameful is due to factors of perspective rather than the recognition of different codes. The transactional zone would not be in effect for readers of "A Modest Proposal" who either purchase and devour a plump baby or believe that Swift thinks they ought to do so. Such readers only recognize the argumentative codes and thus accept Swift's claim that "a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout."
The transactional zone is also available through the kind of reading known as deconstruction, whose purpose is to reveal the assumptions behind a text, often for critical purposes. Cherryholmes (1988) describes the practice as follows:
In a Foucauldian genre, criticism produces histories and politics of the present, wherein texts and discourse-practices are the effects of the exercise of power. In a Derridean deconstruction, criticism exposes silences and gaps between that which is valued and disvalued, traces the sedimentation of meanings, and documents contradictions and ambiguities within texts and discourse-practices. (p. 160)
In this kind of reading, it is the reader's keen eye for codification
that produces the reading, even if that reading might suggest
meanings unrecognized by the author (see, e.g., Tyson, 1999).
I need also attend to the issues involved when unschooled readers do not recognize textual codes. This lack of recognition and understanding can occur with both words (i.e., not knowing sound-letter correspondence) and genres (i.e., whole-text conventions). I would argue that without knowledge of conventions governing both, meeting a text in the transactional zone is not possible. Some (e.g., Delpit, 1995; Lee, 1993) have argued that explicit instruction in textual codes is necessary in order for readers from outside society's mainstream to succeed in school. Whether one believes in this approach or the immersion methods of whole language (e.g., Goodman & Goodman, 1990), I would argue that codified resonance between readers and texts is essential to the potential for establishing a transactional zone.
Acultural Accounts of Meaning
My view of reading as inherently cultural is at odds with conceptions of reading that guide much current research, practice, and policy. Many conceptions of reading focus primarily on readers and texts, irrespective of the cultural and contextual factors that I will argue are central to a view of reading grounded in activity theory or cultural semiotics. Much of the highly influential reading research of the 1980's (see, e.g., Anderson, Hiebert, Wilkinson, & Scott, 1985) was based on time-constrained readings of abbreviated passages, with the setting and task ruling out the kinds of discussion-mediated, recursive, deliberative, constructive readings that more typically take place among people whose reading does not serve the purpose of measuring comprehension.
More recently, the conceptions of reading claimed as having scientific validity in the current "reading wars" (see Allington & Woodside-Jiron, 1999) are based on research that similarly is conducted in isolated settings. In these conceptions of reading, the text is presumed to have a particular meaning that the reader, under conditions that resemble testing, must decipher. Failure to determine the text's official meaning results in the measurement of poor reading skills. The text, regardless of its interest to the reader, serves as a sample of all texts in measuring comprehension. The reading is further presumed to be representative of all of the reader's readings, including further readings of the same text perhaps mediated by discussion, reflection, research, inquiry, and other efforts at imputing a meaning to the signs of the text-all, surely, actions that successful readers take when reading difficult texts for their own purposes.
The notion that a text has an authoritative, official meaning also informs standardized tests of verbal aptitude and reading comprehension, which further assume that there are questions most worth asking and answers most worth answering, all of which serve to measure a reader's ability and often by inference a teacher's competence. A final area in which this assumption prevails is in the commercial literature anthologies that are ubiquitous in secondary schools, which Applebee (1993) has found to discourage open-ended and divergent thinking about what literature might mean.
Even those who take a more constructivist perspective have been known to view reading, including the reading of literature, solely as a function of a reader's transaction with a text. In such approaches, culture is not viewed as a factor in the way a reader reads. Rather, the notion of a reading transaction is reduced to what takes place when a text comes alive in the mind of an active reader, primarily through the reader's instantiation of personal experience in response to the words of the text. For example, Probst (1986) asserts that
the reader makes the poem as he reads . . . . the reader has the opportunity to see himself in his reading Literature invites the reader to observe his own responses, to see himself as if in a photograph, some aspect of his emotional or intellectual self frozen and awaiting inspection; thus, it rewards the reader with sharpened understanding of himself. For the moment, he can be both a participant, feeling and thinking, and an observer, watching himself feel and think.
Literature therefore enables the reader to remake himself. . . . The student creates himself intellectually as he reads. (pp. 23-24)
Probst's primary attention to culture comes in his argument that readers should defy its influence on them as readers:
Rather than submit to the work, seeking only to find its "structure of norms," the reader instead forces the work to submit to him. That is to say, he uses it, incorporating it into himself. . . .
Unfortunately, too few people steadily revise their notions about the world. Our tendency to remain with the political party of our parents, to continue in the religions imposed upon us as children, and to retain our prejudices despite evidence that might accumulate against them suggests a willingness to settle comfortably into patterns of thoughts and behavior. . .Culturally established norms become so deeply ingrained in consciousness that they come to seem as substantial and immutable as physical reality itself. (pp. 66-67)
This view that personal experience informs reading is an important
insight, and one that contradicts the reigning view that a reader's
attention should be on texts and that subjective readings are
inherently inferior to objective interpretation (Marshall et al.,
1995). It is, I will argue, insufficient in accounting for the
role of culture in understanding how meaning is constructed.
Indeed, I will argue that it is impossible to become acultural
as a reader or producer of texts. In contrast, one's notion of
meaning is gathered from participation in cultural practices;
as Moll (2000) has argued, it is inevitable that we live culturally.
A Cultural Account of Meaning
I next outline what I mean by meaning as necessarily situated in and mediated by culture, particularly in terms of constructing meaning through and from texts. My review includes attention to the designative and expressive functions of language in meaning construction; the dialogic role of composing during a reading transaction; the necessity of culturally constructed subjectivity in meaning construction; the role of intertextuality and intercontextuality in the construction of meaning; and the depths and dynamics of context in readers' engagement with texts.
Designative and Expressive Functions of Text Production
The first distinction I would like to make concerns the kinds of processes through which people make meaning. Wertsch (2000) argues that in Thinking and Speech Vygotsky (1987) outlines two different conceptions of meaning that emerge from irreconcilable philosophical traditions (cf. Taylor, 1985). These traditions are the designative and expressive traditions, which I will describe in turn.
Designative. Vygotsky (1987) writes in the designative tradition emerging from the European Enlightenment in Chapters 5 and 6 of Thinking and Speech. According to Wertsch (2000), "From this perspective, meaning is largely a matter of the relationship between semiotic expressions such as words and sentences, on the one hand, and a world of objects, on the other. Furthermore, it is an approach that claims that the semiotic potential of decontextualization is what gives rise to abstraction and what yields increasingly powerful ways to categorize, reflect on, and control the world" (p. 23). The designative approach to meaning, then, corresponds to the notion of signification found in my dictionary's more cryptic account of meaning, with the Enlightenment's rationalism and authoritarianism providing the ethos for the ways in which the world achieves order.
Furthermore, Vygotsky (1987) argues that the unit of analysis for understanding the meaning attributed to concepts is the word, affirming his belief that speech is, in Luria's (1928) terms, the "tool of tools" (cited Cole, 1996, p. 108). This belief is well engrained in Western thought, with the term text typically calling to mind a written text among members of Western cultures.
The notion of meaning that Vygotsky presents in these chapters is fundamentally tied to the notion of concept development. A reader's association of meaning with a text, therefore, reveals something about the text itself, but also serves as residue of the cultural constructs that are appropriated to provide the individual's frameworks for thinking. These constructs are appropriated through participation in cultural practice, which has evolved historically in response to the problems presented by the environment (Tulviste, 1991). Any concept-and consequently, any sense of meaning-is thus necessarily located first in culture, and second in the mind of the individual. And because the mind extends beyond the skin to include the tools of mediation through which the individual then acts on the environment, the mind of the individual in turn contributes to the evolving culture of the social surround (Smagorinsky, 1995b). Among these mediators are texts themselves, transactions with which can contribute to the worldviews of members of a culture. When these texts presume particular relationships, social hierarchies, and competence levels-such as the masculine orientation of the Old and New Testaments--they can inscribe in a society assumptions about the location of authority and power. To counter such effects, texts are often used didactically in efforts to shape or change learners' perspectives, such as the use of McGuffey Readers in early American schools to assimilate diverse students to a common morality or the use of multicultural literature in present-day schools to promote supportive attitudes toward cultural diversity (e.g., Banks, 1996).
Concepts and meaning thus have cultural origins. It is quite possible for individuals to resist these cultural conceptions, thus undermining the notion that activity theory is fatalistic. I would argue, however, that resisting one set of cultural constructs relies on precepts that are appropriated from other cultural constructs. And so, while any individual has the capacity to resist and defy the worldview of any culture, it is not possible to think and act independent of culture; it is not possible to live aculturally (Cole, 1996).
From this perspective, texts are composed of signs that themselves are codified as cultural artifacts, and are read by people whose ways of attributing meaning to codes are conditioned by participation in cultural practice. The transactional zone that I described previously is available when readers have been enculturated to recognize the codes by which the texts are produced. This is not to say that all readings will subsequently be the same or that texts may signify in only one way, only to say that readers and texts share a cultural cognizance. This notion, then, is somewhat different from Nystrand's (1986) notion of reciprocity, which I described previously, in which readers and writers (or other inscribers) are in tune with one another. In a transactional zone readers and inscribers might be out of tune; that is, the reader may view the codes as distasteful, pretentious, or otherwise unfavorable. What is required is that reader and text have a reasonably similar enculturation to the signification of the codes.
Expressive. Vygotsky (1987), after elaborating the designative sense of meaning, then outlines in Chapter 7 of Thinking and Speech what Wertsch (2000) refers to as an expressive account of meaning, in which meaning emerges as contextualized, personal sense, a notion that Wertsch grounds in the worldview of Romanticism. In this view of meaning-making, meaning is produced through the process of formulating ideas through what Barnes (1991) describes as exploratory uses of speech, illustrated by the following account of composing process:
I don't work in terms of conscious messages, I can't do that. It has to be something that I'm revealing to myself while I'm doing it, it's hard to explain. Which means that while I'm doing it I don't know exactly what it's about. You just have to have the courage or the, to take that chance, you know, what's going to come out, what's coming out of this. (Zwigoff, 1994)
This testimony comes from cartoon artist Robert Crumb and captures
well the essence of the expressivist tradition in composition.
Crumb claims that he develops his ideas through the process
of drawing, rather than producing graphic images of pre-conceived
ideas. He thus discovers meaning as he uses the tool of drawing
to transform the sense of inner speech to meaning
in graphic signs and through this process experiences psychological
transformations. As Applebee (1981) says of writing, Crumb uses
drawing "as a tool for exploring a subject" and to help
"generate new ideas 'at the point of utterance'"(p.
100; cf. Langer & Applebee, 1987).
Complementarity of the designative and expressive traditions. Wertsch (2000) finds that these designative and expressive notions of meaning are difficult to endorse simultaneously, referring to Taylor's view that doing so constitutes a compromise, and a "rotten one intellectually" at that, combining "scientism (objectivism) with . . . subjectivist forms of expression" (Taylor, 1985, p. 247; cited in Wertsch, p. 29). At the risk of engaging in intellectual putrefaction, I will argue that my own studies of reading and composing suggest that both expressive and designative functions of language are central to the process of constructing meaning through engagement with texts. I see the two as complementary functions of language. In making my argument about meaning, then, I hope to resolve to some extent the conflict that Wertsch finds to be "contradictory," placing Vygotsky in a "quandary" as "a child of multiple competing philosophical heritages" leading to an outcome "likely to be unsatisfying in one way or another" (p. 29).
I will illustrate the complementary functions of expressive and designative functions of meaning-construction through research conducted in an alternative school for recovering substance abusers (for details of the research, see Smagorinsky, 1995a, 1997a, 1999; Smagorinsky & Coppock, 1994, 1995a, 1995b). We studied the composing processes of student who produced artistic interpretations of William Carlos Williams's short story "The Use of Force" (see http://www.bnl.com/shorts/stories/force.html for an online version of this story). The story concerns a doctor who narrates an account of a house call he makes during a diphtheria epidemic. The doctor must extract a throat culture from a young girl who has displayed symptoms of the illness. The girl battles him savagely and hysterically to prevent him from examining her throat, and her parents try to help the doctor by holding her down and shaming her into complying. During the course of the struggle the doctor develops contempt for the parents and passion towards the girl. Against his rational judgment, the doctor becomes lost in "a blind fury" to attack and subdue the girl. In "a final unreasoning assault" he overpowers her and discovers her "secret" of "tonsils covered with membrane." The story ends with a final act of fury in which the girl attacks the doctor "while tears of defeat blinded her eyes."
One of the students we studied, Dexter, drew a picture representing the relationship between the doctor and the girl (see Figure 1). Through a stimulated recall interview that followed his drawing, he revealed the transformative effect of his process of composing on the way he thought about the story. Rather than having a fully-formed picture of the characters in his head prior to drawing, Dexter said that "at the end, I understood what I was doing more than I did when I began the drawing. . . . I got more involved in the picture as I did it." In his initial reading Dexter simply tried to follow the action, and then eventually began "thinking about something during the story. . . . something difficult" that helped get him involved in his reading. He began making personal connections with the characters, yet when he began drawing he was uncertain about how he would depict them, knowing only that the relationship between the girl and doctor would involve shame and control.
Dexter related that the meaning of the drawing changed as the picture developed. For instance, when he started his drawing Dexter had not been certain what the threatening figure would represent:
Dexter: I wasn't really sure if it was him going to be the doctor or not until the end of the story, I mean, until the end of the drawing, because I was thinking, well, it could be this person that she, that she has imaged in her mind and uh--or this could be an analogy of diphtheria, but then I said it doesn't matter. It's just a doctor. It was going through her mind, [inaudible] but I liked to read. The first time I'd read the doctor; the second, the analogy. It's just through that one story.
Q: So you mean, even after you drew the face and everything, it wasn't the doctor yet?
Dexter: Uh-huh. I mean it could have been a lot of things. It depends on your view point of the picture, but what I was thinking is--it was the doctor and then it was an analogy of the whole attitude of the story, and then it was the, her parents' attitude, or the parents, especially her parents.
For Dexter the story took on meaning as he developed his representation.
Furthermore, he continually produced provisional images-that is,
designative representations of his sense of the characters' relationships
and their meanings to him-on his drawing, which in turn enabled
him to reflect and compose further. His process of meaning-making,
then, involved expressive efforts to think about the story that
resulted in tentative designative signs, to which he assigned
different meanings as his thinking about the story progressed
during his continued efforts to depict it. The processes thus
were complementary rather than conflicting and illustrate the
dual, inter-dependent processes through which meaning is constructed.
The Composing Process of Readers
I have referred previously to the idea that reading is a constructive act. I would like now to elaborate on that notion, using Rosenblatt's (1978) idea of evocation as a central concept. In Rosenblatt's transactional theory of the literary work, an evocation describes the images that a reader generates during a literary transaction. She describes this phenomenon as
a penumbra of "memories" of what has preceded, ready to be activated by what follows, and providing the context from which further meaning will be derived. Awareness-more or less explicit-of repetitions, echoes, resonances, repercussions, linkages, cumulative effects, contrasts, or surprises is the mnemonic matrix for the structuring of emotion, idea, situation, character, plot-in short, for the evocation of a work of art. (pp. 57-58)
She distinguishes her notion of an evocation from conceptions of reading that locate meaning primarily in the text itself, stressing instead
the lived-through process of building up the work under the guidance of the text. . . . The tendency is to speak of interpretation as the construing of the meaning of a text. This conceals the nature of the reader's activity in relation to the text: he responds to the verbal signs and construes or organizes his responses which is for him "the work." This, we have seen, is a process in time. The reader ultimately crystallizes his sense of the work; he may seek to recall it or to relive different parts of it. . . . All of this can be designated as the evocation, and this is what the reader interprets. Interpretation involves primarily an effort to describe in some way the nature of the lived-through evocation of the work. (pp. 69-70; emphasis in original)
To Rosenblatt, what readers interpret-what serves as the basis
for meaning-is their associations with the text, rather than the
text itself (cf. Enciso, 1992). Elsewhere in her writing she
emphasizes the codified nature of textuality (1938), thus excluding
her from the relativistic picnic described by Bruner (1986).
The evocation as a codified experience is thus a critical event
in the transactional zone I have described.
In this sense, what readers do is compose a text of their own in the transactional zone. This composition, this new text, is what becomes meaningful. This new text is always provisional and subject to change, as Rosenblatt (1978) noted in her observation that reading is a process in time. If we return to the example of the Confederate battle flag: The South Carolinians quoted were describing their evocations of the flag (honor and valor, oppression and slavery) rather than the flag itself. I have already illustrated this phenomenon in Dexter's evolving interpretation of the graphic image he produced in response to the events of "The Use of Force," in which the figure was "the doctor and then it was an analogy of the whole attitude of the story, and then it was the, her parents' attitude, or the parents, especially her parents."
The student texts I will describe throughout this paper are deliberate, formal texts that solidify their evocations into a fixed image. The completion of the image for school purposes, however, does not ossify the text's meaning. Rather, the material texts that they produce serve as signs whose meaning may evolve with further reflection; their materiality only implies finality. Instead, they are provisional texts that may be further revised, if not tangibly then psychologically, as they provide the basis from which new evocations, or newly composed texts, are possible. The infinite potential of this process is related to the notion of unlimited semiosis described by Peirce (1931-1958) in his triadic formulation of signification (cf. Witte, 1992). The same process, I argue, is available for readers who compose mental texts in response to reading rather than the corporeal ones I report here from my studies. The richness of textual meaning, therefore, results from the generative quality of a transaction in producing new texts.
I will illustrate this process with the artistic interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet produced by a small group of students in the high school English class of Cindy O'Donnell-Allen (for details of this research, see O'Donnell-Allen & Smagorinsky, 1999; Smagorinsky & O'Donnell-Allen, 1998a, 1998b, 2000). (For an online version of Hamlet, see ftp://gatekeeper.dec.com/pub/data/shakespeare/tragedies/.) Students were assigned the task of collaboratively constructing a body biography, which is a life-sized human outline that the students fill with images and words that represent their understanding of a particular character, in this case Laertes (see Figure 2). The process that we identified through our analysis of the discussion that took place during their production-and during the productions of other groups doing the same task--included the following sequence:
1. The group worked out a way of functioning socially (which was not harmonious in all groups).
2. Students constructed images of the play-i.e., new texts or evocations--that they pictured mentally and then tried to describe these images to the other students.
3. Other students then responded to these proposed images and compared them to their own images of the same character, scene, or relationship. This response usually required students to clarify both their image and their reasons for believing it was fitting, and to discuss which images best suited the play as they understood it and wanted to depict it in their body biography text.
4. Individual group members then explained to one another the image that they thought should go into the body biography. In doing so, the group needed to discuss why they thought that particular images were apt. This discussion typically involved a rereading of the text they were interpreting (Hamlet) so that students could explain their images in terms of their reading of the text.
5. When they reached agreement through discussion, a student drew the image into the body biography.
6. Once included on the body biography, each word and image then became part of a text that they could use as a source of further reflection, discussion, interpretation, and images.
In the following excerpt, June, Lisa, Troy, Venus, and Courtney
discuss how to depict Laertes' relationship with Ophelia, the
play's most docile character who eventually loses both her mind
and her life.
June: Would y'all like a tree--
Lisa: Okay, I have an idea-
Troy: You have to draw a tree with Ophelia dangling from it and there is water below. This old girl is fixin' to go in it. Look she--no, no--make her float more and say, "I'm drowning--I'm drowning and I don't care." That's what she said.
Courtney: She's under water--
June: Yeah, we have to draw her and then draw like the things like flowers and things like that.
Lisa: She does not know that she is drowning, really. Just have her saying, "I am going to stay up here."
Troy: Have her say, "That's bad, man."
Lisa: Something about how she is at one with the river.
June: Does she say that?
Lisa: No, but she is like--that is what they portray her to be thinking.
Lisa: She is like at one with the river.
June: Oh yeah. Hey, Venus, what do you think? What should we do about her?
Lisa: What, we should have more lines on this thing?
June: Okay, let's do this and have like flowers. And then she can be down here. Yeah, whatever, see I can't draw at all. She can like be in the water and she is like gulp, gulp, gulp.
This portion of the discussion reveals the ways in which their
efforts to represent the character's emotional state caused them
to discuss their sense of Hamlet, a discussion that began
with their effort to generate images for the play and then moved
to a discussion of how to interpret those images. The exploratory
quality of their discussion reveals the ways in which their discussion
allowed for and built on tentative efforts to construct meaning,
illustrating the expressive role of language in their knowledge
construction. This exploratory talk displayed an informality
usually not found in school-based discussions of literature (Marshall
et al., 1995) as they used familiar language and images to describe
the remote Shakespearean characters.
They developed their understanding of Laertes through their efforts to depict him and his relationships in the body biography, a medium that not only represented their view of the character but enabled the discussion that led to their understanding. In this sense their process of interpretation, representation, and reflection was dialogic, with the students discussing possible ways to depict Laertes and his relationships, developing and sharing mental images of how to represent him, agreeing on and producing the artifact that depicted their collective thinking, and then using that artifact to further mediate their consideration of the character and his role in the play. I will attend to the importance of this dialogic process in the next section of this paper. The ultimate representation they produced in their body biography served as a designative source of meaning, as a text that they composed whose configuration of signs enabled them to reflect further on the meaning of the images that the play evoked for them. Through this further reflection they generated yet newer texts, newer evocations of Laertes and his relationships in the play.
Dialogic Role of Composing
As I have briefly illustrated, the process of reading is a mediating act with a dialogic function: The students' thoughts both shaped and were shaped by the texts they composed. In other words, two simultaneous processes took place. On the one hand, as most reading theorists would assume, students' thoughts about the text served as the material from which they developed their interpretations. On the other hand, the process of composing their text changed the way they thought about the story.
The next transcript illustrates how this process worked for a small group of girls who interpreted the character of Ophelia through a body biography (see Figure 3). Each effort to provide a representation served as an effort to generate an evocation of the text. These evocations were often tentative, serving as the basis for discussion yet not necessarily ending up on the drawing itself. As such, each evocation offered would serve as a stimulus for further discussion. Even when entered into the body biography, an image would not necessarily be a final interpretation but serve as the basis for continued thinking and discussion of the play. In the following excerpt from their discussion, the girls engaged in the following exchange:
Carly: Okay, good deal, her bare feet could symbolize her like--not her innocence but her, oh--
Ann: Purity? Her naive, how naive she is?
Carly: Yeah, it's the world, but her nakedness is like her-- you know how she is just kind of out there, she's just sort of --
Ann: Third field, left field.
Carly: Yeah, because she is just kind of, you know, just pretty much everyone's looking at her and going, "Oh, you poor thing!"
Ann: I guess she's having a good time.
Carly: Yeah. Crazy as the dickens.
Ann: Ignorance is bliss.
Ann: I say we should have left the legs there so that she would have some kind of body because those dresses were really transparent, you know. I mean we could have at least told what it is. Oh, I don't know, she looks fine.
Carly: Is it okay?
Carly: I can draw them back on if you want me to.
Ann: No. .
Sherri: So do we all have to like say something [during their presentation to the class]?
Ann: I think so.
Carly: Okay, that's done.
Ann: That's right, we don't have school Monday--I can't figure out why everybody was saying Tuesday, yeah, we don't have to be back Monday.
Carly: Yeah. Okay so do we want to do a spine?--And if so what's the spine? I think being in love for her because--
Ann: But she had no love.
Carly: Right, that's why she died.
Ann: That's why she went crazy.
Carly: Right, right, I'm just going to--
Ann: That's what we should do for the spine.
Carly: There's the spine! Shall I put "love" or "being loved"?
Ann: Being loved. And a heart, a broken heart.
This excerpt reveals the ways in which the students' processes of representation underwent continual mediation. Students would initially generate mental representations of the play that they pictured in their heads and described verbally to their group mates. Other students would then respond to these proposed, verbally represented evocations through discussion and reflection and juxtapose them to the images from their own understanding of Ophelia. When they reached congruent understandings of appropriate images--either descriptive or symbolic--they would commit them to the body biography. The process of committing an evocation to the body biography required them to take their individual mental representations and render them in a material form that required agreement, a process that necessitated clearer articulation as they discussed how to convert their separately idealized mental representations into an agreed-upon material form.
Once included on the body biography, each word and image then served as a sign that potentially served to mediate new thinking about the play. They discussed, for instance, the manner in which they would present the body biography to the class the following week. As required by the assignment, the students went through this process with both pictorial and verbal evocations, at times combined into a single symbol. They thus composed a shared meaning for the play as they composed a collaborative representation of Ophelia, and used each effort at representation as the basis for further development of their thinking about the play. The process continued during their class presentation where they reiterated their intentions with their symbolic representation, particularly as they were configured spatially relative to one another.
This example illustrates a process that is a key aspect of composing a meaningful text. Enciso (1992) reports that in her research with young readers' evocations of stories, "the readers who were most involved in the stories they read were also more able to describe and discuss the events and implications of the story in greater depth and detail" (p. 99). The experience of the students I have described suggests that a reciprocal process can also take place: that a reader's exploration of events and implications of a story may cause greater involvement in the reading transaction.
Culturally Constrained Subjectivity in Reading
I have argued thus far that it is evocations or reader-composed texts that provide the basis for intertextuality and meaning construction; that is, rather than connecting the texts that they read, readers connect their own evocations of those texts, which in turn become texts that potentially generate new evocations. Because meaning comes from composing new texts and because evocations differ from reader to reader, the meaning that readers construct is inherently idiosyncratic. As I have argued previously, readings have a codified and cultural basis in what I have called the transactional zone. If subjectivity is construed as having a codified and cultural basis, then unbridled subjectivity is possible in this zone. I see the relativistic picnic described by Bruner, in contrast, as describing readings in which different codes and conventions are invoked, thus rendering the text to inkblot status and therefore outside the transactional zone as I view it.
I will next illustrate a highly idiosyncratic reading of "The Use of Force" that illustrates the way in which an evocation that departs from the story line takes place within the transactional zone. Jane and Martha, who choreographed an interpretation of the story, described how their image of the doctor's emotional state caused them to design a different ending in their dance. According to Jane,
We did another dance at the very end and we were practicing on it and like she's sheltered like the little girl is hidden. She won't let anybody find out what her secret is and that's what she is doing. She is hiding and the doctor is trying to follow in her footsteps to try to figure out what is going on. And at the very end when it says that she did have [diphtheria], in the dance we made her die. She just fell and the doctor picked her up and carried her. Because like we were going to have the doctor die with her because it was like the third patient he had died and he was dying inside, but [our teacher] didn't really like that. And after we started thinking you know how he gets underneath the skin real hard, it is like we started thinking about it too and he doesn't really die. He tries to help her and stuff. We went further than the story went.
Their reconsideration of their representation following their teacher's intervention resulted in a final effort to choreograph the story's climax:
That is when they finally figured it out. It is like at the very end they walked together. It's like they walk two steps and when you do a little pause, the doctor shelters her and just looks at her because he's died with her. His whole life has just gone down the drain because it's another kid, he feels it's all his fault this time. And that is how I really felt when I was doing the dance.
This representation of the story's ending departs radically
from the literal action of the story, where the girl attacks the
doctor in a rage. Their decision to represent the feelings of
the doctor in their dance, however, focused their interpretation
on his sense of loss. Rather than strictly depicting the story
line, they constructed a new text that represented their emotional
resonance with the doctor, who emerged as a threatening figure
in the image constructed by Dexter. These texts represent radically
different reconstructions of the story, each highly subjective
yet responsive to the codes of the original text. As such, they
have been constructed, I would argue, in the transactional zone
occupied by readers and texts.
Intertextuality in the Cultural Construction of Meaning
I have previously referred to the role of intertextuality, i.e., the juxtaposition of texts, in the construction of meaning. I will next elaborate the ways in which the texts that readers compose as a consequence of their evocations are related to prior texts of their knowledge. In Rosenblatt's (1978) terms they are mnemonic, consisting of texts that they have evoked from prior experiences. I stress that they are evocations and thus reconstructions of prior texts, thus situating them as provisional texts in a reader's ongoing construction of meaning from the series of texts that they construct from their life's experiences. I would argue, then, that the notion of intertextuality as I interpret it refers to connections among the texts that people compose to evoke meaning through their engagement with the texts that they read.
I will illustrate two types of intertextual connections I have found that readers make in their engagement with literature in classroom settings. The first comes from a text evoked from personal experience, the second from artistic texts recalled by students that informed their composition of a newly-constructed text.
Text evoked from personal experience. I will illustrate this process with interview data from Martha, one of the girls who choreographed a dance to interpret "The Use of Force." Martha, who danced the role of the girl, said that she identified strongly with the experience of the character because she shared her reluctance to open up to other people. Like the girl in the story, she felt "scared": "I felt like the little girl because we live in two different worlds. . . . I felt like the little girl because she was always trying to hide from the doctor and I was like hiding myself from the doctor" in the dance. Martha's feeling that she needed to hide from the doctor were based on her own fears of being examined and pried into. At one point she was asked, "When you dance a role, do you, is there any real part of you that gets played out in the dancer?" Martha replied,
Martha: It's tough for me. When I was hiding from [Jane in the dance] she was the doctor and I was the daughter, the little girl, and it was just like me. I hate people trying to find out who I am so I was basically hiding the way I always hide but I was hiding to be somebody else. I felt like I was hiding in the little girl, but it was me that was hiding, because I do that all the time. I hide from everybody.
Q: Did you feel for the character then?
Martha: Oh yeah, I felt for the character. When I was dancing I was thinking about what I would do. I hated what the doctor did to her. I wanted to kill him.
Later in the interview Martha returned to her feelings about her character:
Martha: My feelings for the kid started when I was reading the story because there have been many times when I have had some problems. I'm like I'm okay, get away. In a way I kind of knew how this girl was feeling whenever the doctor was trying to get into her mouth. I am like that with dentists. I hate dentists. I won't let them get into my mouth. I'm afraid they're going to pull out my teeth. It scares me. I try to keep my mouth shut too. I put myself in her position through the whole story knowing she was scared and very insecure because she knows she is going to die. She knows through the whole story she's going to die. She doesn't want her parents to know about it.
Q: Is it just dentists? Earlier you were talking about how you don't like people in general getting inside you. So was it just a dentist or was it--
Martha: Well, for people to know me, I don't like for anyone to know me, it is really scary for people to know me. Who I am or anything like doctors, and stuff like that. I don't like them to look inside my mouth. With her I feel like she doesn't want the doctor to know she is dying because I am pretty sure because she could feel her tonsils. She knows she is dying. She knew it, she knew it was there and she knew she was going to die and she didn't want her mom to know. She didn't want her parents to know.
Martha's description of her portrayal of the character reveals the emotional quality of her evocation, an aspect of Vygotsky's work that I think is unfortunately overlooked. Yaroshevsky (1989), discussing Vygotsky's doctoral dissertation on Hamlet, says that Vygotsky
was inspired by the idea of an inner link between spiritual assimilation of the world and its practical transformation. Revealing the mechanism of art's impact on the real behavior of a concrete individual, without restricting oneself to determining its sociological roots and aesthetic specificity-that was Vygotsky's purpose. He endeavoured to prove that art is a means of transforming the individual, an instrument which calls to life the individual's "vast potential, so far suppressed and constrained." The view of art as ornamentation of life "fundamentally contradicts the laws of art discovered by psychological research. It shows that art is the highest concentration of all the biological and social processes in which the individual is involved in society, that it is a mode of finding a balance between man and the world in the most critical and responsible moments of life." (Yaroshevsky, 1989, pp. 148-149; Vygotsky quoted in Psikhologiy a iskusstra [The Psychology of Art], pp. 320, 330-331)
This perspective resonates with Rosenblatt's (1978) view that
evocations are the source of meaning, with my view that readers
make meaning by composing new texts, and with Bruner's (1985)
idea that literature subjunctivizes. If literature, as Bruner
claims, is our only hope against the long gray night, then I would
define literature rather broadly to include any text that allows
for the composition of new texts. Yaroshevsky argues that Vygotsky
assumed that the principle focus of psychology should be personality,
"a character of the drama of life on the social state"
(p. 219). This drama of life contributes vitally to the development
of personality through the composition of meaning from engagement
with the texts afforded by culturally-channeled experiences.
Intertextual associations with formal texts. In addition to evocations from experiential texts, the students I observed drew on formally produced texts during their evocations of literature. Another group interpreting "The Use of Force," for instance, produced a dramatic interpretation of the story. They drew on images from films that they had seen, including The Exorcist, as part of their composition of their dramatic interpretation of the story. They discuss the images they drew on and produced in the following excerpt:
Wes: I tried to play the doctor. The story reminded me of The Exorcist, with the girl and the devil. . . . The way she was resisting him and not opening her mouth and stuff. The guy in Exorcist, I don't know, it has been so long since I have seen him.
Bart: They were trying to help her.
Wes: Yeah, and they were trying to help her, and she was like spitting the coming out her mouth, that made me think even more about [The Exorcist].
Donnie: The Exorcist was about Satan. What is that called when Satan supposedly takes over he body?
Donnie: Possessed. And this little girl-
Bart: Yeah, that little girl was possesses.
Donnie: She was just real crazy.
Q: Did you think that the girl in the story was possessed?
Bart: I didn't.
Q: No? Wes?
Wes: Not really possessed, it just reminded me of just a little girl, because the girl in The Exorcist was cute and all of a sudden she turns out to be real evil and stuff, and that is what this says, it says she was real attractive when she was little, and then she turns out to be where she didn't want to do anything and bit the stick off, you know, and the blood was coming out of her mouth, and then she still resisted. That just made me think, she has got a problem. She got real violent.
As I described previously, intertextuality exists on two levels.
First of all, the students juxtaposed the texts of The Exorcist
and "The Use of Force" because of the parallels between
the young girls and their fierce behavior. Second of all, the
students juxtaposed the texts they composed from each: the evil
image they generated from the girl in The Exorcist and
the rage and resistance they perceived in the girl from "The
Use of Force." Dyson (1999) among others has argued that
the role of popular culture in students' lives ought to receive
greater recognition in schools. The students in this group illustrate
the ways in which their evocation of a film from popular culture
provided them with both the images and the emotional content of
the character of the girl as they represented her in their dramatic
Depth and Dynamics of Context in Engagement
Previously I argued that reading can be a mediating process; that is, it contributes to the construction of meaning. Here I will describe how reading is a mediated process, one channeled by reliance on cultural practice. Much of my argument has been predicated on the idea that one's evocations are grounded in cultural practice. While personal and idiosyncratic, they rely on the codification embedded in texts (intertextuality) and the conventions embedded in recurring social practices (intercontextuality) (Floriani, 1993). These signs and tools are grounded in culture writ large, such as the Enlightenment and Romantic traditions of Western thought described by Taylor (1985) and Wertsch (2000). Culture is also writ small, often highly localized in settings that Fine (1987) has called idiocultures (cf. Cole, 1996; Smagorinsky & O'Donnell-Allen, 2000). An illustration of an idioculture would be the alternative school for recovering substance abusers that provided the setting for the interpretations of "The Use of Force" I have described throughout this paper. A successful student in this school was one who completed a modified 12-step program for addiction while maintaining acceptable grades. The therapeutic mission of the school permeated all activity in facility life, including academics. The students' search for meaning in literature, then, was an extension of the continual reflection they engaged in as part of their effort to recover from their addiction. The idioculture of the school thus supported a kind of introspective approach to literature not often practiced in mainstream schools (Applebee, 1993). Their reading was thus mediated by the cultural practices of the school so that emotional readings were sanctioned as valuable, and mediating in that their process of producing new texts contributed to the meaning they constructed.
Other groups I have studied have demonstrated considerably less acceptance of the potential for literary reading to contribute to the development of personality, to lead them out of the long gray night. The students from Cindy O'Donnell-Allen's mainstream high school class, for instance, exhibited varying degrees of engagement with both school and literature. During my year-long observation of her class I was tremendously impressed with the effort she made to construct a classroom environment that valued meaning construction, student empowerment, and open-ended thinking. This effort resulted in many remarkable progressions for a number of students. There were nonetheless students who resisted the idea that school should be a site for personal development. I attribute this to culture writ semi-large. The school as a whole had a college prep emphasis in which meaning was generally located in texts and explained through lectures, thus making her meaning-centered approach alien to many students. Furthermore, the school lacked the emotional intensity that was central to the therapeutic mission of the alternative school I have described, thus making introspection less urgent in the lives of the students. Finally, as a large and diverse school, there were simply many students whose priorities did not include advanced literacy or engagement with literature as a means to personality development. These students typically ended up in the school's general track, which categorized the class that I observed.
Our analysis of groups that included disengaged students (see, e.g., Smagorinsky & O'Donnell-Allen, 1998b) led us to reconsider the depth and dynamics of context in engagement. In spite of our hopes that Cindy's classroom environment would lead to transformations in students' priorities, the continued disengagement of some students led us to consider the degree to which some students bring personal histories that create barriers to engagement with school work. Among the students who interpreted Hamlet through body biographies was a group that interpreted the character of Claudius (see Figure 4). This group included two students who were hostile to Cindy throughout the semester and in general hostile toward school and other students. When in groups, they tended to undermine other students' efforts to work productively on the task. The next excerpt is typical of how a boy named Jerry worked against the group goals, demonstrating an apathy that showed up in his group's body biography. The group was discussing how they might draw a crown on Claudius's head as part of their depiction of his character:
Jay: The crown can be something that stands he stands for.
Cale: Somebody draw the crown.
Jay: For incest.
Cale: Draw the crown, what?
Jerry: What are we supposed to do now? Don't be disappointed if this doesn't look so good.
Cale: I don't understand. [inaudible] Jerry! Jerry, why did you do that?
Jerry: Because it doesn't matter what it looks like as long as we get our representation. He told me to draw the crown, and I said, "OK, but don't get mad at me if I draw it badly." And everybody goes-[makes a grumbling noise]
Cale: That looks like trash, Jerry. Jerry, that is one rotten crown, dude.
Jerry: Do you like it? Incest!
Cale: Actually, incest could be adultery.
Jerry: Oh, who cares.
Jerry's remarks reveal his eagerness to impress on others his
apathy and to inscribe it in the group's body biography. In doing
so he undermined the kinds of relationships that can lead to the
productive sorts of discussions we have described in other groups.
In this case, Jerry interpreted Cindy's assignment as a license
to produce a sloppy interpretation. Cindy had told the students
that they would get graded on the ideas they were representing,
rather than on the quality of their artwork. Her thinking was
that she didn't want to reward good artists and punish the artistically
challenged, since the goal of the activity was to interpret the
character rather than to demonstrate artistic prowess. Jerry's
view that "it doesn't matter what it looks like" was
typical of his indifferent attitude toward school and the other
students in his group. The other students did not appreciate
the trashy appearance of his drawing or his general conduct during
the group activity. And we had to agree that he drew one rotten
We observed a similar kind of disengagement in one other group. Our reflection on their dynamics led us to recognize the role of the relational framework in any social setting (Smagorinsky & O'Donnell-Allen, 2000). We concluded that a consideration of context must go beyond what happens in individual classrooms and take into account the social worlds of the students and their prior experiences within the school culture. The establishment of a predominant motive for a classroom does not preclude other motives from surfacing or developing. Within the idioculture of a classroom, then, alternative idiocultures may develop that subvert or complicate the overall dynamics of the interactions and affect the degree to which students see the potential for constructing meaning.
Our study suggests the need to reconceive the notion of engaged reading. I have already argued that meaning is not constructed between readers and texts. I would further argue that even from a cultural perspective, the classroom can suggest a motive that channels activity but does not necessarily facilitate it in any one direction. What is needed is a consideration of engagement in a much more social sense, including readers and texts but extending to relationships beyond them. Lensmire (1994) argues that notions of engagement require "the participation of all children in the community's important activities" (p. 147) so that each has a voice, contributes to the classroom, and is heard by others. In this sense engagement requires each student's engagement with each other, thus establishing an environment of mutual care and concern. Engagement with texts can only be understood in terms of the ways in which people in classrooms engage with one another. I would extend this view further to account for students' prior experiences with school and other contexts for literacy development, taking into account learners' cultural and social histories and viewing their relationship with texts in terms of this vast web of experiences that they bring to particular classroom episodes. Engagement, like other aspects of activity, is "nested" (Cazden, 1988, p. 198) in multiple social contexts that must be acknowledged and accounted for.
In this paper I have argued that reading is a constructive act in which meaning emerges through the composition of a new text in the transactional zone. Meaning is constructed through two related processes. First of all, meaning emerges through the processes of articulation as inner sense achieves expression through the medium of a psychological tool. This tool is most often speech, but as my studies have demonstrated, other tools mediate this process as well, supporting the view of Bruner (1985), Wertsch (1991), and others that psychological transformation is best understood by examining the role of a range of cultural tools in the process of mediation. This process produces some sort of image, an evocation, a newly constructed text, that provisionally serves as the repository of meaning. This text is protean, changing with new reflection on its form. Its designative potential thus makes it available as a tool for new transformations. I would argue that when a sign becomes a tool-when an expressive process leads to a designative image that in turn leads to further expressive meaning construction, with the process potentially extending indefinitely-a new concept emerges. This process of concept development is at the heart of the construction of meaning. The richest meaning, then, comes through transactions that are most generative in the production of potent new texts.
The tool mediation I have described has a cultural basis. As a result, while personal and idiosyncratic, the evocations are also culturally grounded. The influences of culture may come at the very general level. Some cultures, for instance, practice ceremonial dancing while others do not, thus suggesting both conventions and appropriateness of ceremonial dancing as a means of representation. Similarly, some nations have pervasive standardized testing to measure student performance and others do not, revealing different views of the merits of a uniform educational product. Culture may also mediate at more local levels, such as in schools that might or might not value intense introspection or artistic expression. Resisting culture to construct more personal meaning is, I would argue, a futile quest. As the notion of prolepsis suggests, cultural mediation is often invisible, and so the effort to escape culture is simply the effort to flee its most visible influences. From an educational standpoint, this view of reading suggests the importance of creating contexts and attendant social practices with the potential to enable students to have rich transactions with texts, keeping in mind that even the most conducive context can be resisted by students whose goals do not include having rich transactions with texts.
The transactional zone I have described is available in particular types of reading experiences. As I have demonstrated, it is possible to construct meaning from arbitrarily arranged signs, such as the constellations that ancients saw as bears, scorpions, and so on; and from signs configured for different purposes, such as the list interpreted by Fish's (1980) students as a poem. Bleich (1975) has indeed argued that what matters most is the meaning constructed by the reader. Perhaps this is true, though it might be hard to persuade the many goats and virgins who have been sacrificed to the thunder gods that their slayers' impressions should be paramount. My interest is more with the type of reading that I have described as taking place within a transactional zone, where readers and texts are resonant in terms of codified ways of arranging signs.
My studies have focused on the material texts that high school students have produced as evocations of their reading transactions, with these evocations further mediated by discussion. From my analysis of these transactions, I hypothesize that readers reading alone in the solitary confines of their dens similarly engage in text construction, if more ephemerally. Rather than producing the material texts of body biographies and plays, they produce mental representations that, while not tangible, linger yet. Though alone, they engage in culturally mediated processes, in dialogue with the great history of texts, contexts, intertexts, and intercontexts that have led to this moment. Through their role in this process, and through their contributions to it, they construct meaning for their worlds.
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This paper was developed from an invited address to the American Educational Research Association in recognition of the Raymond B. Cattell Early Career Award for Programmatic Research. The research was supported by grants from the Research Foundation of the National Council of Teachers of English and the Research Council of the University of Oklahoma. Special thanks to Mark Faust, Michael W. Smith, and Joel Taxel for their response to an earlier version of this paper. Thanks also to those who discussed the paper on the xmca discussion network.