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Why Most Americans don’t Read (Part 2) March 15, 2002

By Dr Bruce W Stewart, Charlotte-based educator and international information-management consultant
(Use a stopwatch or your wrist-watch to note how much time it takes you to read this article.)

“Adults and students today read with the skills of an 8 year old, and this skill has not advanced in over 100 years.”  Harsh but true -  think about your own reading skills.  Have you learned anything about the actual skill of reading since the 3rd grade?  And do you read any differently from the way your parents and grand-parents read?

The teaching of reading skills, worldwide, hasn’t changed in 100 years or more.  We are taught to read one word at a time, we are taught to read with our finger on the page and we are taught to read out aloud.  Then in the 3rd and 4th grade, we’re told to stop reading with our finger on the page and we’re told to stop reading out aloud and to read “quietly to ourselves”.  We have just given birth to the three bad habits of reading.

Firstly, we regress. Because we stopped using our finger to control the direction and movement of our eyes along the line of print, our eyes tend to wander. We find ourselves re-reading words and phrases, we jump forward, down the page and then have to go back up the page.  This disrupts concentration, confuses understanding and promotes distractions and mind-wandering and so we regress even more in a futile attempt to concentrate and comprehend. And if you thought this was not too serious, consider the fact that the average reader regresses 60 to 70 times each page – regression does nothing other than reduce concentration and comprehension.

Secondly, we never move beyond word-by-word reading.  Our reading becomes a series of single word fixations with the average fixation (focus) duration being approximately one fourth of a second.  This plodding through the material at four words per second restricts our reading to a paltry 240 words a minute.  Add to this the impact of regression and we find ourselves reading even more slowly. Most people, adults and students alike, read at less than 200 words a minute, with fewer than 1 person in a quarter million having a natural reading speed in excess of 500 words a minute.

Finally, we vocalize or sub-vocalize the words we are reading.  Some of us actually say the words, using our vocal chords or ‘mouthing’ the words.  Others will imagine the sound of words inside their heads – all the result of those fatal words told to us in the 3rd grade – “You’re a big person now, so close your mouth, stop reading out aloud, read quietly to yourself” – and so we read quietly to ourselves and we say the words quietly to ourselves in order to reassure us that we are in fact reading to ourselves.  This vocalization and sub-vocalization becomes the conscious reassurance that we are in fact reading to ourselves.  However, all we have done is to reassure ourselves that we have read the words, one by one.  The question whether we’ve actually understood the concepts, ideas and inferences contained in those words, the big picture, remains.  And so we tend to regress in order to attempt understanding of the concepts, rather than the individual words themselves. The result is a downward spiral of confusion, lack of understanding, frustration and ultimately, boredom.

The working of the human mind is a fascinating subject in itself. Suffice it to say, the mind has two distinct limitations – it never sleeps and it cannot consider two ideas at the same time.  And if it gets bored, it will go and find something more interesting to think about.  The bottom line is that if you don’t enthuse your mind with the information coming from the material being read, it will wander off and start thinking about something else and it will continue this wandering until it finds something interesting – something worth thinking about. And all too soon, the reader suddenly realizes that while you may have been looking at the words, your mind was across the street somewhere, thinking about something else.  Inability to concentrate is neither a natural affliction nor an illness.  It’s a phenomenon which we create for ourselves and if understood, can be remedied.

Reading is a thinking skill. It requires to be purpose-driven and it requires concentration. Reading for the sake of reading soon becomes an exercise in futility.  Few people attend seminars just for the sake of attending a seminar and yet all too often we read something for no better reason than it’s there. And because we don’t really know why we are reading, our minds don’t concentrate on what we are supposedly looking at.  As a result, there are two essential pillars upon which reading must be based – purpose and concentration.

Defining your purpose in reading is like playing golf.  If you know where the pin is, you know what to do.  You evaluate distance and accuracy and if the pin is 400 yards away, your purpose is for distance rather than accuracy and the driver becomes the appropriate tool.  When the pin is only 150 yards away, your purpose is to achieve less distance and more accuracy and the 7 or 8-iron becomes the tool of choice.  When just off the green, on the fairway or the apron, your purpose is accuracy and loft, rather than distance, and the pitching-wedge becomes the tool of choice.  And finally, the putter is the tool of choice when accuracy supersedes all else.  The problem is, most people read with the equivalent of the putter and this applies especially to students who have been brain-washed with the dictum “if it’s important, read it slowly and carefully.”

Now while “reading important material slowly and carefully” might sound fine in theory, one might be inclined to ask the following questions – “why is the material important?”, “if it’s important, what will I do with it?”, “what does slowly mean?” and “what do we mean by carefully?”.   I will never forget the day that my daughter kindly offered to make some coffee for a guest and I.  She brewed the coffee, laid the tray and headed for the living room, without incident.  However, as she reached the living room, I cautioned her about the danger of hot beverages and instructed her to just walk slowly and carefully.  Needless to say, it was precisely at this time that the injunction for cautiousness and carefulness destroyed her natural rhythm and precipitated disaster.  My own insecurities had disrupted and destroyed my daughter’s self-confidence.  Similarly, teachers telling their students to read something slowly and carefully is no more than a platitude, a sound-bite without logic, purpose or any realistic expectation of worthwhile result.

If we understand what our children want out of life, help them to define goals, visualize theses goals, imagine tasting the fruits of these goals, aspire to these goals and we enlighten them in understanding that education is only a key to unlocking the door to these rewards, then we won’t have to tell them to read slowly and carefully.  Hunger makes a great sauce and passion is a great motivator, and I have never had to instruct my 10 year old to master his computer games by reading the instructions slowly and carefully.  All too often, we, as parents and teachers, see education as an end rather than a means to an end.  We set out to teach our children to do something and we praise them because they can do it, according to our standards and pre-conceived perceptions.  Yet how often do we consider whether our students know why they are learning or what to do with this knowledge?    [1260 words]

(To calculate your reading speed in words per minute, divide 1260 by the number of minutes it took you to read this article.  An average reader will take 4 to 6 minutes for the article.  To keep abreast of new information, you should be able to read this article in 2 minutes or less.