Last time we talked about a number of common “myths” about reading and the reading process. There was a lot to talk about – more than could fit in a single blog post – and so we’re here again to continue the discussion. The myths below are by no means the complete remainder of the list, but they should help to ground you more fully in what reading is and how you can turn yourself into an awesome – and awesomely satisfied – reader.
- MYTH: You should read everything at the same speed.
REALITY: This is actually one of the most common myths about reading. Many people believe that a person has an intrinsic speed at which they read and that everything they read should and will be read at that same speed. Effective readers, though, recognize that, just as there are variations in difficulty between different types of material, there should be variations in the speed at which you read the different types. This makes a lot of sense. A novel, for example, is usually written in engaging dialogue and prose with few difficult or unknown words to trip you up. Since the author’s purpose is to draw you in to the story and hold you there, she’s going to do everything she can to make sure it’s as easy as possible for you to read the book. You can read this type of work at your top speed.
A textbook, on the other hand, is usually broken up into chapters, subchapters, sidebars, graphs and other images, etc., and it is often written using technical language or jargon specific to its field. You understand going in that this is a learning experience and that you will not understand everything that’s presented on the first pass. You will have to preview the text before you even start reading to see what you’ll be up against and organize a strategy for extracting as much information as possible. When you are ready to proceed, you will have to read the work at a slower speed than you would a novel and perhaps read only one section at a time. You may also want to highlight, take notes, or otherwise summarize the information before you move to the next section, and when you’re through with the chapter and have all the pieces in place, you may want to read everything a second time as a continuous whole to see exactly how the information in the sections connect. This is not ineffective reading. In fact, your comprehension will be much higher proceeding this way than if you tried to read it at your top speed.
One note – if you are already familiar with the textbook’s subject, you can probably read it at a higher speed than someone who is not since you won’t need as much processing time. Reading effectively means understanding how, specifically, you need to approach different types of material.
- MYTH: Going back over words you’ve already read increases your comprehension.
REALITY: Re-reading text as you go, also known as “regression,” is one of the most common bad habits readers have. The idea is that, in your reading, you’ve somehow “missed” a crucial word or piece of information; if you re-read the words, you will gain greater understanding. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Regressing is even worse for comprehension than reading word-by-word, because not only are you not seeing the words in context, you’re also seeing them in nonsensical patterns. Take a look at the following sentence:
The boy rode his bike to the store.
An efficient reader would read this as a single, coherent phrase, or at most two, and would therefore understand the full meaning. A person who regresses, however, might read the sentence in the following way:
The boy rode boy rode his boy bike to the bike store.
As you can see, not only does it take longer to get through the sentence because of the regressions, but the end result is something that doesn’t make sense, and it even twists the meaning: Do we know he was going to a bike store? In addition, most of the time we don’t regress to “important” words – key words that convey meaning – but instead to words like “and,” “but,” and “or,” which don’t tell us much information at all.
All that said, even efficient readers do regress from time to time, but the process is done deliberately (not as a habit) and as a means of clarifying a difficult point or complex phrase. These are called “voluntary regressions,” and they are acceptable as long as you limit how often you use them.
- MYTH: I can’t learn anything from fiction; it’s a non-productive use of time.
REALITY: Really? Any story that is not based strictly on factual information contains nothing worth knowing? What about Aesop’s fables? They are parables meant to convey important morals or universal truths, and they’ve served that function for millennia. What about novels like “1984” or “Brave New World” that extrapolate what will become of our humanity if we follow potentially dangerous courses of action in our society? What about Ursula Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness,” which postulates a genderless world and investigates what the outcome of our civilization would be? Surely gender politics has been relevant throughout history, perhaps in today’s society more than ever.
Fiction is imagination in action, the means for a writer to convey thoughts and opinions to her readers and the readers to grapple with and come to decisions about those ideas. If you aren’t learning anything from the fiction you are reading, then you’re clearly reading the wrong kind of material.
- MYTH: I’ve never been a good reader, and I’m too old to learn.
REALITY: You are NEVER too old to learn to read well. As we’ve discussed before, reading is a skill, and like any other skill it requires practice to master. So how do you get better? You read – anything, everything, and often. Dr. Seuss, the well-known writer of such masterpieces as “The Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham” summed it up well: “The more you read the more things you know. The more that you learn the more places you’ll go.”