In which the reader thinks rather generally about reading, is introduced to interactive-compensatory reading, discovers she may not see what she sees and may see what she doesn’t see, meets tunnel vision, chunking, saccades, fixations and the Ames illusion, and considers whether an error is always a Bad Thing.
‘People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ (Logan Pearsall Smith)
There are perhaps four must-read books on the general subject of the cognitive psychology of literacy. They are the classic Beginning to read (Marylin Jager Adams 1990), The psychology of reading (Rayner & Pollatsek 1989) which is aging but excellent science, Progress in understanding reading (Keith Stanovich 2000) (Stanovich is the most cited writer on this subject - this book is a collection of his most important work and his commentary thereon. Rather heavy, so take a deep breath) and another classic, regularly updated, Understanding reading (Frank Smith 2004).
I shall be using Frank Smith’s work extensively throughout this chapter. I do not apologise. You may not - indeed should not - agree with all of everything Smith (or anyone else) has ever written. He undoubtedly overstated his case at one time for the role of context cueing in reading, for example. His writing remains important, nonetheless. So does his clear and intelligent thinking. You will find well-informed common sense in Understanding Reading and you will be much entertained by it. Smith is trenchant, not to say polemical at times, but also pithy and mellifluous. If I had to pick a single book to recommend, his would be the one. It is a (fairly) painless introduction to a sometimes difficult subject, despite covering it in considerable depth.
Smith, then, says (1994 p.2) that ‘Reading is less a matter of extracting sound from print than bringing meaning to it’. (Along with many other writers on the nitty-gritty cognitive psychology of literacy Smith does not believe that reading can be primarily a phonic activity.) He says that in real life reading is four things: it is purposeful, selective, anticipatory and based on comprehension (ibid. p. 3). He also claims (2004 p. 5) that ‘Reading print is as natural as reading faces’ and (ibid. p. 3) ‘Learning to read is not rocket science’. These are very cheering and enabling remarks.
Why do we read? In real life we never just ‘do’ literacy, we use it. We do something with it. We use it for something. We never just ‘read’, without purpose. (Even your reading of the ancient copy of Hello magazine you picked up in the dentist’s waiting room had a purpose - not too much to do with the ‘information’ it held, perhaps, but a purpose nonetheless.) We always read in a discriminating way, even in dentists’ waiting rooms. (Perhaps you chose Hello in preference to What Car? or Farmer’s Weekly, and you probably only read selected bits of Hello. You did not begin at the beginning and read every word until you reached the end, nor did you feel that you ought to do it that way.) We also invariably read with quite highly specific expectations of text. (You picked Hello in the clear knowledge of what you would probably read therein. You did not pick the even older magazine with the cover ripped off such that it was not identifiable, but you glanced over its contents page, which showed it was all about finance, before plumping for Hello in preference.) And all of the above is true, of course, for the simple, and single, reason that we only ever read in order to obtain some personally relevant meaning; in order to experience, learn or understand something.
Reading, then, in real life, is always directed at meaning. It is a highly structured, meaning-seeking activity. Literacy tuition should also be meaning-directed and meaningful but has not always been so, alas. Over a long time ‘in literacy’ I have seen many schemes, exercises and worksheets which were a long way from meaning. In truth, I have used some. The worst were such that no student could find any meaning in them. They were amazingly boring, even repellent, as a result. Students either plodded on dutifully, if glumly, in the belief that their tutor must know best, or left tuition altogether for a fresher, if less educational, environment elsewhere.