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Ways That Text Has Been Conceptualised

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    For the purposes of this study, I am looking at texts as ‘written’ texts. Whereas my pedagogy sees text in a wider range as ‘transmitters of meaning’ which could also be visual and/or aural texts, I focus particularly on written text in the empirical part of this study. During the lessons which form the empirical part of this study (see chapter 5), I tried to alert the class, when discussing a particular text, to the extra layer of meaning added by the illustrations and page layout. However, this discussion did not generate illuminating data, and I do not include the multimodality of text in my discussion below.

    Historically, the concept of text has been conceived in different ways within language teaching. I will briefly set out traditional views of text, before focusing on the conceptualization of text which is the core of my pedagogy, i.e. that of ‘cultuurtekst’.

    In the liberal humanist educational tradition, which I discussed in Chapter 1, text itself was not an issue for theorizing. Text is a written product and not a process of communication. A product, moreover, which was the result of intellectual thought and ideas. The most important attribute of a text is the content which, in ‘a good text’ is generated through solid thinking and expressed in good writing. The quality of these thoughts is reflected in the actual quality of the language, the structure of the text, and the strength of the argumentation. As the 19th-century educationalist Blair, cited by Emig, said, the aim was for writers to produce products of moral superiority and rationality: ‘embarrassed, obscure and feeble sentences are generally, if not always, the result of embarrassed, obscure and feeble thought’ (Emig, 1983: 7).

    Texts in this traditional view are wholly the responsibility of the individual writer, regardless of whether anyone else, such as an editor could have had a role to play in the writing. The writer is thus unproblematised. The reader on the other hand has no role to play in the interpretation of the text, except, perhaps, to appreciate (and imitate in the case of learning to write) the quality of the text. The assumption then is that quality is not subjective, but objective, there is an agreed notion of ‘the good text’. Moreover, it is a product which contains a stable meaning.

    This view of text is now generally no longer held in the academic world, but it survives as a ‘common sense’ assumption amongst many people, as evidenced by newspaper discussions bemoaning the declining quality of writing of school pupils in the subject of English. As a result, the notion of a ‘good text’ has an enduring appeal with (some) students, as I found out when analyzing my data (see chapter 6).

    The second view of text which I discuss here, is the structuralist view of text. This view, whilst less concerned with the idea of ‘the good text’, does also emphasizes the autonomy of the text. But in contrast with a liberal humanist educational view, the emphasis shifts towards a more prominent role for the reader in ‘extracting’ meaning from texts (Wallace, 2003: 15). This view correlates with the view of communication put forward by de Saussure, the ‘speech-circuit’, which as Daniel Chandler says (2002: 176) can be seen as an early form of the transmission model of communication; the Shannon-Weaver model (1949). The latter sees communication as sending a message from person A (the sender) to person B (the addressee) as if it were a package. I would suggest that, again, this is the common-sense idea of communication that most people, including our students, would hold. This idea of communication as ‘sending a message’ is subsumed in much of (Dutch) language teaching practice, both in reading and writing tasks. Reading in foreign language classes then frequently consists mainly of comprehension tasks and activities, which typically include multiple-choice tasks or comprehension questions regarding writer intention or the meaning contained in the text as if these were unproblematic constructs.

    Later versions of the structuralist model allow for a more complex idea of communication and crucially include the notion of context. This model also allows for a view of text beyond the written product alone. The text can thus be anything that ‘sends a message’, whether a conversation, a visual image, or even a form of behaviour of dress. As such this model allows not only for a much broader view of text but also the emphasis in communication has shifted from the producer of text to the text itself.

    A more interactional version of the structuralist encoding and decoding view of communication is that espoused by Widdowson (and others) in relation to language teaching, which grants a greater role to the reader and to the role of context than the traditional views based on the Shannon-Weaver model. For Widdowson reading is not just a matter of transferring information from the author to the reader, but is instead a process of communication; the reader is active in the decoding process, engaging his or her prior knowledge, experiences, and ideas. Encoding, or writing, is not just a formulation of messages, says Widdowson (1979: 175), but also giving pointers to the reader to help him or her along in the process of decoding. The responsibility of the text still lies with the writer in the sense that he needs to take account of the reader in writing a text. A writer must therefore see writing as a cooperative activity. The writer provides directions to the reader and anticipates the questions an imaginary and critical reader might ask; questions such as: Oh yes? How do you know? In that sense Widdowson’s view of text may also seem to be reminiscent of the liberal view of ‘the good text’, because the text needs to adhere to certain criteria. But these criteria are not necessarily located in the clarity of thought of the writer, but in the way, the writer directs him/herself to the audience.

    This is the same addressivity that Kramsch emphasizes in her approach, where she borrows the term from Bakhtin. However, Kramsch (and Bakhtin) see this reader-oriented writing as a social aspect; the writer imagines the reader and what his/her previous knowledge, interests, objections to the text, and so on, can be. Widdowson’s structuralist position towards writing, on the other hand, is not dissimilar, I would suggest, from the maxims that guide the conversational Cooperative Principle put forward by Grice - communication is understood as being guided by the ‘rules’ of ‘being truthful’, ‘being clear‘, ‘being informative’, (i.e. not being too wordy for the purpose) and ‘being relevant’.

    Widdowson’s view allows for a stronger role for the reader than either liberal or structural views generally take on board, as the writer relies on the active participation of the reader in order to comprehend the text by understanding the pointers the writer gives, but it also sees communication more as something taking place between individuals, rather than as a social process.

    The third view of texts which takes the interactional element much further still is that explicated by Halliday, who sees texts as both product and process. The text is a product in the sense that it is an artefact, it is there in the physical sense and we can read it. But at the same time, text is also an interactive process, ‘a semiotic encounter’ where participants (the writer and reader) meet to create meaning in a particular situational context. Wallace uses Halliday’s conceptual framework of text as a starting point in her critical pedagogy of reading where she sees reading and writing as closely interrelated (2003: 12). Wallace locates her work in CLA (Critical Language Awareness), which as I discussed in chapter 2, as a pedagogy encourages learners to deconstruct texts to critique the ideology embedded in them; analyzing linguistic features in the text raises students’ awareness of how the discourses privilege those with power. Wallace takes a view of reading where text interpretation is partly guided through analyzing the social interaction between the participants, the social situation, and the language used. This is not a completely fluid and open interpretation of the text where it is up to the individual reader to recreate his or her meaning. Following Eco, she says that texts do carry meaning in and for themselves ‘apart from writer intention (and indeed apart from reader interpretation) at a number of levels signaled, in complex ways, by nature and combining of the formal features selected’ (ibid. p.13).

    My own view is to some degree in line with Wallace, in the sense that in-text interpretation, at least in the context of language education, we can look for ‘preferred readings’ (ibid. p. 16) which students can access by considering specific linguistic features and contexts. These apparent intended meanings of a text, refer to, as O’Regan (2006: 113) says, how, ‘from the perspective of a reader, the text seems to want to be read’. Preferred readings, then, are the apparent arguments, perspectives, and orientations, as they appear to the reader, and, O’Regan states, ‘it is the text itself [that] seems to indicate this preference’ (ibid.). But, in my own pedagogy, and indeed the framework for analyses of texts, which I used with my students, I also deviate from Wallace, in the sense that, when looking at texts, my concern is not so much with ideology, but rather with discourses as meaning-making practices and how these produce knowledge and make claims to truth. Looking at discursive formations in texts also gives the student reader a window on the context in which these texts are produced. And even though I assume that text interpretation does not allow unlimited readings, as I argued earlier, I also take into account that students rewrite the text; they imbue it with their own meaning, derived from their experiences and discourses to which they have been exposed, and the intertextual knowledge they gained through these.

    I have argued earlier that in my own pedagogy I encourage students to employ various critical strategies to interpret texts by referring to the linguistic choices made. I am partly borrowing from Wallace (2003) in this. But, as my concern in the foreign language classroom is not only with the critique of how power is sustained and constructed in texts but also with culture, I am using a different view of text which allows for both elements. For this reason, I am focusing on models of text which are more suited to ‘being intercultural’ through text.

    Bakhtin offers a good starting point.

    This page titled Ways That Text Has Been Conceptualised is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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