In reading, are you a bricklayer or a carpenter?

By Joel Swenddal

Joel Swenddal, an English Language Educator at RMIT Vietnam, holds an M.A. in TESOL and has taught English for Academic Purposes at universities in the US and Asia. His research interests include academic literacy development and classroom interaction.

When we are reading fluently in our first language, it’s very easy to forget that successful reading is a complex, multifaceted cognitive process (William Grabe, 1991). Often, we don’t notice how complex reading really is until the process is interrupted or is not yet automatic, such as when we encounter a difficult text in a new subject area or when we are learning to read in a second language. Hoping to help people read better in their second languages, many reading researchers and educators are interested in comparing the mental processes of successful and unsuccessful readers. We want to identify the characteristics of successful readers that can be shared with the less successful ones.

But how do we peek inside the “black box” of the mind during the act of reading? How can we see what’s really going on behind the scenes? In reading research, many great insights about how people read successfully (or unsuccessfully) come from what are called “think-aloud protocols” – basically, people are trained to talk about their thoughts as they read along, and we study what they say.

One of my favorite think-aloud studies with second language readers comes from researcher Wang Jian, who studied the reading of two academic English students at a university in China (published in the  collection Culture, Literacy, and Learning English: Voices from the Chinese Classroom). Although the students scored at a similar level of English proficiency and had tested into the university at a higher level than their peers, a close analysis of the ways they went about reading the same academic text showed some dramatic differences. One of the students turned out to be much less successful at coming to a satisfying understanding of the article and showed a high level of frustration. What their ‘think-alouds’ showed can be very beneficial for other students, who may see in themselves characteristics of one student or the other.

Wang uses a great metaphor to illustrate the different approaches of the students. Liu, the more successful reader, had what Wang calls a “carpenter” approach, while Lin, the less successful one, approached the text like a “bricklayer.” Both students were faced with a challenging academic text that contained many words that were new to them – the metaphor becomes clear when their different ‘construction techniques’ are identified. Below are some of Wang’s findings about the ways these students were reading.


Liu – The more successful reader…

  • Speculated about relationships between different parts of the text (like the title and other ideas he was developing about the text).
  • Tried to get the main idea (or “the author’s thinking”) of each paragraph and continued reading as soon as he had formed some idea of it.
  • Looked up new words or spent time guessing them only when he determined that they were interfering with his understanding of the author’s overall message.
  • Used new information from the text to try to articulate an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • Posed problems and asked himself questions about difficult parts and then tried to answer them as he continued to develop his ideas.
  • Paid attention to discourse markers (like conjunctions) and cohesive devices (such as what pronouns referred to).
  • Used his background knowledge about the topic to make judgments about the meanings of words in context.
  • Showed a high “tolerance for ambiguity” in guessing new words and interpreted them in light of his developing understanding of the larger meaning.


Lin – The less successful reader…

  • Did not make predictions or speculate about relationships between parts of the text.
  • Used a translation method when faced with difficulty: he identified almost all new words, looked them up in his dictionary and recorded them on his word list. Then, he translated the sentences into Chinese.
  • Focused on getting the meaning of every sentence individually.
  • Favored the dictionary definition and did not attend to the context when judging definitions.
  • Bypassed important discourse markers like conjunctions and logical connectors.
  • Used his background knowledge to make judgments about meanings of new words and sentences, but did not balance that with information from the context.
  • Showed an intense desire for perfect accuracy of understanding – trying to get everything in the text.

These different characteristics of their approaches seem to have contributed to a very different end result: Lin seriously misrepresented the text and showed ongoing frustration in reading it. Lui, on the other hand, arrived at a satisfying, cohesive understanding of the text and felt he had learned something new.

Wang understands the difference between these readers as being a matter of approach, and the “carpenter” vs. “bricklayer” metaphor is his way of describing this. Lin was a bricklayer, focused on building up the text in parts, understanding each piece individually, trusting that this would add up to a final perfect understanding (it did not). Liu, on the other hand, was a carpenter, always working to construct a larger understanding for the global meaning and its overall structure (building a ‘framework’). He used information from the text and his background knowledge to help him get an idea of what the author’s project and the larger meaning looked like. He was selective about his use of the dictionary and made thoughtful judgments about the meaning of words and sentences in relation to the larger context.

I think that the observations from the think-alouds of Lui and Lin create a wonderful opportunity for reflection for both students and teachers. If you’re reading in a second language, it’s worth it to think about how you go about the project of putting meaning together. Here are some questions you might consider:

  • What are you focusing on as you read?
  • How do the parts of the text relate to each other and the overall meaning?
  • Which new words are most important for you to focus on? Which are less important?
  • Do you judge both the context and your background knowledge when you guess word meanings?
  • How might new information fit in with the author’s larger project?
  • Do you re-evaluate your earlier ideas about the text as you go along?

If you’re a teacher of students reading in a second language, do you design activities that encourage readers to use (and notice themselves using) proven reading strategies for building global comprehension of texts — or do you give them activities that pre-dispose them to taking a hyper-analytical, bricklaying approach to the task? For example, if the purpose is to understand a complex text, questions designed to build toward main ideas are probably more effective than ones that take a scattershot approach: testing uptake of disconnected facts in a reading.


Reading as conversation?

Perhaps my favorite thing about Wang’s study is found in a final quote from the successful reader, Liu. He talks about the experience of reading as being a kind of conversation with the author of the text.

…this kind of article…it comes to be a talking between the author and me. It tells me something. And I have found something important in his talking. And I have the feeling that I thank him. Before I never had this kind of feeling. This kind of article is no longer abstract. It is from a man’s mind, not from a computer. It makes me feel close to it. (206)

I think Liu’s characterization of the reading process in terms of a social interaction takes reading out of the realm of the cognitive, and makes it the profoundly human, personal act that those who love to read often talk about. He represents it as a kind of conversation, a way of interacting with another human mind through the interpretation of symbols. In Lin’s fixation on getting the meaning out of the text, reading is reduced to the level of a cold and mechanical process. Liu, in contrast, is participating in a dialogue in which his own voice animates the voice of the author – an exchange in which he carries on a conversation of minds that extends beyond the text itself.

In what ways can our various approaches and strategies for reading involve us in such satisfying conversations through text?

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15 responses to “In reading, are you a bricklayer or a carpenter?”

  1. Michael Healy says :

    In my first ever class at RMIT I had a student who was exactly like the bricklayer example, right down to the name! Linh was a very good student but she would often miss “the big picture” in reading exercises, or run out of time before finishing the text and questions.

    I observed her closely and noticed that she would grind to a halt when she encountered a word or phrase she didn’t understand, even if it was inconsequential or tangential to the main points of the text.

    Linh was very headstrong and resisted my advise to skip over unknown words and phrases unless she was sure that they were important.

    I finally got my point across when I made a bet with her. I told her that she would be able to get a better understanding of a text if I only allowed her 2 minutes to read it, as opposed to 10. She thought it was crazy, but when we tried she was forced to abandon her need to get every word and was much more accurate when asked to verbally summarize the text.

    Now it is my usual practice to go through reading exercises in stages, with reasonably strict time restrictions. I insist that students write the answers to gist questions after just a few minutes. Then they have more time to tackle the detail questions. Finally, we go back to the answers they wrote for the gist questions to see if they want to clarify or change anything.

  2. Mark Hershey says :

    Thanks for this Joel. I’m going to send this article to my students.

  3. Hai Tran says :

    What an insightful post! I can relate Lin to myself back then when I was a “brick-layer”. Now I’m getting better with reading. And it is true that the time restriction as well as tolerance for new words are key factors in determining effective reading!

    One small question: do you think using pencil/highlighter when reading would enhance our speed and understanding, or would it slow down the process?

    • englishteacherjoel says :

      I’m glad you are able to relate to this! Regarding your question about pencils and highlighters, I think it is probably best to experiment with yourself to see how it helps you. There is a good bit of cognitive reading research suggesting that efficient reading is actually quite fast, so from that perspective, marking the page is likely to slow you down, making you less efficient. However, when we are talking about dense, unfamiliar academic texts, there is no doubt that we must use strategies for focusing on what is important, summarizing key sections, and trying to represent complex new ideas to ourselves. This is very different than reading a paperback graphic novel for pleasure at the end of the day — we are reading to learn. If you look at the pages of my academic texts that I am currently reading, you will see A LOT of writing: Notes, questions, and mini-summaries. I do this in the belief that reading isn’t just about getting meaning out of the text — it’s about me representing meaning to myself. I am the maker of the meaning, not the text. To “make meaning” effectively, I need to write! For me, reading and writing are two parts of the same process!

      • tranhuyenhai says :

        Hi Joel

        Thanks for your reply. Yes, for class reading, I make lots of underlining and notes in the margin. I often try to summarize key points of each passage in my words too, and it really helps. So I agree with you that “reading and writing are two parts of the same process”.

        Regarding my previous question, I just wonder about the effectiveness of notes and highliting under time pressure for IELTs reading test as I’m taking it tentatively next month. The reading topics are often academic and unfamiliar, yet we’re constrainted by 60 minute limit. So what do you think?

      • englishteacherjoel says :

        Hello Tran,

        I agree with you that the time limit of the IELTS makes it unlikely that you will be able to write extensive notes. It is probably best to make very quick key word notes and underline in important spots — whatever helps you to represent to yourself the author’s main idea(s) and key points in a short time (of course, understanding the author’s ‘framework’ is still an important goal). The time pressure may alter your normal reading process and you may have to limit your notetaking.

        In general, I think it’s important for readers to practice strategies that will help them come to an understanding of the author’s overall project, key ideas, and how the different parts of the text “fit” together (the carpenter approach). This is really what academic students need to do when they use other’s ideas to support their own points in their writing. This is what they need when they want to construct their own ideas on top of the ideas of others. However, a testing situation is a little different in that it might not give us the thinking time that our best reading practices require. Unfortunately, we sometimes have to make adjustments just to do our best in a short time limit. For the long term, in your real academic work, I think that adopting the holistic outlook of the carpenter is an approach that is probably more productive and more fulfilling!

        I’ve really enjoyed discussing this fascinating topic with you!

        Good luck on your test!

        Best, Joel

  4. Fiona-Wiebusch says :

    Fantastic metaphor and one I know I’ll use and share with my future students too. Thanks for sharing this work and for helping us consider ways to open up the “black box” on reading. Loved it, Joel.

  5. mcandrews68 says :

    Thanks for the great article, Carol. Man, I wish I read like a carpenter while reading in Japanese. I know I kind of do in English. I really like the idea of having a conversation with the author. That is such a cool idea. I’ve always wanted to have a conversation with my favorite authors, but I guess I have been in a different way.

    Before I read a novel I always like to do per-reading activities like analyzing the title, reading the authors bio and making assumptions about what I will be reading. I was reading an unfamiliar text with my tutee the other day during a session. Do you know Hills like white elephants by Ernest Hemmingway? I’ve never read Hemmingway before and I went through a bunch of per-reading activities with the student. We really took our time and did a close reading, but the both of us still couldn’t figure out Hemmingways main theme of abortion. In the future I will try to get my myself and my tutee to think more broadly about the authors intention. I will also try to use my own historical repetoire to decipher the authors meaning because i think that would really help. And even though the text didn’t have the bio of the author I wasn’t unfamiliar with, I have to remember I can use technology and look it up on my smartphone.

    • englishteacherjoel says :

      Thanks for sharing your story about reading “Hills Like White Elephants.” I love hearing stories about HOW people went about reading something, where they ran into trouble, and why they think they found something difficult. That kind of reflection is itself a strategy, because it allows us to set goals about what works and what doesn’t in various situations. I also like your story because it reminds me that the pre-reading strategies that help us engage with one text might not help with another. In the case of “Hills Like White Elephants”, knowing a lot about the author would probably not help us unravel the mystery of the female character’s profound silences. In fact, knowing a lot about Hemingway could lead us to misread, by interpreting things that confuse us in a way that seems to reflect what we know about his life story (the product of other texts we have encountered). Really interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Julia Schulte says :

    Great review, Joel! I haven’t talked about or used think-alouds for a while now, but you rekindled that fire. I miss talking about this kind of stuff with you in person.

    Training students to think aloud while reading is a fantastic way for teachers to find out how different readers are approaching a text. It’s even more exciting for students to find this out for themselves and to discover and try out different reading strategies.

    I’m teaching listening/speaking skills this semester, and I wonder if I could apply the idea of think-alouds to increase my students’ awareness of their lecture listening strategies. Something to think about!

    • englishteacherjoel says :

      Thanks for the input, Julia! A big reason that I’m interested in think-alouds is because of the ideas I got from you when discussing your research! I agree that think-alouds are great from a researcher’s perspective, but even better when students begin to use them to reflect on their own reading when they are on their own. Maybe the thing I love most about think-alouds is that it kind of dramatizes the involvement of the reader in making the text “come to life.” It’s so easy to feel like we are passive recipients of meaning when reading, but when we start talking about what we’re thinking at various moments, the activity of the reader becomes really obvious. I think that has the potential to empowering for many learners.

  7. Daphne Powell says :

    Now that I am teaching your reading and writing class (and continuing to appreciate your model!) , these two reader profiles have a lot more meaning for me. I can see how difficult it is for the “bricklayers” to tolerate ambiguity and step back to look at the “big picture” of the reading like the “carpenters.” I love the idea of reading as a conversation of minds. I wonder if 44 students can grasp that? Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • englishteacherjoel says :

      Thanks for your response, Daphne! I hope the class is going well! I think that the analogy might help us with explaining why we teach some of the reading strategies that we do. For example, a lot of the questions that we teach to help students compose main idea statements (like asking “What idea do these examples show?”) can be linked to the larger goal of helping them get in the habit of building the carpenter’s “framework.” We want them to actively speculate about how things fit together and to use a variety of tools to help them do it more effectively. Even if our carpenter/bricklayer analogy is too meta for some intermediate students, we can still be confident that we are teaching a configuration of reading strategies that help them to be carpenters!

  8. Karen says :

    Hi Joel,
    So cool to wake up this morning to see that Carol Flanagan, who’s a new tutor at the LAC and in the AU seminar I teach, linked your piece on reading to our class blog. And–we’re just in the middle of working on understanding how to tutor reading! Cool. And thank you for wonderful article on the reading process. It fits with and adds to all we’ve been discussing.

    • englishteacherjoel says :

      Thank you for sharing the piece, Karen! A lot of my interest in helping students with reading comes out of my experience at the LAC, so I’m really pleased to be able to contribute something. I’m glad it fits!

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