Serving the Strategic Reader
Cognitive Theory and Journalistic Practice
"To completely analyze what we do when we read... would
be to describe very many of the most intricate workings of the human mind,
as well as to unravel the tangled story of the most remarkable specific
performance that civilization has learned in all its history." -- E.
B. Huey, 1908.
"She was also quite illiterate: She couldn't read the signs and tracks
at all."-- the Bushman Xiko, about Dr. Ann Taylor, the New York Doctor
of Law stranded in the Kalahari Desert. From the film, The Gods Must
be Crazy II.
The past twenty years have brought a revolution in the way we understand
reading, yet that revolution has only just begun to have effects on journalistic
practice. In the old view,
Reading is widely preceived to be simply a matter of 'decoding
to sound', of translating the basic elements of written language, the letters,
into their equivalent sounds in spoken language. Meaning is then assumed
to be instantly available in these sounds of speech that the reader imagines
hearing, just as the meaning would be apparent if the reader were actually
listening to someone else reading aloud. Note
The old model of reading is kin to the widely used "information transmission"
model of communication, in which senders code messages, transmit them through
a medium to readers, who decode them and extract information. Note
In the new view, the passive reader of stimulus-response theory and the
"decoding" reader of information theory are being replaced by
a reader who actively constructs meaning. Rather than responding to stimuli
or decoding information, the "new readers" search out material
to use in making and confirming the meanings that give order to their lives.
Far from being conditioned by their environments or mainly "receiving"
information from it, readers make a model of the world and live in that
model. Much of their reading is devoted to servicing a viable world-model--a
structure which must be maintained much like a house. Note
This new model with its "strategic reader"
has roots in work that was being done a half century ago: symbolic interactionism,
Piaget's theory of equilibrium, Vygotsky's brilliant work on thought and
language, Bartlett's formulation of schema theory, the symbol-making philosophy
of Susanne Langer and Ernst Cassirer, and others. None of these schools
of thought completely disappeared, but all were eclipsed in the interim
by the behaviorist stimulus-response model and later by the computer-based
information-processing model. But beginning with the ascent of cognitive
psychology in the 1960s, a large new body of research has directed attention
to the role of interpretation in perception, knowing, learning, and communicating.
This shift--which places the interpreter at the center of a socially-constructed
reality--has important implications for journalism and for anyone who is
teaching writing. Notes 4 - 10
This paper reviews the theory of the strategic reader, extracts a series
of principles from it, and suggests how those may be applied in journalism
and in the writing classroom.
For the short tour: go to Figure