Friday, April 10, 2009

Learning to Read...Really Read

Growing up, we all learn that we need to read, and are taught, for the most part, how to read. After the necessary groundwork, teaching the letters and the sounds, the teaching of reading is generally reduced to lexis introduction - teaching vocabulary. Of course teachers and parents encourage children to read, at loud first when they first begin, but then quickly shift to a focus on "reading silently." It's at this point that the teaching of reading pretty much ends. Oh sure, English teachers will discuss content with students, to get a sense of how much the students have understood. Later on these discussions will take the form of book reports, chapter assignments and essays, and even though these assignments are more comprehensive and written, they are nonetheless only an extension of those early grade 2 discussions between a teacher and their class. From then onwards, the vast majority of readers, those who read longer texts sporadically or infrequently, will continue reading in the same manner. But how do we classify that manner?

Until about grade 9, I would have quantified how I read as “how I read.” I mean, what else was there to say? Even though by then, due to how much of a reader I had become, I had already unknowingly been practicing two different modes of reading. I say unknowingly because I still had not thought of the way I read as being differentiated in any way. But in grade 9, on a whim, I signed up for a “speed reading” course, and that little one day workshop changed my entire reading world. Not only did I learn how to read Old Man and the Sea in half an hour, but I learned there were different ways to read a text, not just conceptually, but physically. Up to down, diagonally, backwards, two lines at a time, ten, whole paragraphs at a time, whole pages even. It was there that I learned that words were not words, discrete entities that had to be input, thought about and understood sequentially, but were representational imagery, pictures if you will, and that the mind could process them as such. When you walk outside in the morning and look around, you don’t say “car, car, grass, tree, neighbor, neighbor’s annoying kid,” in sequential order as you see them. No, you just glance, see, and in a fraction of a second, understand the meaning of everything you see. We do this constantly when we are driving, trusting ourselves to take in this visual input and understand what it means, in a flash. So why don’t we do that for reading?

The reason we (sorry for using the 1st person plural…I’m being lazy) don’t input text based information the same way we input visual information is because when we learn to read silently, we are taught to “read in our heads.” That is, we are taught to sub-vocalize, to actually say the words in our minds the way we would say them out loud, with the same cadence, rhythm, and speed that we would use when reading out loud. Sure this shuts the kids up, and helps adults save on purchases of Advil, but man! What a handicap it is. More than most people will ever appreciate.

Learning about the existence of sub-vocalization was the first step in learning about how I read. It was then I looked at my previous two modes of reading, which I had not thought of separate before, and was able to classify them. These two forms I came to know as “deep reading” and “normal reading.” The new techniques I learned at that workshop eventually became a third category I came to know as “functional reading.” Sometimes I call it “surface reading” or “superficial reading,” but I’ll save that for last. So what are these categories anyway? Let’s start with “normal reading,” because that’s the easiest.

Normal Reading

Normal reading is reading the way you were taught to read all the way back in the first grade. You sub-vocalize, hopefully without moving your mouth as you do so (an embarrassing trait in public I hear!). This is the form of reading used for reading the newspaper, class assignments, and memos from work. Most of our normal everyday reading occurs in this mode, hence the name “normal.” In fact, the vast majority of readers I know, the ones who read one book a year in fits and starts, and usually only ever scan the headlines in the paper, all read in this mode. The never suspend the conscious control of their mind and are either acutely or generally aware of their surroundings. This contrasts greatly with deep reading, where we lose conscious control of our minds, and become entirely blind and deaf to out surroundings.

Deep Reading

Deep reading is a different beast entirely. To get to it, you have to start reading in normal mode, and at some point, your mind will unconsciously switch to deep mode. Deep mode is the mode of reading any lover of reading knows and recognizes, but cannot always explain. It’s what happens when you are reading a good book, and all of a sudden, and without knowing it is happening, you no longer see the words on the page, and instead see the images and hear the sounds the text represents. You stop “reading” the story, and you “see” it. You are there, hearing the characters, running with them, and watching as they kick ass and take names. When you hit this mode, your external senses become less attuned to the outside world, making it easier for you to focus on the text itself. I learned this mode at an early age. In fact, I remember on incident that clearly outlined, for myself, what happens when I deep read. I was about 12 years old and reading Gordon Korman’s “The War with Mr. Wizzle.” I was dragged along to a “family reunion,” only it was a reunion of my new step-father’s family, so it wasn’t a reunion to me in any sense. We were there for five hours, and I swear to God, I cannot, to this day, remember a moment of it. When we got there, I sat on the couch and opened the book. Five hours later my mother was yelling at me to hurry up and get in the car, and to put the goddamn book down already! Not a problem there, because I had just finished it anyway, so I wasn’t going to fight her on that point. Later I was told that there had been very loud music, there had been dancing, often inches away from my face, involving the over-large buttocks wearing over-tight clothing of my new French Canadian relatives. I was told there had been a big drunken fight between two cousins with loud uncomfortable words and a bit of a tussle, and that people had eaten, argued, and partied all without my knowledge. From the time I had opened that book, until I had closed it, just finishing it when it was time to leave, I had not noted the passage of time, or the presence of anything in the universe other than the story I was reading.

I’m sure you have experienced this sort of reading, as many writers have. It is part of why we become writers in the first place, in order to create that very bliss we often seek out and find between the covers of whatever new title pops into the book store. Honestly this state, I have come to believe, is one of the few natural narcotic states that human beings can attain, on par with the runners high long distance runners speak of, or the euphoria that overcomes dedicated fasters and mediators. Perhaps it has something to do with separating the subconscious mind from the conscious mind, allowing the latter to assume control, to put it’s hand on the tiller, if you will. I don’t know if any real research has been done on this phenomenon but if there has not, there should be.

I have come to likening my brain in this state as like that of a computer. When you stick a DVD in the slot, the computer reads ones and zeros, just as our minds see the words and number on the page. But very quickly, transformed by software, those one and zeros are transformed by a computer into sounds and images. Likewise out minds transforms those words into sounds and images, and during the process, the phase where were are cognizant of the words and images becomes superseded by the end product itself. That is we are not conscious of “seeing” the words and images, or even of turning the pages, but we see and hear everything that the words on the page represent. It really is amazing when you think about it, and the feeling one gets, when we suspend our conscious knowledge of time and space, and take our place in some momentary fifth dimension is sublime to say the least.

My sister used to say that even though I never drank alcohol or smoked a joint, both of which could not be said of her, I was nonetheless an addict in my way, drawn to my own drug. And even though society doesn’t see it as such, I learned that there perhaps is such a thing as too much reading, that the need to read can actually be harmful, and can affect you as negatively as any narcotic can. From reading on the job, on the subway, in the car, you name it, the urge to read becomes so all encompassing that you really do resent it when your family puts their foot down on books at the dinner table, because that is one more place you can read, and what wrong with reading, right?

It took me years to accept that reading could be damaging to my relationships with others. At least reading only fiction could. This was because my default state for fiction is that deep reading mode. I might get into a book, and not even know that my two year old, by a hair, missed out on electrocuting herself playing with a power outlet, or darn near toppled a heavy shelf onto herself. My inability to be aware of anything at all in my environment, which was once my greatest asset when I was a university student, and had to study in loud, crowded areas, had become my greatest liability. It was because of this that I turned my reading addiction towards Google Reader, and began subscribing to countless RSS feeds. Now I don’t usually ever read in deep mode, unless it is early on the weekend and my kids are safely asleep. Now, most of my reading occurs in the functional mode, where I literally glide over article after article that slips into my reader.

Functional Reading

The last form of reading is functional reading, or what I sometimes call “surface” or “superficial” reading. Often people refer to this as skimming or scanning, but I find those two terms to be crude and inaccurate. Sure at times I do “scan” for bits of information, but that only occurs when I have already read that text previously. Skimming I liken to headline reading. Like skimming cream from a jar, you only lift the tops bits off, and that’s not what I do. My eyes glide over the full text, and instead of subvocalizing those words, I trust my mind to recognize them and make sense of them. It works too. Ever seen one of those emails where every letter in a word but the first and last are jumbled? Yet somehow you can read that text with ease. It just goes to show that perhaps they way our mind processes words is not they way we have been taught, and that perhaps some entirely different process is at play.

In any event, when I read in this mode, I see but don’t think. I encounter the text superficially on the surface, but with little in the way of thought or analysis. When something catches my eye and makes me pause, I set that bit aside for later perusal in normal mode. Those articles I want to peruse more closely, like essays or long op-eds, I open in another tab in my browser for later perusal while going through the list in my reader until I have cleared all my “new items.”

For certain, this is a form of reading that is done with a specific intended purpose. When I got into my interview gig back in 2000, were I started interviewing authors, I found I had a knack for it. I didn’t ask “questions” so much as give the writer prompts to spur conversations. I had no list of topics, I merely listened and reacted to what they said by using select tidbits of information from their books. Due to the number of authors I began meeting on a weekly basis, often four or five on average, I could no more read every page of their books than could any other person but for those of the means to do nothing but read. Like trust fund kiddies or wealthy dilettantes. Juggling three jobs, as I was, and struggling to complete my undergraduate degree in creative writing (it took me 8 years, all told), I just didn’t have the time. But what I did learn through constant practice was a superfast form of that speed reading I was introduced to years ago in high school. I could scan pages at a rapid pace, dipping in and out of sections of a book. Whenever something of not popped up at me I would tag it for later reference, and during the interviews, inevitably something an author said would trigger a memory of that tidbit, which I would then pull out and weave into the conversation. Enough tidbits, and it would appear to the interviewee that you have read their entire book, and thoroughly at that. I will never forget the surprise and gratitude I saw on the faces of many of those authors. And even though I knew I was not being entirely truthful to them, I actually had read far more of their work and thought about it more deeply than almost anyone else in the interview game that they would meet while pumping that book on tour.

Perhaps that’s why, even though I had a two bit show that few even cared about, that I kept getting call after call from publicists at every publishing house, and every freelance publicist in Toronto. I wanted the free books, they wanted someone to boost their writer’s ego and get them pumped for whatever big interview they had planned. Whatever it was, it worked and fed my addiction to books.

Funny enough this skill I had developed started to have uses in other ways. In school, even though I knew of speed reading in theory, I had never really put the principles into practice at school, and read my texts in “normal” mode. But now, in almost every class, I would use that rapid scanning method I had gotten good at to read assigned poetry readings, grammar instruction guides, you name it. I was able to rent myself out as a researcher for lazy students who didn’t want to do the legwork before writing an essay. I could accumulate reams of pertinent information and quotations that I could then offload to them for (very much needed) cash in hand.

Today, as a teacher, I use this skill to rapidly scan student work, and make targeted assessments, allowing me to keep my classes on task and focused. Actually it is kind of neat they way my students can’t figure out how quickly I catch them cheating, when with all their teachers in the past, they could cheat like nobody’s business, and never get caught.

A Final Note

Now that I understand how I read and why I read in those modes, I find it helps me decide when and what I should read. What I mean is, I am more conscious about how I will be affected by something I am going to read, so that when I am eying an epic novel in the book store, I’ll think twice before picking it up, determining whether I really have the time for it at that moment or not. Because I know, without a doubt, if I do buy that book, it’s siren song won’t stop until I give into it, and get my fix. So unless I really do have the time to indulge in that temptation, I chose not to tempt fate by having it so readily at hand.

No worries though. One day, when I am older and my wife and kids have both lost interest in me and all that I might say or do, I know I’ll be free to be that child again, curled up on the couch for endless hours, day after day, walking alongside Frodo and Bilbo, once again entirely lost in the beautiful sublimity of Lothlorien.


  1. I must thank you once again, James. I love to read as well, as you know, but can honestly say I have nowhere near the skill you possess. Your thoughts and revelations in this post have opened my eyes. I've indeed noted all three forms of reading that you identify but I am the least skilled at the final form; the one which you call Functional Reading. I am a touch obsessive by nature and always worry so much that I will miss some pertinent bit of content that I cannot bring myself to "glide" over the text for an extended period of time. Because of this, I have been unsuccessful at training myself to do it. Perhaps though, I have simply not been disciplined enough. Perhaps, now that my suspicions around this being the key to speed reading have been confirmed, I can finally release myself from my obsessive compulsion to read everything in such great detail and allow myself to glide over the text, scanning for the pools of importance.

    Might you have any suggestions to aid a padawan learner in the functional reading department?

  2. Oh, I must add one other thing, in regards to Deep Reading. This is most certainly a euphoric state and in addition to experiencing it via reading, I've also experienced it via drawing. It is very clearly identified and analyzed in a fabulous book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Dr. Betty Edwards. If you've not heard of it, I highly recommend it, even if you don't use it for learning to draw, you can certainly glide through to the sections about brain function and entering the euphoric/deep state where the outside world fades from existence and you are enveloped in the world of fantasy. I believe you will find a direct parallel to your description of Deep Reading.

  3. Might you have any suggestions to aid a padawan learner in the functional reading department? -

    Take a small book. Doesn't matter which book. Then start to read, but force your eyes to glide over the words. Whenever you "hear" yourself reading (in your head), force that inner voice to be quiet, and just glide over the words. Use your finger to guide you at first.

    Go through a page or two, then jot down notes about what you think the text was about, and what details you remember. The go back and read the same thing at normal speed.

    Compare notes.

    Do this several times, with different pages, and when you get to the point where the compared notes are similar, you have proof that you can trust yourself to read this way. Having that faith in your instrument (a.ka. "brain") is the key to letting go and letting it flow.