Russell A. Hunt
St. Thomas University

Texts, Textoids and Utterances:
Writing and Reading for Meaning, In and Out of Classrooms

[as published in Constructive Reading: Teaching Beyond Communication, ed. Stanley B. Straw and Deanne Bogdan. 113- 129. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann-Boynton/Cook, 1993.

My teaching has changed a lot in the past few years, and it seems that I spend a lot of time trying to explain, to myself as well as to others, just what the changes amount to. The other day I heard myself saying that the most important difference was that I was trying to put meaning at the centre of all the written language used in connection with my classes. The colleague I was talking to said that he didn't see anything unusual about that -- what else, he asked, could possibly be at the centre? I took a quick stab at answering the question, but I don't think I convinced him I knew what I was talking about. It was in trying to deal with that question for myself, later, that I discovered what's really happened: my notion of what meaning itself is has changed. I no longer think of it as something that's in texts or language: it seems to me far more powerful and useful to think of meaning as a social event. [note]

Language as a Social Phenomenon

In recent years we've heard a lot about language as a social phenomenon. We've been hearing it from the lips (and reading it from the wordprocessors) of people in an amazing variety of disciplines and areas of research. Those, like Kenneth Kaye (1982; Kaye & Charney, 1980) and Jerome Bruner (1983) who are concerned with the very earliest beginnings of mental life in infants, have been telling us that Vygotsky (1978; see also Wertsch, 1983, 1986) was right when he said, a half century or more ago, that intelligence itself was a social phenomenon, intimately connected with that most social of phenomena, oral language. Those, like M. A. K. Halliday 1975, 1978), who are concerned with the early stages of oral language development, have been telling us that language is a social semiotic, and not something that grows in the isolation of an individual cognitive mechanism. Those, like Frank Smith (1982), Jerome Harste (Harste, Woodward and Burke, 1984) and Judith Newman (1985, 1986, 1991), who are concerned with the development of literacy in young children, have been telling us that written language must be meaningful in order for it to be something children want, and are able, to learn -- and that for language to be meaningful it must be the vehicle for social transactions. Second language theorists like Stephen Krashen (198l) and teachers like Anne Freadman (1988) have been telling us that the best way to learn a language is to use it in real social contexts, for genuine social purposes. In composition studies, indeed, "social process" has become the buzzphrase of the early nineties. Scholars like Karen Burke LeFevre (1987) and Jim Reither (1985, 1990; Reither and Vipond, 1989) have made it clear that not only composition and revision, but invention itself is profoundly social. Even in literary theory, the "new pragmatics" (Mitchell, 1986; Kamuf, 1986; Hassan, 1987) and a dialogic view based on Bakhtin (1986; see also Bialostosky, 1989 and Holquist, 1991) have begun to look as though they're about to shoulder aside deconstruction and reader-response theory.

And so at conferences we begin to make jokes about how often the word "social" can be allowed to appear in the program. We struggle to keep the term from becoming so general, so widely used, that it no longer means anything, the way the dichotomy between "process and product" did a few years ago, or "current-traditional paradigm" did a few years before that, or "whole language" is doing today. And we race to snatch the concept out from under the dusty tread of all those people who want to appropriate the term for the snappy, colourful covers of grammar drill books, freshman comp handbooks, introductory English readers, language arts texts and literature anthologies -- complete with study questions and a handy section on writing about literature.

In the short time we have before the term vanishes into the dust back down the road behind the wagon train of progress, I'd like to suggest some of the powerful implications it might still possess for the way we teach reading and writing to be learned. These implications are easy to lose sight of; but I think once we've lost them we're really not talking about treating language as social any more.

Once we've accepted that language is a social process, our notion of what meaning is must change radically. It has been clear for some time that traditional definitions are inadequate, of course. Michael Reddy (1979), for example, pointed out the way using a "conduit" metaphor for describing language leads us to think (wrongly) about language as a sluice down which chunks of meaning, like pulp logs, are channelled from sender to receiver, arriving essentially unchanged (the ERIC Bibliography used to offer "information transfer" as a synonym for "communication"). With reference to reading, Frank Smith (1985) has called this the "information-shunting" model. According to that model, meaning isn't particularly problematic: it is just information that is somehow contained in text. Our job as speakers and writers is to get the information into the conduit; as listeners and readers, to get it out. I don't mean to suggest anyone has ever thought that this was simple: a whole generation of reading researchers, linguists and psychologists of language worked at trying to construct a model of just how that might work. But they didn't consider the question problematic; it was just complicated. For a long time it seemed as though it would be solvable in a purely mechanical way. In fact, many people still believe they're going to succeed in creating a computer program that will parse sentences into meaning, and generate new sentences with "the same" meanings based on their "deep structures."

It's been apparent from the beginning, though, that in at least some cases the situation in which a particular syntactic structure was uttered could determine its meaning, and do it without much help or interference from the kinds of internal structures that a computer program could apprehend. If you listen to any naturally occurring oral conversation for more than two or three minutes, in fact, you discover that the meanings of the overwhelming majority of oral utterances are in fact determined not by their semantic properties and syntactic structures, but much more powerfully by a sort of unspoken, continuously renegotiated social contract between the participants in the conversation.

"That's just great," you might say.

"Tell me about it," I might reply.

In an appropriate situation -- say we've just been informed that there's going to be no overhead projector available for our conference presentation in ten minutes, the one that depends on 40 transparencies of statistical data and charts -- we both know that you certainly don't mean that it's just great, and that I'm not asking you to tell me anything at all. How do those sentences come to have those meanings?

Although we might not all talk the same way about how those sentences mean, it's clear that we would all share a sociolinguistic competence that allows us to make the right sense out of them most of the time. But they may not seem normal or typical sentences. For one thing, they're rhetorical figures of some kind -- the first is obviously irony, and probably Aristotle or Puttenham would have a name for the second. Thus, it might be argued, they're not really "standard language," not something we have to account for if we want to explain how language works. Serious language, we might argue, the kind we want to understand, works more directly than that, isn't so situation-dependent, is more susceptible of analysis, and carries more information. "Tell me about it" doesn't actually convey information, does it? Wouldn't a philosopher of language like Bertrand Russell analyze it right out of existence, showing that it's really not properly language at all?

Yes, he probably would. But there are two problems with that sort of position. First, the kind of language we're considering is far from unusual. Virtually all naturally occurring oral language is like that. And if you want to account for, and understand, how language works, you can't very well argue that seventy or ninety per cent of what you hear people saying isn't really language at all, and therefore doesn't have to be accounted for. Second, it's becoming increasingly clear that, both developmentally and logically, the information-conveying aspect of language is built on the foundation of these kinds of context-dependent, social-context-driven, linguistic transactions (cf., for example, Halliday, 1975). It's not conducted according to any syntactic-structural model of pure information transfer. When information transfer occurs it's based on a pre-existing foundation of that kind of transaction.

A Conversational Model of Reading and Writing

Against the background of this rather elaborate argument, let me see if I can now say what I've come to mean by "meaning." (It should be obvious that I'm not going to say that it has a lot to do with information.) I think it has a good deal to do with what sociolinguistics has taught us to think of as "point." Most relevant here is the work of Labov (1972) and Polanyi (1979, 1985) on the way conversational stories allow tellers and listeners to share "points." To state the insight I draw from their work as simply as possible: when I recount an incident in a conversation, if you attend to what I say as though it were a series of factual assertions to be remembered, you generally lose the "point" utterly. My colleague Doug Vipond and I have based much of our theory of literary reading on this study of what happens when people tell stories in conversation (Hunt & Vipond, 1986).

Over the past several years, we have been tinkering with a conceptual model of the literary reading process (Hunt and Vipond, 1985, 1991). I think this model yields a useful tool for thinking about almost any language event (perhaps especially one involving written language). What we suggest is that the nature of the reading process is influenced by a range of variables which can be grouped into three categories: the reader, the text, and the situation. Just as altering the text will affect the nature of the process that occurs, and thus the kind of point or meaning that may be constructed, so changing the reader, or the situation in which the reading occurs, will equally affect that process and its outcome.

The most obvious example, because it has been the most regularly explored, is the text. A grocery list, for example, affords (but doesn't guarantee) an information-centred reading, whereas a letter of apology for an inadvertent insult would tend to promote (but, of course, again doesn't guarantee) a socially engaged, point-driven reading.

Altering the reader might make just as much difference. A shopper might read the grocery list for information; but you, on the other hand, might read it as a sign of the writer's mood or status; or someone else as a coded message; or I might recognize it, on the counter next to the door, as a subtle reminder that I'd forgotten to stop at the store on the way home. You might be the recipient of the letter of apology and read it one way -- but someone else, years later, might read it as an example of the author's late-middle style, or of the use of capital letters during the time period, or as evidence as to the facts in some irrelevant court case.

Equally important -- and much less often considered -- is the situation in which the reading occurs. I might encounter the grocery list in a book of found or concrete poems, or the letter of apology as a text in a reading comprehension test. A student might read the grocery list in the book of poems as part of her cramming for a final exam in her English course. A friend might hand me the text of the letter which he'd found in the reading test, and say, "That's exactly the way I feel." Each of these situations would, clearly, produce very different readings of the same text by the same reader.

The distinction I am making, clearly, is one which depends on seeing a written language event as either having, or not having, the pragmatic potential to establish, maintain, and deepen the social relations between people which are what make up a culture. I have called the kinds of fragmentary, inane, artificial, committee-constructed pieces of written language one finds in textbooks and reading tests "textoids" (Hunt, 1989); Chris Anson has expanded the idea to suggest that readers and situations may render texts otherwise whole and natural into textoids, devoid of human purpose and "stripped of their human richness and complexity" (1986: 21).

Another way to phrase this is to use the distinction Bakhtin draws between "text" and "utterance." (This is, by the way, a quite different use of the word "utterance" from that posited by David Olson [1977; see also Luke, DeCastell & Luke, 1983].) Bakhtin, in an essay probably written in 1952-53 [Holquist, 1986: xv], contrasts the set of words and syntactic structures used by someone in a given situation (the text) with what the people in the situation actually use the text for (the utterance). In the case of the example I used earlier, the four words, "Tell me about it," are the text: the utterance is quite different in the situation I presented from what it is when the same string of signifiers is used as an example in this paragraph -- and would be quite different again when the four words occur in a new situation. Combining my term and Bakhtin's distinction, it's possible to say that the texts which resist being made into utterances -- whether because of the situation, the users, or the string of signifiers themselves -- are textoids. Circumstances in which no one is using the text as an utterance, as a vehicle for what Bakhtin calls dialogue, create textoids.

Language transactions which occur in such circumstances are, I am suggesting, essentially without the kind of social meaning I've been describing. One thing that is clearly important about such lack of meaning is that, as I have argued elsewhere (1987, 1989), it makes it much more difficult for us to use to their full potential our powerful language learning abilities and propensities. But whether one accepts that argument or not, it is easy to agree that such transactions are in some sense peculiar. What is not so easy to agree about, I think, is that if we are looking for examples of language transactions which are of that peculiar, sterile, meaningless kind, the best possible place to find them is in school and university. I would contend, in fact, that the written language events which occur in educational contexts are virtually all like that.

I should make clear here, by the way, that I'm not beating the dead horse of drill-and-practice sheets, fill-in-the-blanks grammar exercises, basal readers and comprehension questions. (That horse, although it's dead, is not gone -- it's still out there roaming classrooms like a malignant zombie.) What specifically concerns me here are my own (presumably enlightened) practices as a teacher of English over the past twenty-five years, and what seem to me to represent some of the best and most imaginative and thoughtful strategies among my professional colleagues. When we examine those assignments and those strategies in the light of this notion of meaning as social event, I think that we discover some challenging truths, and further, that some facts about student reading and writing that we've all known and accepted with a good deal of equanimity for years take on a new urgency.

Teaching without Meaning

Let me consider an example from my own teaching. A few years ago I asked an introductory literature class to read Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" and write their own responses to it. This was late in the course, so they'd had time to learn, if they were ever going to, that this was not a test, and that individual and peculiar responses would be valued -- or at least would not be "marked down." Covertly, I was hoping to find out how many students knew, before we discussed the story in class, that the "operation" that's the implicit subject of the whole conversation between the two Americans waiting at a railway station in Spain is an abortion. More overtly, I was trying to help the students use their writing to explore and extend their own understanding of the story before we discussed it in class.

The writing they handed in to me was appalling, of course (not more appalling than usual, naturally, but still of a kind that you'd only ever expect to see in a freshman literature class). What I saw at the time were the disastrous handwriting; the incomplete and ungrammatical sentences, the complete lack of transitions, the absence of any sense of direction (or, indeed, of the existence of a reader out there beyond the page), and the highly skilled evasion of the story's central issue. Based on those papers -- virtually all of which amounted to highly general summaries of the discussion between the two characters, and elaborately phrased and entirely abstract value judgments about the artistic merit of the text -- I absolutely could not tell whether any of them had constructed a point for the story that was even remotely related to mine. My own had to do with the impact of the sudden discovery of pregnancy on this carefree, adolescent, Hemingway-style relationship. (In research since then, by the way, I've discovered, based on samples of similar students, that it is extremely unlikely that, in that situation, more than one or two of them realized that the story was about an abortion.)

I can no longer find that set of papers among my souvenirs, but virtually any English teacher will be able to supply comparable sets from her own experience (the classic description of this experience, of course, is Mina Shaughnessy's [1977] account of the influx of basic writers into her teaching). My conclusion then, and the conclusion most of my colleagues have drawn from similar stacks of papers, was that the students couldn't write, and in fact that when you came right down to it they couldn't read either.

It should not come as a surprise that I now think rather differently about that situation. I now think that the problem wasn't a matter of the students' capabilities at all, but something quite different. The situation in which the students were acting was one which virtually guaranteed that both their reading and their writing would be of the kind that I have been describing as meaningless -- that is, completely disconnected from any real social occasion or motive.

First, the reading. The students were reading as part of an assignment. Whatever I might say about the assignment (and at the time I didn't say much), they knew that their job with school assignments was to read, decode, store and remember. Most of the texts they had encountered in school, of course, from basal readers to history and science textbooks, were really textoids. They were not manufactured and created because someone had a point she wanted to make to a real audience. They were created because certain pieces of information had to be encoded in a language whose rhetorical choices and limitations were determined not by readers and writers but by readability formulas and the intense scrutiny of banks of editors, consultants, censors and curriculum committees. But it's also true that even when "real" texts are encountered in school -- poems written by poets, stories written by Hemingways, even (very rarely) expositions written by John McPhees or Stephen Jay Goulds -- they are normally encountered in situations where it's extremely difficult to treat them as anything other than textoids. The possibility that the author, like the person across the table telling a story, might be engaged in sharing values and inviting the reader to make points, is obliterated by the fact that the story is in reality the possession of, and is being offered to the student by, the textbook and the teacher -- by the educational institution. It is not being offered by its speaker or author. And it's being offered not as an utterance, but as, in Anne Freadman's (1988:7) phrase, "an example" of something, a pretext for a test.

Even more powerfully, the students knew (however cleverly I thought I'd concealed it) that they were being tested. Everyone was, after all, reading the same story -- obviously some would understand it "better" than others. Whatever I might say about differences being okay had been said to them by many teachers before me -- just as sincerely, and just as deceptively. They knew there was a "right answer" and, furthermore, they knew that, as always, the teacher was the person who had it. My illusion that I could change a dozen year's worth of hard-learned lessons with a few weeks' exhortations was not only ill-founded, it was also in an important way dishonest: there was a right answer, and I did have it. It involved abortion.

In the terms of the model of reading I described earlier, what we have is a situation in which the text, for the right reader and in the right situation, clearly would have afforded an engaged, pragmatic, dialogic, "real" reading for meaning. But the situation and the reader powerfully pulled for an empty, asocial search for isolated chunks of information. If I were to try to characterize the process of reading as it occurs in such a situation, I might contrast it with what happens in a conversation, or in a strongly meaning-oriented reading. If the speaker says something incomprehensible you hold on to it and look (wait actively) for explanation, on the assumption that the speaker is intending something -- you impute coherent pragmatic intentions to the speaker. In a situation involving what you see as a textoid, however, you make no such assumption and so when something incomprehensible is encountered you simply pass it over -- or, at best, you try to memorize it for the test.

My first point about that assignment, then, is that -- primarily because of the situation -- the reading that the students did was virtually guaranteed not to have meaning at its centre. It would be a rare student who could read the story in such a situation as though the story might have some purchase on her, as though it were being told to her by someone who had a reason for telling it and to whom it was possible to impute normal human intentions. Such a student would be one with a highly developed ability to ignore the real situation in favour of a fictional one, a student with what I've come to call a powerful pragmatic imagination. Another way to describe such a student is to say that she's already a reader. Still another thing one might say about her is that she doesn't need much help from a teacher.

Now, writing. A second concern has to do with the potential role meaning might play in the writing the students did on the basis of this reading. What was it possible for them to mean in what they wrote? With whom could they have been trying to make contact, and what values, structures of knowledge, judgments of importance and patterns of expectation could they have been trying to share? From their point of view, they could hardly expect to have anything to say about the story. Having something to say is not easily distinguishable from having someone to say it to, and in the view of those students -- even after a few months' evidence of ignorance and incompetence on my part -- I already knew everything there was to know about stories. I was the teacher, after all.

I could tell them -- I probably did tell them -- to write not as though to me but as though to a general reader; I might even have specified a general reader who had already read the story (to avoid long, pointless summaries). But the ability to engage such a mythical rhetorical reader in the active process of composition is a rare one. It requires the writer to use that imaginary figure to decide, for instance, in specific instances -- moments where, to use James Britton's phrase (Britton, et al., 1975), the language is being shaped at the point of utterance -- precisely how much reference to the events of the story is necessary for that reader, and what inferences that reader can be called upon to make, which ideas can be backgrounded, or treated as "given," and which need to be foregrounded and treated as "new." It requires the kind of powerful pragmatic imagination that a very few students -- the readers and the writers -- have managed miraculously to retain. Very few of my students -- then or now -- have it. It's hard to imagine where they might have acquired it, other than in the sort of uncommon home where -- as Gordon Wells (1986, 1987) has demonstrated so clearly -- attitudes toward books and language create writers and readers.

A resource which a skilled writer often turns to in such a situation is her knowledge of how writing of the kind she's trying to produce sounds. Rather than using the real situation to generate purposes and readers, she uses the kinds of audiences which have been "invoked" (in Ede and Lunsford's [1984] useful term) by other, similar texts as a model. But my students had never in their lives read anything like what I was asking them to write -- like, that is, the sort of thing teachers had increasingly been asking them to write throughout their school careers. No wonder they didn't produce such great texts -- and no wonder they didn't learn very much that was of use to them from the exercise. Everything about the situation virtually forced them to treat the text they were reading as a textoid, and to produce textoids in response to my assignment. Meaning, in the sense of social engagement or the sharing of structures of evaluation and understanding or "point," was just about entirely absent from the situation. They didn't read for meaning, or write to convey it. Nor, not at all incidentally, did I read what they wrote for its meaning: I read it to find out what they knew -- a completely different matter -- and to assess their ability to write.

The absence of meaning, motive, and social context from this sort of literacy event is made more dramatic if we contrast it to the kinds of events described by Lee Odell and others who have been studying writing in the workplace in recent years (1985; Odell & Goswami, 1982). When Odell asked insurance executives to explain the rhetorical choices they'd made in business letters and memos, he discovered an astonishing (astonishing to many of us academics, anyway) metarhetorical awareness and an equally surprising ability to articulate reasons for subtle choices. Why? It seems to me clear: because there were real motives and real readers, and real consequences. Just as Vygotsky's (1978) infant learns what a gesture means by having it taken as a gesture, so Odell's businessmen (I infer) had learned what the impact of certain kinds of phrases and organizational patterns were because they'd seen them have that impact. They were used to dealing with written texts as though -- in the terms I've been using here -- they were written and read for meaning.

If it is true that there are profound and fundamental differences between the processes of reading and writing when conducted as empty exercises and when conducted for meaning (as I am defining it), then it seems to me that most of the adventurous and exciting theoretical and practical work that's been done in recent years in composition and in the teaching of literature may be pretty much beside the point. Separated from what I'm calling meaning, language itself becomes an empty, pointless exercise.

In the absence of pre-existing intention and audience, planning tends to become the sort of perfunctory outlining we've all come to recognize ("Teacher tells us we have to have an outline, so I always do one after I've written the essay"); and invention a kind of meandering ooze of wordage ("prewriting"). In the absence of authentic situation, purpose and reader, revision tends to become an aimless and pointless alteration, a sort of syntactic Brownian motion. In the absence of pragmatic context and intention, reading tends to become a passive act of decoding and storage, and interpretation and response tend to wander into an endless maze of free association and unfettered fantasy. "Analysis of poems" in English classes is often this sort of exercise.

Unless the making of social meaning is at the centre, none of these activities is likely to provide much opportunity for learning how to handle language when it is at the centre. Even more seriously, I think, the predominance of these kinds of activities in educational institutions tends to inculcate one lesson very powerfully: written language, especially in academic settings (which should, I think, be seen as the peculiar case, rather than Odell's writing in nonacademic settings), does not have meaning at its centre.


The obvious question to be raised at this point is whether there is any genuine, practical alternative to the present situation. Is there a way, within the limits set by the institutional contexts teachers work in, to create situations win which student reading and writing is, in these terms, meaningful? If there is no alternative, what I'm arguing might be a theoretically interesting viewpoint, but would in practice amount to little more than a depressing and self-indulgent orgy of woe-crying and nay-saying.

Having said all that, I don't imagine you'll be surprised to discover that I believe there are alternatives. The ones I know most about are the ones occurring among some of my colleagues at St. Thomas, and I'd like to describe a couple of specific examples of alternative ways of structuring learning, ways that hold, I think, real promise for addressing some of the problems I've been describing1.

The basic strategy is something we've begun calling "Collaborative Investigation." In general, it entails creating a situation in which the class organize themselves into a team to investigate cooperatively some specific topic, using writing as the fundamental tool for that organizing, that investigating, and that cooperation. Here is one example of how that works in practice. I'm going to describe it as concretely as I can and hope you can see some of the ways in which the reading and writing is done in a situation which makes them rather different from more conventional models.

I usually require my introductory literature class to attend a number of plays on campus or at the local professional theatre during the year. One year (after we'd conducted for our own information a couple of collaborative investigations of productions we were going to see) I suggested that we prepare what we wound up calling a "Playgoer's Guide" to an upcoming professional production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. We began by getting hold of a copy of the play and reading it. We didn't order 29 copies of a text; we shared library copies. We even shared the reading -- by having groups read and present different parts of the play. We then generated questions about the play, Hellman, and the production. In this case, we did this by asking everyone to write down as many questions as they could in fifteen or twenty minutes; the class then formed into groups to read each others' questions and select a few to write on the blackboard. Then we edited and selected among those, and set up ad hoc groups to go to the library and find out what they could about particular questions -- regarding, for instance, Lillian Hellman's life, the composition of the play, its historical background, its previous productions, and so forth. (I went as well.) Each group prepared a short, concrete report (sometimes these took the form of a set of separate, individual reports; in other cases they were researched and written in collaboration). Each of these reports was photocopied and in class the next week each of a new set of groups received a sheaf of documents which included a copy of each of those first reports. They read and discussed them, and generated a new set of questions. Again these were written on the board, edited and discussed, and assigned to groups, which took the relevant reports, with their lists of references, and went back to the library to prepare further additional or elaborative reports.

The second round of reports were also photocopied. We spent part of a class session arriving at a consensus as to what should go in the final handbook, and set up groups to combine various reports into sections of the handbook. These sections were finally edited by other groups, and then given to a secretary (me, as it happened) to be typed into a computer file, typeset, laid out, and printed. The final handbooks were distributed in multiple copies to the class and left around the university a day or so before the play opened -- they were, I might add, snatched up more rapidly than I could photocopy them, and many of my students reported instances of being thanked for their work by people they hardly knew, who'd picked up copies somewhere.

The final part of the process involved everyone in class writing a review of some aspect of the play. The reviews were read by everyone else in class, formed the basis of a discussion, and were then jointly edited by five groups into separate consensus reviews, which we photocopied and sent to the publicity director of the theatre company.

It may be important to point out that I was not the first or only or final reader of any piece of writing produced in this process; I did not mark, comment on or edit any piece of writing (except that because I was secretary I ran a spell checker on the final copy). There were no papers which were essays on, or interpretations or analyses of, the play. And it is certainly important to make clear that the document that was finally produced is far from wonderful -- it's scrappy, sometimes superficial and in at least one case erroneous. But -- like the texts produced on the way to it -- it is clearly an authentically functional piece of written text. And it was obvious to everyone involved that without the social interaction structured by all those intermediate texts, it would have been impossible to accomplish the final task or learn what we learned about Hellman and her play. Perhaps more important, in every case rhetorical decisions were made, at the point of utterance, in the light of obvious, real demands: the writers knew who would be reading this, and how much they knew -- and even, to some extent, how they felt about it.

There are a variety of other ways in which the reading and writing that students do in connection with their learning can be made more obviously and practically functional, more clearly something written and read for meaning rather than in order to demonstrate competence or exercise rhetorical skills. This is simply one fairly recent example; the classes of some of my colleagues at St. Thomas would offer a wealth of others. Many whole language classes engaged in what Frank Smith (1988) -- and John Dixon before him (Dixon & Stratta, 1984) -- call "enterprises" offer still more. What is most important is that such strategies are not difficult to come up with, once one has embraced the basic notion -- that the way to create a context in which students are writing and reading for meaning is to put the writing and reading into situations where they serve purposes which the students can see as real and which they can adopt as their own. The danger, of course, is that once you've embraced that notion, there isn't any going back: the changes and the discoveries acquire their own momentum. You get hooked.

I didn't tell that to my colleague who wanted to know what I was trying to say about putting meaning at the centre of my teaching. But now at least I've finally figured out for myself what it was I was trying to say. Whether I can hook him remains to be seen.


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