Social Reading and Literary Engagement
Douglas Vipond, Russell A. Hunt and Lynwood C. Wheeler
[as published in Reading Research and Instruction 26:3 (1987), 151 - 161]

Previous research has shown that embedding a text in a socially meaningful context can help readers become more engaged with it as a piece of literary discourse. In order to determine whether a device called social reading can also facilitate literary engagement, 68 undergraduates read a short story aloud in either a social or a nonsocial condition. Social readers read the text to someone who had never heard it before with the intention of conveying the story's central meaning. Nonsocial readers read the story aloud to themselves with the intention of preparing for a later comprehension test. Miscue analysis showed that the social readers made a greater attempt to convey meaning than did the nonsocial readers. Social readers, however, were less engaged with the text as literary discourse, as indicated by agreement ratings with four theoretically-derived statements. This lower level of engagement may have been due to the seemingly inevitable pressure associated with performing in front of someone else. The results are discussed in terms of differences between engagement and comprehension, and it is suggested that what has been learned about readers' comprehension of short, simple texts cannot fully account for the ways they engage themselves with literature.

When teachers of literature turn to research for help in understanding the process of engaged literary reading, they are disappointed to find that the research deals almost exclusively with how people comprehend simple, short, often artificial texts (Graesser, 1981; Mandler, 1984; Sanford & Garrod, 1981; Spiro, Bruce, & Brewer, 1980). Relatively little work has been done on the processes involved in reading authentic literary texts, which are longer and more subtly structured.

This is not often seen as a problem. It is generally assumed that the reading of literature is no more than a special case of reading in general, and that it makes sense, therefore, to gain a complete understanding of basic comprehension before going on to the more difficult literary case.

The opposite argument can be plausibly made, however. Literary reading may be the more basic, natural type, and the reading of simply-structured "textoids" (fragmentary or artificial texts; Hunt, in press) under laboratory conditions may be a special case of reading literature (Dillon, 1980; Rosenblatt, 1981).

An even more important reason to question the applicability of general comprehension research to literary reading has to do with motives. It is widely agreed that reading processes depend on intentions and goals: readers adopt different strategies in accordance with their motives, which in turn are shaped by textual and situational factors (van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983). In the comprehension research, readers' typical motives are to recall or summarize information. When they read literature (outside laboratories and classrooms), on the other hand, readers are concerned not with understanding and remembering, but with engaging themselves with or enjoying the literary text.

Accordingly, our research (Hunt & Vipond, 1985, 1986; Vipond & Hunt, 1984, in press) has employed literary short stories read by undergraduates and faculty members with a range of motives in a variety of situations. Based on this work, we are developing a model of literary reading in which successful or engaged reading is characterized by a number of specific reader strategies:

(a) imputing intentionality to the text; that is, treating the text as the product of an intending author;
(b) assuming that the text, as the product of an intending author, is finished and coherent;
(c) assuming, because the text is finished and complete, that apparent gaps or inconsistencies are to be treated as opportunities or invitations to make connections, supply inferences, or fill gaps;
(d) assuming, for the same reason, that details or textual features that do not immediately seem necessary or functional should not be ignored or dismissed.
An important implication of these strategies is that a reader who employes them will tend to make long-range connections and construct patterns that extend beyond the individual sentence or isolated passage. We suggest that these strategies, taken together, characterize the kind of literary engagement that is both appropriate and desirable for the reading of literary discourse.

In general, comprehension whether measured by recall, recognition, summarization, cloze, or short-answer test is an index of the extent to which the reader has acquired the information given in or implied by the text. In contrast, literary engagement is, in our view, above all an index of the extent to which the reader perceives the text as an intentional artifact: the product of an intending being who purposefully fashioned it that way in order to convey certain attitudes, feelings, beliefs, or ideas. In brief, we are not suggesting that comprehension and engagement are mutually exclusive, but rather that they represent two different ways of looking at reading. Seen as information-acquisition, reading is a matter of incorporating textual objects; but seen as engagement, reading is a matter of reader-writer interaction, which occurs through the medium of the text (Phelps, 1985).

Since most reading research treats reading as information-acquisition, it follows that comprehension is typically the outcome measure of choice. While not denying the appropriateness of information-acquisition for many educational purposes, we would argue that it is not the most rewarding or useful way to read literary texts. This is a view, we believe, with which many literary theorists and English teachers would agree. For example, it is consistent (though not identical) with Rosenblatt's (1978) aesthetic mode of reading, with Slatoff's (1970) varieties of involvement, and with Scholes' (1985) idea that one way of listening is to postulate an intention. It has much in common, too, with Harding's (1937) onlooker and Britton's (1970) spectator role (neither of which, as Britton [1984] points out, are as passive as their names imply).

Literary engagement is admittedly more difficult to measure than comprehension. Even so, it seems clear that the promotion of such engagement is widely regarded as one of the central goals of literature education. Techniques that help students become engaged with written discourse in such a way would therefore be of value to teachers at many levels of the educational system.

One technique that appears to promote literary engagement is framing. In a recent experiment (Vipond & Hunt, in press) we found that undergraduates' engagement with a modern short story was increased when they tried to connect it to a previous, framing text. The framing text was specially written to make the target text more readily thought of as affording construction of a pragmatic purpose, or point. Specifically, the framing text purported to be a letter someone wrote recommending the target text to another reader on the grounds that it illuminated the letterwriter's own situation.

Although this device was successful for research purposes, its pedagogical practicality is questionable. For one thing, separate, believable framing texts must be constructed specially for each target text. For another, the facilitation effect produced was, although statistically reliable, quite small.

The purpose of the present study is to determine whether another technique, social reading, can more strongly promote literary engagement. Social reading is a situation in which a person reads a text aloud to a listener with the intention of conveying what he or she perceives to be the text's central meaning, or point. In other words, instead of embedding the text in a more meaningful context, as in framing, in social reading the readers themselves are embedded in a potentially powerful rhetorical situation a situation that is intended to be analogous to the kinds of situations in which participants tell and listen to stories in everyday conversation (for more on the analogy between conversational storytelling and literary reading, see Hunt & Vipond, 1986; Pratt, 1977).

Reading aloud in some form is of course a common practice in many literature classrooms, but its relationship to engaged literary reading has not been investigated. There is, however, some research into the effects of reading aloud to an audience on comprehension. In an experiment by Holmes (1984-85; see also Holmes & Allison, 1985), college students were asked to read passages from history textbooks. In one condition the students read alone, and in another they read in the presence of a graduate assistant. (Holmes also used two silent reading conditions that are not relevant here.) For our purposes the crucial finding was that reading to an audience impaired literal and inferential comprehension.

One explanation of this result which could be called the trade-off hypothesis is that readers allocate their attention either to vocal output (pronunciation, expression, fluency) or to comprehending and remembering the text: the more attention given to one task, the less is available for the other. Students in the audience condition may have attended to vocal output because they felt under pressure to perform well for their listener. Some evidence in favor of this explanation is provided; however, the readings were not recorded, so it could not be demonstrated conclusively that quality of oral reading and level of comprehension were inversely related, as the trade-off hypothesis would require.

Even though Holmes (1984-85) found that reading to an audience impairs comprehension, we believed that it might, under certain conditions, facilitate literary engagement. This prediction is based on the assumption that the intention to convey meaning makes readers more likely to treat the text as they would a story told in conversation that is, more likely to sense an intending author in the text, to perceive textual details as potentially significant, and so on. Such a reader, in other words, would be more deeply engaged with the text as literary discourse. According to this view, then, social reading ought to facilitate literary engagement.

Since, unlike Holmes, our purpose was to produce such a facilitation effect, we modified her study in three main ways. First, whereas the readers in Holmes' experiment had the task of learning the material, the readers in the present experiment were asked to "convey the meaning of the story to your listener." Second, whereas the audience used by Holmes was a graduate assistant (and thus easily seen as a judgmental authority), the audience used here was the same age, sex, and status as the reader. Third, whereas in Holmes' experiment the speaker had no real reason to read the passage aloud to someone else, in this experiment a more potent communicative situation was created by having the speaker familiar, but the listener unfamiliar, with the story. With these changes, it was expected that social reading as compared to a nonsocial control condition in which students read the story alone in order to understand and remember it would result in a deeper level of literary engagement.

A final difference between this study and that of Holmes is that here the oral readings were recorded and types of miscues analyzed. In part, this is a manipulation check. If social readers are indeed attempting to convey meaning, they should tend to make high quality miscues (for instance, they should be more likly to correct miscues that detract from the meaning ofthe story, and less likely to correct those that don't). Because miscue analysis provides documented procedures for assessing the extent to which oral readings preserve and convey meaning, it becomes possible to examine the relationship trade-off or otherwise between oral reading quality and literary engagement.


Subjects and Materials

The subjects were 128 undergraduates (108 females) who were enrolled in the first-year psychology course at St. Thomas University. They received course credit in exchange for participation.

Three short stories were used. Students were asked to choose which one they would like to "work with further." The stories were: Miss Brill, by Katherine Mansfield (1922), The Open Window, by Saki (Munro, 1976), and Charles, by Shirley Jackson (1980). Presumably because it has a surprise ending and is easy to read, over 75% of the students chose Charles (1600 words). (Because so few students chose Miss Brill and The Open Window, only the data contributed by students who chose Charles have been analyzed here.) The final sample therefore consisted of 99 students: 62 in the social and 37 in the nonsocial reading condition. Of the students in the social condition, half were readers and half were listeners.


Social reading. Students were assigned at random to either the social or the nonsocial reading condition. In the social condition, they reported to the laboratory in same-sex pairs. Generally the members of the pairs were not acquainted with each other. A coin toss determined which was to be the reader and which the listener. The reader was taken to a separate room, given the three short stories, and asked to choose one to "work with further" (about 15 minutes was sufficient for this). The reason for giving the students a choice was to make it more likely that they would feel some commitment to their story. Instructions to the reader emphasized that the listener had never heard the story before, and therefore it was up to the reader to "convey its meaning its point" to the listener. The experimenter also emphasized that he was interested in seeing whether the reader and listener would then both "feel the same way" about the story. The experimenter left the room during the oral reading, which was recorded on audio tape.

Nonsocial reading. Students in this condition reported to the laboratory individually. The procedure was the same as in the social condition, except that in his final instructions the experimenter said that the purpose of the experiment was to find out how people understand stories when they read for tape-recording. The experimenter also told the reader to expect to be asked questions about the story, "to test how well you can remember some of the specific details." The experimenter was not present when the student read the story aloud.

Literary engagement. In both conditions, immediately after reading, the experimenter interviewed the readers individually. After asking some general, open-ended questions (such as "What do you make of the story?''), the experimenter read aloud six statements "that people have made about this story." The students were asked to agree or disagree with each statement, strongly or otherwise, and then to explain why. Four of the statements were designed to assess the extent to which the reader had employed each of the strategies that, as explained earlier, characterize literary engagement. The other two statements were fillers. The critical statements were:

(a) I think I can see why the author might have wanted to write this story.
(b) The story just leaves you hanging they don't explain why the kid thought the other kid's name was Charles. I want to find out what happens next.
(c) I like it because the story doesn't really tell us about how the parents reacted to this, it leaves us to imagine it.
(d) The story has too many details too much stuff that doesn't really have to be there.
Literary engagement scores were computed as follows. Students' responses were coded on a 5-point scale in which the end-points represented strongly disagree (1) and strongly agree (5). According to the definition of literary strategies used in this paper, agreement with statements (a) and (c), and disagreement with statements (b) and (d), suggest deeper levels of literary engagement. Therefore, a student's engagement score is the value found by subtracting the scores on statements (b) and (d) from the scores on (a) and (c).

Quality of oral reading. In order to determine the extent to which the readers attempted to convey meaning, the tapes were analyzed according to a system based on that of Goodman, Watson, and Burke (in press; Procedure I Meaning Construction). After identifying all insertions, substitutions, omissions, and reversals, each such miscue was coded as to: (a) seamantic acceptability; (b) syntactic acceptability; (c) whether, in the context of the passage, it involved a change of meaning; and (d) whether the reader corrected it. Based on the pattern of these four scores, each miscue was then categorized according to whether it indicated "no loss," "partial loss, "or "complete loss" of comprehension. For example, successfully corrected miscues were always scored "no loss," whereas uncorrected miscues were scored "no loss" only if they were judged to be semantically acceptable.

All the oral readings were scored by one judge who determined, for each reader, the total number of miscues in each of the three categories. As a reliability check, a second judge analyzed and scored 20% of the tapes selected at random. Interrater reliabilities (Formula 6-19; Munnally, 1978) were .93, .76, and .92 for the categories "no loss," "partial loss," and "complete loss of comprehension," respectively. Apparently, the "partial loss" category was quite problematic for our judges: they had much more difficulty in agreeing on what constitutes "partial loss" than they did for either of the other two categories. Due to the relatively low reliability for "partial loss, "we decided that the safest course was to omit these miscues (less than 14% of the total) from all further analyses.


Literary engagement. Contrary to expectation, the nonsocial readers had higher engagement scores (M = 4.11, SD = 2.84) than the social readers (M = 2.71, SD = 2.73). The difference was statistically significant, t(66) = 2.06,p < .05.

Total miscues and quality of oral readings. Social readers made fewer total miscues (M = 22.19, SD = 19.4) than nonsocial readers (M = 29.9, SD = 16.9); this difference was only marginally significant statistically, however, t (66) = 1.75, p > .05. Quality of oral reading was operationally defined as the proportion of meaning-preserving miscues. This value is obtained by dividing the number of miscues judged to involve no loss in comprehension by the total number of miscues. Social readers had a higher proportion of meaning-preserving miscues (M = .676, SD = .15) than the nonsocial readers (M = .577, SD = .15). This difference was statistically significant, t (66) = 2.72, p < .01. Thus, although the two groups did not differ reliably in quantity of miscues, they did differ in miscue quality, with social readers producing higher-quality readings.

Correlation between engagement and oral reading quality. Literary engagement scores and oral reading quality scores (as defined above) were uncorrelated, Pearson r = .01.


The purpose of this experiment was to determine whether social reading can facilitate literary engagement. The oral reading data indicate that social readers did attempt to convey meaning more than nonsocial readers. At the same time, however, social readers appeared to be less deeply engaged with the text as a piece of literary discourse.

A possible reason is that the social readers felt under pressure to perform well for their listeners. Indeed, Holmes (1984-85) cites performance pressure as the most likely explanation of her subjects' inferior comprehension in the audience condition. In Holmes' experiment, the subjects were understandably anxious, because the audience was a high-status, note-taking graduate assistant. We attempted to reduce such evaluation apprehension by choosing as an audience someone who was a peer of the reader and by ensuring that there was a communicative imbalance between reader and listener (that is, the listener was unfamiliar with the text).

Nevertheless, people may experience evaluation apprehension even when objectively there is little reason for doing so. Whether or not such conditioned apprehension occurs may depend, among other things, on the similarity of the current situation to previous evaluative situations (Moore & Baron, 1983). In the present case, the experimental setting may have reminded social readers of previous classroom experiences when they were required to read aloud in front of their teacher and classmates. Since anxiety tends to restrict the range of cues to which a person attends (Easterbrook, 1959), any apprehension experienced by the social readers would result in a narrowing of attention, a reduced ability to make the kinds of long-range connections characteristic of literary engagement.

It should be noted that the social reading task investigated in this study was a complex treatment: students were both put in the presence of an audience and asked to convey meaning to that audience. Presumably, it was the "mere presence" of the audience (Zajonc, 1965), and not the task of conveying meaning, that resulted in the impairment effect. A more analytic experimental design would be needed to decide this issue conclusively.

Several qualifications are in order. The results suggest that social reading, as defined here, impairs literary engagement, but they do not mean that the problem is oral reading as such. In fact, since both social and nonsocial students were reading orally, this experiment offers no evidence as to the effects of oral reading itself. But if it is the case that the lower engagement scores were caused by performance pressure, it follows that no such impairment would occur when performance pressure is absent or much reduced. For example, pressure to perform is no doubt reduced when reading to convey meaning to someone you know well and are comfortable with. (The participants in this study were generally unacquainted.)

These results suggest that reading aloud is likely to reduce readers' engagement with literary texts, provided the situation entails performance anxiety. Unfortunately, most literature classrooms fall into this category. The practical implication of this study for English teachers, therefore, seems clear: If you wish your students to become more engaged with the text, do not ask them to read in front of their classmates.

Further implications for education become apparent when the relationships between oral reading, literary engagement, and comprehension are considered in more detail. In this study, the task of conveying meaning resulted in higher quality oral readings but lower levels of engagement. It might seem a logical inference that oral readers make a trade-off between (public) performance and (private) engagement, such that the more attention that is allocated to one task the less is available for the other. However appealing this argument may be, the data of this experiment do not support it, because quality of oral reading and literary engagement were found to be uncorrelated. (According to the trade-off explanation, they should have been negatively correlated.) We provisionally conclude, then, that there is no systematic relation between quality of oral reading and literary engagement. This means that teachers cannot assume that a student who reads well orally is someone who is engaged with literary discourse.

Although oral reading quality was not related to literary engagement, it is known from previous research that reading quality is generally (although not always: Englert & Semmel, 1981) associated with superior comprehension. For instance, Beebe (1979-80) found that the percentage of unacceptable miscues correlated -.62 with a retelling comprehension measure; Sadoski and Page (1984) found that various miscue combination scores correlated, on the average, .53 with a cloze test, and .34 with a multiple-choice test. Thus oral reading quality and comprehension, as it is traditionally measured, tend to be moderately associated.

The fact that in this study the oral reading quality and literary engagement scores were not correlated at all raises a question: What is the nature of the relationship between engagement and comprehension? It has been argued that comprehension itself is far from a unitary phenomenon, but instead is just a convenient term that actually breaks down into many different subprocesses (van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983). If this is so, it would not be surprising if one's engagement with a text bore little systematic relation to one's comprehension of it, whether comprehension is defined as ability to summarize plot, answer detailed questions, or fill in the blanks of a cloze test. For instance, given a text such as "Charles," it is not difficult to imagine students who could answer questions about characters' motives or provide adequate plot summaries and yet have no conception of or interest in what Shirley Jackson might have been getting at by writing the story. On the other hand, it is probably the case that a certain degree of comprehension is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for literary engagement. It remains for future research, however, to explore the relationship between these variables.

Meanwhile, it can be said with assurance that it is comprehension and not engagement that has traditionally occupied most of the attention of educators. The imbalance in reading research in favor of short, simple texts over authentic literary ones is reflected also in a greater concern with measures of memory and comprehension than with measures of engagement. Even literature classrooms tend to be dominated by schema models of comprehension that privilege literal understanding and undervalue engaged, experiential understanding (Spiro, 1982). It was this bias in literature education that was parodied by Rosenblatt (1980) when she suggested that the most important question to ask about a literary experience might not be "What facts does this poem teach you?"


This research was supported by grant 410-85-0612 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We thank Sylvie Arseneau for assistance with miscue analysis, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on a previous draft. Address requests for reprints to Dr. D. Vipond, Department of Psychology, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, E3B 5G3, Canada.


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