This weekend features the major festival of the year in my town, and as my wife and I walked back from yesterday's round of festivating, we noticed a sign posted many times along the street. It was a no parking sign, boldly lettered "Temporary Police Order," and we made a quick joke about why temporary police would be allowed to issue orders about parking.
But it got me to thinking.
The preferred method for teaching and testing reading in the [Insert Name Here] Core Standards is to treat reading as a discrete set of skills, completely unrelated to any prior knowledge. David Coleman famously admonishes us to stay within the four corners of the text.
A really great reader, Coleman and his acolytes suggest, can read anything in his native tongue, even without prior background knowledge or contextual knowledge from outside those four corners.
And yet here is a simple text, a text so short and sweet that it fits on a tiny sign. And without prior knowledge, without information from outside the four corners, we can't understand it. We can't "read" it.
Does it announce a order issued by police who are only hired for a short period of time? Is it an order issued by the regular police that will be in effect only for a short period of time? In truth, the former seems more likely if I stay within the four corners-- wouldn't the latter be better expressed by "Police Temporary Order," as awkward and ungainly as that sounds?
Of course, the perceived awkwardness is a function of my prior knowledge of how those three words are best arranged. So using that prior knowledge is cheating.
In fact, I'm already cheating by being aware of the context of the text, which is a sign stapled to a piece of wood driven into the ground beside parking places. If I did not have the "no parking" portion of the sign in front of me, I would have no way of knowing if "order" meant a command or directive as opposed to the absence of chaos or a particular arranged sequence of police. So "temporary police order" could be a reference to the sequence in which some part-time police officers might be standing in line, or it could mean that police have quelled ongoing chaos, but that chaos can be expected to erupt again at any moment. Without the context of the sign, I might imagine that the text originally appeared on a pizza shop takeout form, and now a whole new set of possibilities open up.
The clarification can further depend on my knowledge of local history. Is the use of temporary police pretty standard fare here, or does this town depend on a standing police force? Have I encountered rent-a-cops in municipalities often enough for me to think of them as common, or am I unacquainted with that police hiring technique? My own understanding will influence my ideas about which reading of the text seems more probable.
My understanding of the text rests firmly on my prior knowledge and the context in which it appears. In fact, without employing prior knowledge and context, I cannot reach a definitive reading of the text.
My point? Folks like Coleman whose conception of reading is that it is a simple decoding exercise (like dialing in the combination of a safe) or a set of skills that can be simply exercised cut off from any prior knowledge or understanding outside the four corners-- those folks have a poor understanding of just how complex the act of reading actually is and just how difficult it is to measure. You will find it nearly impossible to create a reliable measure of reading that would cut out prior knowledge, restrict readers to the four corners, and still somehow meaningfully measure reading skills. I'm not sure you could do it at all-- not even with a temporary police order.