Reading, Writing, and the Making of Meaning, The

Constructivist Metaphor: Reading, Writing, and the Making of Meaning, The

Sadoski, Mark

The Constructivist Metaphor: Reading, Writing, and the Making of Meaning. Nancy Nelson Spivey, 1997. San Diego: Academic Press (525 B Street, Suite 1900, San Diego, CA 92101-4495). Hardcover, 297 pages.

In The Constructivist Metaphor: Reading, Writing, and the Making of Meaning, Nancy Nelson Spivey has produced an insightful and cogent work that explores the contemporary concept of constructivism as it applies to literacy This book is timely in its summary view of a perspective that has dominated theory and research in literacy for decades. The various metaphors of structure that form the basis of this perspective have been a remarkably rich heuristic that has launched and guided numerous research efforts and advanced our thinking about literacy on theoretical, empirical, and critical fronts. Like any metaphor, constructivism has certain limits that we shall explore presently, but first let us summarize the book.

The book is divided into four general sections. The first section includes Chapters 1 and 2, which provide a historical background for the concept of constructivism including a review of the contribution of Bartlett’s (1995) Remembering and his other relevant works. Of particular emphasis here is Bartlett’s view that social as well as individual factors influence the construction of meaningful interpretations and how this can be seen in Bartlett’s own work in the Cambridge milieu of his day.

The second section includes Chapters 3, 4, and 5. These chapters deal more specifically with reading and writing processes. Chapter 3 reviews influential reading comprehension studies from the 1970s and 198os that are frequently referred to as constructivist. Among these studies are the familiar studies of Bransford, R. C. Anderson, Kintsch, Meyer, Frederiksen, Rumelhart, Mandler and Johnson, Halliday and Hasan, Rosenblatt, and others. The main emphasis here is how readers construct meanings as they select, integrate, organize, and connect texts and contexts both as individuals and in social groups of various sizes.

Chapter 4 contrasts constructivism with other structural metaphors such as structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction. This brief chapter goes a way toward supplying a lucid summary of these sometimes less-than-lucid concepts.

Chapter 5 deals with written composition as constructivism, comparing it to the individual and social processes of reading. This chapter makes the case that reading and writing are different directions along the same path. As writers read their own material, they become readers; writers must “read” audiences as they write; collaborating writers must “read” each other as well as read each other’s drafts and feedback comments. When writing is done from text sources, meaning is being constructed from one text for the construction of another text, and the two processes are inherent.

The third section includes Chapters 6, 7, and 8. Two of these chapters go deeply into specific research studies of discourse synthesis, the process used when writers use multiple texts to produce their own related texts. Chapter 6 reviews the first of these contemporary studies. This is an area where Professor Spivey has made a seminal contribution to the empirical research literature. I became familiar with the first of these studies (Spivey, 1984) when it was awarded the International Reading Association’s (IRA) Outstanding Dissertation Award, and I was asked to be the manuscript reviewer for the IRA monograph. It was a groundbreaking work and has been especially influential in the literature of reading-writing connections. That original study was done with college students and was subsequently replicated with younger students (Spivey eS King, 1989). Given some developmental differences, both groups were consistent in using selecting, organizing, and connecting strategies in synthesizing written essays from related texts. Quality ratings of the texts were found to be correlated with the amount of content, and the organization and connectedness of that content, suggesting a sensitivity to structure in both reading and writing. The other empirical studies covered in this chapter investigated the writing of comparisons of two related texts and the writing of research proposals and research reports based on five source articles in psychology. As in the other studies, the constructive strategies of selecting, organizing, and connecting were seen to be evident.

Chapter 7 deals with studies of discourse synthesis in the genres of summary writing, reporting on a topic, proposing a solution, critiquing a topic, and making a causal argument. These transformations involved writers employing strategies of constructing meanings within a given genre structure cued by a text or by imposing a new text structure. Also, new material imported on the basis of inference or intertextual relevance was observed. These findings were also interpreted as constructive behavior in both reading and composing based in both individual and social influences.

Chapter 8 deals with the history and contemporary status of author identity, both in terms of an author’s content and the voice used in an author’s writing. Part of this chapter is coauthored by Maureen A. Mathison, and it discusses data from a longitudinal study of developing authorial identity in college students. This chapter makes the case that an author’s identity is established both socially and individually in the interplay of reading and writing within discourse communities. Originality arises in the new syntheses and transformations of prior work produced within those communities by the author and by others.

The fourth section consists of a concluding chapter that reviews and summarizes the main emphases of the book and addresses persistent issues in constructivism such as the individual-social issue, the process-product issue, and the originality-conventionality issue. Resolving these dichotomies remains a challenge for constructivist theorists and researchers.

Two major themes run throughout the chapters of this book. One is the theme of individual and social influences on the constructive integration of all literate behavior. The comprehending and composing of both individuals and groups involves conventional knowledge and practice that is restructured within those conventions or can be transformed originally: existing texts are transformed to create new texts, and existing knowledge is transformed to create new knowledge. A second theme is the effort to pull together different versions of constructivism under a big tent. The different versions of constructivism are neither completely synthesized or opposed here. Rather, they are seen to be part of a larger view that changes depending on the focus of the lens: Focusing close, we see individual cognitive processes; focusing farther out, we see social groups of small and large scale.

The issues raised in this book prompt lots of thoughtful responses. As Professor Spivey warns us in the last chapter, the metaphor of constructivism does no good if it is simply reduced to truisms such as “meaning is a constructive process.” Her warning is well taken. One wonders if that has not already occurred; metaphors of building and structure have so dominated the scene that it may be hard for students of literacy these days to think in any other terms. But there are other metaphors. Let’s explore a few.

The digestive metaphor for reading was popular in medieval times, although it is uncommon today. This metaphor treated the text as something to be savored, consumed, ruminated, and absorbed. Another metaphor with a long history, the clarity metaphor, suggests that the meaning of a text can be more or less “clear,” just as vision or other senses can be more or less vivid or obscured; we see as through a glass darkly. The grasping or holding metaphor suggests getting a grip on something or the process of holding things together; comprehend literally means a grasping together (Latin com-, together, and prehendere, to grasp; the monkey has a prehensile tail). Compose literally means to position or arrange together; Renaissance and Romantic metaphors for composing involved plants and gardens. The construction metaphor suggests the arrangement of parts into a whole with a connotation of planned bottom-up activity; a builder arranges units in a plan against chaotic forces (e.g., gravity) that would reduce it to confusion. This potentially suggests two intellectually hazardous limitations implicit in the constructivist metaphor: its bottom-up connotation and its implication of an executive controller.

Cognition is widely theorized to be both bottom-up and top-down. However, top-down activity does not seem to have a convenient, popular metaphor (20 questions, perhaps?). Rather than building up using some sort of units, the top-down view is that meaning is what is left after much has been removed. Smith (1994), perhaps the strongest proponent of the reduction-of-uncertainty view of cognition in reading, made the technical case that a determinable number of reductive mental decisions must be made for any instance of comprehension to occur. That is, meaning can also be seen as a matter of what something is not, of paring down an interpretation from the vague to the specific, as well as, or rather than, building a meaning up from features or elements. This aspect of meaning seems somehow absent from the constructivist metaphor; it doesn’t symbolically capture top-down activity very well.

In order to account for top-down activity within a construction metaphor, a builder using various blueprints has become an extension. Versions of schema theory (e.g., mental blueprints or plans) and metacognition (e.g., an executive that controls operations) have become necessary adjuncts to the constructivist perspective. These adjuncts can be traced back through Bartlett to Kant and ultimately to Plato. However, the schema view has not held up well as an explanation for general cognition (Alba eS Hasher, 1983) or for reading (Kintsch, 1988; Sadoski, Paivio, e’r Goetz, 1991). Theories that rely on abstract knowledge, plans that act as, or with, executive processes do not account for a rich variety of findings in comprehending, composing, or remembering. For example, the schema process of selection should reduce the amount of text information stored in memory, but evidence from numerous studies indicates that memory for complex text episodes is richer and more detailed than these processes would allow.

In fact, many theorists and researchers have moved away from these views. Dual Coding Theory (Sadoski e’r Paivio, 1994) maintains that parallel processing of mental representations in different codes and interconnections between the codes can account for both the particulate construction of a degree of certainty and the holistic reduction of uncertainty without need for abstract schemata or separate executive devices. Rumelhart (Rumelhart eS McClelland, 1986) proposed a connectionist, or parallel distributed processing, model of reading, wherein parts and wholes are processed simultaneously, and inhibition and activation at various levels converge in an interpretation. Kintsch (1988) revised his earlier models and rejected all prestored knowledge structures and proposed a construction-integration view in which knowledge is minimally organized. A variety of mental connections are activated by a text unit, and this spreading activation of connections is restricted by context in such a way that a tentative interpretation results and is integrated and carried forward in the form of a propositional text base and a visuo-spatial situation model. There are important differences between these theories, but they all include both bottom-up and topdown processes interacting in highly flexible, adaptive ways that are not consistent with any blueprint-and-bricks metaphor.

Wisely, Professor Spivey poses these constructivist puzzles up front. The preface of the book asks the questions: What is being built? Who is doing the building? What material is being used in the building? What is the nature of the constructive process? The difficulty here lies in separating metaphor from theory. To the extent that a comprehensive constructivist theory actually exists, it is essentially an elaborate metaphor. Metaphors may inspire theories and theoretical thinking, but for an actual, testable scientific theory, we must go beyond metaphor. But even in metaphorical thinking, changing the metaphor changes the scene, and the intellectual necessity of answering these questions may be removed by posing other metaphors. We do not mentally “build” any more than we mentally “see” or “grasp” or “absorb”; these metaphors are all useful in their various ways and limited in their various ways. But the constructivist metaphor may have become so reified as fact that we do not entertain these other useful metaphors enough.

A metaphor that I introduced above that synthesizes both reading comprehension and written composition also deserves some critical comment. The metaphor was that reading and writing are two directions on the same path. The empirical research cited in this book makes this view plausible. As writers compose from sources in discourse synthesis activities, they are seen to construct meanings from texts, analyze those meanings, and construct new texts using information provided in the given texts as well as inferred and imported information. That is, in writing about what you have read, reading and writing seem to be back-and-forth structuring processes along a verbal information trail. However, this may apply only where the source material is already verbalized as it is in source texts. What if the source content is nonverbal? What of the writer who has a mood and images in mind that seek verbal expression and communication to an audience? Much of the angst of the writer comes in trying to make what is basically nonverbal verbal.

This is not a situation relegated to poets, playwrights, and novelists; good persuasive, journalistic, and even technical writing relies substantially on imagery and tone (Rutter, 1985; Sadoski, 1992). In our top-down, bottom-up, verbal, and nonverbal view, composition must involve discriminating among language units evoked by images and affects, and comprehension must involve discriminating among images and affects evoked by language units. Because verbal and nonverbal mental representations are theoretically independent in contemporary cognitive theory, the metaphor is now expanded beyond moving back and forth along a verbal information path. We must also move from side to side across the path to go from imagery to language and back, and maybe up and down as mood and tone change. The bidirectional path metaphor only works in narrow verbal situations, but most composing involves more than linear verbal transformations; the journey of the composer is much more an odyssey to many realms (see Sadoski, 1992, for a detailed discussion of this view).

The book pays substantial homage to Bartlett, and this is of course warranted. But perhaps I found my own intertextuality reaching beyond what Bartlett by his own admission had difficulty theorizing. Another giant in the field of meaning and mind was the pragmatist George Herbert Mead, often credited as being the father of social psychology. Mead was a colleague of John Dewey’s and the two gave pragmatist philosophy its greatest depth and breadth. Mead (1934) held that the behavior of individuals can be understood only in terms of the social group(s) of which they are members, and meaning arises out of the anticipated consequences of our acts, especially discourse acts. Mead allowed for the effect of memory and prior knowledge, but put more emphasis than Bartlett on imaginatively creating alternative moment-to-moment futures that we select among and behave so as to accomplish. Meaning-making was more than transforming existing knowledge within individual or cultural schemata; it involved the flexible organization and reorganization of the past with the sense of the future required to explain human adaptability and creativity. Mead’s theory of psychology was central to pragmatism and consequently has been elaborated greatly in the philosophical literature as well as the psychological literature. (For a brief and readable history of Mead’s philosophical milieu and influence on psychology, see Schellenberg, 1978).

As I hope my comments suggest, The Constructivist Metaphor will make you think and then question your thinking. This is what first-rate scholarship should do, and this book does it well. It also has the comforts of a trim organization and a smooth style. Professor Spivey brings constructivism to a new plateau and invites us to look beyond. It stands as a tribute to constructivism and the long way it has taken us; it stands as a challenge to constructivism as well.


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Spivey, N. N. (1984). Discourse synthesis: Constructing texts in reading and writing (Monograph). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Spivey, N. N., dr King, J. R. (1989). Readers as writers composing from sources. Reading Research Quarterly, 24, 7-26.

Mark Sadoski


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