April 29, 2004

Learning to read

There's decoding words, there's assimilating sentences, there's losing yourself in an exciting story. And then there's the kind of reading that you need to do when you want to figure out the answer to a question or assess a writer's position or contribution. Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted has given some detailed instructions on "How to Read in College" that I like a lot.

Burke is offering help to the student who has just noticed that "[p]rofessors assign more than you can possibly read in any normal fashion", and is trying to figure out how to cope. I think that Burke describes exactly the right solution -- "skim, skim, skim" -- and manages to make the description vivid and interesting. He illustrates the method with an example, worked out in detail, that makes sense even if you don't have access to the book he's talking about. And as he explains persuasively, intelligent skimming is a complex skill, not at all just a matter of looking at topic sentences or otherwise dipping randomly into a passing stream of text.

I disagree with one thing he says, though: "The first thing you should know about reading in college is that it bears little or no resemblance to the sort of reading you do for pleasure, or for your own edification." Let's leave aside the question of reading for pleasure -- that depends on personal choices about kinds of reading and kinds of pleasure. But someone long past college will still want to use intelligent skimming techniques to evaluate a proposed medical procedure, a current political controversy or a potential investment.

If your doctor suggests an operation to fuse vertebra or replace a creaky hip joint, and you want to learn what the issues really are, you'll have much more to read than you can possible assimilate in a linear way, and you'll have to cope with the fact that most of it is full of vocabulary and concepts that are unfamiliar. If you have a child diagnosed with reading disability or attention deficit disorder or autism, you'll be in the same situation. Making up your mind about bilingual education or global warming or the effects of cell phone radiation poses the same problems. Ditto for deciding how to invest your savings or where to go for your next vacation.

Depending on your interests and tastes, you'll ignore some of these problems or leave them to randomly-chosen experts or to other random influences. But if you can't assimilate lots of text quickly when you decide that you want to, you're at a real disadvantage in modern life. And the way to assimilate lots of text quickly has almost nothing to do with conventional "speed reading" techniques, and everything to do with the kind of process that Burke describes.

The kind of skimming that's appropriate for scientific text is a bit different -- figuring out which tables, figures and equations are really critical is an issue that Burke doesn't address, for example -- but the process is analogous.

I don't know if it makes sense to try to teach such skills directly. In my experience, schools -- and some aspects of ordinary life -- just pile up the readings, and the people who develop the right skills prosper, while the ones who don't, don't. If it works to give the kind of explicit instruction that Burke offers, it should be done much more widely.

[via Liz Ditz at I Speak of Dreams]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 29, 2004 08:25 AM