What is Reading?

Reading is something we learn to do at a very early age, but perhaps surprisingly, it is one of the most complex processes known to mankind. When you read, you’re doing so much more than you think you’re doing inside your mind and physically as well. In reading this article, I think you’ll gain a much greater appreciation of what reading is, and some of the reasons why speed reading is not a myth.

At it’s most basic level, reading is about interpreting words. You read through the characters on the page, identify the spaces where one word ends and another begins, and then search your brain for the meaning, and in English, often the pronunciation of that particular word. Unfortunately, our language is one of the most phonetically challenging languages of all, since there are so many words that sound nothing like what they appear as, and a huge number of words that share similar sounds without similar spellings (homophones), or similar spellings with different pronunciations (homonyms). As your eye passes over these characters, you have to start by identifying what that word is before you can proceed.

Sight Words (reading)

There are about two thousand words that most adult readers are able to “sight read,” meaning that when they encounter a particular words, there’s not even a nanosecond of thought that goes into the identification and rationalization of that particular word. Beginning readers will not have any of these word, but they often pick up a number of them quite fast. “The”, “I”, “my”, “and”, “or” and “you” are usually some of the first words we learn to sight read, mostly because these are very simple words that are used so often in children’s stories that they become routine.

The first thing that has to happen is that a word must be decoded for identification purposes. We need to read the word and try to figure out if this word is something that we already know or not. Reading is inevitably tied into speech (although speed readers try to consciously break this particular connection), so the first step in reading is to try to subvocalize what that word might be, by pronouncing it in your head, or sometimes even mouthing the word under your breath as it happens.

As you get more and more advanced in reading, you start to get a little cocky, and you start to see things that don’t exist, or miss obvious things that are actually there. Around second or third grade, for most Americans, this new kind of reading starts to come out, where you easily mistake “though” and “through” or see “broom” and think it says “boom”. This is both good and bad. It’s bad, obviously, because now you start to make more and more mistakes when you read, but it’s good because it signals that you have surpassed the level of reading alphabetically, character by character, and are now reading word by word instead. Unfortunately, this pattern of missing links often continues throughout our entire lives, even in the very best readers.

If that word has a definition, as most of them will do, it is often easy to simply move on. If it doesn’t, well, let’s save that for later and come back to that. It’s complicated.

How to Proceed

Once you’ve identified the meaning of one word, you naturally move on to the next, and you repeat this process until you come to some kind of stop, which is usually the end of a sentence. For advanced readers, this all happens in the blink of an eye. For beginning readers, or for those who never really practiced it all that much, this can be an arduous process. It is one of the primary reasons why books written for youngsters often have much shorter sentences than adult books do, and one reason why readers who start off behind in their reading level often stay behind – as books get more and more challenging, they simply don’t have enough sight read words to make long sentences tolerable.

You can see this process in action when you watch kindergarteners who are first learning how to read. Teachers always start by having them sound out words based on their knowledge of the alphabet, since this allows them to get feedback on who is doing a good job of decoding the pronunciation. They stop after every word, since they have no sight read words, and gradually begin to make the connections between the written word, which they have little to no experience with, and the spoken word, with which they already have years of practice. At the end of sentences, they often stop, and they usually require the pictures on the pages of their storybooks to remind them of what happened; they put so much effort into the decoding stage that they only paid minimal attention to the details of what happened in that sentence.

Reading, of course, gets easier and easier each time you do it. You add more sight words to your repertoire, and you get used to the style of different authors, which helps you identify sentence structure. Your knowledge of grammar also helps you read sentences and subvocalize them in the way that they would be spoken, adding the proper pauses, breaks and rhythm to the sentences in order to make them identifiable. And, perhaps most importantly, you can spend less brain power on the process of actually reading, and spend a little more thinking about and processing what you read, making it easier to pay attention to the story or passage.

All of that works, however, only if you can understand all of the words that come to you in the course of your reading. Now, what happens in reading when you look at one word and you don’t know what it means?

English teachers have tried for countless years to teach us strategies for picking up these words as you read. It used to be that teachers would send students off in search of a dictionary, and while that works, they have come to realize that no self-respecting gradeschooler actually does read with a dictionary close at hand. Therefore, they know that they have to teach other methods, so smart folks everywhere have come up with two methods which are actually really good, but only in certain circumstances. The most common two approaches are to use context clues and to use root words. Both methods work, but are either actually used?

When you use context clues to identify a word’s meaning, you look for other clue words in the sentence to try and ascertain, based on how the sentence unfolds, what the meaning of the word is. For instance, take a look at the sentence, “The sneaky spy crept into the home by the windowsill, ensuring that no one around him heard or saw his entrance.” You could use context clues to identify the meaning of the word “sneaky,” “spy,” and possibly even “crept” based on the second part of that sentence, after the word “ensuring.”

However, context clues wouldn’t help you one bit if you didn’t know what “windowsill” or “ensuring” meant. Also, words in adult books or research materials are often written more carefully, and more descriptive words are chosen which don’t require further explanation if you have a full grasp of the English language. Relying on this method will help a lot of the time, but not always.

The same can be said of root words. The idea here is that because most English words are derived from Greek or Latin, that learning the basic words of these languages can help us understand some of the more complicated English words. If you know that “anti” means against, then you can more easily understand the motivations of “anti-terrorists” or “anti-aristocratic.” Some times, though, knowing these roots isn’t all that helpful. Does the fact that knowing the root word “atom” (small), help you identify the use of an “atomizer” or “diatom?” Most people would think not, although they do make sense when you already know what they mean.

For the most part, however, these two techniques are a good start, but don’t work for all situations. Unfortunately, most bad readers either don’t know how to use, or simply don’t bother to use context clues or root words, and simply skip over the word if they don’t know what it means. This often renders entire sentences, paragraphs, or even chapters completely unreadable. In addition, they are not expanding their vocabulary sufficiently to be able to read even harder passages later on in their life.

And this is the plight of Language teachers all over the globe, no matter what kind of language you’re learning to read.

How to Get Better

My first recommendation is based on vocabulary and phonics. If someone cannot pronounce a word, then they almost certainly don’t know what it means. If they cannot identify a large number of words as sight words, then they’ll be even farther behind.

Second, teach that re-reading is often essential, especially if you have a mistake-prone reader. What reading is for these students is a process that doesn’t have a systematic approach, which means that it sometimes simply fails. Working with students who have failing reading processes means making them try and try again, and eventually it will start to make more sense.

Third, have the student write. A lot.  Isn’t reading he same process as writing, just backwards. A story per day, or a journal article, or a little summary of something they learned that day is plenty. Read through these items daily, as soon as they’re done, and then go through and help the student edit their document so that everything is in order, and the story is complete and full of details. Helping them in this way will not only help them reflect on their day and on other subjects, but it will also help them learn how writing is organized, what kinds of transitions are needed between sections of information, and where certain information is usually kept, which can help them a lot on standardized testing and other kinds of tasks where reading comprehension is key.

Finally, students all over need to be given material which is appropriately challenging for them. While it’s nice to have all of your students reading the same books, giving readers who are behind a less challenging book is critical, because their inability to handle a more challenging book will really drain them of any energy for reading in general. Choose books with a lot of action, or with interesting plots. Again, I think that more mystery stories need to be included in a child’s curriculum, since these are interesting for most students, and since they require you to do some critical thinking while they read.