The Three Levels of Reading: A Strategy for Complex Texts

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One of the most important skills we teach across all content areas, not just in English class, is how to comprehend complex texts.  It is probably the most crucial skill that we can teach in our classrooms because it affects our students’ ability to read for the rest of their lives.  One of the best ways to go about teaching students to read on a deeper level is to teach them HOW we think.  When students understand how thought processing works, they are able to harness this knowledge in order to discover where their comprehension breaks down and also how it's possible to misinterpret a work of art.  This strategy is called the Three Levels of Reading, and it teaches students how our thought processing works when we confront something new.  

When we read a brand new text with brand new information, we process it in three ways:  What does it literally say?  What do we associate it with?  What’s the message?  Now, most of the time, students don’t stop to address these questions as they are reading, but they SHOULD because they address the Three Levels of Reading, moving from the observational to the analytical. 

The Three Levels of Reading is based on the work of Michael Degen and contains three different steps; however, the steps are recursive.  We do not necessarily work through these three steps in chronological order all of the time. Sometimes we can move directly to level three, the interpretive level, without having to go through any close reading analysis in levels one and two.  And then there are times when we go through the steps so unconsciously or subconsciously that we are not even aware that we are using these levels of thinking in order to interpret a text.  All of this, of course, depends upon the complexity of the material involved as well as the reader's prior knowledge and comprehension ability.  But the point is that if we show our students how we think, if we show them these Three Levels of Reading, they can consciously move through these levels to figure out the meaning behind a text with a foreign subject, a complex structure, or one that uses new vocabulary.

In order to introduce this particular reading strategy, I like to use advertisements with my students because ads have a very simple message: buy this product or buy this idea.  The reason why I use such simple and visual examples in order to demonstrate this procedure is because it is easier for students to grasp the Three Levels of Reading, and it also works as a great illustration of how our comprehension can break down.  I will refer to these advertisements throughout my discussion of the Three Levels of Reading.  You can select just about any advertisement to illustrate this concept to your students.    

In order to teach the Three Levels of Reading, I first give my students four terms that represent the four basic rhetorical relationships.  In my non-honors and non-Advanced Placement English classes, these are the only four terms that I tend to teach.  This is because the four rhetorical relationships represent all other literary devices; all other literary devices fall underneath these four categories. For example, one of the rhetorical relationships is repetition. There are many types of repetition in English Language Arts. For example, there is parallel structure, antithesis, anaphora, chiasmus, and many, many more.  Instead of expecting my regular level students to know all of these particular (some would even argue esoteric) terms, I instead focus on their ability to recognize something as repetition.  In this way, these four rhetorical relationships enable students to discuss, analyze, and interpret any work of art no matter what form and be able to do so with success and depth of thought without getting caught up in the specific jargon of English class.  I find that this strategy is both approachable to regular level students and also helps them gain confidence when discussing and analyzing art.

The four rhetorical relationships are:

Juxtaposition – Placing two items side-by-side for the sake of comparison.  Literary devices that fall within this category include simile, metaphor, and alliteration.

Contrast – Side-by-side items that reveal a difference and/or opposing concept.  Literary devices that fall within this category include antithesis, paradox, conceit, and oxymoron.

Repetition – Items that repeat in structure and/or in content and/or in wording.  Literary devices included in this category are parallel structure, anaphora, epistrophe, chiasmus, and many, many more.

Shift – The place within the text where there is a change either in tone, wording, content, or message. Literary devices included in this category are flashback, flash-forward, bathos, irony, and many others. 

Since all literary devices fall within these four categories, you can see why it is pragmatic and useful to know and understand these four rhetorical relationships.  And they are easy for students to master and utilize in real time when writing analysis.  After I review the rhetorical relationships with my students, I introduce them to the Three Levels of Reading, step- by-step.  I have them take notes on the Three Levels, and then we apply them to a series of advertisements that increase in complexity from something as simple as a car ad to one that is satirical and more complex in meaning. 

Three Levels of Reading

Level One-- This is the level in which we make observations about what is literally stated in a piece of literature or what we literally see in the work of art.  With this level, there is no interpretation or analysis. We focus, instead, upon merely summarizing and/or paraphrasing the text in order to see what is literally there so that we can then analyze it.  If it is a piece of writing, students can write notes in the margins to paraphrase the text.  If it is a work of visual art, students can list what they literally see present in the image.  Remember that we do not always need to complete all Three Levels of Reading in order to analyze and interpret a work of art.  This is true especially for simple texts with simple messages or simple advertisements with simple messages. In these instances, there isn't really a need to stop and paraphrase or summarize. However, when we are confronted with a more complex text, perhaps one with a more difficult level of vocabulary or with content specific terms that we do not know, we may need not only to paraphrase sections, but we may need to stop and paraphrase individual sentences and/or phrases in order to derive meaning.  With the advertisements I use, I have my students make a list of what they see, and I ask them to pay attention to every single, minute detail that they notice because even the slightest detail may become important in the next two levels of thinking.  I liken this to how in writing, an entire message can shift with one simple, little conjunction such as “but.”  If you didn’t see that “but” when you were reading that sentence, then you could miss the entire point and misinterpret the meaning of the passage.  Every little detail counts!  

The key questions for level one are:  

What do I notice about the text?  

What does the text say?

Level Two-- In this level, we begin to make connections. This is the level of reading in which we tap into our prior knowledge.  Every single thing that we encounter in life gets processed through our life experiences-- what we have read, what we have seen, what we have heard, what we have smelled, and so on.  This is how we make sense of our world.  The process of trying to comprehend a text is no different.  We begin to make connections on the following levels:  text to self, text to world, text to text.  Tapping into prior knowledge is one of the prerequisites of every single lesson plan; however, while utilizing prior knowledge can help with comprehension, it can also be the cause for misinterpretation.  One of the advertisements I use with my students that comes from Michael Degen is a car advertisement, and it shows a picture of a particular brand of car on a roller coaster. Now, we know that the point of the advertisement is to sell the car.  But what if I have had a negative personal experience with roller coasters?  What if I HATE roller coasters?  What if I stop here in level two of my thinking, and I associate that roller coaster with being terrified, and therefore interpret the advertisement to say that we should NOT buy the car because the car is terrifying?  What then?  This is a very obvious case of misinterpretation, which is the very reason why I introduce the Three Levels of Reading with this particular advertisement.  It shows students that with a work of art there is an intended meaning behind it and that we can misinterpret it.  But it also shows them that we can't stop at level two, and we can't only do level two.  We need all Three Levels of Reading in order to arrive at a correct interpretation, or a valid interpretation, of a work of art.  

I always reiterate with my students that when you have a more complex piece of art such as a Shakespearean play, there are many ways in which to interpret those plays correctly; however, one can be wrong.  This is when I typically give them the classic Romeo and Juliet example. One could argue that Shakespeare's Play is about how love conquers all, but one could also argue that Shakespeare's play is about how love destroys.  Both thematic claims are equally supportable given the literary elements present in Romeo and Juliet.  However, one would have a difficult time supporting the thematic claim that people on earth exist for the sake of alien exploration.  This, of course, is a completely ludicrous and ridiculous interpretation of Romeo and Juliet.  If someone were to arrive at this interpretation of the play based on the fact that they saw an alien cartoon show called “Romeo and Juliet,” then this would be a misinterpretation caused by isolating level two thinking.  Had this particular reader gone through levels one and three in addition to level two, then the reader would have quickly realized in level one when making observations that there are no aliens in Shakespeare's play.  Therefore, the reader would have been able to marry levels one and two together in order to dismiss the notion that Shakespeare's play is indeed about alien invasion or exploration.  Now, this makes it sound like level two is a waste of time because it can lead to misinterpretation.  But that would be wrong because level two can be a great tool in helping us to brainstorm possible abstract topics that might become thematic claims, or thematic interpretations, of a text.  The goal with level two is to get to the abstract level, to the thematic level, because the entire point of moving through the Three Levels of Reading as a reading strategy is to derive meaning from a text and to interpret the text-- in essence, to uncover the theme of the text.

The key questions that students need to consider in level two are:  

What associations or connections do you make with the text?   

Does the text remind you of anything you have read, seen, or experienced?

What abstract ideas or topics does the text make you think of?

Level Three-- This is the level in which students begin to interpret and analyze the pieces that they have observed and put them together to form meaning.  Remember those rhetorical relationships?  This is the level at which we begin to look for juxtaposition, contrast, repetition, and shift in the text.  Why?  Because rhetorical relationships, or literary devices, work to construct the text's meaning.  They work to construct the text's argument.   Thereby, analyzing how the artist or writer utilizes these rhetorical relationships leads to understanding the message of the work of art.  Literary devices at large function by emphasizing the key elements of a text.  That is why they exist.  One need not look any farther than the classic example of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech "I have a dream" to see how rhetorical relationships construct meaning.  In King's speech, he clearly uses repetition of the phrase "I have a dream," which compounds the message that he is positing a dream for our country.  When a reader marries the levels together, he/she is able to derive meaning from the text.  Let's say, for example, that a reader has associated Martin Luther King Jr. with the concepts of the Civil Rights Movement, inequality, and freedom in level two.  All of these topics are relevant to our ability to understand the purpose behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech.  These associations help focus the readers understanding of the text.  Many times students ask why levels one and two are not reversed.  They ask: why don't we make associations first?  The idea behind the sequence of the levels is that we don't always know what the topic is of every single work of art we encounter in life before we take a look at it. Oftentimes, it takes us reading the text or viewing the work of art and paraphrasing it or making observations of it in order to begin to understand what topics are present.  But remember that these levels of thinking can occur in ANY ORDER.  It is very possible that we might come across a particular writer or particular painter who we know something about, and we might immediately go into level two before we ever even reach level one.  So, it's important for everyone to realize that these levels are recursive and that we oftentimes do them simultaneously, or we even skip around.  Once students have analyzed the rhetorical relationships of the work of art, they can begin to arrive at the theme and purpose of the text.  

The key questions for this level are:

What rhetorical relationships do you see in the work of art?

What do these relationships emphasize in the text?  

What is the artist's, or writer's, overall message?

A byproduct advantage to using this reading strategy is that it enumerates and outlines the types of annotations students should make while they are actively reading. The first annotation they should make is to paraphrase and summarize, which is level one. The second annotation they should make involves connections from text to text, text to self, and text to world.  The third annotation that students should make includes the rhetorical relationships.  Students should annotate for juxtaposition, contrast, repetition, and shift.  These terms will help students piece together a thematic interpretation.  

Another distinct advantage to this reading strategy is that it also informs the commentary of literary analysis.  When students focus their explanations of evidence on explaining how rhetorical relationships evidence the thematic claim, commentary becomes focused and much more manageable for students to write.  They no longer have to struggle with HOW to explain textual evidence when they are explaining it in terms of the FOUR rhetorical relationships.  When a writer uses a rhetorical device, or rhetorical relationship, in a sentence, that sentence is important because the writer has used that device in order to emphasize a key point.  Therefore, when students select these key points as textual evidence, they are able to explain them in terms of rhetorical relationships.  It’s amazing how this strategy SIMPLIFIES the literary analysis process and enables students to think on a deeper level INSTEAD of getting intimidated by content-specific terminology that isn’t necessarily useful. 

Once I have introduced the Three Levels of Reading to my students using advertisements, I typically give them a Shakespearean soliloquy from Macbeth in order to practice transferring this reading strategy from a visual text to a written text.  I have them annotate for the three levels, and then I have them arrive at a thematic claim for the soliloquy.  Afterwards, we go about discussing how they used the Three Levels of Reading in order to arrive at their conclusive, thematic claims.  We discuss if anyone arrived at a misinterpretation and how that happened.  Later on, I have them write a literary analysis paragraph using textual evidence from the soliloquy—and we are OFF TO THE RACES with a writing mini-lesson.

The Three Levels of Reading defines my strategy for teaching reading, annotation, and literary analysis in my English classes.  I hope that it provides you with some useful tips for helping you take your students’ reading comprehension to a deeper level. 

I would LOVE to hear from YOU!  Please leave your feedback in the comments below and let me know if you ever tried the Three Levels of Reading, or what other reading comprehension strategies work for YOU!

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