kitchen table math, the sequel: Wayne Booth and a different way to prepare for critical reading

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Wayne Booth and a different way to prepare for critical reading

First of all, the correct answer to yesterday's SAT reading comprehension question, the question we're asked to answer without reading the passage the question is about, is A: The author's attitude toward children appears to be one of concern for the development of their moral integrity.

C. and Ed read the question two minutes ago and both chose A. (Debbie and I chose A, too.) Ed is sitting here now basically running through Glen's entire line of reasoning, all 5 points. I'm cracking up!

Of course, getting this answer right is no great feat: according to the research summary I found, 83% of subjects in the Katz and Lautenschlager et al study got it right, too, with no more than 7% of subjects choosing B, C, D, or E. 

Glen and Ed didn't have to get as fancy schmancy as they did, either. (I say that with love!) According to Katz and Lautenschalger as quoted by Iri-Noda-San, all any of us had to do to answer this question was to note that:
“[t]he item just discussed is flawed because not a single incorrect choice characterizes a socially appropriate attitude toward children, whereas the correct choice does (p. 304)”.
Wayne C. Booth (or: I wish kids could be English majors again)

I have never actually read Wayne Booth, I am sorry to say. I intend to.

Back in graduate school I knew just enough about Wayne Booth's work to have been deeply intrigued by his notion of the implied author, and to have spent quite a bit of time thinking about what exactly an implied author might consist of inside a movie as opposed to a book.

Last night, after Debbie arrived fresh from her tutoring adventures bearing news of the Katz and Lautenschlager study, I had a eureka moment: the SAT has an implied author.

The SAT has an implied author, and you need to read the implied author as well as the passages to get the answers right. That's what good readers do.

I have been naturally reading the implied author in SAT reading sections, and so has C. I say "naturally" because I do it without thinking about it, and if I do think about it, I don't take it seriously. When C. and I joke about the "grammatically correct" minority questions in the writing section, we're joking.  We don't see ourselves as having (correctly) interpreted a text.

In fact, I rely upon my understanding of the implied author to such a degree that the single most useful piece of advice anyone ever gave me about SAT reading was LexAequita's observation that SAT reading questions are "picayune in the sense that you'd better start thinking like a 13-year old with Asperger's syndrome." On one level, Lex's advice is about the logic of SAT reading questions, but on another level Lex's advice is about the implied author. The implied author is picayune!

(There's an implied author in the math sections, too.)

These days, of course, no one has heard of implied authors and the like; the formal analysis of literature seems to have disappeared from English departments across the land. I search high and low for close readings of the folk tales and fairy tales I'm teaching, and all I find are Marxist analyses and multiple references to menstruation. I am not going to discuss menstruation with a class full of 18 year old boys (and girls) taking developmental composition. Nor with a class full of 18 year old boys and girls taking non-developmental composition, for that matter.

If I knew how to do a close reading of texts, if I knew more than just a smidgeon about functional linguistics, I bet I could crack the test, as opposed to consistently get the answers right without knowing why I consistently get the answers right.

And I wish I had been able to take a class with Wayne Booth. His students obviously loved him.

test prep

Who teaches kids to read the implied author in a text?

Does anyone?

If you're lucky, an English teacher will show your child how to locate main and supporting ideas in nonfiction texts. And there is a strong focus in many precincts upon identifying an author's "biases." David Mulroy writes about the contemporary preoccupation with argument in The War Against Grammar.

But I think that's about it.

I know a student in a neighboring town, who I worked with briefly on SAT reading. He put a great deal of time and energy into preparing for the test, and his writing and math scores both were in the mid 700s by October, but he could not get his reading score above the low 600s.

That never made sense to me. He and I had read together. He was a good reader, and he was smart.

You see kids like him time and again, and people remark on it. The reading test is the one that can't be tutored; that's the rule.

Now I'm wondering if kids are failing to read the implied author.

I'm also wondering whether it would be a good idea to have students purposely take some critical reading sections without reading the passages. Offhand, such an exercise seems like a good way to reveal the SAT's implied author.

The researchers who've looked into this issue seem to take the view that if a test-taker can answer the questions on a reading passage without reading the passage, the test is invalid.

That strikes me as the wrong way to look at it, although I haven't read the papers. In the studies, students who did best answering questions without reading the passage also scored highest on the test itself, and I think it's at least possible that this research reveals more about the nature of strong readers than it does about the SAT. I am now wondering how many questions I answer not on the basis of the passages but on the basis of the tone, style, grammar, and content in the question sections per se.

I don't know the answer to that, but I'd like to.

the question:
The author’s attitude toward children appears to be one of:
(A) concern for the development of their moral integrity
(B) idealization of their inexperience and vulnerability
(C) contempt for their inability to accept unpleasant facts
(D) exaggerated sympathy for their problems in daily life
(E) envy of their willingness to learn about morality

Katz, S., Blackburn, A. B., & Lautenschlager, G. (1991). Answering reading comprehension items without passages on the SAT when items are quasirandomized. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 51, 747-754.
Katz, S., Johnson, C, & Pohl, E. (1999). Answering reading comprehension items without the passages on the SAT-I. Psychological Reports, 85, 1157-1163.
Katz, S., & Lautenschlager, G. (1994). Answering reading comprehension questions without passages on the SAT-I, ACT, and GRE. Educational Assessment, 2, 295-308.
Katz, S., Lautenschlager, G., Blackburn, A. B., & Harris, F. (1990). Answering reading comprehension items without passages on the SAT. Psychological Science, 1, 122—127.
Millman, J., Bishop, C. H., & Ebel, R. (1965). An analysis of testwiseness. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 5, 707-727.
Powers, D. E., & Leung, S. W. (1995). Answering the new SAT reading comprehension questions without the passages. Journal of Educational Measurement, 32, 105-129.
Pyrczak, F. (1972). Objective evaluation of the quality of multiple-choice items designed to measure comprehension of reading passages. Reading Research Quarterly, 8, 62-72.
Tuinman, J. (1973-74). Determining the passage dependency of comprehension questions in five major tests. Reading Research Quarterly, 9, 206-223.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"The researchers who've looked into this issue seem to take the view that if a test-taker can answer the questions on a reading passage without reading the passage, the test is invalid."

Their point is that the test is supposed to be measuring the ability of students to comprehend the passage. If the question can be answered without reading the passage, then it is measuring something else (like the ability to figure out the implied author of the test). The technical term for what they want is "construct validity" (that the tests measures what it claims to).

The test may be a useful test even if it is invalid as a reading test, if what it measures is correlated with something else that is of interest (like first-year college grades). It should not, however, be called a reading test then.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Your idea of teaching kids to think about what the writer of the test meant by a question (the implied author) is standard advice for gifted kids, starting in first or second grade. On every test they ever take they have to do this, because most test authors are simply not that bright (the big tests like SAT and ACT are *much* better written than most of the tests kids see). Dumbing down to figure out what the author was trying to ask becomes second nature for a lot of gifted kids.

It never occurred to me to think of this as a weird, SAT-specific strategy, as it just a routine part of any test taking.

Hainish said...

"These days, of course, no one has heard of implied authors"

Ah, but I have heard of the mock reader!

Translation services said...

Booth argues that all narrative is a form of rhetoric. The speaker, in the case of narrative, is the author, or, more specifically, Booth's concept of the implied author.

kcab said...

The researchers who've looked into this issue seem to take the view that if a test-taker can answer the questions on a reading passage without reading the passage, the test is invalid.

I agree with this point of view. If the SAT can be gamed in this way, then more work should go into development of test items. That is, I imagine it is possible to arrive at a set of answer choices that are less easy to determine without reading the passage. Maybe then the test would just be too difficult? I have to admit that I have sometimes done reading passages by looking at the questions first, or after only a glance at the passage. I always felt a bit guilty about that and perhaps I should, since I interpret that as exploiting a flaw in the test.

I wonder about the ethnic/cultural differences in SAT scores too. I imagine that getting into the head of the implied author might be easier for some groups of people than others.

While I'm commenting, I'm feeling defensive about the answer I gave to the earlier post. I saw that post as a game, one that wasn't quite right. Since I could see that everyone else had picked A, I thought I'd pick anything other than A in the interest of answer diversity. Probably just as well for me that I've never had information about other students' answers on tests.

Catherine Johnson said...

jeez - the formatting on this post is a mess

have to see if I can fix it

Catherine Johnson said...

While I'm commenting, I'm feeling defensive about the answer I gave to the earlier post. I saw that post as a game, one that wasn't quite right.

I knew you were joking!

(And the reason I knew you were joking is: I'M A REALLY, REALLY GOOD READER OF IMPLIED AUTHORS!!!!!)

OK, that's a joke.

Seriously, though, when I read your comment I felt some doubt about whether you meant it or not, and I decided that you were joking.

I think that whatever 'reading skill' I used to choose between those to options is likely the same skill I use to choose between the 2 options on SAT questions.

SATVerbalTutor. said...


Just FYI, in terms of SAT prep, most of what I teach is actually "close reading," and the only reason why I know how to do that period is because I spent a year in the French system doing pretty much nothing but "explications de texte." (Ironically, had I majored in English, I would probably have never learned that skill.) The SAT is far more geared to the kinds of skills taught in the French system than to the ones taught in American schools. Knowing how to divide a text into sections and label the content and/or argument of each one is an absolute fundamental skill taught in French schools, and the French kids I've tutored have no problem rattling off the basic organization of a passage when asked to do so; the American kids, on the other hand, give me the "deer in the headlights" look. They've literally never been asked to consider how a text is constructed, only what it says.

When I was in high school, I basically aced the Critical Reading section by constantly asking myself, "What would the makers of the SAT want me to think?" I figured things out sheerly by intuition -- I don't even think I could have put it into words at that point -- but clearly I hooked into the implied author one way or another. Like you and C., I had simply read so much that it was second nature to me.

As a tutor, however, I have to say that that skill is far more unusual than you might imagine. Most kids have such a struggle trying to figure out what the answer choices are literally saying -- never mind making fine distinctions between them -- that reading at this "meta-level" is way beyond them. When you're surrounded by people who read/think at a high level, it's pretty easy to forget just how weak most sixteen year-olds' skills are. As a matter of fact, I'd go so far as to argue that a kid who can read the test this way and with sufficient nuance to consistently determine the right answer already has most of the skills the SAT is testing. The SAT is not a reading comprehension test but rather a reasoning test. It is in fact set up so that you can derive the general rules it's based on as you're taking it. That's part of the game, so to speak. But there's absolutely no way to even start to play unless you already read at a high enough level to make fine relatively fine distinctions between ideas.

The other part of it, however, is that while you can use this kind of general knowledge about the test to get a lot of answers right, you can't generally use it to get *all* of the answers right. That's the 700 wall. A lot of kids who do manage to hook into the whole implied author thing still fall short because they don't realize that the College Board deliberately breaks its own rules from time to time: sometimes the right answer does include the word "always" or "never"; sometimes the tone of a "minority" passage is negative; sometimes the right answer is in no way related to the point of a passage. The people at the College Board aren't stupid -- they know that the test is set up this way, and they also know how to play with people's assumptions about it to weed out the ones who think it's all tricks.

SteveH said...

"The people at the College Board aren't stupid --..."

The people on the other side aren't stupid either. Some are spending or earning huge amounts of money on this game. At the 700+ level, is success unrelated to knowing and playing the game at a more sophisticated level?

Barry Garelick said...

Speaking of reading and teenagers, do they still assign "The Scarlet Letter" in high school?

Anonymous said...

Yes Barry,

They do in my kid's school. He just finished up with it.


Catherine Johnson said...

You're kidding!!


Boy, I don't think my local high school assigns it.

C's Jesuit high school does. The teacher was very funny on that subject: she said, "They HAVE to read some of these books with female protagonists. I know they hate it, but they have to read it."

This was sophomore year.

I've never read that book!

Because I was educated by wolves.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be surprised if it's the last year they assign it. They want to get rid of honors classes, particularly honors English. That means that everyone will be in regular classes or AP. Those are the only choices.

Too much of an educational caste system, or so they say. Some people might feel bad.

We're getting out just in time....


Barry Garelick said...

I didn't like The Scarlet Letter when I read it in high school, but I re-read it later in my twenties and liked it. Particularly the first chapter, The Customhouse, which by way of describing how he came to write the novel, also provides exquisite detail in what government offices and workers were like in the 1800's. And as it turns out, not to much different than today's!

ChemProf said...

That's one of those books I should re-read.

CassyT said...

We read the Scarlet Letter for 11th Grade American History, along with Huck Finn and the Red Badge of Courage. They read those along with The American Standard

I say "we" because I've been reading them along with our foreign exchange student from Spain, who is struggling with the language. Not English, the old American spoken in the texts.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I'm pretty sure I read the Scarlet Letter in high school and liked it well enough. The book I remember hating in high school (about the only assigned book I didn't finish) was Madame Bovary. It is still hard for me to imagine a less suitable book for teenage boys.