Reading, while almost ubiquitous in the developed world, is a complicated endeavor, one that we spend many years both in and out of school learning and perfecting. Even people who read well are often confused to a certain extent about the process, and they cling to a number of “myths” that actually run counter to what is true. Here are some of the most common myths you will find.
- MYTH: Reading is a natural process, and everyone, given time, will learn to do it.
REALITY: While all humans have some form of an oral language, of the approximately 6,000 spoken languages that exist around the world, only about 200 have been codified into a written form, all in the relatively recent past. Speech, scientists tell us, over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, has been hard-wired into the human brain. Writing, on the other hand, only 6-7,000 years old for the most ancient examples, has not. What this means, then, is that the process of writing and decoding that writing (reading) must be specifically taught, with oral language skills deliberately integrated with those associated with the written forms.
Children start the reading process as infants, when their parents tell stories to them, let them play with colorful books, and name the objects they encounter in their daily lives. They focus intently on the process of decoding information in school from kindergarten through second grade (in the U.S.), after which point they go from learning to read to reading to learn. Not all children are adept at picking up the decoding process, however; this may be due to a learning disability, an absence of reading material or story time in the home, a lack of vocabulary development that comes from insufficient parental interaction, improper instruction, or any of a number of other factors. If this deficit is not caught quickly enough, the child falls behind to the point where he can no longer catch up with his peers.
While we tend to think of the United States as an advanced country with a superb educational system, the problem of difficulty reading is so bad that the National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2003 that 43 percent (almost half!) of American adults are virtually illiterate. Most groups define “illiteracy” as an adult whose reading comprehension is at or below a sixth-grade level. Some 30 million adults aren’t able to comprehend material geared for 10-year-olds, and another 63 million adults read between a sixth- and an eighth-grade level. And among developed nations, the U.S. ranks only 16th for adult reading skills. Clearly not everyone learns to read in equal ways and with equal results. Reading is a skill that must be taught and learned well. (To learn more about illiteracy in the U.S., click here.)
- MYTH: You have to read everything that’s printed.
REALITY: How many of us have struggled vainly to get through a book in which we have no interest but yet we feel compelled to read to the bitter end? The percentage is probably quite high. Here’s a tip – just because something’s printed doesn’t mean you have to read it. How can you tell if you should or shouldn’t? Purpose.
Every time you sit down with a book or a magazine or a journal or a collection of essays, you should ask yourself: “What is my purpose in reading this?” Interest is always a great motivator, and it will keep you going strong, but there are things in which we have no interest. Is there another purpose, perhaps, that can step in for interest? What about ‘I need to pass tomorrow’s exam on the book’s content.’? Or how about ‘My boss expects me to give a presentation on this at the conference.’? You may not care a whit about what’s on the page, but you sure want to get a good grade on the test or keep your job at the company.
In the absence of interest, a strong purpose can be a great substitute. But what if you have neither the interest nor a strong purpose? Another tip – if that’s the case, put it aside and read something you care more about. It’s not a crime not to read something, and you’re under no obligation to do so. And the more you read for interest, the more pleasurable your reading experiences will become, perhaps even leading to a life-long habit.
- MYTH: You have to read word-by-word to understand the content.
REALITY: Reading word-by-word is the slowest, least efficient way to read written material. When you isolate words from each other, you destroy the flow of the text and therefore its full meaning. You can’t see a whole idea or the path the writer will take to describe something or to inform you about what he wants to say. You do have the capability both to see and to process more information at a given time – it’s called peripheral vision. When you read word-by-word, you only take in information in the central part of your vision. However, you have a wide peripheral acuity that is capable of taking in information at the top, bottom, left, and right of the central region; you put it to good use when you’re, say, driving a car and need to see where everyone else is on the road. When you train (for example, using a reading training program like AceReader) to take in information from the periphery, your comprehension of the text actually goes up, as you are seeing more words and phrases at a time and seeing them in context.
- MYTH: I don’t have time to read.
REALITY: Nonsense – everyone has time to read. It’s simply a matter of priorities. If you have time to go to the movies or out for a jog or for lunch with friends, then you have time to read; you’ve just given your reading time to something else. You can start small, setting aside just 10-15 minutes a day on magazines or short stories and working your way up to longer times on novels or textbooks.
Better yet, combine reading with another activity. If you go to the gym, read something while you’re on the treadmill. If you commute to work, read on the train or in the carpool if you’re not doing the driving. Either way, you’re being doubly productive, and you can feel good about yourself. And if that’s not enough for you, know that reading actually releases endorphins (our bodies’ “feel good” molecules) into your system, which relaxes you and helps beat stress.
Want to know more about reading myths and realities? Part 2 of this blog will be posted next week.
 Álvarez, Horacio. (March 14, 2014). How Our Brains Learn to Read. Retrieved from http://blogs.iadb.org/education/2014/03/14/how-our-brain-learns-to-read/