Metaphors We Read By

To understand how students learn, professors need to pay attention to how they think about the process of reading, writes Laurence Musgrove.

August 4, 2006

"But I was not a good reader. Merely bookish, I lacked a point of view. I vacuumed books for epigrams, scraps of information, ideas, themes -- anything to fill the hollow within me and make me feel educated.”
                                           --Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory

Some years ago, I was walking down a crowded hallway to class and almost stumbled over a student sitting on the floor against the wall. She sat cross-legged with a book in her lap and a yellow highlighter in her hand. On the floor next to her was a copy of the same book. It looked to me to be one of those massive science textbooks, biology maybe or chemistry. As I recovered my footing, I turned again to look down at her, and saw that she was copying the highlighted text from the book on the floor onto the pages in her lap.

For the past several years, I have been studying how first-year students at my university visualize what happens when they read. This research began with my interest in the learning relationships students develop with writing and reading in college. Initially, I studied how students’ attitudes toward writing interfered with or contributed to their chances for success in first-year composition. More recently, I’ve investigated how students depict their reading habits through drawing.

My preliminary research revealed that students who had high ACT scores in reading, who self-reported positive attitudes toward reading, and who earned high grades in their composition classes tended to represent their reading habits metaphorically. They drew pictures that symbolized their feelings or the ways reading affected them. One of these drawings (shown at right) depicts an open book with a reader poised to dive into the pages.


Students who had lower ACT scores, who reported negative attitudes, and who earned lower grades tended to represent their reading habits realistically. Common among these were self-portrait stick figures falling asleep in bed or sitting at a desk distracted by noise from another person or a television.

As I continued to examine these drawings, especially those including imaginative representations of reading, I began to investigate the various ways reading is analogized and to make a list of these metaphors.

Here is a sample of 20 from my ever-expanding collection.

  • 1. Reading is grafting, and the reader connects new text to another text read.
  • 2. Reading is dancing, and the reader follows the lead and steps of the text, including its rhythm, music, lyric, genre, and flow.
  • 3. Reading is sorting, and the reader puts knowledge and experience and dramatic elements of text into categories.
  • 4. Reading is surveying, and the reader examines the territory of the book, its surface, size, structure, scope, distinguishing features, divisions, boundaries, etc.
  • 5. Reading is integrating, and the reader incorporates new knowledge into other knowledge; blending and kneading together.
  • 6. Reading is counting, and the reader is concerned with the number of pages in the text or how many pages are left until they can escape the text (also envision the image of a prisoner marking off days on calendar).
  • 7. Reading is soaking up, and the reader absorbs the text like a sponge.
  • 8. Reading is a vehicle, and the reader travels to another place.
  • 9. Reading is eating, and the reader consumes and is nourished (or poisoned) by the text.
  • 10. Reading is a mirror, and the reader sees reflection in text.
  • 11. Reading is a machine, and the reader feeds the text through a mechanical process.
  • 12. Reading is a transaction, and the reader and text exchange value: the reader receives knowledge and experience, the text receives meaning, and the newly produced response is the receipt or proof of the transaction.
  • 13. Reading is exercise, and the reader gains intellectual agility and strength.
  • 14. Reading is mining, and the reader digs into the text for answers.
  • 15. Reading is a good investment, and the reader’s efforts pay off.
  • 16. Reading is planting, and the reader receives seeds of knowledge that grow into new understanding.
  • 17. Reading is unwrapping, and the reader opens the text to reveal a hidden message.
  • 18. Reading is translating, and the reader moves the meaning from one language to another.
  • 19. Reading is a friend, and the reader enjoys the companionship of the text.
  • 20. Reading is wrestling, and the reader struggles with the text.

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson write, “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” In addition, they argue that these metaphorically-determinate conceptual frameworks are unconsciously meta-cognitive; that is, we reason and engage automatically without understanding the powerful metaphors shaping our interactions with each other and the world around us.

Thus, metaphorical concepts also impact students’ relationships with texts. My research so far suggests that many students have not developed adequate reading habits because they bring with them incapacitating conceptions or analogies of reading. They see it as torture or a lullaby. They also assign human agency to the text. They blame it for being hard to understand, when in fact they lack the understanding to engage the text successfully.

Rather than positioning themselves to become the reader the text wants them to be -- to go out and find the knowledge the text assumes the reader already owns -- students lash out at the unresponsive novel, poem, play, essay, or textbook chapter. They also sometimes see reading assignments as lifeless information to be transferred from one place to another (like the student described in the anecdote above copying highlighted words from one book to another), or as Paulo Freire analogizes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, they see knowledge as temporary commodities to be banked in their memories until withdrawn by an instructor at test time.

But these faulty conceptions of reading didn’t magically appear out of thin air. Students learned them, and many certainly learned them one way or another, implicitly or explicitly, in school. That so many of our students have come to hate reading (and writing, of course, too) is a cultural disgrace. Therefore, we need specific counter-cultural methods of instruction to adequately respond to the inappropriate metaphors of reading students bring to the classroom.

For my part, I want to discover which of my students have, knowingly or not, embraced these self-defeating notions of reading and then provide them the means to replace those conceptual roadblocks with more effective and empowering metaphors.

I also propose that professors  across the curriculum actively identify and more effectively deploy metaphors of reading. In other words, rather than assume our students already know what it means to read in their disciplines, we should reflect on the kinds of reading we expect our students to practice, examine the metaphorical concepts at the heart of those reading strategies, and then present those metaphors in the classroom.  

For example, what are the metaphors that might help students better visualize and practice the reading logics of comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation? How might these metaphors help us model more effectively for our students what it means to read in our fields? However we picture and present them, metaphors we read by should be highlighted and paraded down the crowded hallways of learning.


Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English and foreign languages at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago.


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