From the Origins of Reading

Texts on educational psychology tend to present reading as some skill located in the individual (brain), so that if there are problems—e.g. “reading disabilities”—the reasons are attributed to mental or individual processes. These might include deficits in visual processing (now discredited), phonemic processing, or issues with the automatization of reading skills (e.g. Sternberg and Williams 2010). In the monist approach developed in this book, it is not the individual that we consider but the {person | environment} unit. With respect to reading, therefore, we are not dealing with structures inside the skull that function independently of the environment— even if it is true that brain structures and functions are relevant to enable people engage in reading praxis . Instead, each time we observe reading, there is also a material text, a term that we here use to refer to whatever people read, including not just words, but also images, graphs, sheet music, or film.[1] Reading then always appears in conjunction with a material text so that our phenomenon is a {reading | text} pair (Livingston 1995). Between the two parts of the irreducible pair there is a mutually constitutive relation. On the one hand, the nature of the text depends on the reading; it is what reading identifies as readable. On the other hand, reading itself is shaped by whatever material traces there are that give themselves as things to the reading eyes that follow them. Accordingly, we cannot begin with reader on one side, and text on the other. Instead, we need to start from the material practice of reading itself. The text, whatever kind of text, once read, then is a description (account) of the work of reading.

Reading is a phenomenon that has cultural and historical aspects. It is social through and through. We learn to read in relations with others. It is one of those functions that in all cases were social relations before they became functions attributable to individuals. If reading is a cultural practice that forms and transforms in social relations, then there will be certain kinds of work required for reading proper to begin. For example, to read something at all requires the joint attention to the thing read. A child would not be able to read the letter “A” unless there existed the joint attention with another so that a relation between the ink trace in the form of “A” came to be related to the specific sound /ei/ (as in “а”), /ж/ (as in “man”), /э/ (as in “comma”), /о:/ (as in “warm”), or /a/ (as in “father”).[2] That reading is cultural can be seen from this great variation in sounds for the same vowel in English, which contrasts the constancy of pronunciation of the same letter in German or French.[3]

Joint attention to get the work of reading requires—but not in all instances—a particular orientation to the medium so that the textual (readable) structures may reveal themselves for the reader. Reading footprints of game on the part of an aboriginal hunter, for example, does not require the same kind of orientation between the reader and the “text” as reading a book requires. Similarly, poets have not always stuck to the ways in which poems tend to be presented, having gone beyond established cultural ways of ordering. Instead, a poem may be presented in an image resembling words on concrete blocks (Fernbach-Flarsheim 1967a) or may consist of letters splattered all over a page, oriented apparently at random and with different densities (Fernbach-Flarsheim 1967b). Such poetry “presents exquisitely complicated or exquisitely uncomplicated visual displays of letters and/or words some of which can be viewed but not read aloud at all” (Ong 1982: 129). In each case, the text demands an orientation that reading needs to work out in situ for it to take place. In the following examples from the very early reading sessions of a boy who does not yet speak—i.e. make sounds that constitute recognizable words—we observe the work related to those fundamental requirements for the work of reading, and which indeed constitute its earliest part. These aspects of reading, as any other social practice, here exist as social relation.

When Fragment 7.1 begins, we are already more than 20 s into the video. The boy (Bo) sits in the mother’s (M) lap gazing at the book in the Bo’s hands without speaking.[4] Bo then turns the book by 180°. It had been in—as per Western culture— the wrong orientation, though the fold itself was correctly aligned with his body (turn 08). Over the next three turns (see shaded part in the transcription), Bo gazes at the book while his mother provides a description of what can be seen, “right now you look at upside down” (turn 09). There is a pause, the mother notes, “okay,” while turning the gaze toward the camera and its operator, then states: “upside down” (turn 11). In the speaking pause that follows, Bo turns the book by 180° and into its right-side-up orientation. Here, it is precisely when competent reading identifies trouble that part of the normally invisible work of reading is made visible: orienting the text.

Fragment 7.1a

On the surface, we do not observe a difference in the orientation and apparent intensity of Bo’s engagement with the surface of the book spread in either orientation. We do note, however, that following the mother’s description of the current state of affairs, Bo turns the book right side up. That is, the description also functions as an (accepted) invitation (instruction) to return the book into the state so that whatever offers itself up for reading can become the material for a

{text | reading} pair. Indeed, the two descriptions initially function as evaluations: something currently is wrong. Reading can and does continue once the prerequisites for reading have been established. Here, then, turning the book so that reading proper can begin already requires the identification of the text orientation. It has been noted that the work of reading exists in “finding the organization of that work that the text describes” (Livingston 1995: 14). Thus, the text already provides the reader with clues for orienting it so that reading may proceed. For Bo, who does not yet read, those clues need to be made visible in and through concrete praxis. The joint work of orientation here exists as a mother-boy relation. In the description of the state of affairs that the pair is producing, Bo finds what his own actions have produced in and for reading. Even though there are no descriptive rules articulated for recognizing the correct orientation beyond the assertion “upside down,” Bo surely will come to identify correct orientations over time. This is not unlike learning to queue, which we learn by participating in the work of queuing, occasionally corrected when our behaviors are “out of line.” Queues, as texts, do come to be recognized as straight or as not straight by virtue of our encountering them rather than by reference to an abstract rule. We also learn to form grammatically correct sentences without first learning grammar.

Reading together presupposes joint attention to cultural objects (letters, words, and images). Those objects are cultural precisely because of the work that marks them as such, which here involves the specific spatial orientation with respect to the reader. Mother and Bo have just established proper orientation, when, after articulating what we hear as a question, “is that doggy bone?,” she points to and rhythmically taps five times the image of a doggy bone.

Fragment 7.1b

In the finger tapping on the image, we find an orientation to an object, which goes with the sound /'dogi boun/ (doggy bone). Following the speaking pause, there is another offer for producing a {query | reply}; but a pause unfolds (turn 18). Bo is moving his head back and forth, as if directing the gaze from the left to the right page and back again. In response to the unfolding situation, we witness the offer of a query that seeks to find out what Bo is looking at (turn 19). In turn 15, we observe the offer of an orientation to a particular feature of the page: the drawing of a doggy bone. There is the action of tapping the part of the page where the drawing can be found; and there is naming. Whatever offers itself to Bo’s percep?tion also offers itself to be associated with the sound /'dogi boun/. Bo’s visible changes of gaze are articulated and problematized in turn 19. Whereas the mother offers a location of attention, we do not see it being taken up, as Bo’s gaze moves rather than looking steadily in the direction where Mother’s index finger points. That Bo does not gaze in the offered direction is not just observable but made salient by the mother, who produces several actions that address this situation, including a query concerning what the boy is looking at (turn 19). That is, the joint reading of an area of the page associated with /'dogi boun/ is uncertain because the work of jointly orienting has not yet been completed and evidenced. Only seconds later, there is then a counter-offer for an object of joint attention that this time is initiated by the child and that is not unlike the one we find in turn 15 and 17. What follows may be glossed as the work of finding what is to become the joint object of attention.

The fragment begins with a sequence of sounds. Bo’s right hand, which apparently holds the book, also places the thumb on the drawing of the dog with a ball on its head. A description of the object of attention is offered, “a ball on his head.” That is, the phrase here treats the thumb as pointing to the ball on the dog’s head as the focal point for joint attention. But even before Mother finishes, Bo produces another sound, which may be heard as “queen” but starting with a “g” (turn 28). This offer comes to be paired with a similar sound that the mother produces, as if it were to be a confirmation or acceptance of whatever was presented. We then hear a sound that apparently repeats the earlier one, only that the pronunciation of the opening consonant has become harder: /kju/ (q).

Fragment 7.1c

As the transcription shows (grey highlight), Bo’s thumb is not moving over the course of the 12 turns. There is another reply on Mother’s part, and another offer that Bo provides (turn 35). We hear the mother articulate an interjection of surprise—a blending version of /а/ (ah) and /ou/ (oh)—and then the word “green.” There is an interjection of assent, and then a statement describing what the boy has

“ See there’s some cones back in there” (movement during the grey-shaded speech)

Fig. 7.1 “ See there’s some cones back in there” (movement during the grey-shaded speech)

done: telling colors (turn 36). As soon as Mother names the color green and formulates what Bo has done, the latter moves on to something else. That is, during the entire time between the offer and the repeating of sounds when the first identification (“ball”) obviously was not confirmed, Bo held the thumb on the ball; but he moved it when the sound-word /gri:n/-green was produced. This sound-word had a great resemblance to the sounds Bo has made in the course of the event (i.e. /gwi:n/).

We observe here the joint work of identifying and finding the common object of attention. As the transcription shows, it takes a while until the joint nature of the object is confirmed. We notice that a first hearing of what Bo has “read” does not come to be accepted. It is not treated as accepted on the part of both. Bo does not repeat the “BOO,” which may have been treated as “ball,” but produces a different sound, that is, /gwi:n/. The mother makes similar sounds, as if confirming the preceding sound by means of repetition. But there are more offers, which are distinguished from the mother’s sounds by the fact that they all begin with similar consonants /kw/ and /gw/, whereas the former only produces vowels. The sequence may be glossed as follows: there is an offer (on the part of Bo) to attend to the color green and to name it appropriately, which initially is not taken up (on the part of Mother). But as soon as it is indeed taken up, there is a change in Bo’s bodily orientation (including the thumb). The work establishes the relation between a perceptual object—the green-colored part of a ball—and the sound-word /gri:n/-green describing this color. As shown below, this same process is at work when the text consists of written words rather than here, in the drawings. The fragment exemplifies that joint orientation requires work. It includes making visible the orienting and the object oriented to. The work also includes sounds, which constitute the accounts that something has been appropriately oriented to. This work is not merely observable in the teaching of little children, but happens every day without requiring specific noticing. For example, it occurs when someone apparently points into a direction to find something that can be seen (“See?”) and our experience of failure when we do not see whatever it was that we were to see.

Searching and locating the object of joint attention is work that can be observed even among the most highly trained scientists in their daily work. Take the situation displayed in Fig. 7.1, where a research scientist—who has worked for 30 years with the retinal tissue extracted from fish eyes—points his fellow inquirers to something to be looked for and to be seen. While saying that there are “cones”[5] to be seen somewhere in the back, his hand moves up from the desktop until the index finger touches the computer monitor on which the contents of a microscopic slide are displayed. The finger then moves around a small part of the monitor, thereby limiting where the point of joint orientation is to be located. The image at that point contains many features and structures. But the descriptive phrase “cones back in there” also constitutes an instruction what to look for (i.e. the cones that the recipients of the talk are familiar with) and where to look for them. Whether the joint attention is achieved requires actions on the part of the recipients. In this instance, they acknowledge to have seen whatever they were invited to see.

Both examples reveal that the identification of the locus of joint attention is not naturally given and therefore cannot be presupposed on the part of the analyst. The mother and her son exhibit the work required identifying just where reading can find the features that constitute a readable text. In their case, the question is whether it is the ball or the color. Whereas the offer of the ball as focus is not accepted, color is. This highlights the dialectic process of pointing, which, in analogy with reading, can be formulated as a pair: {pointing | object}. A body movement, often but not always involving a specific finger or the hand, is seen as pointing when something in the trajectory of the movement offers itself to be seen. In the reading situation, both ball and the color offer themselves to be seen. But the pointing thumb does not distinguish them; it is not enough in and of itself.[6] Instead, it comes to function as a resource within the overall structure of the work produced. The object is required to perceive the hand movement as doing part of pointing as well. The work of pointing therefore also requires doing the work of finding in the perceptual plenitude a situationally appropriate thing that gives itself to be seen as an indexed thing, that is, something that has a place in the unfolding relation between the participants. The work of pointing is successfully achieved only when something on the monitor reveals itself to the recipient scientists as something that may count as a cone (or several cones) that is (or are) in the back of other things. The work is completed when there is an acknowledgment or, alternatively, when there is no problematiza- tion (e.g. a recipient saying, “Where?”); that is, the work comes to an end when one (or all) of the participants can say, “Now I can do it ... Now I can go on!” (Wittgenstein 1953/1997: 59).

The work of orienting described in this section is an integral part of reading. As joint work, reading is social in nature from its very beginnings. These beginnings, as shown here, may exist even before the child actually speaks. We clearly observe biological features, such as orienting the body and moving a part of the body into place that will be and is serving as the locus of joint attention. Biological processes, too, constitute the foundations of perception. The practice of reading thus is material because inherently tied to the material nature of the text to be read. Reading also is social because the tie between (a) whatever material trace there is to be read (ball, color green, cone, or front and back in an image) and (b) some name, verbal index, or deictic gesture first exists as social relation. The boy points, the mother produces a sound-word, and the boy evaluates it; or, the mother points, the boy changes gaze directions, and the mother evaluates. The link between text and reading, therefore, does not exist in any of the actions taken independently. It comes to exist as social relation.

In this episode, Bo also is learning to speak. Here, too, biology is involved in the development of the capacity; but participating in a culture where people speak—i.e. participating in the social practices of communicating—is at the origin of developing those biological capacities that enable speech. Thus, we know that Japanese speakers have difficulties articulating the consonant /r/, which they tend to treat as the consonant /l/. As it turns out, they do hear /l/ instead of /r/. Biologically, there is no reason for the Japanese to lack a capacity for the pronouncing the /r/. Children of Japanese immigrants born in Canada (or any other English-speaking country) do distinguish the sounds perfectly well. Consistent with what we expose in Chap. 2, that biological capacity to hear and distinguish the /l/ and /r/ has been shaped by culture.

  • [1] Scholars concerned with discourse even treat architectural landscapes and (Victorian) gardens astexts that can be read and interpreted. In detective novels, sleuths are reading the environment forclues; and aboriginal hunters read animal tracks.
  • [2] The conventions of the International Phonetics Association are used to represent the sounds.
  • [3] This may make it more difficult for English speakers than for German and French speakers tomove from the written to the sounded word. In German, once the letters are known, reading mayproceed and develop by means of sounding out the letters found.
  • [4] Transcription conventions are available in the Appendix.
  • [5] The retina of vertebrates includes rods and several kinds of cones.
  • [6] This phenomenon also is apparent in the episode from the science classroom described inChap. 3.
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