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-- the Forum December 1993 --

The Development of a New Paradigm for Reading

Sally Rings, PVCC
For much of this century, a behavioristic approach to reading, grounded in a mechanistic world view, has dominated reading pedagogy. Basic concepts of this mechanistic world view include:

Based on these concepts, the text to be read is perceived as static and as containing the "truth." Reading is perceived as a hierarchy of isolated subskills, and the overall skill of reading may be learned by understanding and practicing each of the subskills (Neilsen, 1989).

However, a growing body of research in the last 15 years or so is demonstrating that reading is a much more integrated, wholistic process than this mechanistic view would permit (Thistlethwaite, 1990).

The Research

Much of this research has centered around the task of identifying the processes of good readers. In general, good readers enter the reading process with certain assumptions: that what they read will be connected into a coherent whole, that it will contain "layers of meaning," and that the ideas being read are connected to other ideas they have previously encountered and are relevant to them personally (Harste, 1986). Before they begin, good readers inspect what they are to read, noting such aspects as the title, author, and chapters; then they place this reading into a category. As they read, they ask questions, note interesting features of the text, and draw on their experience as a reader (Orndorff, 1987). Additionally, they attend to author/reader relationships, monitor their reading processes, evaluate the significance of what they are reading, rethink past decisions, and hypothesize alternate interpretations. These characteristics imply that much "reading" time is spent reflecting. In fact, in one study, graduate students (presumed to be good readers), spent 69% of their "reading" time off-page (Harste, 1986). These processes do not fit the notion of reading as a specified set of isolated skills; rather, reading is seen as a complex, wholistic process during which the reader is interacting with the text to construct meaning. The meaning that the reader constructs is affected not only by what is printed, but also by his or her selective attention to different aspects of the text, prior knowledge about the topic, evaluation of the text, and purpose in reading it (Flower, 1989). Foundational to this theory is the assumption that reading is thinking (Thorndike, 1917), a basic concept that cognitive scientists have returned to as the shortcomings of the mechanistic paradigm have become increasingly evident. Thorndike, as well as John Dewey and others, was aware that reading is an interactive, wholistic, problem-solving process (Krueger, 1986).

Also embedded in this perception of reading is the reader's use of strategies in the course of constructing meaning. A strategy is a "cognitive choice" (such as visualizing, comparing, criticizing) that readers make as they monitor their comprehension and make decisions about how to proceed with the text (Harste, 1986). A growing body of research is demonstrating that effective readers attend closely to their reading processes and vary their strategies according to their purpose(s) for reading. They know how to use various strategies when their comprehension breaks down. Strategic reading is embodied in the term metacognition, which is defined as having an awareness of strategies as well as the ability to control the use of them (Collins & Smith, 1990).

A third concept implied in this view of reading is that reading as a contextualized act. According to Richardson, Okun and Fisk (1983), literacy is a "goal-directed, context-specific behavior." The reader uses reading in a transactional sense to reach a goal. Fish states (in Willey, 1988) "communication occurs within situations and that to be in a situation is already to be in possession of (or to be possessed by) a structure of assumptions, of practices understood to be relevant in relation to purposes and goals that are already in place." In other words, reading does not take place in a vacuum.

A New Paradigm

Since the mechanistic paradigm cannot explain these complexities inherent in the reading process, a different paradigm is needed. Neilsen (1989) labels the paradigm that is consistent with this view of reading as an "organic world view" and describes its characteristics as follows:

Seen in the light of this perspective, reading is a wholistic process that cannot be divided into discrete units. Instead, it involves a complex interaction among a number of variables, some ascribed to the reader, such as the reader's prior knowledge about the topic of the reading and the reader's motivation; some ascribed to the text and the author who created it, such as the organizational structure the author used; and some ascribed to the context, including the purpose(s) for reading a specific text and the environment in which the reading takes place. Readers utilize a repertoire of strategies to create meaning and to question and evaluate what they are reading. Through this complex process readers come to new knowledge and understanding.

Implications for Teaching and Learning

This view of reading calls for a pedagogy which focuses on readers using a variety of strategies to think about the author's message, and doing so for a specific purpose. Helping college students to become more active, proficient readers includes the following:


Collins, N. & Smith, C. (1990). Role of metacognition in reading to learn. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 333 386).

Flower, L. (1989). Negotiating academic discourse (Tech. Rep. No. 29). Berkeley, CA & Pittsburgh, PA: Center for the Study of Writing. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 306 600).

Harste, J.C. (1986). What it means to be strategic: Good readers as informants. Paper presented at the 36th Annual Meeting of the National Reading Conference, Austin, TX, December 2-6, 1986. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 278 980).

Krueger, S.R. (1986). Comprehension monitoring among community college developmental readers: The importance of prior knowledge. (Doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University, 1986). Dissertation Abstracts International, 47, 2524A.

Neilsen, A.R. (1989). Critical thinking and reading: Empowering learners to think and act. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 306 543).

Orndorff, J. (1987). Using computers and original texts to teach critical reading and thinking. Paper presented at the Meeting of the Conference on Critical Thinking, Newport News, VA, April 9-12, 1987. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 283 137).

Richardson, R.C., Jr., Okun, M.A., & Fisk, E.C. (1983). Literacy in the open-access college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Thistlethwaite, L.L. (1990). Critical reading for at-risk students. Journal of Reading, 34, 586-593.

Thorndike, E.L. (1917). Reading as reasoning: A study of mistakes in paragraph reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 8, 323-332.

Willey, R.J. (1988). Audience awareness and critical essays on literature: Helping students become part of an interpretive community. Paper presented at the 39th Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, St. Louis, MO, March 17-19, 1988. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 293 229).

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