Reading seems fairly straightforward, right? You learned your alphabet long ago, and reading seems to be just the process of moving your eyes over the words–but this oversimplification underestimates how complicated reading really is. And, frankly, I believe that knowing a little bit about the reading process will actually make you a better reader.
1. Reading is really about learning, or as psychologists call it, cognition.
2. Here’s how people learn:
* Everything a person already knows is called schema. You know how to tie your shoes, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, make your siblings or parents do things for you.
* When a person reads, or is presented with a new situation or concept, that person tries to make a bridge from his or her already known schema to the new schema. You know that in order to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you put down a piece of bread, smear on some peanut butter and THEN some jelly (experimentation has taught you that trying to put jelly on first and then peanut butter is a fail), and then you put on another piece of bread. If you were to walk into a foods class and be told that today you would make a vegemite sandwhich, you would probably access your known schema about sandwich making and assume that you would put something between two pieces of bread–even if you don’t know what vegemite is.
* The ease or difficulty with which a person learns something new depends on his or her existing schema. If a new piece of information seems similar to something you already know, then it will be easy to learn. If new information seems entirely unrecognizable, or even contradictory to existing “known” information, then it will take longer to learn.
For example, in your early childhood, you learned language X and the rules of language X. If you are given a story to read in language X, then you can probably read it easily. However, if you’re given the same story in Language Y, then you would first have to learn language Y in order to read the story. And while learning language Y, you would probably try to apply the rules of language X. If language Y follows the same rules of language X, then it will probably be easier for you to lear; if not, then it will take more time.
Say you understand that most modern English sentences function like this: subject + Verb + object or complement
I love chocolate.
Terry is the boss.
However, when your sneaky English teacher gives you Shakespeare to read, the alphabet and words are generally those of the English you know, but there were different rules that guided the English of Shakespeare’s time. In order to comprehend Shakespeare, you have to learn the rules by which he wrote.
You, a modern English writer, might write this: “I love chocolate.”
But Shakeapeare, a creative writer of the late 1500’s, might write this: “Chocolate I love.” or “Love I Chocolate.” Shakespeare might also write “thou” instead of “you,” “saith” instead or “said,” “ere” instead of “before,” “ruin’d” instead of “ruined,” and “anon” instead of “rapidly” or “Ill be there in a second!”
Knowing Shakespeare’s rules will expand your schema and give you ways to help comprehend him.
Look at these lines from Shakespeare:
“That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In order to comprehend these lines, you need to “translate” them into a language you know (just as you would translate German to English if you think in English, or vice versa). So, you might translate them like this:
“You may behold in me the time of year when a few yellow leaves hang on their bough which shakes in the cold and used to hold singing birds.”
Which might be further translated into this: “You may see autumn in me.” or “I’m getting old.”
Translating this might have taken you a while, but you now see that Shakespeare has used images of autumn to mean he’s getting old–this is now part of your schema. So, the next time you see a writer using images of autumn, you may suspect that he or she is using it to represent getting older.
“Can you Read this Paragraph?
Eevn touhgh the wrosd are srcmaelbd, cahnecs are taht you can raed tihs praagarph aynawy. The order of the ltteers in each word is not vrey ipmrotnat. But the frsit and lsat ltteer msut be in the rhgit psotitoin. The ohter ltetres can be all mxeid up and you can sitll raed whtiuot a lot of porbelms. This is bceusae radenig is all aobut atciniptanig the nxet word.
When you read you don’t absorb exact letters and words and then interpret them later. You anticipate what will come next. The more previous knowledge you have the easier it is to anticipate and interpret.
Reading and Comprehending are Two Different Things
If you’re a biologist, then this paragraph might make sense right away:
The regulation of the TCA cycle is largely determined by substrate availability and product inhibition. NADH, a product of all of the deydrogenases in the TCA cycle, with the exception of succinate dehydrogenase, inhibits pyruvate dehydrogenase, isocitrate dehydrogenase, a-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase, while succinyl-CoA inhibits succinyl-CoA syntehtase and citrate syntase.
If you’re not a biologist, then it might take you a long time to understand what that paragraph says. You can read the paragraph, but that doesn’t mean you understand it. New information is assimilated more thoroughly when it is plugged into existing cognitive structures.” (from “How people Read.” See link below.)
* So, here’s what all of this teaches you:
1. The more you know, the easier it is to learn–the more schema you have, the more existing knowledge you have by which to learn new things. Say you are trapped in one of those phone booths with the whirling money, and you can keep as much as you can grab. If you only can grab with two hands, then you can’t grab much. However, if you are holding one money-grabbing octopus in each hand, then you can grab 16 hands worth. AND, if each of those two octopi were holding one money-grabbing octopus in each of its hands, then you would have the grabbing power of (hold on, I need my calculator) 128 hands. Let’s pretend that makes sense to you…
So, the more you read, the easier it will be to read.
2. All reading is not the same. The speed at which a person reads depends on how easily the new story or article fits into his or her existing schema and for what purpose the person is reading. If a person is reading something that he or she has already read in the past, then he or she may be able to skim the reading and go very fast through it (process 400-700 words per minute). If one is reading something about a very unfamiliar subject that he or she will take a test on, then he or she might employ “study reading,” which processes 100-200 words per minute. If one is reading to memorize, then he or she will be able to process fewer than 100 words per minute.
So, in order to become a “better” reader, you probably need to slow down and become an active reader–being an active reader means that you do things while reading that force you to connect the new ideas of the text to your existing schema in your brain. Usually, this means that you take notes while reading, such as “This reminds me of…” (connecting to old schema), “What does it mean to…” (recognizing new ideas that don’t seem to relate to old schema–setting up a question that you will look to answer in the text to come).
Here is what we will do in this class to help you become a better reader:
1. Learn strategies to help you decode unfamiliar words. If you do not know what a word means, then you can’t have any idea what it is trying to tell you. And since you will be in many situations when you can’t look up a word in a dictionary (testing, etc) or won’t look up a word (you’re sitting on your bed and the computer is at least 5 feet away on your desk), you need strategies to help you understand (decode) what a word means.
Strategies will include:
-context clues–how to use words around the unknown word to determine the unknown’s meaning.
-roots, prefixes, suffixes–learning the meaning of word pieces, so you can make guesses at the definition of a word based on the pieces you recognize. For example, “sub” means “below” (think submarine–under water–subterrainian–under the earth). If you see the word “subalpine” and know that sub means below and alpine has something to do with trees, then you may be able to guess that subalpine means “below the tree line.”
-learning grammar–If you understand the way that sentences go together and how punctuation is used, then you can make guesses about how an unknown word functions in a sentence.
2. Learn strategies by which to connect new text to existing schema and to see patterns in texts.
–annotation–this is when you take notes on the text you are reading. There are many ways to do this–you can write questions, definitions, summaries, observations…all of which makes your thinking visible and conscious. Making these notes will help you comprehend the text at a basic level and help you come to a deeper place when thinking about a text.
For example, say you are watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with your 3-year-old daughter and you’re a little concerned about her concept of what it means to be a girl. So, I will watch the movie and make note of what things girls do (and whether they’re active or passive) and what things the boys do (and whether they’re active or passive). Here’s what I note:
The wicked queen (female) asks the creepy face in her mirror if she is the prettiest thing he ever did see. The mirror-guy (male) says, “No, Snow White, your young step daughter–is much prettier.
The wicked queen orders the huntsman (male) to take Snow White (female) into the woods to kill her.
Huntsman raises knife to kill Snow White and she throws up her hands to hide her face and yells no.
Huntsman decides not to kill Snow White and tells Snow White to run away.
Snow White runs away into the woods, becomes lost, throws herself on the ground and weeps.
SW wakes up and asks the animals to help her.
Animals bring SW to cottage.
SW fluffs her hair and knocks–no one is home. SW breaks in and enters into the house, notices that it is a mess, and says that maybe if she cooks and cleans the house the people who live there will let her stay.
The dwarfs (male) return to their cottage, like its newly cleaned state, but mistake SW for a monster, whom they are ready to bludgeon to death until they notice how pretty she is. They’re ready to throw her back into the forest until she she says she will cook for them, then the dwarfs let her live and decide she can stay and take care of them.
Evil Queeen turns herself into a hag and gives SW a poisoned apple that she bites, and SW falls into a cursed sleep.
Prince Charming (male) comes by, sees deadish sleeping SW, and kisses her corpsey lips. She awakes and leaves to marry him.
From these notes, I can see that women are generally passive and need help, and even when a woman is able to act–the wicked Queen–she must do so through other people–the huntsman and in disguise. Women are defined by their beauty and what others think of them–the wicked queen needs the approval of her mirror, and SW hopes to please the dwarfs. Men seem to have choices and agency (the ability to make their own decisions)–the huntsman decides not to kill Snow White, the dwarfs get to decide whether SW can stay, the prince decides to kiss SW and let her come live with him.