The purpose of this activity is to get you to think about ways that different people’s understanding of written material varies. The activity encourages reflection about how much room a text allows for the creative construction of meaning while still communicating the gist, or main points, of the author.
Read the following four passages and then answer the questions that follow the passages, either individually or in discussion with a group or a friend who read the passages too.
Recipe for Mexican Cornbread
2 cup cream-style corn
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup chopped hot peppers
1 and ½ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 eggs beaten
¾ cup sweet milk
½ cup salad oil
½ teaspoon salt
Mix all ingredients. Bake in greased 9×13 inch pan. Serve hot with or without butter.
(recipe from W-Hollow Kitchen Adventure: Cooking with Herbs and Hot Peppers by Glennis Stuart Liles and Helen Schultz.)
Poem by Lucille Clifton
in the evenings
i go through my rooms
like a witch watchman
mad as my mother was for
rattling knobs and
tapping glass. ah, lady,
i can see you now,
our personal nurse,
placing the iron
wrapped in rags
near our cold toes.
you are thawed places and
safe walls to me as I walk
the same sentry,
ironing the winters warm and
shaking locks in the night
like a ghost
Excerpt from beginning of a short story by O. Henry
”The Gift of the Magi”
ONE DOLLAR AND EIGHTY-SEVEN CENTS. That was all. She had put it aside, one cent and then another and then another, in her careful buying of meat and other food. Della counted it three times. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas. There was nothing to do but fall on the bed and cry.
So Della did it. While the lady of the home is slowly growing quieter, we can look at the home. Furnished rooms at a cost of $8 a week. There is little more to say about it. In the hall below was a letter-box too small to hold a letter. There was an electric bell, but it could not make a sound. Also there was a name beside the door: “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
When the name was placed there, Mr. James Dillingham Young was being paid $30 a week. Now, when he was being paid only $20 a week, the name seemed too long and important. It should perhaps have been “Mr. James D. Young.” But when Mr. James Dillingham Young entered the furnished rooms, his name became very short indeed. Mrs. James Dillingham Young put her arms warmly about him and called him “Jim.” You have already met her. She is Della.
Della finished her crying and cleaned the marks of it from her face. She stood by the window and looked out with no interest. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a gift. She had put aside as much as she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week is not much. Everything had cost more than she had expected. It always happened like that.
Excerpt from chapter, “Does Your Dog Love You?” in Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw
Without love, the dog-owner bond would not function. Yet, as we have seen, it is such a powerful emotion in dogs that many become anxious whenever they guess that they are about to be parted from their owner and then remain anxious until they are reunited. This frequently leads to behavior that the owner finds unacceptable. In the past, such problematic behavior was often dismissed as “wickedness” on the dog’s part, but we now know that it is actually deeply seated in the emotions of love and anxiety.
Separation distress can take a variety of forms, depending on the dog’s breed and personality. Manifestations include destructiveness (biting, chewing, and scratching of furniture or other materials, often close to the place where its owner has most recently left the premises and, in some cases, involving items bearing the owner’s scent); vocalization (barking, whining, or howling); and elimination (urinating, defecating, or vomiting). Rarer symptoms include such signs of chronic and unbearable stress as self-mutilation and repetitive pacing.
- For which passage (1, 2, 3, or 4) are readers’ understanding of the reading passage, least likely to differ? Why do you think readers’ construction of meaning will be less likely to differ on that passage? If they do differ, what might be some of the ways they differ and reasons why they differ?
- For each passage, tell what you think is the purpose the author had in writing the passage. Why might the purpose of a passage affect the readers’ understanding?
- Which passage is the one that different readers are most likely to understand in their own personal ways? How does this passage differ from the passage that you think is least likely to yield different understandings depending on who is reading it?
- What visual and word cues let readers know how to understand the passage? In other words, what tells the reader that the recipe is a recipe? What tells the reader that the poem is a poem? What suggests that the story by O. Henry is a story?
- Ask someone else to read the beginning to O. Henry’s story. After he or she has read it, ask the person to describe how he or she imagined Della and compare his or her image to your image of her. How do your impressions differ from those of the other person who read the passage? Are both understandings compatible with the words on the page?
If you are using this activity with a group of students in a paraprofessional training program or workshop, you might want to organize small-group discussions in which the students talk about what they learned from their readings and reflections about the four passages.