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How the Language Really Works:
The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing
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Reading and Discussion

Example: A Statement

Example: Nursery Rhyme

Different Ways of Reading for Different Occasions

Which Way to Read

Three Ways to Read and Discuss Texts

How we discuss a text is directly related to how we read that text. More to the point here, how we read a text is shaped by how we expect to discuss it. While you may not be asked to write about texts at school, and probably will not be asked to write about texts in your job, you must learn how to talk about texts to discover what makes them work.

Reading and Discussion

The follow excerpt (from the sample text ) serves as an example to define three forms of reading and discussion.
In his social history of venereal disease, No Magic Bullet , Allan M. Brandt describes the controversy in the US military about preventing venereal disease among soldiers during World War I. Should there be a disease prevention effort that recognized that many young American men would succumb to the charms of French prostitutes, or should there be a more punitive approach to discourage sexual contact? Unlike the New Zealand Expeditionary forces, which gave condoms to their soldiers, the United States decided to give American soldiers after-the-fact, and largely ineffective, chemical prophylaxis. American soldiers also were subject to court martial if they contracted a venereal disease. These measures failed. More than 383,000 soldiers were diagnosed with venereal diseases between April 1917 and December 1919 and lost seven million days of active duty. Only influenza, which struck in an epidemic, was a more common illness among servicemen.
You have read this passage, and someone asks you "to write about it." What should you say?

What you write will vary, of course, with how you read. Your response to the text might take any of the following following:

  1. Unlike the New Zealand soldiers in WWI, who received condoms, American soldiers received after-the-fact and ineffective medicine that resulted in the loss of seven million days of active duty over close to a three year period.
  2. The passage compares the prevention techniques and disease outcomes of American and New Zealand soldiers in World War I, noting that unlike the New Zealand soldiers in WWI, who received condoms, American soldiers received after-the-fact and ineffective medicine that resulted in the loss of seven million days of active duty over close to a three year period.
  3. By examining the outcome of various approaches to condom use during World War I, the text makes a case for more realistic approaches to disease prevention in the future.
Each of these responses reflects a different type of reading, resulting in a different form of discussion.

The major difference in the discussions above is in what is being discussed.

  1. Unlike the New Zealand soldiers in WWI, who received condoms, American soldiers received after-the-fact and ineffective medicine that resulted in the loss of seven million days of active duty over close to a three year period.
  2. The passage compares the prevention techniques and disease outcomes of American and New Zealand soldiers in World War I, noting that unlike the New Zealand soldiers in WWI, who received condoms, American soldiers received after-the-fact and ineffective medicine that resulted in the loss of seven million days of active duty over close to a three year period.
  3. By examining the outcomes of various approaches to condom use during World War I, the text makes a case for more realistic approaches to disease prevention in the future.
Only the first response is about the topic of the original text: American soldiers. The next two discussions are in some way about the text. More specifically, the three modes of response mirror our earlier distinction between what a text says, does, and means.
  1. The first discusses the behavior of soldiers, the same topic as the original text. It restates the original information.
  2. The second indicates how ideas or information are introduced and developed. It describes the presentation.
  3. The third attempts to find a deeper meaning in the discussion. It interprets the overall meaning of the presentation.
In each of the responses above, a reader gains, and is accountable for, a different kind of understanding.
  • Restatement   restating what the text says   talks about the original topic
  • Description     describing what a text does    identifies aspects of the presentation
  • Interpretation   analyze what a text means    asserts an overall meaning
We can tell which type of discussion we have before us by examining what it talks about.

How are these three different understandings achieved?

To look beyond a literal, sentence-by-sentence meaning (restatement), you might ask two questions: What is the text doing, and what are the example examples of ?

In this example the text contrasts two approaches to potential venereal disease among military troops,

A -- recognizing that soldiers would succumb to prostitutes and providing condoms
B -- attempting to discourage sexual contact combined with after-the-fact, and largely ineffective, chemical prophylaxis and the threat of court marshals.
The text claims that approach A was a failure and offers evidence of that failure in terms of statistics ["More than 383,000 soldiers were diagnosed with venereal diseases between April 1917 and December 1919 and lost seven million days of active duty." ] and a comparison ["Only influenza, which struck in an epidemic, was a more common illness among servicemen."]. The extent of failure is conveyed by examples of a large number of affected persons and a comparison to a major disease outbreak.

These realizations lead to the description of the text.

An interpretation goes one step further. In this example, we recognize a message is conveyed by showing the failure of one approach over another. To find a greater meaning, we must recognize what the two approaches are examples of , and what the choice of one over the other might represent.

Example: A Statement

Your doctor tells you to eat less chocolate and drink less beer. A restatement would repeat the statement,
The doctor said I should eat less chocolate and drink less beer.
A description would describe the remark:
The doctor advised me to change my diet.
An interpretation would find underlying meaning in the remark:
The doctor warned me to reduce my calories for the sake of my health.
Only this final discussion attempts to find significance in the examples, that the foods mentioned are high calorie.

Example: Nursery Rhyme

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,
and everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
A restatement would talk about Mary and the lamb.
Mary had a lamb that followed her everywhere.
A description would talk about the story within the fairy tale.
The nursery rhyme describes a pet that followed its mistress everywhere.
The interpretation talks about meaning within the story, here the idea of innocent devotion.
An image of innocent devotion is conveyed by the story of a lamb’s devotion to its mistress. The devotion is emphasized by repetition that emphasizes the constancy of the lamb’s actions (“everywhere”…”sure to go.”) The notion of innocence is conveyed by the image of a young lamb, “white as snow.” By making it seem that this is natural and good, the nursery rhyme asserts innocent devotion as a positive relationship.
Note the effort here to offer as much evidence from the text as possible. The discussion includes references to the content (the specific actions referred to), the language (the specific terms used), and the structure (the relationship between characters). Try another nursery rhyme yourself.

These ways of reading and discussion, --- restatement , description , and interpretation ---are is discussed in greater detail elsewhere.

Different Ways Of Reading For Different Occasions

Readers read in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. They can read for information, sentence by sentence, taking each assertion as a discrete fact.  They can read for meaning, following an argument and weighing its logical and persuasive effects.  They can read critically, evaluating unstated assumptions and biases, consciously identifying patterns of language and content and their interrelationships. 

We can read any text, whether a nursery rhyme or complicated treatise on the origins of the American political system, in various ways.   On the simplest level, Cinderella is a story about a girl who marries a prince. On another level, it is about inner goodness triumphing over deceit and pettiness. 

On occasion, we might read the same text differently for different purposes.  We can read a newspaper editorial backing a tax proposal

  • to learn the content of the proposal,
  • to see why that newspaper supports the proposal,
  • to identify the newspaper's political leanings,
  • to learn facts, to discover opinions, or
  • to determine an underlying meaning.
We can read a newspaper article on a drive by shooting as an account of the death of an individual or as a symptom of a broader disintegration of civility in contemporary society. We can even look at the names in a telephone book to find the phone number we want or to assess the ethnic diversity of the community.  No single way of reading a text is necessarily better.  They are simply different.

Which Way to Read

How we choose to read a particular text will depend on the nature of the text and our specific goals at the time.  When we assume a factual presentation, we might read for what a text says.  When we assume personal bias, we look deeper to interpret underlying meanings and perspectives. 

Recall the opening paragraph of the health care article at the beginning of the chapter. To answer the question, How did the New Zealand army prevent its soldiers from contracting venereal disease during World War I? we read to see what the essay says.

To answer the question, What issues does the text discuss? we read to see what the essay does.

To answer the question, What concerns underlie the essay’s analysis of history? we read to see what the essay means.

As a reader, you must know what you intended to do, and whether or not you have accomplished it. You must adjust how you read to the nature of the reading material, the nature of the reading assignment, and the manner in which you will be held accountable for your reading.


Related Topics
Restatement: Reading What a Text Says
Description: Describing What a Text Does
Interpretation: Analyzing What a Text Means
Texts for Discussion: Three newspaper accounts of the death of Malcolm X

Reading / Writing
Critical Reading
Inference
Choices
Ways to Read
Grammar

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