One of the great minds in the University of Bologna, Italy, is Umberto Eco, professor of semiotics and author of the novel 'The Name of the Rose'.

When his first best seller came out Eco was interviewed by loads of journalists. With one of them he asked:

" I know you have a very busy life so may I ask you a delicate question: have you have time to read some pages of my book?"   The lady blushed and replied that she had read all six hundred pages through to the end. She added that she had read some parts twice.

At this Eco sighed deeply and said in a low voice: " The we have a real problem on our hands. Are we going to discuss the book you have read or the book I think I tried to write?

The map is not the territory and the dilemma alluded to above besets any author talking to any reader about his work. I have really no idea at all of the version of this posting that  you now have in your head, after all the deletion, distortion, generalisation, reframing and elaboration  that has gone into your act of reading.

 Good night from Baku on my last night here. I will talk to you again tomorrow from UK.

 Warmly yours, Mario



This is a good example of what you are saying. The main thing my mind focuses on in the article is that you are in Baku at the moment. I would be very curious to know how, if at all, you think the political context affects language teaching. Azerbaijan is a repressive society, but can one teach English in the same way there than in countries with more freedom of speech, rights, etc? You mentioned in your interview that you lived through a revolutionary situation in Allende's Chile. Did teaching English change noticeably in those years?

I hope it's not too sensitive a question, but I am genuinely curious to know your opinion.

 Kind Regards... 


Dear Mario,

it´s so interesting to read your "food for thought" articles. I´m in two roles now - I´m an English teacher who is responsible for helping students understand the text as it was written (ie. what is the message, what the author wants to communicate to me) and I´m also a reader (and I´d love my students to be the same) who once I read the book it becomes my own. It relates to my personal life, it brings my own perspective, it´s simply mine. My problem is to figure out how I should balance the two in my teaching. Can you help?

Your eternal admirer,

Nada Vojtkova (Czech Republic) 

Dear Hombre Qualquiera,

                                     I would suggest to you that all societies are repressive of their citizens. In UK it is only in Northern Ireland that there have been demonstrations against troops retutning from their murderous mission in Afghanistan. Elsewhere the media organise a warm welcome even though many realise that that war is unjust and probably lost. I have never worked in a free country.

What happened in Allende's Chile was that language teaching, like everything else was enthused with a wave of optimism, with a can do feeling that was thrilling to live through.

Warmly yours,   Mario15  

Dear Nada,

   Dear Nada,              

 Am I right in thinking that your name means 'hope' in your language! I know this intellectually but, writing to you from Barcelona, the Spanish meaning of this word,  'nothing', mingles with the intellecatual knowledge I have that in Czech it means hope. So my reading of the word is a strange amalgam   hope/nothing  a sort of Kafkesque negativity!

Even at beginner level in the target language the human mind works the way it must. Why not gently try and elicit from your students what is really going on mentally for them as they wrestle with the basic meaning of an English text. You may be amazed to discover just how much they internally elaborate, just as you do when you read a novel.

Please bring together your teaching self and your reading self!

Warmly yours,


Thank you for your thoughtful reply and inspiring description of Chile.

Kind Regards

Hi Everybody

I think, the meaning making process as a personal activity. Everyone can create ‘his/her' text based on his/her experience as well as learning. There is no more "the" meaning or "the" text but meanings and texts. Sometimes, especially in Indian context, teachers find it hard to shake off the authorial voice from their shoulders. After generating so many answers as part of the discussion, the final questions from the students would be ‘what the teacher thinks' and ‘who is right'. I don't know how in such a context this multiplicity of texts operates.

From a teaching point of view I'll share one experience. Few weeks ago I was observing a teacher trainee teaching her peers. She was teaching Frost's 'Stopping by Woods'. This teacher encouraged her peers to come up with their own interpretations. Very soon she realised that the class has gone out of her hands as they came up with interpretations which the teacher couldn't accept or couldn't even relate to. Soon the class lost its tempo and the teacher had to force her view on the class in order to take the lesson forward. I think what happened here was the teacher's unpreparedness in anticipating a couple of alternate interpretations.

This point at one thing- a teacher needs to be equipped with a couple of possibilities of the text. Also the teacher should know when to blow the whistle if (mis)interpretations creep in. Once again the question of what is right and what is wrong and who decides all that remains.

I think we can't escape the trap which the language lays for us. However, one can think of it as a challenge and take up the language class in a brighter tone.

Dear Cherrymp,

                       I wonder where in the vast continent that  is India you teach. But to pick up the points you make: in my view interpretation is a process that often comes with a second reading and is in the realm of the conscious mind. My point about reading the first time is that each student's mind will elaborate the text differently and that this process will be largely unconscious and amazingly rapid. It will be on this internal text that any subsequent personal interpretation will be based.

I feel that you are mixing together initial reception and interpretation.  A teacher might try to impose a literary interpretation but no teacher can alter the internal micro-representations that flash through the learners minds on first reading.

 Warmly yours,     Mario

Dear Mario

That was an interesting observation you made- the distinction between reception and interpretation. I suppose the point you're trying to make is the very personal nature of reading where you create meaning on your own. The reception could be right or wrong, valid or invalid; still there is 'some' meaning made out of the first reading in the reader's mind. I think, here we are talking about two things- you about the personal level of meaning making (reception) and I about the social level where a couple of readers attempt to share and make meaning of what they've read (can I call it social interpretation?).

The discussion we'd over this topic itself could be taken as a good example of how reading operated at very personal levels for each of the commentators. I read the Umberto Eco anecdote as an example of the second one (social interpretation) where the writer wonders which text he should talk about- the text which the press reporter read or the one he "tried" to write. Interestingly, Eco too hint at the fluidity of the meaning.

Of course I agree with you in that the role of a teacher cannot alter the initial internal micro-representations that flash through the readers' minds. I go a step ahead and wonder whether s/he could even access that process easily. If we leave it like that, meaning making process is a personal one. But the moment one articulates it then, I think, this question of uniformity in interpretation arises. 

The point I was trying to make is this: A teacher can feel uncomfortable when readers turn up with interpretations which goes against the canonical interpretation. That's one attitude. There is a more interesting attitude where teachers can use these alternate interpretations as spring boards for further language activities.

Aside: I work in the Pearl City of India- Hyderabad

Warm Regards


Dear Cherry,

                     You speak about "canonical inrterpretations" and the "teacher's interpretation". I lived with these concepts through my teens, studying French and Spanish literature, and yet I would question the validity these concepts. My teachers' literary opinions were born from those of their own teachers and in part from their own personal view of the world. In what way could my unschooled, uninformed but fresh and genuine literary opinions be judged to be of lesser merit than theirs?

Let me lift one sentcnce from your text and offer you a number of possible interpretations of it:

"A teacher can feel uncomfortable when readers turn up with interpretations that go against the canonical interpretation"

Interpretation 1: the canonical view is one achieved through the scholarship and effort of well educated people over the centuries. The teacher has every right to by upset by sallow greenhorns who dare to disagree with their masters.

Interpretation 2: teachers are conservatively minded people and are naturally bothered by any whiff of creativity shown by their learners. 

Interpretation 3: A teacher's job is to reward convergent intelligence and thought and equally to discourage divergent mental paths.

 I would suggest that all the above are tenable interpretations of your sentence. I would not be able to say that any of them are "objectivily" correct as I do not believe objectivity to be an applicable concept in the area of dealingn with text.

Warmly yours,    Mario

Dear Mario

I now wonder the reading processes we're now engaging in. In the whole of the reply the aspect I was trying to focus was the infinte possiblities which open before a teacher when the class engages in a discussion of multiple interpretations. There is language, the sense making faculty, making its round around. A teacher needs to tap this potential rather than pushing forth what the experts say. It's only then that there is sense operating at a very individual level. Each of the student as well as the teacher feel that there is some contribution made from their part rather than thinking there is only one way to look at the text. 

Interestingly as I read your response and the choice of sentence you selected from all that I wrote a thought flashed through my mind. Didn't we see and read what we have in our head rather than in the text sometimes reading what is not there or not meant to be read? Of course I know that I can't control the "reception" as well as "interpretation" of what I wrote. But I just wonder.

This has happened in my classes when students are given an opportunity to read aloud. Sometimes students read a word which is not there. One can overlook it as sheer lack of attention. Also sometimes when I read there are things/words which I overlook. I sense that I miss something when somebody points at something which I think is not there. Then I go back to the text and realise that I missed this/these word/s. An exercise which I often engage my students in the class is one where each of them have to tell a few words to the class on what they think is there in the text. They have to support their thinking by quoting the text. Many a times, especially if I land up in the company of vocal students, the class will soon realise that from "a" text, we all read in different, different ways. 

I'm not for imposing any interpretation on any text. Instead what I tell is to utilise the possibilites which the text offers so that more language is transacted. 



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