Curriculum Opinion

Yes, Writing and Reading Are Social Acts

March 20, 1991 8 min read

In a Commentary in the Feb. 13, 1991, issue, the writer and former teacher Susan Ohanian took aim at the trend toward teaching “collaboratively” what are to her essentially solitary pursuits--reading and writing. The following response, written as an open letter to Ms. Ohanian, begins with reference to one example cited in the original essay, a group-centered writing workshop from which Ms. Ohanian made a hasty retreat--a retreat remarked upon by the group leader, “an earnest-looking type straight out of the L.L. Bean catalogue.”

Dear Susan:

I grant that the writing workshop you once attended at that New York State convention began very badly; assuredly, neither I nor endless others I know who conduct such occasions would have commented upon your departure. (I don’t quite get the significance of the sartorial comment, however, the comment on the clothing the workshop leader was wearing: do you prefer Land’s End or James River to L.L. Bean? Or do you think a teacher earning perhaps $29,000 a year should have been wearing Armani?)

But to attend to your message, if I can unpack it. May I rephrase? 1) As a highly sophisticated, published adult writer, you write alone. 2) More, you hate to share work in progress. 3) Others over history who have written in solitude and felt as you do include Darwin, Rilke, and Kafka. 4) Collaboration means ghostwriting with The Donald. 5) A deaf child you once taught did not profit from classroom exchanges, including those you initiated. Summarizing, collaboration is just one more chic and politically correct gimmick that will soon pass, like, say, teaching women’s studies.

Have you been reading at all in the fields of English studies and of cognitive science lately--oh, say, the last 20 years, Susan--I mean the theory, the research, and the statements and guidelines based on both emanating from our major professional organizations?

Most of our practices now for teaching writing and reading acknowledge significant, widely accepted theory and research. Learning language in any of its aspects, from talking to listening to writing to reading, we regard as inevitably social processes, by which we mean simply, requiring the collaboration of others since we don’t have any evidence that without interaction with another, often an adult, we develop very well even as babies initially learning the language. Indeed, we--psychologists, anthropologists, English educators, linguists--actually define language as the social construction of meaning. We have longitudinal studies of children from around the world demonstrating that they learn most happily and efficiently in settings which are interactive, between teacher and child, between child and child.

Gordon Wells, who made one of these studies in England, puts it this way in The Meaning Makers: "[L]earning itself involves an active reconstruction of the knowledge or skill that is presented, on the basis of the learner’s existing internal model of the world. The process is therefore essentially interactional in nature, both within the learner and between the learner and the teacher, and calls for the negotiation of meaning, not its unidirectional transmission.”

Perhaps the most influential theorist in all this for school curriculum, development, and practice in the 80’s and 90’s is Lev Vygotsky. What so many of us in the profession find compelling in his work is his concept of the zone of proximal development, which at one point he summarizes succinctly as “what a child can do in cooperation today, he can do alone tomorrow.” The notion here is that children can initially, perhaps for a long time, learn more with aid from a teacher, or, shocking though it may seem, from a peer, than from working alone. Psychologists, like Jerome Bruner and his colleagues, have conducted careful experiments that confirm that older can tutor younger to great effect. Sociolinguists like Shirley Brice Heath and many, many others, report comparable findings.

According to all these inquiries, we can serve each other well, forwarding the other’s intentions; helping the other see possibilities in certain organizations of thoughts and words the speaker or writer might not see alone; acting as audiences, as readers, who need more rhetorical help than the person in a given conversation or draft has yet provided and telling the writer, say, quite precisely the help we need, all in order to enhance and improve what she wants to accomplish.

I’m not certain, Susan, since collaboration to you seems to have quisling overtones--if not actually traitorous, at least dubious as an intellectual activity--that you have met this definition of collaboration that is so widely shared in the profession. We would regard the following then as specific instances of collaboration: a tutor helping a 3-year-old build a pyramid of blocks through the judicious use of a question; a 6-year-old reading her story to another 1st grader; a mother forwarding her infant’s growth of syntax by elaboration; 10th graders serving as audience for a classmate’s report about to be published in a class anthology; college sophomores writing a shared response to a case study of a fatal hazing on campus. I’m afraid we actually include here as collaboration, Susan, any valid act of teaching.

As for citing Rilke, Kafka, and Darwin as cases of solitary writers, I have trouble using them as exemplars of how all writers write since I don’t understand what the consideration of three of the most neurasthenic genius writers from other cultures has to do with helping as many American children as possible become literate enough to comprehend their tortuously complex world and to write well enough to control, and perhaps to change, that world. How do you respond to the substantiated volumes of international research by such writers as Barnes, Burke, Calkins, Dyson, the Goodmans, Graves, Harste, Murray, Rosen and by the myriad teacher-researchers from the National Writing Project and the Bread Loaf network that children and adults become better writers through sharing their writing with teachers and peers?

If I were to ask you to think of collaboration this way, I wonder if even you might acknowledge that throughout your lifetime your writing and reading have profited from the help of many collaborators. Mine would include my grandmother to whom I first read my stories, my great aunt who taught me to read, 20 to 30 teachers (yes, I did go to school too long) not only of English but of zoology, history, and art; all my friends in and out of seminars who listened to unwritten ranting as well as read unleavened drafts that would never rise. Do you ever dedicate your writing to anyone? If you do, why?

And I haven’t even turned to contemporary literary theory that insists that reading, too, is a social act; that insists upon the roles others play when we read. Some of these theories actually propose that when we read, Susan, we readers collaboratively create the sonnet that Rilke wrote; that without us in a quite literal as well as a very real aesthetic sense, that sonnet would not exist. By these theories, Susan, it might turn out that you would need even me this very critical reader as your inevitable collaborator!

I like how Lucy Calkins puts these matters in her acknowledgments at the beginning of her lyrical guide, The Art of Teaching Writing: “Alan Purves has said, ‘It takes two to read a book,’ and for me it is true that the books I remember are those I have talked about. The truth is that I learn best when I am a part of a community. Although I can see for myself that the forsythia bushes are in bloom and feel the new energy for writing that comes from them, It is only when I tell this to my colleagues that I see the implications for classrooms. ... My writing process, then, does not begin with jotted notes or rough drafts but rather with relationships within a community of learners.”

If you had asked me to read your Commentary in draft, Susan, to serve as your collaborator, I think I might have posed the following questions. First, rhetorically, does it worry you that you have set up a straw binary--collaboration versus solitude? that your essay suggests that those of us who at times sponsor collaboration do not believe that writing, including our own, is often a painfully solitary act? At the same time, even with this relatively short piece, I find I have to thank 20 people who have responded to some draft or other, including my current marvelous graduate seminar who have just read their Vygotsky.

Second, I have the oddest feeling that you are really writing about something else, what I don’t know: that collaboration has become your metaphor for all you currently find abhorrent in American education. What’s really bothering you, Susan?

For all the reasons I have cited, our professional organizations have developed guidelines that honor the worth of collaboration as I have characterized it here. In 1987, for example, eight of the major professional organizations in English and language arts, such as the Modern Language Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, formed a Coalition for the Future of Teaching English, a coalition of elementary, secondary, and college teachers, who formulated a number of guidelines for the teaching of English in the 1990’s and into the 21st century. Here are just two that the professions adopted:

Learning is the process of actively constructing meaning from experience, including encounters with a broad range of print and non-print texts.

Others--parents, teachers, and peers--help learners construct meanings by serving as supportive models, providing frames and materials for inquiry, helping create and modify hypotheses, and confirming the worth of the venture.

Recently, Susan, I have been deeply moved by an account I have been reading about women and teaching, Bitter Milk by Madeleine R. Grumet. In her full page of acknowledgments she writes: “Acknowledgment provides the emblem for the project of this text. Lodged right in this middle of this term that we extend to honor the people who have influenced and cared for us, is the word ‘acknowledge.’ An acknowledgment is an admission. It makes explicit what is tacit, or sometimes, denied, in every scholarly monologue: none of us knows alone.”

Do you agree, Susan?

Janet Emig was president of the National Council of Teachers of English in 1989, and in 1983 received the Mina Shaughnessy Medal for Research in Literature and Language from the Modern Language Association. She teaches at Rutgers University.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Yes, Writing and Reading Are Social Acts


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