Professor of Journalism
Florida A&M University
copyright © 1994, 1996
Like other constructivist theories, cognitive reading theory at times
sounds solipsistic. Reading almost appears to take place entirely in the
minds of isolated readers who invent meaning in independent and unrelated
But though reading is a highly individual act, it takes place in the context of a social group Note 42 and in relation to a text. The organization of that text can play a crucial role in reading.
Not only is the organization of the written text important, cognitive researchers studying reading and writing maintain that nearly all prose comes in a small number of recurring organizational patterns. The several systems for naming these patterns agree on many of the "generic" patterns commonly found in writing, though experts emphasize that there are other specialized forms of prose (e.g., the news report, the technical article on medical research, the grant proposal, the resumé). Jones (who has published several useful studies on this topic) describes three generic types of organization which occur widely in writing of all kinds: Note 43
1. Texts containing one major element, plus supporting information, such as:
2. Texts describing a sequence, such as:
3. Texts comparing two or more elements, such as:
Each type of text organization embodies a
different kind of thought process and reveals that thought process through
the use of "signal" words.
Good readers not only interpret the literal meaning of words and sentences, they also identify the structure of the text and activate thought processes that help them interpret the thought. Note 44
For example, terms like "in contrast, like, similar, resemble, share, have in common" signal a comparison/contrast thought and text structure and encourage the reader to summon appropriate strategies for interpreting that thought.
In order to comprehend a comparison, the reader must construct an idea of each of the things being compared, distinguishing them by the points of comparison. Reading a comparison as two unrelated descriptions or as a continuous narrative would miss the point.
Different text structures have different signal words. A story that opens "Once upon a time" cues the reader to expect an entirely different kind of text structure and invites a different reading strategy. Again, Smith captures the point clearly: "To be able to read a text, we must be able to anticipate the conventions that the writer will employ." Notes 45 - 46
A frame is a specialized form of schematic organization used in writing. A frame is "a representation intended to guide the process of thought, supporting, organizing, and catalyzing that process." Note 47
The information the clerk writes on the back of your check is a simple kind of frame--containing a few established identifiers such as driver's license number, race, sex, age, work phone, etc. In their most common usage, frames encode, in easily understood form, the essential categories by which we understand certain kinds of events.
Researchers attempting to improve textbooks were among the first to study frames as a method of organizing information. They concluded that consistent, careful use of frames helped students learn the categories and concepts of the subject matter.
For example, a "region" frame is used in many geography texts; whenever a new region is covered, a text box provides basic information on it (climate, size, ecological habitats, topography, etc.). A text which uses the same frame for each region is likely to be more effective than one which gives different categories of information for each region.
Texts covering more complex topics (Armbruster gives the example of ecological habitats) become easier to understand when each similar topic is "framed" in a similar way. As obvious as this sounds, it is a discovery that only began to shape textbooks in recent years, and a similar awareness is just beginning to enter other kinds of writing.
Good readers will interpret text in terms of some kind of organizational pattern; if the text lacks a clear pattern, good readers will impose one.
Effective texts signal their own content, context, structure, and strategy so that readers can know how to approach them. Writing that does not signal its structure is more difficult than writing that does, especially for poor readers.
"Considerate text"--text that is:
--is easier for both good and poor readers to understand. Indeed, "considerate
text" (the phrase was coined by Anderson and Armbruster ) Note 48 seems to improve the ability
of poor readers to understand and remember what they read.
Table 1, "How to Serve the Strategic Reader," proposes a list of ways a writer can produce "considerate text."
I derived Table 1 by abstracting major themes from the research literature, identifying their practical implications, and converting those into a "how to" format. It is offered as exploratory--but well-grounded--advice.
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