What do we know about reading?


As usual, I’ll sabotage this question and turn it around a bit to reflect what I thought I knew about reading and to examine some of Smith’s ideas that I found most interesting. As has been my recent mode, while reading Smith I found myself thinking, “Geesh, I knew that, but I guess I never really gave it that much thought.” It’s an interesting commentary considering the subjects and theses of both Rosenblatt’s text and now Smith’s (and I was tickled to see nods to Rosenblatt throughout Chapter 4), both concerning reading, the reader, and understanding.

Sternberg’s approach to understanding the mind and cognition (Metaphors of the Mind) explored a number of metaphors. Smith does the same albeit with a slightly different approach. Chapter 1 begins with a section entitled “Reading the World” and concludes that “reading” itself is a metaphor for looking and understanding, i.e. interpreting facial expressions. Chapter 2 continues with metaphorical examinations by comparing the mind to the computer and introducing concepts for the mind such as script and schema. These concepts form an introduction to the idea that reading is more than mere recognition of letters on a page, phonemes, and representations of sounds; a heck of a lot of thinking and experience are involved in the process of making meaning via reading. One of the most interesting ideas Smith explores is that much of reading is prediction! I suppose it is. I’d go a step further and bring a little bit of my newly learned pragmatics vocabulary into this discussion and couple prediction with implication. As a reader, I must imply certain knowledge based upon my experience with a text and this prediction and implication, and hopefully Rosenblatt would agree, truly transforms the text into something much more than strings of characters, a sentiment further echoed in Smith’s Chapter 3 on language and meaning.

Smith continues in Chapter 4 with a discussion of reading for information and/vs. experience, yet another metaphor for the schooling process. But what I most want to focus on here is his following belief: “How much visual information a reader will require is affected by the reader’s willingness to risk an erroneous decision. Readers who set too high a criterion level for information before making decisions will find comprehension more difficult” (p. 70). That sure is a loaded statement, fraught with metaphorical ramifications for identity and transpersonal psychology! Why would a reader set high criterion levels? Could it be related to issues of identity and security? How would these ideas then connect to theories of limited literacies? I think I could write an entire paper just on the topic of reading habits/performance as metaphor for psychosocial identity development (as I earlier mentioned reading also being a metaphor for understanding)! But let’s continue…as Smith notes, there’s a “mountain” of data on reading that I haven’t touched on yet (p. 93).

Smith’s ideas about reading and learning are further explored in his exploration of the neurocognitive processes involved in reading in Chapter 5: “Instruction should always be adapted to the circumstances in which an individual learns and understands best, but this is not promoted by speculation about hypothetical brain structures” (p. 93). As I’m likewise more concerned with the process of learning and making meaning on a more individual level, and in terms of transpersonal psychological processes, the next few chapters held less interest to me. While Chapters 6-9 address the process of memory, and letter and word identification, Smith continues with his discussion of the “search for sense” in Chapter 10.

One of the most interesting discussions Smith designs is that identification of meaning may also be termed apprehension of meaning (p. 159). This more correctly ties into the concept of prediction and implication than direct cognitive understanding. Now, I want to switch tracks and offer that Smith’s discussion of the above in Chapter 10, specifically with regard to the concept of chunking as referred to on p. 159 as a task that problem readers have difficulty with, could easily lend itself to a discussion of language acquisition. As I read that paragraph it occurred to me that one problem language education has routinely failed to solve (in my humble estimation) is that just as reading individual words slows a reader down and problematizes comprehension, so does listening to each individual word in a sentence of a foreign language. Afterall, we don’t necessarily pay attention to and recognize every note of a measure of music, but rather, we listen for the themes and melodies. So too is listening comprehension in a foreign language similar to reading comprehension in any language. But yet it seems that students need to learn grammar and target structures, just as children need to learn their ABC’s and basic words…the problem being that by the time many of us enter into a language classroom, we’re no longer children examining letters and words, but adults searching for meaning. I know, this is poorly developed, but for the sake of space, I’ll leave it at that and perhaps re-visit these ideas someday.

Next I’ll skip to a brilliant passage farther along in Chapter 10: “Teachers often feel they have to find things to do, to instruct children, rather than arrange situations where the desired learning will take care of itself” (p. 172). Whoa! I must pause for a moment. I have taught reading and found it no greater challenge than speaking, writing, or listening. Yet it seemed to me that I was teaching reading comprehension and strategy than from-the-starting-line, learn-your-letters literacy. So, my experience with beginning readers in any language is limited. But what a statement about education Smith has just made. I’ve always felt a constant struggle between being a “teacher” and having a role and prescribed actions to perform, and being a director, creating an environment and a situation in which learning (often collaborative) can take place. In this chapter, Smith’s ideas about reading and the ongoing argument as to how children should be taught to read serve as metaphors for effective language teaching full stop. In Chapter 12, Smith makes a similar conclusion: “Children learn continuously, through engagement in demonstrations that make sense to them, whenever their natural sensitivity for learning is undamaged. Learning is a social activity. Children learn from what other people do and help them to do” (p. 211).

In conclusion, there is much within Smith’s text that stands out in my own comprehension/apprehension/implication of my experience with the text as metaphors for learning language overall, not merely reading. I love that I can bridge Rosenblatt, Sternberg and Smith in a way that is unique to my own interests as both an educator and a learner. One idea that repeatedly presented itself throughout my reading was the question, “But what about older learners?” Smith focuses on children throughout his text and I’m left thinking about college-age students and adult-learners attempting to read advanced texts, learning foreign languages, etc. Additionally, if we are to think of music, mathematics, and molecular chemistry as languages, how do we “read” them and what are the similarities among literacies?


About Marlen Harrison

Dr. Marlen Elliot Harrison has been teaching language, communication, composition, literature and gender/sexuality studies at universities in Asia, Europe and North America since 1997.
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One Response to What do we know about reading?

  1. genkisakura says:

    Hi, Ma-chan! Sakura

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