What Happens When Our Students Read, and What Can We Do About It?

[As published in Reading Empirical Research Studies: The Rhetoric of Research, ed. John R. Hayes, Richard E. Young, Michele L. Matchett, Maggie McCaffrey, Cynthia Cochran, and Thomas Hajduk. 43-73. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1992.]

Introductory Note by the Editors:
Chapter 3, Reading Literature

To us, Hunt's research is a wonderful example of an exploratory study that yields the most satisfying result such a study can have: It surprised the socks off the researcher.

It did not -- as far as I can see from the answers I got to this section -- lead a single one of my students to understand the point of the story, to savor or even understand the savage irony of the fact that the narrator had had his own sight miraculously restored and had forgotten it; that he is so unaffected -- certainly unsaved -- by the miracle that he not only denies miracles but is apparently going around corrupting people. . . . But they [the students] did not have the sensation, which I had hoped for and planned on at least some of them having, of having the story's meaning explode on their consciousness the way it did on mine the first time I read the story.

I can't quote extensively enough from the responses of my students to the ending of the story to convey how desperately confused they were . . . . (p. 64-5)

Clearly, Hunt loved this story. It had affected him powerfully when he first read it, and he had expected at least some of his students to respond to it as he had. The observation that they were so universally confused was a surprise for Hunt, and with surprise came questions and hypotheses that are of interest to both the teacher and researcher. One can imagine that many teachers might be similarly surprised about the responses of their own students.

One of the engaging features of Hunt's presentation of his study is his understanding of its limitations. For example, on page [46], he warns the reader that because of the small size of his pool of data, his observations are statistically unreliable. On pages [47-49], he cautions the reader about reactivity, about how his method of observation may have influenced what was being observed. For example, he says that The kind of question you ask or context you create will, of course, strongly affect the kind of answer or response you get. . . . (p. 48). On page [49], he expresses concern that researcher bias may have been involved when he selected "typical" data. Since all research methods have their limitations, Hunt quite rightly notes that his method may create difficulties:

A lot of what I am doing involves ways of putting people in a position to demonstrate that they are engaging in certain cognitive processes without triggering or determining the process by my question, and it is entirely possible that I've outsmarted myself pretty regularly. (p. 47)

What is good to see is Hunt's sensitivity to the possibility and his willingness to acknowledge that the method may not have yielded the information he had hoped for. Although he generously warns the reader to be aware of these potential problems of interpretation, it is clear that he takes his results seriously enough to be genuinely surprised by them.

Generally, exploratory studies can't yield firm conclusions. However, they can, and often do, suggest interesting hypotheses which can be tested in subsequent studies. Among these suggestions in Hunt's study are several ways in which more skilled readers may differ from less skilled ones. For example, Hunt notes that experienced readers are more likely than less experienced ones to respond to the striking image of the caterpillar with which the story opens. He suggests that "a fluent reader is operating on the assumption that divergences from what we might call 'normal' discourse are significant whereas an untrained or naive reader will not only not note such divergences, he will tend to ignore them" (p. 511). He also suggests (p. 51-52) that, of the two groups of readers, the less experienced ones are more likely to attend to the surface of the story and less to the author's purpose in telling it.

In addition to suggesting hypotheses, exploratory studies can provide striking counter-examples, a point we make in our discussion of case studies (p. 90-91). They can surprise us by showing us instances in which our assumptions are violated. For example, Hunt finds that the readers' predictions about the text ". . . both among my students and among my colleagues, were too diverse and too different in kind to make any kind of generalization about them easy" (p. 53). He remarks that observing the variety of readers' predictions "made me realize, in a way I had not before, just how different my students' readings -- and my colleagues' as well -- were. . ." (p. 53). Thus, while Hunt quite correctly indicates that firm conclusions should not be drawn from his study, the study is, nonetheless, a rich source of hypotheses for future studies and, therefore, a useful contribution to literacy studies.

Another interesting feature of Hunt's report is its format. Hunt presents us with a dual narrative. While leading us through the Graham Greene story as readers, he also presents us with his participants' responses to that story. By presenting his report this way, Hunt carries us along with both narratives and allows us to make our own comparisons. If he had presented his study in the standard APA format, described in Chapter 2, his results might have been less immediately available to us as readers. Although in many cases the use of the standard format is clearer and more appropriate, this is certainly one case where an unconventional organization conveys the message more forcefully.

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