THE READER AS A PRODUCTIVE CONSUMER
Activating Schemata and Exploiting Lexical Networks to Assist Text Processing
The aim of this article is to examine some grounds for viewing the reader as a productive consumer of written text. I have selected the term productive consumption from the literature of critical discourse analysis because it recognises the reader not only as the consumer of the message of the text, but also as a producer of that message in the process of reconstructing it. 'By the theory of productive consumption, you can understand the text only if you bring to it relevant experience of discourse and of context' (Fowler:1996:9). In other words, the efficient reader can draw on previous experience of similar texts in a similar context, with a similar purpose or in a similar genre, as well as apply personal world experience to the ideational focus of the text. If we can establish that this is in fact a tenable viewpoint of the relationship of reader to text, then we may want to examine further, whether in our roles as teachers, materials developers or testers, to what extent our methods, materials and tasks permit learners to play the part of active consumers.
By what means does the reader come to view a given number of words, clauses, sentences and paragraphs as a sequence of connected propositions, a textured entity: 'a unified whole' rather than 'a collection of unrelated sentences'? (Halliday & Hassan, 1976:2). What cohesive devices within the text facilitate the reader's processing of text? 'Can the cohesive ties of a text be interpreted merely on the basis of formal considerations?' (Shiro: 1994: 175). Or is it more likely that 'the coherence of a text cannot be described independently of the reader'? (Shiro: 1994: 175). And what text-oriented and real-world schemata within the reader facilitate the decoding and connections of the text's propositions? Although many answers could reasonably be offered to these questions, I plan to restrict the scope of this article to two areas for consideration: namely, a consideration of lexical networks in text, and the schemata that readers can activate. Although these two areas have been recognised as of major importance, they have traditionally been considered separately. The theory of productive consumption may allow us to establish that they are intimately connected despite the fact that the one appears to focus largely on the text and the other largely on the reader.
What, first, are lexical networks? Lexical cohesion in Halliday's and Hassan's terms may manifest itself in different ways and I would like to focus on two of them here. First, lexical 'chains' in a text may be established through such semantically connected words as mountaineering, Yosemite, summit and peaks. (1976:287). The reader may perceive connections between these textually separated words which enable her to see 'a SEMANTIC unit: a unit not of form but of meaning.'(1976:2). Second, 'reiteration' creates cohesive lexical ties. Halliday and Hassan identify four types of reiteration - use of:
a) the same word/repetition,
b) synonym/near synonym,
d) general words
Hoey (1991) agrees with Halliday and Hassan (1976) that lexical cohesion far outstrips reference, conjunction, ellipsis and substitution and comes to the conclusion that at least fifty percent of textual ties are lexical. Lexical cohesion 'is the single most important form of cohesive tie.' (Hoey: 1991:9). In fact, lexical ties are impossible to quantify accurately, because 'there is nothing to prevent a lexical item forming a relationship with more than one other item.' Hoey concludes that 'lexical cohesion is the dominant mode of creating texture' since it is 'the only type of cohesion that regularly forms multiple relationships '(1991:10). Because of this multiplicity, I shall prefer to view these cohesive ties as lexical networks. The term chain has been commonly used after Halliday and Hassan (e.g. Cook: 1989; Bloor and Bloor1995), but it implies an orderliness and sequentiality that frequently do not exist. Lexical networking is a term that better represents the multiplicity and open-endedness of lexical ties functioning in text.
Yet, lexical cohesion in itself may not suffice to leave an impression of coherence in the reader's mind:
"The picnic was ruined. No one remembered to bring
This mini-text coheres, I maintain, not because there is a necessary linguistic lexical cohesive tie between picnic and corkscrew but rather because we can access a familiar schema for interpreting it in which picnics and corkscrews go together. For anyone who cannot access such a schema the text will fail to cohere."
What does schema mean for the language teacher, when stripped of its psychological (Bartlett: 1932) and Artificial Intelligence (Schank and Abelson: 1977) connotations? And leaving aside distinctions between scripts (Schank and Abelson: 1977) and frames (Minsky 1975)? Knowledge schemata for our purposes of text analysis may simply be taken to mean
'mental representations of typical situations, and they
are used in discourse processing to predict the contents of the particular situation
which the discourse describes. The idea is that the mind, stimulated by key
words or phrases in the text, or by the context, activates a knowledge schema,
and uses it to make sense of the discourse.'
The text has triggers to activate reader schemata. 'The reader is discursively equipped, prior to the encounter with the text.' (Fowler:1996:7). The reader may apply both formal and content schemata so that she 'reconstructs the text as a system of meanings which may be more or less congruent with the ideology which informs the text.' (Fowler:1996:7). Why only more or less congruent? Why not exactly congruent? Because productive consumption is a dynamic mode of reading, where different readers may alter text in different ways according to the different discoursal equipment they bring to bear. 'Schemas vary according to cultural norms and individual experience: whether restaurants are expected to serve alcohol, whether they are routine or special places to eat' (Cook: 1997:86). Or, according to Anderson et al., 'the schemata by which people attempt to assimilate text will surely vary according to age, subculture, experience, education, interests and belief systems' (1977:378).
What textual demands are made upon the reader as the propositions are set up? What further demands are made as the propositions develop?
The text-processing may well involve 'the bidirectionality of text-based and knowledge-based processing.' (Carrell: 1988: 101). It may be data-driven (bottom-up) and conceptually-driven (top-down) simultaneously. (Rumelhart:1980). The efficient reader may use
'a combination of top-down and bottom-up processing modes
Top-down processing is the making of predictions about the text based on prior
experience or background knowledge, and then checking the text for confirmation
or refutation of those predictions. Bottom-up processing is decoding individual
linguistic items (e.g. phonemes, graphemes, words) and building textual meaning
from the smallest units to the largest, and then modifying preexisting background
knowledge on the basis of information encountered in the text.'
(Carrell: 1988: 101).
Establishing the core propositions
The reader who is sensitive to lexical relations and who brings sufficient discourse and conceptual knowledge to the text should be able to establish from the outset what the text's propositional focus and direction will be. I am interested in finding out how the reader can work from an early stage in the text with what is lexically provided to establish a focus for the text and to discard lesser foci.
Will the rest of a text extend a lexical network established at the beginning of a text?
Will the ensuing text take up or elaborate the early lexical focus?
In addition to lexical networks, does simple reiteration provide a clue for a text's central preoccupations
Processing the text's development
Lexical reiteration and networking can sustain, develop or refine (or even challenge) a reader's schemata as she moves beyond the text's initial setting out of its propositions. I would like to look at how reiteration and networking are carried forward beyond the setting-out stage so that they permeate the whole text.
Can the reader apply discoursal schema to reconstruct the sense of finality from this reiteration.
No matter what the focus of our analysis, we might find that there is no visible end to the reconstruction of lexical networks from within the text or to the application of individual schemata to reconstruct meaning. An examination of lexical ties is not a delimiting or delimited exercise; on the contrary, it is as open-ended and varied as whatever conceptual and discoursal schemata a variety of readers might choose to apply. We can perhaps begin to see the validity of Fowler's statement cited in the Introduction above -- that the reader's reconstruction of the text as a system of meanings may be only more or less congruent with the text's ideology. Multiple schemata often need to be activated and could vary from reader to reader. The reader may accept or reject what she understands to be the ideology that underpins the lexical networks, and the connections may be debated by readers with different personal belief systems. The author's lexical construction of his own personal beliefs in many articles can, in the end, only be an artefact which the individual reader can approach, process and utilise in whatever way she chooses -- within the limits of whatever conceptual and discoursal equipment were brought to the text.
A successful reader of a specific text is most likely to be one who can utilise the lexical ties which the writer makes available in the text and exploit them in the fullness of individual knowledge brought to the text. Successful readers can activate sufficient schemata to detect lexical patterns, decode specific and global meaning and build coherent semantic patterns in a process where they become productive consumers of the text message.
My analysis, however, has left me with far more pedagogical questions and concerns than answers as I attempt to view the learner as productive consumer, detecting and utilising lexical relations and activating schemata. I shall list some of these questions bearing in mind my introductory reference to teachers, materials writers and testers.
Topic and audience
What assumptions about readers' knowledge does the text make?
'Taking up the concept of ideal reader, the writer attributes to his/her ideal reader certain knowledge (schemas) and beliefs or ideas specific to the topic being dealt with. Taking those attributes for granted, the writer can build a message aimed at a target reader.' (Pagano:1994:258) Many texts, although dealing with a global issue, are produced in a local context. How much is shared between author and reader? What can an author take for granted about the schemata of intended readers? To what extent do learners understand the local context of situation in which a text is produced? Do given texts provide enough of a recognisable context for the reader to make intelligent judgments about the intended audience, the interpersonal relations between author and reader and the ideational purposes of the text?
Topic universality may not be the prime issue when considering the factors that enable readers to successfully decode; intended audience is more likely to be more important (considering the allowances that authors can make for intended audiences' varying needs for filling-in).
How can learners become part of the intended audience of a given text?
Do materials (particularly if they are not authentic) provide enough richness for the reader to detect and exploit lexical networks? Are there, for example, naturally occurring kinds of simple repetition, synonyms, general words and superordinates?
Do initial stages of a task (or indeed of a test that focuses on reading) allow learners to activate schemata?
Do initial tasks encourage learners to:-
What tasks best develop strategies for identifying and using lexical networks?
Word field diagrams could be used 'to highlight the relations between items.' (Gairns:1986:96). Lexical networking tasks can also be actuated through tree diagrams, grids and the representation of hyponym- superordinate relationships. (See Gairns:1986:97-98 for examples).
Do tasks, and tests, overall enable an observer to measure to what extent the text, when it is designed as a coherent piece of connected propositions and not a colony, is a coherent piece in the reader's mind and not an ill-assorted collection of fragments from which, yes, the learner can extract bits of information? And what degree of text coherence will satisfy a learner? The intended audience of the text?
Do tasks facilitate the simultaneous use of bottom-up and top-down processing, using at once both textual data and the learner's own conceptual contribution to the text?
Does classroom activation of schemata based on such elements as visual aids, headings, key words and the social context of the text deliver the lifelong independent-learning message that the learner is the active constructor of the text, a productive consumer rather than the passive recipient of information?
Is the essential classroom activity one where the learner's own personal relationship with the text, using her own experience of similar texts, the world and its lexical representation is at the centre--and the teacher increasingly marginalised?
If so, the process of productive consumption is effectively in place.
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