Who Has Authority Over Meaning? Part II

  • literary interpretation
  • 29 January, 2017

         In my last entry, I explored some ideas concerning what role authors play in our interpretation of text. As with many controversies in the garden of literary criticism, nothing is settled, but an exquisite tension has been created. It is this tension that mature readers need to learn to negotiate—and that we have to prepare them for.

         My take on this controversy is this: it is respectful, responsible, and wise to try to get back to “the author’s intended meaning.” That means we need not only to think about what a text says, but what we thought the author intended to mean. For example, the word “plastic” has a very clear meaning these days. In my dictionary, the number one definition is “a synthetic material made from organic polymers.” However, if I’m reading a text from the 1800s, and the author uses the word plastic, I’d better try to provide a different interpretation—one more in line with the author’s intended meaning. It is polite to try to honor the author’s meaning—rather than insensitively imposing our own interpretation on a text.

         But it is equally wise to recognize that once a text is out in the world, it must stand on its own. We need to be able to interpret texts based on nothing more than the words in the text. No, we are not going to call Mark Twain to find out why Huck throws the snake in the shed. (I don’t even have his phone number). No, we are not going to read a biography of Daniel Webster to make sense of his “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable” speech (I don’t have that kind of time). And, no, we are not going to review the reporter’s notes to grasp the meaning of her latest New York Times article (it might be nice to have all of an author’s work product, but author’s are loathe to provide that).

         So how do we teach students to be ethical readers—readers who try to respect what a text leads them to assume to be the author’s meaning? Initially, young children don’t even know that books have authors, just like they don’t know that somebody built their house, crafted their furniture, or sewed their teddy bears. The world is just there… your mother brings it home or you get it at a store.

         Later, usually by kindergarten or first-grade, kids know there are authors—but they don’t grasp that these authors have communicative intentions. They believe authors to be a rather egocentric lot, writing only to satisfy their own interests or to get money. However, the authors that they imagine neither try to entertain us or to instigate us. (Young children’s writing often has this same feature; they make text objects to gift someone, much like their drawings and picked dandelions—the gifting of the object is the meaningful part).

         By middle school, even the worst of readers seems to be aware of authors’ ulterior motives; that they try to affect us through their words on the page. Sadly, this insight appears to result mainly from children’s social development rather than from literacy teaching—since the concept of author and the role authors play in the interpretation of text is rarely the focus of K-12 teaching.

         Why should we care about this aspect of reading, since it has rarely been taught or tested? I have long believed that, at least for entire classes of texts, our ability to read critically is closely connected to an awareness of the fallibility of human beings and the idea that authors try to influence us. (Remember Moses bringing the tablets down off the mountain. The first question he was asked was, “Who wrote those?” Think about it. It matters.)

         Furthermore, writers often try to convey a persona through their texts, and interpreting this projected personality is an important part of the reading experience.

Some things that can help children to develop a sense of author

(1) Expose children to multiple books by the same author. Research shows that 5-year-olds can recognize a Dr. Seuss at 20 yards. As children grow up, expose them to more subtle exemplars. I love “author study” by second or third grade. Having groups of children reading multiple books by the same author, and trying to find continuities (e.g., content, style, diction, structure) across the texts.

(2) My research had children trying to re-create a persona based only on a text. Children would try to compose biographies of the authors they imagined from the authors’ texts. I hid the names, so they had to decide if a writer was man or woman, black or white, young or old, and they had to use text information—including the author’s style—as evidence for their suppositions. It is a great assignment.

(3) Students need to be authors. Have them write and have the other children respond to these writings. Readers benefit from having been writers. They start to understand the limits and the power of writing. Writing, reading the writing of close up authors, responding to the writing of others, having others respond to your own writing—those all help build the concept.

(4)  Make authors visible. Tell kids who wrote a text. Make that a question during reading lessons. Include author in your inferential questions. “The author doesn’t tell you what Red Riding Hood was thinking when she met the wolf, but what does the author want you to think she was thinking? How do you know?"

(5) When your curriculum starts to include text sets in social studies (e.g., multiple primary and secondary documents), focus student attention on author intentions—why would an author say this? Why would another author tell something different? What were their goals? Why would the author write something else later? As Sam Wineburg has written, source/author-centered reading is essential to historical thinking.

           But as important as author-centered readings can be, they can get in the way of a reader giving a text a “close read”—that is, a read that depends upon the interpretation of the information on the page. If you believe Hemingway was a male chauvinist, then everything you read by Hemingway, including perhaps his grocery list, will scream chauvinism. Those readers who believe they already know what a text says, often impose their own bias and miss the actual message. It is a very different thing to identify an author’s ideology through a close analysis of what he or she has written, than to start with that conclusion.

           Of course, not all authors are as famous as Hemingway. What if the author isn’t a celebrity writer, then what? We might not start out knowing specific things about Patricia Smith or Joe Johnson, but we do start out knowing, in this case, which is a man and which is a woman. Many readers—even children—have biases around that. If I’ve decided that women don’t write about things that interest me, then I’ve already started to miss Ms. Smith's message. Other texts raise questions of authenticity… if I think this writer is white and he/she is writing about some event in the black community (or vice-versa), my guard may go up, shutting off a chance to understand.

           But what if you can’t be sure who wrote a text? Then you have no choice but to focus your attention on the words and punctuation and formatting—there is nowhere else to go. That happens sometimes, of course, but a more common experience is the one that we observed in scientists and mathematicians, who intentionally try to set the author aside to focus all of their critical judgment on the text itself. Again, I’d argue that we want our kids to be able to do that, too.

Setting the Author Aside

(1) To teach students to set aside the author, it is important to provide them with one-off reading experiences—focusing on texts that are not part of a series or that students can bring specific author knowledge to the text.

(2) Keep your questions and discussion focused on the text itself. Don’t worry about what you think the author meant, but focus on the key ideas and details in the text, the word choices and structures that provide clues to meaning, and the value and quality of what is on the page—without regard for other information.

(3) Give kids lots of experiences reading scientific and mathematical texts—texts not likely to be ideologically based or persona-focused.

(4) Focus on rereading as an interpretive process—reading one text over and over to figure it out, rather than trying to guess what the author may have intended (in close readings, there is no author, the author has no intentions, and even if there were an author with intentions, you can never know what they may be, so focus only on the texts).

(5) Minimize the amount of external information provided to kids--don't tell them what it is going to be about, don't reveal the author, don't review background knowledge.

(6) When students write do not provide generous readings. If something doesn't make sense, reveal to them the lack of logic or sense that you are confronting and then give them opportunities to revise.


         If you believe that readers have an ethical or moral responsibility to try to understand other human beings, then author-centered reading is your plate. If you believe that children have to learn to be independent readers, able to grasp the meaning of a text without reliance on external information, then close reading is needed.

         I think readers need to know both how to satisfy this ethical imperative, and how to be powerful and independent. Meaning belongs neither to authors or readers--it is a constantly changing balance.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Dr. Connie Hebert Apr 05, 2017 06:10 PM

My interpretation of your meaning?

Teach kids to think and to question before, during, & after reading, for themselves. The reader must own the process...

A reader's ability to question, without being dependent on teachers' questions, can lead to both author-centered and close reading.

Modeling is the key.

Dr. Connie Hebert

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Who Has Authority Over Meaning? Part II


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