Sunday, October 4, 2015

Temporary Police Order

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.


  1. This is totally true. Context is everything. And the shorter the text, the less context and the harder it is to understand. My son used to have trouble with understanding test directions he wasn't used to because they were too short and didn't have enough context.

    When you read comments, for example, on HuffPost, sometimes you can't tell if someone is being sarcastic if you haven't seen a lot of what that particular poster has written to know how to interpret it.

    Being a foreign language teacher, I think, makes me more aware of this than most people. If a student asks me what something means they've heard or read, I have to ask them what the context or situation was, or a lot of the time, I just don't know for sure; it could mean a lot of different things.

    The main way we learn word meanings in our native language is from hearing or seeing them in context. A lot of times, people can't give you a definition of a word, but they know when to use it.

    You can get about four times more out of reading don Quijote if you have some knowledge of the author, Cervantes; the literature of the time; the era in Spain in general; and the literary circles Cervantes moved in (other authors). Plus, it makes it more interesting.

  2. Absolutely. I tell my students that reading is about trying to hear someone's voice. We all have our own responses to literature, but literary response isn't just about taking selfies. We're responding to *someone else,* and that means trying to hear that person as clearly as possible.

    And it's SO absurd to claim that reading is a fungible skill. I mean, sure it is - I can read a Ph.D thesis in quantum physics, fluently and with a unerring grasp of the syntax. I would not, however, understand a goddam thing.

    1. I like that, "trying to hear someone's voice."

    2. I also like "...literary response isn't just about taking selfies."

  3. From

    And I'm sure you know the textbook example:
    "Fruit flies like an apple"
    "Time flies like an arrow"

  4. From

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  5. I think that a Winograd Schema problem like the following might be a good example as well:

    "The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence. Who feared violence?"
    1) The city councilmen
    2) The demonstrators

    Computer programs struggle to answer these sorts of questions correctly because they lack the background knowledge.